Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry merry

Another year, another California Christmas. I'm not saying that I packed sunglasses and a bikini for this trip, that we're a mile from the beach, or that there's a hot-tub in the back yard. Neither will I suggest that we might have had tamales and margaritas on Christmas eve. Because that might make you jealous.

Instead, I'll hope your Christmas has been equally good, whether spent in sun or snow. (And if you don't celebrate the holiday, I hope it's been a truly awesome Tuesday.)

Catch ya on the flip side.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Getting It Published: Part 9

The other day I got the outside reader's report for the press I'm now working with. And it's really good. Glowing, even. There are certainly suggestions for improvement, but they're smart, reasonable, and helpfully detailed--moreover, it's the kind of work I could easily accomplish in a couple of months, even during term-time, without pulling my hair out.

So I'm meeting with the editor at MLA to talk about bringing the project to the publications board. It's not necessarily a lock for a contract, given the mixed reviews from the press I was previously working with, but I feel pretty hopeful. (On the blogosphere's advice, I disclosed my experience with that press when this one indicated its interest--and I shared all four of the previous two reviewers' reports, and my responses to those reports. I was apprehensive about doing so, but it turns out to have been the right move.)

I'm not gonna lie: it's been a tough six and half months, and the past few weeks I've felt sick to my stomach every time I opened my work email. But if this works out, it'll amount to maybe a seven-month delay, with the end result of having a smaller, better, more attentive press see the project through.

So. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Collegial cruelty

Like many of my readers, I spent the weekend consumed by grief and rage. The mass murder in Newtown was the main reason, but not the only one--and since I have nothing unique or useful to say about Newtown, I'll talk about the one that better falls within the purview of this blog: the pointless and mean-spirited hazing that so many institutions and individuals seem to think is a necessary part of the tenure review process.

Once upon a time, I assumed that most tenure denials happened either at top-tier schools like my alma mater, which almost never tenure their junior faculty (why have an associate professor when you can hire two new assistant professors or poach a senior luminary?) or when a faculty member really did fall short of whatever her institution's tenure standards might be.

And some of the tenure denials I know about do fall into those two categories, though even those events are grimmer than I used to assume. It's not clear to me, for example, that some of the junior faculty my graduate department has tenured in recent years have been stronger scholars than those they haven't, and some of those denied tenure probably have reason to feel wronged or misled. Similarly, it had never occurred to me how traumatizing or divisive it could be for an entire department to have to vote down a beloved colleague who--for one reason or another--just didn't clear the bar.

But to my surprise and sorrow, a lot of the cases I've encountered in the past seven years don't fall into those more-or-less expected categories. I now know many people who have been treated abominably by their institutions, either getting denied tenure for dubious or obviously unjust reasons--or, if they have been awarded tenure, getting it only after being subjected to unwarranted and emotionally brutalizing treatment leading up to an eventual, hair's-breadth approval of their case.

None of the cases occurred at RU and none of the stories are really mine to tell, so I'll speak mostly in generalities--but I just don't get what an individual or a department or an institution gains by either losing good people or by hazing them to such a degree that they fear and hate their colleagues.

Often, it seems like just one or two people are behind it: sometimes it's a dean, but often it's some random asshole on a key department or college-wide committee who unilaterally decides that, for example, one of the candidate's publications isn't in a good enough journal--so he'd better have at least two more articles under contract by January! Or they'll declare that a book based on the dissertation doesn't count as new work. Or that two positive outside reviews and the editor's promise to bring the project to the board next month doesn't count: there has to be a formal, counter-signed contract. Or that one semester of bad student evaluations counts more than 10 strong ones.

Sometimes this hazing leaves a candidate with nothing to do but panic for months on end, fretting about the outcome. At other times, it involves seemingly impossible last-minute demands (get another article accepted for publication by next month! Make sure your evals this semester are the best they've ever been!). Either way, it's destructive.

I don't understand what motivates people to be such assholes to their colleagues, especially on the very point of tenuring them: do you really want to alienate those you're about to guarantee life employment? Is your only sense of power derived from passing judgment on other people and declaring them unworthy? Or are you so very unhappy that you need to frighten and humiliate your colleagues when they're most vulnerable?

Seriously, readers: if you've heard the kinds of stories I've heard, what's your explanation? Because the things some of my friends have gone and are going through just make me sick.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Not improving

There are some students you're sure would have done better in your class if only they'd come to your office hours, or submitted a rough draft of an essay, or even just bothered to ask for a single point of clarification. And then there are other students you can't keep out of your office: the ones who pepper you with emails, outlines, paper drafts, and endless questions about the minutiae of format and source citation.

I've got one of those right now: a student who runs everything by me. But every suggestion I make and every correction I offer seems only to make her more anxious, and more convinced that if she just starts the next project sooner, and gets feedback from me on every detail, then she'll do better.

And the thing is? She won't.

Most high-strung students you can tell to chill the fuck out. Sometimes they're excellent students who just need more sleep. Often they're reasonably good students who can't believe they're suddenly getting Bs (rather than the straight As they got in high school or at their previous college)--but who will settle down in a month or two through a combination of working harder and adjusting their expectations. But the student I have right now isn't getting better. And it's been clear to me for a while that she's not going to get better this semester, or maybe even next semester.

