In a recent blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Lee Skallerup Bessette chronicles her bleak job search over the past few years. She writes:
I’m still receiving rejection letters in the mail (and emails) … The letter I received today (Monday) outlined that they had received over 500 applicants and conducted dozens of interviews.*
Dr. Skallerup notes the scanty job market in her field that grows increasingly smaller every year. Everyone (administrators, job seekers, search committees) agrees that we’re in a tough spot. But recent attempts in Higher Ed blogs and commentaries to dismiss the problem by comparing the job search to a lottery or a game (as their recent “Play the Role of the Search Committee” feature illustrates) belittle job seekers, of which there are too many qualified individuals to collectively patronize them as overly ambitious or ill-suited to academia.
But why should we care? Certainly there are other, more pressing, issues such as the growing amount of student debt that need to be addressed. Yes—but the conversation about academia and money shouldn’t be an either/or questions. We need teachers to train students, to give them the best quality education the university can offer them; but we can’t do this effectively if our instructors are spending 3 to 5 years on the job market hoping that eventually they will “beat the odds.”
What type of work are we looking for when we seek these positions—that is to say, professorships in the humanities? One simple definition could be an opportunity to teach college students at a competitive salary and to conduct our research in a supportive environment. By “supportive,” I mean institutional access to libraries and other facilities, and a university that provides basic care such as health insurance and retirement plans for its employees (for that’s what faculty are, even if they refuse to accept this label).
Whether this happens on the tenure track or no, there are things we need to set in place to make sure we are providing the best support for teachers. Livable wages and some measure of job security are a good place to start.
We need to work with our administrations to put these changes in place. We need to hold our administrations accountable when they change minimum degree requirements, or raise tuition so that students are forced to turn to MOOCs or community colleges in order to afford their degree. These proposals are not my own, and there are already people with bigger microphones than mine working on these issues.
Still, it troubles me that there is an entire generation of academics who are growing so dissatisfied with the system that they are abandoning it to the lowest bidder. We hear shouts of rage from every corner—so why aren’t we making meaningful proposals? Ones from which all constituents of the university—students, faculty, and administrators—can benefit?
This semester I taught my first undergraduate class, a freshman-level survey of global literature with a heavy writing component. In this week-long series, I will discuss some of the things I learned over the course of the semester. On Monday I wrote about the development of my syllabus; Tuesday about classroom discussions; yesterday about the students; today’s post is about grading.
My mom once told me that she decided to become a teacher because she liked to grade papers. I’m not sure if she was pulling my leg or not, but there is something sadistically awesome about being the Key Master.
There were three types of assignments in my class: classroom participation (including quizzes), a daily journal, and 5-page papers. The papers were worth 75% of the total grade, the other assignments making up the remaining 25%. As I mentioned in a previous post, I held in-class peer review workshops to help the students improve the quality of the papers. I graded their papers with the assumption that they had gone through it at least once more.
Grad students have a reputation for being much more difficult graders than faculty. I think it’s because we are constantly being critiqued and held to an incredibly high standard for everything we do, and we pass all our stress and anxiety to our students through our assessment of them. Either that, or we’re out for revenge.
I would say that each paper is graded based on its own merit, but no two writers are the same. Writing is highly subjective no matter how much we try to level the playing field. Some students have more natural talent than others when it comes to the written word. But aside from strict mechanics, the quality of the thesis matters a great deal in assessment. Some ideas are better than others. If you have a perfectly executed bad idea, it’s still a bad idea. But I would say for undergrad papers in particular, the mechanics of writing trip them up more than the ideas. Thinking is connected to writing, and if their prose is chaotic, it’s likely that their thoughts about the subject matter are too.
Some professors have different grading strategies. Some like to grade harder at the beginning of the semester than toward the end. The theory goes that if a student sees a lower grade than he or she expected, the student will work even harder to make up the difference. I think this theory could be taken too far (I once had a professor apologize to me at the bottom of his comments for pulling this stunt because he gave me a B instead of an A—I mean, c’mon, what is that.). But this tends to happen naturally, especially if you and the student are doing a good job and the student improves over the course of the semester.
Not every student will turn into the perfect writer. But the comments on their written work (as well as discussions of writing in class) can help.
Another issue I faced is grade inflation. It happens. I’m not happy about it, but it’s sometimes very difficult to justify giving a B+ when the grade could easily have been an A-. Plus, the students are smart. They’re naturally talented. But sometimes they write crappy papers. It happens to the best of us. Do they deserve a lower grade because of a bad case of writer’s block? I don’t know. I only get them for one semester; it’s difficult for me to track changes over time. I can only try to give them a grade that reflects their effort, performance, and potential as best as I can manage.
