Monday, January 31, 2011

Anti-Social Media, Parenting, and Teaching about Modern Rhetoric

Last week, I had a massive argument with my almost-four-year-old daughter about (wait for it) whether or not a piece of bread had butter on it. It did, but because she hadn't seen her father actually spreading the butter on that particular piece of bread, she refused to believe me. I call it an argument, but it devolved into a stressful version on Monty Python's The Argument Sketch (note how the next sketch featured is "Hitting on the Head Lessons"; it was that, too). The argument devolved into foot stomping, yelling, door slamming, tears, and a lonely little piece of buttered bread waiting on a stair to be eaten. In my role as mother, I wanted my daughter to calm down, see reason, and eat some food (one of the reasons she was being irrational to begin with). In her role as head-strong toddler, she wanted to be right, even if the bread clearly was covered in butter.

I used this example in my class to show how having the best interests of your reader or listener can really change the tone and content of an argument. We have been discussing the differences between Sophists and Philosophers, then moving on to Gertrude Buck and her essay, "The Present Status of Rhetorical Theory." (On an aside, why isn't there a wikipedia page for Buck and her writings? Lack of female contributors, indeed. People, get on this!). She talks about how the Sophists were anti-social while the Platonists were social. The reason? Sophists only had their best interests in mind while arguing, while Platonists were arguing for the benefit of the listener. I asked my students, although we talk about "audience", do we really write for the benefit of that sometimes real, sometimes imaginary audience, or do we really write for our own benefit?

In school, typically, we write for our own benefit: for the benefit of grades. We're not writing to inform or enlighten our professor or teacher, we're writing to get an A. Imagine if your students actually wrote for your benefit, rather than their own? My students couldn't imagine, but they saw the difference. Imagine if we assigned papers or presented an assignment in a way that had students consider a benefit other than their own? Isn't there the potential to read papers that truly offer some insight in perhaps an engaging way? Tenured Radical makes a similar argument about how simply using the word "prompt" causes students to write in a way that truly benefits no one, other than being awarded a good grade.

When you write a paper for publication, are you writing it for the benefit of the reader or the benefit of your tenure case?

I tell my students that this line of thinking isn't just limited to the papers they write for class; what about the discourse we see, hear, and read regarding politics and other "hot button" issues of the day? How many times to they hear arguments that aren't about them, the listener, but have everything to do with benefiting the speaker? How much of the vitriol that goes on in the comments sections of newspapers and popular blogs have nothing to do with "enlightening" the author or other readers, and everything to do with either establishing the superiority of the writer or ensuring their privileged position? Is the openness of the Internet really an "anti-social" form of rhetoric? 

I think my students are really thinking more carefully about their education, their ways of communicating, and the rhetoric, be it visual, aural, or written, that they consume every day. As for me, I wonder if I genuinely had my daughter's best interests at heart as I continued to argue with her over that stupid piece of butter bread; her logic (I didn't see Daddy put butter on it, thus there must not be butter on the bread) was sound, if simplistic. Was it so important that I win this argument? Was it for her benefit that I tried to show her that she was, in fact, wrong, or my own, in order to maintain my dominant position in our dynamic? I'm not sure anymore. But I do know that I want to engage in more meaningful, beneficial, and productive forms of rhetoric with my kids and my students. 

Here's to really being social. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wasting Time? Try being a little more active

One of the first things I talk to my students about at any level is active reading. They've all had the experience where they've gotten to the bottom of a page of reading and realized that they have no idea what they've just read. And then they keep trying to re-read without any change in the situation. So they go through the motions of looking at the words on the page, feeling good about having technically done their homework, but showing up to class with little to no ability to participate in the class discussion.

Why not read more actively, I suggest. Take notes, do some research, even just write questions in the margins, anything to make the readings more meaningful. But, they protest, active reading takes so much time. Really? How much time do you spend simply going through the motions over and over again? And how much time do you spend at the end of the semester not sleeping, cramming for your final exam or paper, trying to complete all of the reading you didn't have "time" to do properly during the semester? How much learning do you end up doing when you spend a week living off of energy drinks and little sleep in order to do everything you didn't do during the previous 15 week semester?

My students can be a little more active in all of their course-related work. One of the biggest complaints about homework is that it is a waste of their time. And while I don't claim that all homework ever assigned during a student's academic career is meaningful, the student should at least try view homework as a positive learning activity that, if taken seriously and done well, can help you learn. Same thing with in-class activities. 

I tell my students that every exercise in class or at home is an opportunity for them. If they choose to see it as a waste of time, then it will be. And thus it is the student, not me, who is wasting their time. I can only set up the conditions for the students to learn and be successful. It is up to them to take advantage of those conditions. I can entice them with promises of a more meaningful education experience, and I can threaten them with a failing grade. But I try to get my students to come to understand that the choice is ultimately theirs if they are going to actively engage in their education.

I care about my students and I care about their success inside and outside of my class. I know my students care about their grades, but I wonder about their commitment to their education. If they don't get more active in their learning, then we will all have been just wasting our time.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Awesome Week

My week has been awesome (see title). Both the professional and the personal have gone better than I could have hoped this week. Here's a brief run-down:

Monday: Latest post for the University of Venus appeared. Snarky/mean comment on said post lead to a show of communal support and solidarity, which was most gratifying. Also lead to my next uvenus post finally coming together. And an invite to guest post for another site. Received an email offering me some advice and moral support on my Laferrière research idea/project.