It isn't that she's dumb. She's hard-working and curious and I'm perfectly willing to believe that she'll have an intellectual growth spurt over the next few years; I've seen it happen before. But in the short term, no amount of effort on my part or hers is going to push her over the hump. She's just not ready.

And that's one of the dirty secrets of teaching: it's not about what we do, or it's only very contingently about what we do. Something we say in class or explain during our office hours may plant a seed, but intellectual growth happens over time, inside a student's head, in ways that are fundamentally mysterious. It happens while our students are out babysitting or buying gas or fighting with their friends. One day, they didn't get it. The next day, they do--or at least, they're primed to get it, this time, when we give them exactly the same advice we've been giving for months.

But you know, I can't tell my student that. I can't say, "you're not going to improve much this semester--but you might next semester!--so chill out."

So I keep meeting with her and responding to her emails, and her work gets only very marginally better. I'm trying to communicate my faith in her, but I wonder whether I'm doing the opposite: she's working so hard, and I'm being so patient--and her grades stay the same. In her place (and I have, after a fashion, been in her place), I might conclude that the problem was me and I was just intractably stupid.

Read a lot, think a lot, live life, be patient. Sound enough advice, but easier said than done.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Read Moby-Dick with sciencefolk! Now!

For those who haven't heard the news via Historiann: Comradde PhysioProffe is reading and posting all of Moby-Dick, one chapter every other day, for the foreseeable future. (Hurry! Chapter One is already up!)

If you, like me, could stand a break from your grading or otherwise from all the crap you have to do over the holidays and new year, why not read or re-read it along with him?

(Downside: probably less profanity and less eccentric spelling than the usual CPP fare.)

Friday, December 07, 2012

Things to remember for next time

(Notes to myself)
Stop assigning real work (especially an entirely new text!) on the last day of class. Really. Stop doing that.

If you must assign real work in one class, then for the love of God don't do it in multiple classes.

Student research presentations are actually, legitimately awesome.

You'll be embarrassed to be so surprised at how confident, funny, and sincere your students can be when they're running the show--and how generously they engage with each other's work.

Don't sit with your head so close to the wall during student presentations. When one of them starts doing a funny bit and cracks everyone up, you will throw your head back and bang it into the wall. The extremely hard classroom wall.

Giving yourself a mild concussion is no way to end the semester.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

On hating grading less

I realize this post is going to make all my fellow-academics hate me, or at least all those still buried under piles of student essays. But I've discovered that, under the right circumstances, I kinda enjoy grading papers.

I know! Grading is supposed to be the worst part of teaching. And mostly it is. But I seem to have finally figured out what I loathe most about grading; what I don't mind about grading; and what I find moderately pleasurable about grading. That's allowed me to structure my grading to maximize the satisfactions and minimize the agony.

So here's the deal: though the studentliness of student writing can be a drag--the fact that any given group will always display more or less the same collection of weaknesses, and that I have to make the same comments over and over again--I'm not really bothered by that when I don't get bogged down in it. It's the bogged-downness that I hate: I hate having a stack of essays sitting around for ages. I hate feeling behind in my grading and returning shit late. And I REALLY hate it when grading papers takes over my life for an entire weekend--or an entire week, or 10 days, or whatever. I hate it when it takes me three hours to grade three papers and I get lost in irritation at myself and at students just for doing the things that students do.

This semester, because I've been so busy, I haven't been able to grade in the spread-out manner that I usually attempt: four or six or eight papers a day. Instead, I've been grading sixteen or eighteen papers in one day (and if the class is bigger than that, I do the excess the night before or the morning after). I block out an entire day, with no other prep to do, and I sit down with the kitchen timer and crank 'em out in 20 minutes apiece. I may have music playing, but I don't listen to the radio, I don't have my laptop open, and I don't have my phone within reach. Every six papers or so, I take a break.

And with that combination of pressure and leisure (the papers must be returned tomorrow! but there's nothing else I have to do), I get good, focused work done. I don't get too exasperated with any one paper, because there's not time. I can clearly see what a given class needs more instruction on, and my grades are probably more consistent. The "done" pile grows steadily as I make a second pot of coffee and adjust the cat asleep with its head on my lap.

And then I'm done. I dance around the house and feel ridiculously pleased with myself. The next day I return the lot of 'em, and I'm blissfully free of papers for a week or maybe two.


Partly, I've just aligned my habits to my natural work preferences: I've always had a tendency toward immersion and completion, and I prefer doing things in sequence rather than in parallel, as the engineers say. But I suspect that the pleasure I take in immersive tasks has increased as my daily life has gained in distractions: focusing on just one thing, for hours at a time, has come to feel like a real luxury. The piddling bits and bobs of work that fill most my days--a meeting here, a lesson plan there; a student conference, some administrative paperwork--leave me feeling drained and exhausted and as if I've gotten nothing material done. It's nice to devote a day to highly concentrated intellectual labor, even if it's not my own work. And swooping in and getting shit done feels like a victory over chaos and disorder.

Readers: have you made peace with grading? And if so, how?