Thursday, September 24, 2015

Joining the conversation

Recently, after drafting most of my Milton chapter, I decided it was time to sit down and read some criticism.

It's not that I'd done no prior research; I'd made certain that no one else was arguing the kinds of things I was planning on arguing, and I'd spent a couple of months doing what you might call background research. But I hadn't bothered to read much contemporary criticism, because--why would I? I knew the texts, I had a general sense of how they'd been read and discussed over the years, and no one was doing what I was doing, anyway.

But after writing 9,000 loose and drafty words, I'd run out of gas and was at a loss for how to frame my argument in a way that was more interesting and consequential than "betcha never thought John Milton was doing THIS, now didja!"

So I took a week to read all the articles and book chapters I'd ordered through ILL--and then order a dozen more--and though it's true that none of them were interested in what I was interested in, seeing the passages and problems that preoccupied others let me reformulate my ideas so my observations were addressing the same concerns. Reading the scholarship allowed me to enter the conversation, as we say, rather than just sitting in a corner and shouting, "hey! I found a thing!"

My impression is that most people read the scholarship first, but that. . . doesn't really work for me. In grad school I had a hard time seeing past prior criticism--I'd fall in love with one particular reading and be unable to recognize what avenues might still be open or what I could add--and although I don't usually have that problem today, when I'm in the very early stages of a project I'm still prone to either falling in love with a given approach or dismissing it out of hand ("Why am I reading this? it has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING!").

Basically, I don't think I'm a very careful or receptive reader when I'm protecting the fragile little seedling of my own idea. It's only after it's grown a bit and I'm sure there's something there that I can take on board and appreciate the work that other people have done--including seeing the ways that approaches and interests that seem very different from my own are actually things I can build on.


So this is all well and good, and a useful thing to know or to keep rediscovering about my own process. But it makes teaching scholarly writing hard, especially at the senior-capstone and M.A. level. Though I give my students a lot of literary criticism and I think I've gotten good at teaching them how to parse it and recognize its representative moves, I don't know how to teach them to have ideas independent of that criticism. I encourage them to find the limitations of even the best pieces and the areas available for future study, but it's only the rare students that can do this in a nuanced way, and even they often feel the burden of trying to say something original when they know how little they know and how belated and junior they are.

I wish it were responsible to say (and that the semester gave me enough time to say), "just write down your crazy ideas! make an argument! read the criticism later!" But they don't have that luxury, and I don't know how to teach them to do what I couldn't do, at their stage, either.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Being "independent"

In the course of meeting with my students this semester, I'm also learning a lot about their lives outside of the classroom. This isn't because I ask--I chat about their classes, their academic interests, their career ambitions--but it tends to come up: a student's job, a student's second job, how their finances affected their choice of college.

And I'm reminded of one of the students from my Italian class two years ago; we were often partnered, and became friendsly. She was twenty years old and working thirty hours a week while also a full-time student. She had a scholarship that covered about half of her tuition, but she paid everything else herself, from registration fees to textbooks to car insurance.

She lived at home, though, and only contributed toward groceries and utilities. She kept talking about how embarrassing this was, and how she had to move out and start being more independent.

"I don't know," I said, thinking about all the twenty-year-olds who go to private colleges and live on campus while their parents pay tuition, room and board (and sometimes other expenses, long past college). "You sound pretty independent to me!"

She shook her head. "Until last month I was still on their cell-phone plan. At twenty years old! GOD."

I don't know what her relationship with her parents was like, and she may indeed have needed more psychological separation than she had. But it strikes me that while the economic and educational elite may talk about raising independent children, they don't mean it quite so literally.

Friday, September 11, 2015

More like mid-career MAGNIFICENCE

A friend who's also a savvy and pro-active department chair recently set up a fund to encourage associate professors to keep building their careers beyond whatever competencies helped them get tenure. Monies wouldn't be awarded just to go to a conference or deliver a paper; the idea was to encourage faculty to think about what else they might like to do: invite speakers to campus, organize a symposium, participate in a summer seminar or master class.

When I heard about this, I thought, now that's a guy who knows what it is to be an associate professor.