So, ok, I wanted to end this post with, like, that scene in Clueless where Cher tries to get her grades changed? But it’s not on youtube. So I found the trailer in HD instead. It’s, like, every awesome quote from the movie in under 3 minutes.
This semester I taught my first undergraduate class, a freshman-level survey of global literature with a heavy writing component. In this week-long series, I will discuss some of the things I learned over the course of the semester. On Monday I wrote about the development of my syllabus; yesterday was about classroom discussions; and today’s post is about the students.
The first day of school has always ranked as one of my favorite days of the year. The mixture of antici—
—pation and nervousness and excitement is a great feeling when you’re a student and the only thing you have to do that day is go to class and get your syllabus. Not so much fun when you’re the teacher. I was jazzed about my syllabus, sure, and I had all these great ice-breaker plans … until I walked in the door and saw 15 bored and confused undergraduates mucking up my first day plans. My stomach dropped. I was so glad I was wearing my “power teacher” outfit (cute cropped cigarette pants, white oxford shirt, black flats). I instantly thought “What would Audrey do?” and put on my best Breakfast at Tiffany’s impression.
Unfortunately, I think I channeled Annie Hall instead. I nervously laughed, tried to flip my bob over my shoulder (kind of hard to do when your hair doesn’t reach your shoulders) and passed out white index cards so they could write their names down and so I could learn them all by the second day. Ha. Second day of class: 7 kids. I had managed to terrify half the class on the first day.
So the 7 students who stuck around and I got to know one another over the course of the semester. For better or for worse, the teacher’s interactions with students are likely based on their perception of the instructor. I thought a bit about the type of teacher I wanted to try to be (hard-nosed, sarcastic, or “mom”) but in the end, I was just myself. The truth comes out eventually. And the truth was that I’m only 5-7 years older than my students. I’m young enough to get their pop culture references and for them to treat me like an older sister and not their professor, but I’m old enough to use pop culture jokes they don’t get (80s music, anyone?) and to feel frustrated when they sometimes showed a lack of respect. No, I don’t have a PhD or grey hair, but I can talk circles around you about literature. Deal.
I could predict with some amount of accuracy what they would say about any given text by the end of the semester. These are smart kids in my class, and usually they had smart things to say. But sometimes they did some very silly things that I wish I could write about, but I don’t think I can obscure enough details to not get sued and/or fired and still convey how outrageous this was. If we ever hang out in person, ask me to tell you the story. For now, I’ll just tell you about the normal problems teachers have with students.
Office hours are a godsend for students and teachers alike. You come to office hours, and I promise 9 times out of 10 you will be looked kindly upon for at least the next week. This is a gift. Use it to your advantage. If, however, you mess up and the teacher requests that you come to office hours to “talk,” this is not a gift. But you can still use it to your advantage.
There were the run of the mill writing issues that I discussed with students in office hours. But unfortunately, these conversations tended to happen only after the student had “messed up” (as one of them called it) first. Why does this need to happen? I’m not saying I was any better as an undergrad (or grad student in coursework, for that matter). But so many underlying problems can be resolved with just one meeting. Feeling overwhelmed? Talk to the prof. Difficulty with time management? Talk to the prof. Don’t wait until you have missed multiple class periods or skipped an assignment because by then you’re already behind.
So that’s advice for students. But what about advice on dealing with students? The ones who push your boundaries, the ones who want to see how much they can get away with. That part I’m still struggling to figure out. It’s college and they’re adults—they should be able to interrogate The System. But for the time being, they have to work within the system to get a decent grade. And I’m not sure how to convey that hard fact about life without feeling like The Man.
This semester I taught my first undergraduate class, a freshman-level survey of global literature with a heavy writing component. In this week-long series, I will discuss some of the things I learned over the course of the semester. Yesterday I wrote about the development of my syllabus; today’s post is about classroom discussions.
In college there are usually three types of classroom environments: the lecture hall, the lab, and the seminar. English classes are usually conducted as a seminar, though I have heard of instances where composition has been taught lecture-style. If someone can explain to me how that could possibly work, I’m all ears. On the first day of class, I had my students arrange their chairs in a circle. It always amuses me how students get all befuddled when the arrangement of the room changes. But this King Arthur-style round table arrangement really does work well for discussions of literary texts.