Tuesday: Worked out with a colleague/neighbor/fellow mommy. We'd been meaning to get together more during the fall semester, but both of us were felled in our efforts by the demands of the job and taking care of kids. Now both our sons are going to preschool together, leaving us time to workout and talk about our kids and our jobs. Also had a lunch date with my husband. Was accepted to THATcamp Southeast. Found a book where the main character shares the same name as my son.

Wednesday: Essay on reading to my kids and how it teaches me as well appeared on the New York Times Motherload blog. My son actually took a two hour nap at school, making our time together at home in the evening much, much, much more enjoyable for all. Finished reading a book. Had a student in my class raise a thoughtful question that showed she was really thinking about what she had read, and she made a promise to reread it again to more fully explain what she was trying to figure out. Had most successful #FYCchat to date.

Thursday: Worked out and fostered actual face-to-face friendships. Was told by a student that he really enjoyed my class and my teaching style. Had one of my posts appear on the NPR On Campus blog. Another lunch date with my husband. Finally found a computer chair for my office that does not cause back pain when I type. This may be the thing I am most excited about. Figured out how to integrate a  piece of writing into my over-all argument for an essay I have to finish writing this weekend.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday: Who know? It might be a disaster. I hope not. I have to finish writing two essays, due Monday (one more informal, one academic). My daughter is also doing a dance clinic and will be performing during halftime of the basketball game. I'm excited for that. I'm also excited to write. I've been reading, thinking, and more informally writing in preparation and I'm looking forward to seeing how it all comes together (or not).

I am grateful for this week, even if it didn't necessarily start off fantastically. I want to record these moments, these events, so I can come back to them when things aren't going well. Life doesn't always cooperate, but these highs make it so much easier to deal with the lows. I'll stop now before I descend into the realm of even more tired cliches. I just wanted to share the good news. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

January Blahs

There is something really different about the energy of students in January versus their energy in August/September when Fall semester starts. It's not the same enthusiasm, optimism, and excitement. No, January starts in opposition to how December ended: full of relief and the holiday spirit. All of that get left behind when they head back to school and start their classes.

It's not the same for professors, I think, because we see each beginning of semester as a chance to start again. A class didn't quite work as your thought it would? We can try again with some modifications! Didn't like the classes you taught last semester? Here is a new one to keep your interest! Didn't like your students? A fresh batch is waiting! Not to mention that Decembers ends with hours of grading, grade grubbing, and last-minute administrative work.The first few lectures are usually well-worn territory as well, so prep time might not be as stressful. And we don't know the students yet. There is something invigorating about the potential that each new class brings to the table. At least for me, the excitement of the beginning of the semester is rarely diminished. Especially when a class works well, I can't wait to get back in there with a new group to do it again.

But the students, well, they don't see it that way. Maybe they went home at Christmas and realized just how homesick they really are. Or they got sick from the cold/lack of proper sleep and care and start off the semester feeling terrible physically. Maybe they hate their roommate and so are coming back to a lot of drama that they just didn't know existed in the fall. Or their semester didn't go as planned and they are bringing a defeatist attitude to the new semester.

Or all of these freaking snow days are making it hard to get into a good routine. No wait, that's me.

In August and September, the weather is nice, the days are long(er) and the mood is full of optimism. In January, the days are colder, shorter and gloomier (even in California - I taught there). Two weeks sometimes is just enough time to remind you why you love your family but not enough time to remind you why you left for college to begin with. It's really not enough time to put any disaster, both personal and academic, behind you to be able to really start fresh.

I'm not arguing for a longer winter break; we started really late this January, and while I welcomed the time off, I am not looking forward to teaching until mid-May. But I have to continually reminded myself of the reasons behind the January Blahs when my students keep looking at me like I'm crazy with my enthusiasm and energy. I didn't get those looks (or at least not as many) in the fall. It's a bigger challenge in January to get my students to buy in to what I am selling them. It just means I have to work a little harder and remember where they are coming from.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

How Not to Prepare for your On-Campus Interview

Or, how to lose the job before you even get to campus. just did a post on making sure you are prepared for the inevitable A/V snafus during your on-campus interview. It got me to thinking about one of my on-campus interviews and why I might not have been offered the job. Of course, there are lots of reasons and none of them may have had anything to do with my on-campus performance specifically, but for some reason a light finally went off in my head about what I did wrong not while I was on campus, but while I was preparing for my teaching demonstration.

I should also note that I thought I had already largely figured out why I hadn't been offered the job: when I got the phone call inviting me to the on-campus interview, I asked if I could bring my infant daughter. I have to say, the people at the university went beyond the call of duty, trying to find a way for me to bring my daughter and have her cared for while I was interviewing. But I had always thought that when push came to shove, they decided that they didn't want someone as "family oriented" as I had proved to be (I ended up leaving my daughter at home with her father with no problems; chalk it up to first-time mommy panic). Looking back, I think I have been unfair (not that I thought badly of the institution; I didn't blame them, I blamed myself) because while I was so concerned with my daughter, I neglected to focus on what I was going to be teaching.

