Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The life of the mind, dramatized!

Over the weekend Cosimo and I went to see Agora, a movie set in fourth-century Alexandria and focusing on the female scientist and philosopher Hypatia. (The movie has had only limited theatrical release, but it's available next month on DVD.) The cinematography was stunning and the story potentially compelling, but in the end I found it disappointing: the narrative dragged, the Christians were cartoonish bad-guys--who nevertheless seemed more obsessed with defending geocentrism than debunking pagan gods--and there were countless missed opportunities to depict the movie's political and intellectual conflicts with more nuance.

Still, I was interested in the way the movie tried to dramatize the intellectual life. The filmmakers clearly didn't know how to portray Hypatia as a teacher: we see her instructing a group of young men on a few occasions, but they're awkward, flat scenes, and it's not clear that the men are there for any reason other than the hot pants (hot togas?) that Hypatia gives them. The scenes involving her intellectual investigations are a bit better, particularly toward the end; I liked the fact that the movie didn't shy away from some basic geometry or from a coherent explanation of the Ptolomaic universe and why it was so hard to escape that model.

It got me thinking about how hard it is to dramatize what we do, by which I mean, what we actually do, as teachers and researchers. There are plenty of compelling movies about teachers, though those movies tend to equate "good teaching" with having a charismatic classroom presence and endless amounts of compassion. But being a good teacher doesn't have much to do with the teacher's personality, and most of learning doesn't happen in the classroom. It happens inside students' heads, over a long period of time, in unpredictable and entirely undramatic ways. Movies can only hint at this, by showing us what we take to be external signs of those internal changes: the students start showing up for class and stop acting out. They speak excitedly and articulately. They pass tests and they win awards.

It's even harder to dramatize scholarship. The only even halfway successful movie examples I can think of feature research-as-detective-story: the scholar discovers new documents in an archive, or an attic, or some long-neglected record-books (possibly while receiving obscure threats from people in high places) and eventually OVERTURNS EVERYTHING WE THOUGHT WE KNEW.

Now, plenty of us work in archives on a regular basis. But even on the rare occasion that we turn up a shocking! new! fact! (that this writer was a secret homosexual or that that nobleman's poems were actually written by his sister), the discovery itself isn't the real work. We still have to spend countless hours working at home or in shabby libraries, reading crappy monographs and badly-photocopied articles, and cajoling the ILL librarian to order us just one more book after we've been blocked from the system. We write draft after draft, do more research, get some feedback, and revise. After a year or two or three, we might produce a 40-page journal article.

If it's good, that journal article will be referenced and wrestled with for thirty years. If it's really good, it could totally transform the shape of our field. But even if the response to a given work of scholarship is dramatic, there's not much dramatic about the process by which it gets researched and written. (Which isn't to say that it's not enthralling, at least sometimes, for the scholar herself; it just doesn't make for good cinema.)

But maybe I've just been watching the wrong movies. What are your votes for films that come closest to conveying what it is that we actually do, as teachers and scholars?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Welcome to the corporate academy, Times readers

Today's New York Times contains an Op-Ed entitled "Ditch Your Laptop, Dump Your Boyfriend." Its subtitle: "Advice for freshmen from the people who actually grade their papers and lead their class discussions."

Who are the six contributors who actually do such things?

Grad students, every one of them.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Too long/not long enough

You know how you know that you've really and truly left graduate school behind?

When you encounter dissertators from your alma mater, who are working in your exact subfield, and you've never heard of them.

Or when you saunter over to your grad program's webpage, and recognize only two or three students' names, vaguely--and they're all 6th or 7th years.

Or when a departing staff member posts dozens of pictures from his goodbye party to Facebook, and the only people you can identify are a couple of senior faculty. (Those others: are they grad students? Staff? Junior faculty? Who the hell knows?)

But that shudder that runs through you upon seeing photos of the department lounge, looking exactly as you remember it--down to the ectomorphic grad student checking his email while balancing a bag of books on his lap?

That's a sign that it hasn't been quite long enough.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

You are all beautiful people and I love every single one of you

Last winter, I applied for a research leave for spring 2011. It was denied. Over the summer, I applied again. I got it.