I’m also very uncomfortable with lecture-style discussions of literature. There are times when it is completely appropriate—talking about an author’s biography, the history of the period, textual details the students may not know simply by reading the book. I usually made a powerpoint for the first day of a text with this sort of information and gave it to them in one 15-minute go. I think observations by students about the text (guided, of course, by the questions asked of them) are much more interesting, for them and for me, than listening to a lecture on the importance of grapes in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. As Dennis Nedry says in Jurassic Park, “Nobody cares.” But when I ask the students what the “fugue” in Paul Celan’s poem “Todesfugue” means, and another student answers correctly, the rest of the class learns the material they need to know and the student who answered feels awesome because they gave the right answer. And the best part? Nobody is bored.
The fancy-pants name for this is, of course, Socratic questioning. And guess what? It works.
I also find it useful to include multimedia examples whenever possible. My lecture/discussion comparing Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to Steve Coogan’s movie version ranks up there with the best teaching day of my life. I didn’t have any ground breaking moments in ENGL 175 (mostly because the DVD player in my classroom didn’t work so I had to rely on youtube clips—darn you, copyright infringements!) but I did manage to have some interesting moments. I played Celan reading “Todesfugue” in German and made them read along with their dual-language translation:
The students were in awe of the moving power of language, even in a language they didn’t understand.
And while I didn’t have any “Captain, My Captain” moments, there were days when I felt like the students got it. Or at least left the classroom feeling more empowered than they did coming into class that day. And that’s the whole point of classroom discussion, right?
This semester I taught my first undergraduate class, a freshman-level survey of global literature with a heavy writing component. I took a class on pedagogy in the Spring designed to prepare me to teach this course, but there really is no substitute for experience. In this week-long series, I will discuss some of the things I learned over the course of the semester. Today I will discuss my syllabus.
Before I ever stepped into the classroom, I had a strong sense of what I could expect from teaching ENGL 175: Global Lit. in English. Graduate students at my university, unlike many of my peers at public institutions, are only expected to teach one semester (with two semesters as a teaching assistant). The syllabus is mostly designed for us, and so we end up teaching the same texts. It’s a course designed by committee; though survey courses are notorious for what they exclude as much as what they include on the syllabus, this one is particularly egregious. Not only are we expected to cover the major literary movements of the twentieth century (modernism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, etc), but also we have to fit this within a “global” setting. If someone has figured out how to fit the globe into a 14-week course, I’d love to exchange notes with you.
The standard syllabus includes such works as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, DeLillo’s White Noise, and Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera. I should first mention that this is a fairly decent line up; good mix of genres, styles, and authors. But it wouldn’t work for me, especially not as the syllabus for my first class. A certain amount of prep always goes into each new class, but I knew I would go crazy if I had to go into class each day with a question mark hanging over my head.
I added Stoker’s Dracula in lieu of Conrad, Coetzee’s Foe rather than Achebe, and Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad (which I raved about in February) rather than DeLillo. I added some Borges short stories, included Paul Celan and Wallace Stevens, and taught Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night, a novel composed of interconnected short stories by a Polish writer because I myself enjoyed reading it as an undergrad.
Playing with the texts to include on the syllabus was fun, but it’s only part of what goes on the syllabus. The syllabus is a contract with your students; all course policies and assignments should be listed, as well as how students will be evaluated. It’s a code between you (the professor) and the student. It’s hard to enforce a strict grading policy, for example, if your syllabus is lax. As I prepared the assignments, I considered what the goals of my class would be (to expose them to a variety of written works and to help the students improve their expository writing ability) and what I wanted my students to learn (literary texts, writing strategies). To that end, I assigned three 5-page papers spread out over the course of the semester, and a daily journal due the same day as the papers. Since it is a freshman-level course, I wanted them to practice writing, but not necessarily in an informal setting. I also wanted them to practice revising their papers, so I assigned a peer-review writing workshop before every paper was due.
I included a strict attendance policy. Unfortunately, as my class was half the size I expected it to be (only 7 students!) I did not take attendance as I assumed that students would consistently show up in a class that small. Big mistake. 4 students absent on a Friday mid-semester in a 30-person class—not a big deal. 4 students absent in a 7-person class, and you have one tired professor talking to herself.