I wasn't as proactive, as they say, about getting all of my ducks in a row about what I was teaching in the Intro to Literature class: I am ashamed to say that I expected them to present me with the information I would need. Instead, I ignorantly asked questions (like, how do I get in touch with the professor?) that I should have just gone ahead and done myself. And when I found out what I would be teaching, I didn't ask if it was in an anthology or what edition they were using, I just went out and got a copy myself. Turned out, they were using an anthology, so when I referred to a certain scene or passage, I couldn't tell them which page to turn to in order for them to be able to note it and follow along. I also didn't think to ask for a copy of the class' complete syllabus so that I might have been able to provide links and contrasts to what they had already read and studied. In short, I made my class into a mini-presentation on the play they had read, completely neglecting to make an effort to integrate the lecture into the larger frame of their class.

It didn't help that it was the Friday before Spring Break. But I digress.

The lecture itself went well and I was complimented on it; I chose one or two quasi-thematic and related arches to focus on to get the students to think and reflect critically on what the playwright had set out to do. A few members of the search committee noted that I was a fine teacher and felt I deserved to get a job, if not there then somewhere. But, alas, I did not get that job. Again, with all of the rhetoric surrounding how I should have been hiding the fact that I had a baby/family, I just assumed that that was my undoing. Looking back, though, I would have done things very differently when it came to preparing for my teaching.

I hope this helps some of you preparing for your own teaching demonstrations for on-campus interviews.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Snow Days and On-Campus Childcare

We had another snow day today, after three last week. The kids got to stay home from preschool, which is the worst news in the world for my 3.5 year old daughter who adores going to school. Add to that that today was supposed to be Fun Friday, well, you can imagine how devastated she was. How much snow was on the ground, you ask? About an inch, maybe two.


I grew up in Canada, aka The Great White North. Snow days were unheard of when I was growing up. It didn't matter how much snow was on the ground or how cold it was outside, we went to school, often walking there. And we went outside at recess and after lunch (at least in elementary school). The buses may have been late arriving, but you got on and you showed up at high school. I can remember driving home for the weekend from university in one of the worst snow storms; there's nothing like an hour and a half trip that takes four hours in a beater car where we have to pull over every couple of miles to scrape the windshield to prove how brain-damaged young adults really are. And I was back at school on Monday. 

Our local schools serve a large and largely rural population, so while I live in town where there is little problems with the roads, I understand that people living out in the hills and off of essentially dirt roads would have a little more trouble and why we wouldn't want the buses to try making their way up there and back. But the problem isn't with the local schools, it's with the university.

As pointed out by Dr. Crazy, many universities don't have a very good plan in place for the inevitable and eventual arrival of snow. Ours is no exception. While every single campus, school, and daycare around us was shut down, our university was only on two hour delay (in other words, any class before 10 AM was canceled, but any class/meeting/activity scheduled for after ten was on). This is no big deal for us, as my husband doesn't teach on Fridays, but on other days, this would present a problem when we have to go to work and our kids aren't going to school. You can tell a snow day on campus because it's either crawling with kids or devoid of professors and students, many of whom have children of their own to care for. 

One of the first questions, for better or worse, that I would ask a search committee when I was doing interviews was if they had on-campus childcare available. It's one thing to leave your eight-year-old in your office watching DVDs or playing computer games or (even better) reading, but it's something all together different when you have to figure out what to do with your toddler while you teach or attend an important (or required) meeting. On-campus childcare ensures that faculty and students have a place that is safe and close by for their kids. It also means that on days were everything else is shut down, parents can still get the work done that is expected of them, be it teaching or being a student. 

Every year, there are snow days for most but not for us at the university. Where I live, we'll never get more snow plows. But maybe we can hope for childcare that is more responsive to the hours the university demands we keep. 

Never mind. I'd have better luck getting more snow plows.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's OK to Fail

Today, I had my usual second-class lecture on the advantages of active reading and how students usually read for pleasure/emotion and thus need to change how they read "school work" in order to engage their brain. It always goes over well, as students realize that basically staring at words on a page for two hours every week  and then living off of energy drinks and little sleep for a week while they cram for finals is really not a pleasant, effective, or ideal way to spend four years and thousands of dollars. But today, I added a little unplanned and wholly instinctive wrinkle to the second-day lecture: I don't expect perfection and it's ok to get the answer wrong.

I mentioned this at first in regards to their in-class free writes and homework: they get credit for making an effort to understand and engage with the materials, regardless if their engagement takes them in wildly strange directions. It might seem really touchy-touchy to reward effort, and I always shudder when students cry about a bad grade on a paper, claiming they worked so hard on it, but when we're talking about the process of learning, then mistakes and misdirections are as important as eventually getting it right. Their mistakes are as important to me in my process of helping them learn so I can adapt my teaching in order to meet them where they are. 

I've always tried to set up my classes in such a way that if the students give an honest effort, they will produce work that is of good enough quality to have earned them an A. We read and reread. We discuss and debate. We write, revise, and rewrite. We give and get feedback. I am the first person to admit a mistake when a class or assignment clearly didn't work the way I had envisioned. I'll meet them where they are, but I've got to know where that is. And that means I need them to be honest about what they are learning and what they aren't.

In other words, they have to be ready to possibly fail the first time they try something. They don't want to think too hard about what they've read in case their reading is wrong. They don't want to try something different in how they read/write/study because it might not work and thus their grade will suffer. They don't want to put too much effort into something that might not pay off. I think a lot of students' current apathy or laziness stems from fear: fear of being wrong, fear of wasting their time, fear of looking foolish. I told them today that if they learned something, even if that something is "this really didn't work", then they are further ahead than when they started.