So from approximately December 15th to August 20th--eight months, bitchez!--I'll be drawing a salary just to read and to write and to think.

Oh, I have such plans. But for now, I'm just really fucking psyched.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Research needs

Buried in yesterday's New York Times story about the discovery that the late civil rights photographer Ernest Withers was an FBI informant was an equally interesting story about journalism, and about research more generally. The NYT credited the Memphis Commercial Appeal with breaking the story, and mentions that it was the result of a two-year investigation. Reading the NYT article carefully, it appears that the discovery that Withers was an informant was purely accidental--an FBI clerk apparently failed to redact his name on a few documents--which leads me to assume that the original focus of the Commercial Appeal's investigation wasn't Withers at all.

Stories like this one require serious journalists, working for papers that are interested in issues that may seem only "local" or "regional," and that are willing to pay them for years-long investigations not knowing for sure what they'll turn up. And of course, academia needs this, too: this is why scholars need time (and money), sometimes for many years, sometimes working on seemingly minor issues and without much to show for it. Yes, of course: we should expect them to be able to provide some kind of accounting for their time and efforts. But you can't make new discoveries--or come up with new ideas or interpretations--by fiat or on a schedule. You hire trained professionals, you let them make a case for their projects, and then you trust them.

Monday, September 13, 2010

What's a "good job"?

Job market season is upon us, and though the number of tenure-track jobs isn't likely to be much greater this year than last--and thus everyone going out for the first time knows that a "good job" is, basically, one with a salary and benefits--I thought I'd take a post to talk about the real differences among academic jobs in the hopes that this might be useful to the grad students and job candidates out there.

They way we talk about jobs at different kinds of institutions is a peeve of mine, and it tends to be worse in graduate programs. This is true not because (or not only because) faculty at top graduate programs have drunk the Kool-Aid of believing that the only "good" jobs are jobs just like theirs, but simply because faculty know what they know. How many faculty at top programs have been on the tenure-track at more than one previous institution? Not many. And even if a significant minority did their undergraduate work at other kinds of institutions--liberal arts colleges, less selective state schools--they haven't taught there and their sense of the lives of their undergraduate professors is probably not particularly well-informed.

My own grad program did a good job of encouraging us to apply for all kinds of jobs, and the faculty clearly tried to emphasize the satisfactions that might come from teaching at a non-top-tier or non-research institution, but they equally clearly didn't know what they were talking about. They talked about how "rewarding" some recent PhDs found doing more teaching, to less culturally-privileged populations, to be--and how they'd come to realize that their real passion was teaching, not research. Or they said things like, "there's some really exciting pedagogical research coming out of community colleges these days"; the implication being that, in order to keep doing research at a less-prestigious, more teaching-heavy institution, you'd have to make teaching the subject of your research.

Now, I'm not knocking the joys of teaching or the worth of pedagogical scholarship; I believe strongly in both. But my grad school professors presented them as consolation prizes: the things you might wind up with--and eventually be rather happy with!--when you were foiled in your attempts to pursue a serious research agenda in the field you trained in.

So lemme tell ya: your grad school professors (if they're anything like mine were) are wrong. And the way that we, as a profession, tend to talk about academic jobs is wrong.

We typically divide jobs into categories based on the amount and nature of the teaching they require. Sometimes we pretend there are just two kinds of jobs, at "research" or "teaching" institutions, but more often we break those categories down a bit more finely by talking about teaching load: 2-2 or 2-3, 3-3, 4-4, or higher. Those are useful distinctions, to be sure, but they have limits. How many preps? How big are the classes? How much repetition is there, year-to-year? And if you're at a research institution, how many dissertations, dissertation committees, orals committees, or independent studies will you be responsible for--and how much "teaching time" does that amount to beyond your official teaching load?

I had no clue, prior to starting a tenure-track gig and seeing my friends wind up in various tenure-track gigs, that you could have a 2-2 teaching load and still be responsible for grading 100 students a semester (because you teach a lecture class, but don't have a TA). I had no clue how much work serving on M.A. or doctoral thesis committees could be--and how often it might be on a topic about which you knew precious little and had less interest.