I was very excited about the journal assignment, but that too did not turn out as I had hoped. I had always felt frustrated by online forum-responses that were assigned in some of the classes I had taken as an undergrad and grad student, and that I had to grade as a TA. Some students use forums as an opportunity to write lots of bloated, meaningless garbage that they think is impressive because they use big words. I wanted none of that—but I did want students to keep up with the reading and to think about the reading before class. The journal seemed like a good compromise. But lack of oversight sometimes gave the students just enough rope to hang themselves. Next time, I will revise the assignment to have students turn it in more frequently or assign short 2-page response papers instead.
The peer review workshops were a hit (at least from my perspective). By the end of the semester, the students were engaged with each others’ work, and seemed to embrace sharing their work with their peers rather than me. I did not grade the first drafts, but I did compare them with the final papers to see if students actually did revise. They did, and their writing improved over the course of the semester. I will use this again, but will include a more detailed grading rubric for the drafts and final paper.
That’s the long and long of the syllabus. Come back tomorrow for lessons learned in the classroom.
Last week I taught Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia (1993) to my Freshman-level Global Lit class. There’s this hilarious back-and-forth in Act 2, Scene 5 between Valentine and Bernard. Valentine is trying (and mostly succeeding) to get under Bernard’s skin by teasing Bernard about his “scholarly” essay on why Byron left England in 1809 (Bernard claims he killed a minor nobleman in a duel; in reality, Byron was just going on the Grand Tour—a standard rite of passage for aristocratic sons). Valentine has his own motivations; he is conducting research on the grouse population of the country manor using computer models.
Exasperated, Bernard cries, “Parameters! You can’t stick Byron’s head in your laptop! Genius isn’t like your average grouse.”
Stoppard’s play is hysterical. Don’t take my word for it—my undergrads loved the scene where Bernard reaches through Chloe’s legs to grab a book of the shelf. But the line on genius made me laugh out loud. It’s ridiculous to think that you could quantify poetic genius, and yet we try to do it all the time. I asked my students what they thought calling someone a genius meant. Many of them mentioned Einstein, one student mentioned himself (ever the humble jokester), but many of them hadn’t thought before about how we characterize literary genius.
Later in the play, Hannah and Valentine debate whether genius simply means discovering something before anyone else:
V. But let’s say you’re right, in 18-whatever nobody knew more about heat than this scribbling nutter living in a hovel in Derbyshire.
H. He was at Cambridge—a scientist.
V. Say he was. I’m not arguing. And the girl was his pupil, she had a genius for her tutor.
H. Or the other way round.
V. Anything you like. But not this! Whatever he thought he was doing to save the world with good English algebra it wasn’t this!
H. Why? Because they didn’t have calculators?
V. No. Yes. Because there’s an order things can’t happen in. You can’t open a door till there’s a house.
H. I thought that’s what genius was.
V. Only for lunatics and poets.
Hannah goes on to quote from Byron’s “Darkness”: “I had a dream which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space …”A funny passage, but the message seems to be all the more important for all the banter. Who is the genius—pupil or teacher? Does genius mean being the first to discover something, even if it seems anachronistic—or does that only work for “lunatics and poets”? And why must a poet be forever linked to a lunatic? Surely they’re not the same thing …?
There’s been a lot of talk of late about geniuses, specifically Apple’s Steve Jobs. Certainly he was an innovator, but was he a genius? And Apple stores, if you recall, have a table set up in the back called the “Genius Bar” where techie gurus will troubleshoot your problems away. Are they geniuses? Is the word subjective? Does it depend on certain contexts for it to hold cachet?
My questions on the nature of genius keep multiplying. And so I pose the question to you, fellow writers—how do you define genius, particularly of the literary or creative kind? do you ever feel like a misunderstood genius, or can the title “Genius” only be bestowed after completion of some influential task of magnitude?
And for your enjoyment, a brief clip of Arcadia, Act 2:
I’m creating my first ever syllabus from scratch. Well, not really from scratch. No syllabus is ever truly created from nothing, though every syllabus carries with it the possibility for transcendence. Or at least that’s what professors tell themselves.
I’m finding myself torn between EVERYTHING MUST BE REPRESENTED and “Is the Norton really that awesome? I could do better.” Or something like that.
There are more or less given parameters for what the course should, supposedly, look like. But I believe that you should teach to your strengths and I am not strong in 20th century literature. So, we make do with what we can. Stoppard’s Arcadia made the cut, but Waiting for Godot is so out (it’s about God. I get it. But I can’t teach it for a week). Other possibilities include Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. But I’m also considering stuff written in the 21st century to round out the second half. Any good (teachable) postmodern books you recommend?