I try to remember that lesson myself when I teach. It's never going to be perfect. And sometimes it will fail. But as long as I am open to recognizing and then fixing whatever went wrong, then I think I'm doing ok. I hope to get my students to understand that, too.

PS You have just read my 100th post here on College Ready Writing. Thank you so much for reading, sharing, commenting, and generally participating in my ongoing conversation about teaching, higher education, and beyond, mistakes and all.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Work/Life "Balance"

That's right, I used scare quotes. I've been thinking and reading a lot about the work/life balance in higher education. I think about how many of my female academic role models were childless, never-married, or divorced.  About how unreasonable the expectations are when it comes to the "life of the mind" in academia. (Check out this excellent post on expectations and priorities and this one on the two-headed problem). I usually think that I've done ok with the work/life balance, and I end up feeling pretty good about myself.

And then I have a day like today.

As I have written before, I left a tenure-track position so that my husband could take a better tenure-track job. I now have a full-time instructor position at the same university as my husband, so most days, I'm ok with the sacrifice. But at the end of the day, his job and his career takes priority over mine; I don't have to do anything except teach, so whenever there's a conflict in our professional activities, his take precedent. In other words, my ability to go to conferences is wholly based his schedule because of our two very young children. We live in a small town, far away from family, so childcare is basically one of the two of us. 

And because conferences, regardless of discipline, all seem to fall on the same weekends, I typically have to pass up opportunities in order to take care of our kids. Last semester, I had to teach with my then-almost two-year-old son strapped to my back. Other times, I had to cancel classes because there wasn't anyone to take care of the kids and my husband had something he HAD to do.  Today, he announced to me that he was probably going to apply for a summer fellowship that takes place the same weekend of a conference I am presenting at. We may have agreed that this was a conference I would attend, but if something better comes along for him...

Now, my husband has been incredibly supportive most of the time; he's brought our son to meetings with him because I was teaching, he moved across the country for me when I took my tenure-track job, and he agreed last semester that what was best for our son was for him to stay home with him while I was teaching (my daughter was attending preschool). But when it comes to the more "professional" side of my career (conferences, research trips, professional development), he has trouble. I don't have to do any of these things for my job; but I want to do these things because while I am not on the tenure-track, I haven't stopped being an academic. 

When it comes to work/life, it's not a question of balance, at least not a simple question of balance. Think of it as balancing on a stability ball; it's always moving, shifting, and you are constantly adjusting. I am continually negotiating my work and my life, modifying my perspective and expectations. There are good days and bad days. There are days where I miss the city, miss having a career just so I can have an excuse to do those activities outside of teaching that I want to do, miss being able to call up family and say, you take the kids, please! 

I've consciously avoided writing too much about my life and my kids on this blog. But I realize that I need to start talking about the sacrifices and compromises I make in order to keep things together and keep things working. How wearing my son to teach made me feel like I was being judged as both a poor teacher and poor mother. How I was somehow able to teach five classes while also taking care of my son 65% of the time and publish two papers. How it's not easy, but it isn't impossible either. 

The following appeared as satire in the Times Higher Education:
Targett [fictional administrator at the fictional Poppleton University] also pointed out that female academics were "more likely" than their male colleagues to have a range of outside interests such as cooking and child-minding. He believed that to burden them with further duties might be tantamount to discrimination.
This cut a little to close for comfort for me. Higher education often tells aspiring academics, men and women, that outside "interests" such as family are not acceptable. I think I internalized this attitude and it is manifesting itself in what I choose to write about on this blog. No more. While you won't hear about every snotty nose and cognitive milestone, I will start writing about how my family impacts my work, for better or for worse.

First Day of School!

Yup, I finally started teaching today. Finally. The syllabus was done yesterday afternoon while the children napped. I used a great deal of "Readings: TBA" in part so I can be more flexible as the semester moves on and in part because I really have no idea what we're going to read. Yet.

The good? I was able to move all of my classrooms into rooms with a smartboard (I still don't know how to use one, but maybe I'll learn this semester), a computer, and Internet access. I also found out that there is a computer lab that I can use with my students. Time to revise papers on the spot! I am very excited about this.

The bad? Blackboard was acting weird, and so I had to actually go over the syllabus in more detail than I would have liked because my course was still reading "unavailable" and thus the students couldn't access anything I had put up there. It's fixed, but it's still annoying.

The ugly? The textbook I selected for my 100-level class, the one without readings?  Turns out, we could have selected the one with the readings, and that is the version that the bookstore brought in, charging the students more money than they needed to spend. I didn't even know we had the option. So now my students have "wasted" money, or I have to change my syllabus (hey, Readings TBA, right?). Or, some students may have bought it with readings and some without. Ugh.

Live and learn.

But it's great to be in front of the classroom again. This semester, I'm a lot more confident about the courses I'm teaching; when my 200-level students' eyes glazed over when I said that we were going to be discussing education reform, I knew with a decent amount of certainty that I will have won most of them over by the end of the semester. You know, why high school sucks.

Now if I could only get a chair in my office that puts me in a good position to type and work on my computer...

Monday, January 17, 2011

What's Your Attendance Policy?