But more importantly, I hadn't thought about the ways that teaching--or at least, teaching anything outside of my immediate specialty, and to advanced students--could enrich my scholarly life. Now, I was never one of those people who wanted to go straight from grad school to teaching graduate students myself, and nothing sounded less fun than designing an esoteric grad class or senior seminar around my own pet specialty. But although I was looking forward to teaching Shakespeare and Chaucer and the occasional twentieth century novel, I thought of that as a perk of the job rather than something related to my scholarship.

In fact, however, teaching a Shakespeare survey for ten consecutive semesters means I'm now as much an expert on his plays (though less so on Shakespearean scholarship, of course) as many a person who wrote a dissertation on Shakespeare. This affects the way I read Milton and other seventeenth century writers profoundly--and as of this fall, I'm actually starting a small project on Merchant of Venice.

Now, if I'd been hired as a Miltonist, in a big department with lots of other Renaissance scholars, that would certainly have had its benefits. But I likely would never have been asked to teach a Shakespeare survey, and I wouldn't have been let near non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama (especially not when I hadn't previously read almost half of the plays I put on the syllabus). My teaching has been hugely important to my scholarly life.

There's also the argument that teaching a certain number of repeat classes, semester after semester, frees up more time and mental energy for research than continually devising funky new ones. Personally, I get bored and depressed if I don't have one new or newish class a semester that requires me to stretch intellectually--but I don't think I typically spend any more time on my teaching, with my 3-3 load, than most people with a 2-2 load. (And in my first two years, I probably spent less time on teaching than those friends who were scrambling to devise cool new graduate or senior seminars every semester.) I know plenty of people with serious research agendas who teach at schools with 4-4 loads or higher.

And that, of course, is just about the teaching: what's the expected service load? And is it real, useful service--or endless bullshit committee meetings? What's the culture of the place like, and your colleagues? How might the location of the institution affect your personal, family, and even intellectual life? (Are there other colleges and universities in the area? Major libraries? A good arts scene? And don't discount the importance of an airport: when I was on the market, I used to say that I didn't care what region of the country I wound up in, as long as I could live in either a decent-sized city or a funky college town, within 30 minutes of a good airport.)

The trouble is, you often don't know until you start a job what its real strengths and virtues are. But that's the good thing, too: the rise of contingent labor notwithstanding, there are a lot of good jobs out there--and most of them don't look anything like what we were told we should want.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Snapshot of a profession

This semester, unlike last semester, the students in my M.A. seminar better reflect RU's traditional graduate student population. Whereas in my class last spring only three of my sixteen students were public-school teachers, of the nineteen students who showed up for the first meeting of my new grad class, only three or four weren't teachers.

However, no more than half of the teachers are employed full-time in their own classrooms (which probably explains why some of them are in grad school in the first place). As we went around the room doing introductions, I heard about students who, though certified, had been unable to find jobs; students whose teaching positions had been eliminated; students who had been relieved finally to find jobs as "permament subs"; and one student who, though he was downsized the year before getting tenure, counted himself lucky to have found another job right away--albeit at a high school 45 minutes from his home.

Unions aren't perfect. The public schools aren't perfect, and neither are their systems of promotion and reward. But this Labor Day I'm hoping for secure jobs for more of the many talented, dedicated teachers I know.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Back at it

Having done scandalously little course-prep over the summer (including for my new M.A.-level class, on a topic about which I don't know nearly enough), the lead-up to and first few days of classes promised to be a challenge.

In the event, it was more dire than I expected, seeing as a) I came down with a bad cold on the first day of classes, which b) coincided with a freak heat wave. Nothing like teaching in an un-airconditioned classroom, with the sun streaming in the windows, in 90-degree heat and business attire! And nothing like trying to game-plan a graduate syllabus with a pounding headache and steadily dripping nose.

But I doped myself up, got as much sleep as I could, managed to find something to wear for the second day of classes that was, simultaneously: minimally professional (probably actually a little too dressy/sexy, but whatev; ain't nothing sexy when the wearer is hacking up a lung), extremely lightweight, and incapable of showing sweat stains.

So I survived. And I think my classes will actually be pretty great. But the best part of the week was that--not having taught a Monday/Wednesday schedule in years--I forgot Labor Day existed. Unexpected six-day weekend!

How's it with you-all?