Moving jobs means I haven't yet succumbed to mid-career malaise. Since everything is new--all the applications, all the processes, all the funding sources--I've also been more attuned to new opportunities; right now my brain is whirring with professional-development ideas. Still, I can see and even feel how easy it is to get into a groove that becomes a rut, doing what's worked before, and no longer bothering to try new things, especially if they've been discouraged or denied in the past. So when my friend mentioned that applications to this new fund had been underwhelming, I kinda got it.

But for those of us who aren't in a rut and don't want to be, I'm interested in thinking through what it means to be at mid-career, and how we can conceive of this as a distinct stage with new goals and opportunities. Because the reality for most of us is that there aren't that many truly new things to do. To get tenure, most people have been publishing, going to conferences, applying for grants and fellowships, and doing some amount of professional service. Maybe you haven't yet published in that journal, so it remains a goal, or you got a small fellowship and now are hoping for a big one. But the game remains the same.

For me, then, the easiest way to conceive of mid-career as a distinct stage is by connecting it to Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development (which Cosimo is obsessed with). After stages that are mostly about finding oneself and developing a sense of mastery and security comes the midlife stage, which, according to Erikson, should be marked by "generativity" rather than "stagnation." By "generativity" he doesn't mean an individual's personal productivity, but her contribution to her profession and society at large.

I like that. And in thinking about what the next level entails and what I want to achieve on my way to full professor, I'm trying to look outward more than inward, focusing on making connections and expanding my range rather than obsessing over my C.V. and what might be missing or look good there. If before I was pleased to get a request to review a book because hey! free book! line on the vita! And someone knows I exist!, I'm trying now to think about where I can be a useful reviewer, and hopefully a generous one. Being at mid-career means having obligations to others, but feeling good about them: I want to give professional acquaintances feedback on their book proposals, to write tenure and job-market letters, and put in a good word for them with someone more senior.

Now, I still feel a certain amount of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have things I was still eager to get on my C.V. or wasn't haunted by a sense that if Book Two isn't done by X date I'll have fallen behind. But being at midcareer means I know that none of those things is urgent; that for now my career is what it is; and that nothing much rides on whether I do A a year earlier or later--or change my mind and do B.

Still, if I had access to those mid-career faculty funds, I have about six things I'd spend that money on toot-sweet.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Meet the new teacher, same as the old teacher

The second week of classes just ended, and so far the transition, at least in terms of teaching, has been ridiculously easy.

Partly this is because both my classes are ones I've taught before: British Literature I and a 300-level elective, Sex & Gender in the Renaissance. Neither course is quite the same as the versions I've taught elsewhere--each fulfills different curricular and general-education functions--but they're close enough.

More important is that, unlike the previous times I was new faculty, I now have a decade's worth of full-time teaching experience. I've dealt with front-row blurters; students who never bring their books to class; brilliant kids who want to hold forth on tangential issues. Those things don't phase me. I also know how much lead time to give before due-dates, why I might want to use an online gradebook, which policies need spelling out, and what isn't worth class time.

(I'm sure there are still student populations that could surprise me or that would require new skills; I'm used to a mix of abilities but a lot of eagerness and raw potential--students ready to be excited by Chaucer if I'm excited and show them some ways in. I'm not used to sullenness or complacency or entitlement, or students who are there just for the social aspects of college. Nor do I have experience teaching a room full of uniformly elite students. A different baseline in student preparation or attitude would require an adjustment in my teaching persona and the kind of scaffolding that gets us from A to B.)

And. . . did you notice the part where I said "both my classes"? This is the first time I've taught just two--and I'm doing it again next semester, and the next! (The teaching load is 2-3, but I got a course release for my first year.) I found 3-3 perfectly manageable, especially with so many repeat preps, but two is delightful--and really helpful when I'm still spending hours a week on the phone and internet, changing my insurance, health plan, and various registrations; finding new doctors and hairdressers and gyms and tailors.

It also means that having an Honors section of Brit Lit I (six students doing additional readings, writing longer papers, and holding additional meetings) and a grad section of sex & gender (ditto, basically) feels fun rather than burdensome. And that I have time to do other things that make me a better teacher, like require that every student come to my office hours in the first month of class.

The transition to a much bigger school (but a smaller tenure-line faculty, proportionately) is something I'm still getting my head around, and whose differences I'm not sure I fully recognize. More on that, I'm sure, in due time.