As I have admitted before, I was not the best undergraduate student. I routinely didn't go to class. I can count on one hand the number of courses where I attended every class. Most of them were taught by the same teacher. She was an adjunct, and she taught some of the most thankless courses. Our first course with her was Technical Writing. And yet, we all attended every class, did every assignment, and were usually lined up around the corner to see her during her office hours. I don't remember if she had an attendance policy in her syllabus (she probably did), but it wasn't for fear of punishment that we did or did not attend her class. We wanted to be there, and we saw the utility of attending her classes. 

Another instructor (another adjunct) that I vividly remember also got me to attend every class. But it was because there was a severe penalty built into the syllabus if you missed even one class. We hated it. Everyone in the class resented the fact that we were being "forced," through threat of punishment, to attend the class. We would sit through his long lectures and plod through his boring exercises wondering why it was we absolutely needed to be there. It didn't help that it was Editing at 8:30 on Friday mornings, but if our Technical Writing teacher had been the instructor, we would have been there, no matter what.

This is the problem I have with attendance policies; it gives students the wrong incentive to attend class. if I am doing my job as an instructor, students will understand the utility of my class, enjoy (or at least appreciate) the learning process, and willingly attend. If a student at this level doesn't yet understand that attendance matters, then docking them a few grades won't help; if anything, they'll end up resenting you, your class, and your policy.

A number of my students have told me about the zero tolerance policy their high schools have developed in regards to attendance; if you miss a day for any reason not deemed acceptable, you get detention or suspension. Most of the time, however, those students who are "forced" to go to school are disruptive or don't bother doing the work required of them. No amount of punishment seems to change their attitude towards school and schooling; they see it as a waste of their time. I want to make sure that my students don't think that I am wasting their time.

That's not to say that there isn't a stick that goes along with the carrot. The students learn very quickly that every day we do a variety of activities in class that directly relates to their upcoming (or in progress) essay assignment. All of these activities count in their final grade. For me, the incentive isn't that they lose marks by not being in class, but that they miss out on important practice and preparation for major assignments. Doing well in my class isn't about just attending, it's about actively participating and working on what we focusing on that day. I have a number of students who show up and either sleep or just stare at me during class. The quality of their writing has not improved. 

I want to be more like my Technical Writing instructor than my Editing instructor; I want students to want to attend my class, not feel that they have to attend but are wasting their time in doing so. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Growing The Readers You Want

But what kind of readers do we want?

It's the beginning of the semester, and we professors/instructors of any and all ilk are always faced with the same challenge: getting our students to read. I addressed it a little bit in my previous post about homework, but at the end of the day, we can (eventually) get our students to write because of a big fat grade attached to it, but it's really, really hard to get them to read. I went to a PD session this week that addressed this very concern. We were told the session was going to be about our State embracing the Common Core Standards, but instead we learned about "Growing the Readers You Want."

The PD was given by a wonderful literacy professor from WKU, Dr. Pam Petty (please don't judge her by her Geocities-looking website). WKU has done a fantastic job of creating a university-wide literacy program that is also available to professors looking to improve the reading skills of the students they teach, regardless of the subject matter. She painted us a depressing picture of what the true literacy levels of our students are (way too low) and asked us how we expected our students to read at college-level when they were barely reading at a high school level? But she also chastised us for allowing the students to "drive the bus" so to speak when it comes to developing our courses: slowly eliminating the need to read, or at least read anything challenging. 

We, she told us, needed to keep the challenging, college-level readings in our classes but help the students with their reading, giving them more guidance and direction in how they should read. She also reinforced the need to somehow hold the students accountable for the reading. We discussed various methods (guided reading forms with general and specific questions, visual keys, etc) and saw how one professor almost double his retention and passing rate for a large Intro to Psych class. 

I think it's important for those of us who teach writing to keep these things in mind as we design and teach our courses. I tell my students much of the time: it's not that you can't write; it's that you have nothing to write about, and that's where active or critical reading skills come into play. Technically, we're not supposed to teach reading skills in our developmental writing class; there is another class for developmental reading. But if I want my students to be able to write a college-level paper, I need them to be able to do college-level reading. I cannot and will not divorce the two. And most of the advice she gave to us were variations of exercises I already do with the students (but she also reminded me of the importance of letting go a little on the guidance by the end of the semester). 

So now I'm torn again about the readings I am going to require my students to do this semester in their 100-level class and even in my developmental writing course: pop culture and short op-ed essays are more interesting, relevant, and accessible, but do they suitably challenge my students? Am I doing them a disservice by asking them to read Fahrenheit 451 (I hate spelling that word) instead of 1984? Should I even be asking them to read fiction in a college writing (and reading) class? Is it fair to assign them to read a textbook "Everything is an Argument" when only one form of argument (and critical reading) is even acceptable in higher education? Have I, have we, allowed them to take the wheel of the bus?

I am so glad that I haven't invested too much manual labor (as in typing and formatting) my syllabus for the upcoming semester; I would have junked it more than a few times now. I just got my student evaluations back from last semester; one of the comments that kept coming up was that I genuinely care about my students and that it shows in my teaching. I do genuinely care about my students, which is why I take forming my syllabus and selecting the readings so seriously. And why I am worried about pushing them to be their best and succeed in college. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

What "Text" Do You Teach?

This semester, I'm teaching Freshman Writing for the first time at my "new" institution; I've taught the class before at other places, but as anyone who has taught the "same" class at different schools knows, it's never the same. New requirements, new textbook, new guidelines, and thus, a new class. I also know that I have a lot of students who took my Developmental English class with me signed up for the class, so I want to make sure I keep things fresh, so to speak, for them. I chose an entirely new and different textbook for my class (we have to choose one, out of an approved list of three); usually, I chose a textbook that has lots of readings and I focus on teaching the writing part. This time, I chose a textbook that exclusively focuses on the writing (and critically reading) part, but is light on texts provided as examples and for students to "practice" on. I selected Everything's an Argument (searching for the link for this book, I just noticed that there is an edition with readings; that's not the one we're using, for whatever reason).

The idea was that this would provide me with more freedom to allow students to find their own readings, encouraging them to take ownership of their education, engaging them in critical research activities, and providing materials that they themselves are interested in. Or force me to do so. I will be looking for my own texts to provide for them, in order to make sure that they are being challenged in their work and in their thinking. I'm also thinking that their final assignment might be to critically "read" and critique the argument in anything of their choosing, reality TV, sports, a novel, the healthcare debate, a video game, whatever they want. This could be controversial.

The issue, for me, comes down to this: is a Freshman Writing class supposed to prepare students for college writing (and reading), or is it to prepare students more broadly for the challenges and reality they will be facing after they leave the university? If my only job is to prepare them for college writing, then asking the students to write about "texts" that aren't written is a mistake; as many have already pointed out, the university is not the center for curricular innovation. We like our textbooks, we like our academic essays, and we don't really like all of these trendy topics (like media studies or digital humanities) encroaching on our turf of the classic liberal arts. I'm, of course, not speaking for everyone, but for many, dare I say, most, I should be teaching "the classics" over Jersey Shore.

That's an argument that holds a lot of power for me. I think that part of higher education is being exposed to (read: being forced to read and examine) texts that we probably would never have picked up on our own, and for today's student, that usually means anything written over 20 years ago that doesn't involve a vampire or wizard. I'm being glib, but how many students really enjoyed reading Shakespeare in high school or picked up a copy of Plato's Republic for the fun of it? I know they're out there, but they are not in my classes. If we, collectively, in higher education, don't expose students to the wealth of knowledge and the richness of the written word, who will? It isn't just requiring that the students read the works, it's also providing them with the skills to be able to appreciate the work, engaging them in a way that makes the experience meaningful.

This is where I think pop culture can come into play. The "classics" are always concerned about human behavior, for better or for worse; pop culture just seems to exaggerate those arguments writ large. For example, when talking about manly nihilism, we discussed both Nietzsche and Fight Club. If we want to talk about social mobility and empty materialism, then why not talk about The Death of Ivan Illyich as well as our current obsession with game shows and give-aways? Afraid of run-away technology? So have authors as far back as Rousseau, but most "recent" examples can be found in dystopian fiction. These are just a few examples, and I'm sure you probably have better ones (please, share, that's what the comments are for).

And to say that the works and authors who are generally understood as being a part of the Canon didn't concern themselves with base interests or popular culture, then what were they writing about when they critiqued religion and religious practices, the popular playwrites, poets, and musicians of the time, or the morality of the population in general? What is popular has certainly changed, but our need to analyze and understand it has not.

I think critical thinking is critical thinking. I think that students are too passive in their consumption of all media: written, visual, aural, etc. It used to be that only those who were in a position of power or affluence could afford to engage in such activities. No more. If we can get students to critically "read" the texts they usually only consume for enjoyment and entertainment, then we can also get them thinking critically about their discipline, their education, and whatever it is we have asked them to read/consume for school. If they can write a well-organized, well-thought out, well-researched, clearly argued essay about reality TV, then I think it's safe to say that we've done our job of preparing them for college writing and beyond.

(For a great example of critically "reading" a show, check out "Should We Watch 'Bridalplasty'?" I love how the author shines the light back onto the viewer; the show is really informative about what it says about society, but we have to be willing to go an extra, self-critical step)

Monday, January 10, 2011

My (Virtual) Experience at MLA '11

I didn't go to the MLA this year, at least not in person. There are a number of reasons: I'm not on a job search, I wasn't presenting, I spent Christmas at home in Canada with my family instead, I couldn't really afford it because we have just bought a house and moved immediately before the holidays, etc. But the truth is, I didn't even submit an abstract to be on any panels; each previous year, I submitted PILES of abstracts and my rate of acceptance is dismally low. And when the abstracts were due, I thought I was kissing my academic career goodbye (I'm pretty sure I've kissed any hope of the tenure-track goodbye, but anyway). All of this to say, I wasn't planning on having anything to do with the MLA this year, or perhaps any year after this (unless by some miracle, it comes to Kentucky, which I doubt). 

I don't like the MLA. In fact, I don't really much like academic conferences at all, big or small, despite my writing to the contrary. And I don't like them for reasons that are unique; I am completely incapable of interacting normally with my fellow academics. I get so nervous that I end up blubbering and babbling and gushing and sticking my foot in my mouth. I act overly-familiar or too distant. I don't know how to make "friends" and I never really know anyone and no one really knows me. I work in a weird field (Haitian-Canadian/Caribbean-Canadian writing, among other things) and teach in a completely different area (composition). I'm usually a very social person who is at ease in groups of strangers. But when those strangers are my intellectual "superiors," I turn into a mess. 

When #MLA11 turned up in my Twitter timeline, I was sucked in. I followed along and got involved in the discussions about Digital Humanities and how technology is changing the profession (#openprof and #newtools). I asked questions that I may have been too shy or blubbery to ask otherwise (seriously, 140 characters is a blessing for me). I read blog posts about other presentations (a big, big thank you to Dr. Davis of Teaching College English for being such a diligent blogger). I learned a lot, was challenged and I think was able to pose some challenging questions in return, especially in regards to those of us off the tenure-track. I made new "friends," got some new followers, and basically got over myself through the semi-anonymity of the web; you can't see my blush online. 

Now, I want to meet all of these fabulous people I follow on Twitter or whose blogs I read. I want to have my own discussion group/panel (maybe about using social media to improve our teaching/creating PLN in higher education - #FYCchat plug!).  I want to go to Seattle next January and, for the first time, enjoy an MLA conference because I don't feel intimidated or like I don't belong. I'm sure I'll still stick my foot in my mouth or ramble on too long with someone I've greatly admired from afar. But, hey, I'm looking forward to it now. 

So thank you MLA Convention for having Wi-Fi and to that handful of Tweeters and bloggers. You reached at least one person and convinced them to join the party next year. 

The Homework Paradox

This week, in honor of #FYCchat, and the fact that I'm working on my syllabi for the upcoming semester all week, I'm posting all about some of the decisions we face as instructors, trying to come up with a plan for our students for the semester. First up, homework!

I have a love-hate relationship with homework. When I was a student, in the dark ages, before computers and word processing programs, I used to be reduced to tears, writing and rewriting my essays and other assignments because I am a terrible speller. "Good copies" could only be written in pen, and we were only allowed three White-Out marks to correct mistakes. I used to sit at the kitchen table as my mom proofread my work, dreading the inevitable: the fourth spelling mistake which meant I would have to start all over again. 

I was lucky, because I had parents who were very involved with my school work and education. I always had help with math, French, or whatever else I was tasked to do. But, my parents also never over-stepped their role as tutor and coach, much to my dismay. Every piece of writing, every problem solved, every verb conjugated, it was all done by me, but if I got stuck, I would sit with my mom she would guide me as to how to figure out my problem. When I had trouble with biology and she couldn't figure out how to help me, she hired one of my swimming teammates who was older and studying biology to tutor me. The idea was always to help me become self-sufficient in my learning and studying.

(A quasi-relevant aside: my friend who tutored me in biology figured out that I needed a narrative in order to learn; biology was hard for me because it was a lot of memorization. I always complained that I didn't understand biology, when really, there was nothing to understand, only things to memorize, at least at the high school level. So we wrote stories about the cell and all of the parts and their functions, a tool I used to study for all of my biology tests from then on. I would start each biology test by writing down whatever story or stories I had come up with and then filling in the blanks. It worked, as I passed biology, and my friend went on to become an excellent university professor.)

As a professor, homework is essential if we, myself and my students, are to be able to accomplish our learning goals. I remember my mother's lessons, and I try to help my students see how they can become self-sufficient learners. But it is nearly impossible to get my students to do their reading or take any active reading exercises I assign seriously. While they complain about how they are bored by lectures, they fail to see the connection between being able to have meaningful class discussions and exercises if they haven't done their reading. One day, I really will stand in silence for an entire class period waiting for students to answer my discussion questions to show I am serious a) about students doing their readings and b) that I want to do more than just lecture.

But I also understand my role as a coach for my students in their learning (see the above parenthetical aside). For example, when we are working on editing and revising their essays, I have them do their peer reviews or self-assessments in class, so if they have any questions or need any help, I'm there to give some guidance. What do I hear from them? Do we have to do this right now, or can we just leave and do this at home? Really? I can't get you to do homework because of a variety of excuses (no time, too much other work, etc) and now all of a sudden you have time to do this? It frustrates me, but I tell the students that they can take the time now or take the time later. 

I understand the argument that students (children especially) need free time to explore and play, and that homework often drills the love of learning from them. But in university, I don't see my students every day, and the time we spend together is very limited. I don't have the time in class to learn all about the students' strengths and weaknesses, and how they learn best. Tasks assigned to them to be completed outside of class is also one of the ways I can gage what tools work best for certain students. And, because we don't see each other every day, it forces them to practice and reinforce what we've been doing/reading/learning. 

Homework, especially in college, isn't going anywhere. But I remember my 10-year-old self, and I work to make sure that every exercise we do, inside and outside of class, has a clear purpose. I just wish my students would actually do it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On The Outside Looking In on the Digital Humanities

*I wrote this about a month ago and it was meant for the University of Venus. But given the "debate" going on at this year's MLA Conference (specifically the panel #openprof and #newtools, and in particular the post on the Chronicle Brainstorm blog), I thought I would share my own perspective as an "outside" looking in (and trying to figure out how I fit in).

When I started my PhD, there was a new program just getting started, called Humanities Computing. Students in the program pursued Masters degrees, taking a mixture of HuCo (as it was called) classes and classes from their “home” humanities department. There were a few students in Comparative Literature who were pursuing a Masters in HuCo. The rest of us had come from traditional literature departments, and we viewed our HuCo classmates with curiosity. What, exactly, are you doing?

One student analyzed a short story according to how many times certain words occurred in the story and at what points. He proudly showed us the graphs he plotted and showed that the graph exactly pinpointed the climax of the story. We all nodded impressively, but wondered to ourselves if you couldn’t figure it out with a good close reading. We also wondered how this could possibly compare to the complex theoretical readings we were doing, which was obviously more intellectually strenuous.

One thing stuck with me, though. When I asked the HuCo student what he could do with his degree, he told me that he had already received a number of lucrative job offered. The technological and analytical skills he was acquiring was in high demand. So much for our intellectual superiority.

There has been an explosion in interest in the digital humanities. Say what you will about the decline in traditional print media, but it still stands to reason that when the old Grey Lady, the New York Times, features something, it means it has hit the mainstream. And so it would seem that the digital humanities have hit the big time, such as it is. (And yes, I do see the irony in this).

Despite my initial condescension towards (one) idea of what digital humanities is, my own dissertation benefited from the increased digital availability of electronic archival resources. I would never had known about the various archives I visited, in which I found never-before analyzed letters and drafts, had it not been for the electronic availability of searchable archive databases (and Google). And, while I loved going through the old letters and manuscripts, if the materials had been completely digitized, I would have been able to avoid taking out a $10,000 line-of-credit in order to pay for the travel to the archives so I could complete my research.

But some skepticism still remains. Recently, a video made the rounds, questioning the sanity of any student who would look to do a PhD in Political Science. The student wants to study politics; the professor warns that the student will spend his days doing “regression discontinuity.”  My husband has a PhD in Political Science and I know first-hand the pressure he faced to do more quantitative research, rather than the qualitative work that he loves. I worry that this is the direction that the digital humanities will take all of the humanities.

I love the idea of making documents (aka data) of all kinds more accessible to interested parties (and not just “scholars”), as well as discovering more innovative ways of presenting the data. But I hope that we haven’t moved into a “post-theoretical age” in that we go back to a time where simply making an observation was good enough, even with the help of a computer.  We still need the theorists to help us interpret the increasing amount of “data” we are able to access and reorganize.  As was asked here on Inside Higher Ed, where are the humanities in the digital humanities?

Finally, I worry that there will be an even larger generation of “lost scholars” than there already is. We know the number of tenure-track jobs in the humanities is dwindling. What happens to academics whose traditional academic training has left them entirely ill equipped to compete for the new (if still tiny) number of jobs that are available. Do we go and get another PhD?  Try to radically reframe our research interests to fit a rapidly evolving field? Or just give up?

For me, I have the luxury of being able to try to adapt. Can I create a website/database that allows readers and researchers to more fully explore the inter- and intra-textual references that an author has across their writing and other artistic output, one that is crowdsoured? I have no idea. I am still on the outside of the digital humanities, trying to hack my way in (haha). But I have some stability in order to explore the theoretical questions and technical aspects of the project. What of the adjunct teaching an overload of classes at multiple institutions? I hope there’s space for all of us at the increasingly small table. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Gotcha! How Open is too Open?

I'll admit it. I made a mistake this past semester. It's the kind of mistake that seems trivial at the time but can quickly escalate into a crisis. And I should know better. I've been warned repeatedly against making the kind of mistake that  I made. I've read about other professors who have made the same mistake and paid dearly for it. Yet, there I was, unable to stop myself, only seeing the error of my ways after it was perhaps too late.

I talked about politics with some of my students. 

My students are chronically unable to find my office, so twice a semester, instead of class, I have informal meeting time in my classroom where students can come and talk to me about the paper I have just handed back, the assignment they are working on, and their progress thus far during the semester. I get more students than just my office hours, but not much. This past semester, a few students hung around the classroom and started talking about politics. Let me reiterate that this was not a formal class nor was I offering a lecture. I joined in their discussion about politics. I explained the Canadian parliamentary system. We compared the Canadian Left and Right to the American Left and Right. We had been talking about education reform, and so discussed the various politics of the current wave of reform. 

I admittedly said some inflammatory things but made sure that a) I made it clear that this was only my opinion and b) I backed up those opinion with some pretty solid reasons.  I played devil's advocate with my students and their ideas and opinions, regardless of their political views. This is my job as their teacher; to help them improve their critical thinking skills by, in one way, challenging them. They, in turn, challenged me and taught me about American and local politics. I was enjoying myself and enjoying the opportunity to get to know some of my students and to have them get to know me.

One of the students, however, was continually playing with his iPhone. It didn't alarm me; students are almost always doing something on their phones, even when I'm lecturing, let alone when I'm having an informal discussion. But I did think it was strange that he kept holding it up periodically. Trying to get a better signal? It only dawned on me after everyone had left and I was walking home that he may have been recording me on his phone. Recording our discussions on politics. A recording that could be edited and posted on web.


If you are at all paying attention to higher education, I don't have to go into the recent scandals involving professors who have been video recorded and then dragged through the mud online (like him or as described here). There have been questions about how much "freedom" a professor has in their classroom, especially with organizations such as FIRE ready to pounce (and rapidly disseminate) any evidence of bias or academic misconduct in the classroom. All I need as a contingent faculty is to have my face, voice and (probably misrepresented) politics all over the blogosphere. 

So far, so good. I've set up google alerts for any variation of my name and my university's name (it's only damning if it names names) so I can (maybe) be one of the first to know if it hits. And I might just be acting paranoid because of all of the attention lately to the illicit video taping of professors. But it scared me. And it made me wonder if I would have to fundamentally change who I am as a teacher.

I have written elsewhere that what I always admired in my favorite former teachers was their openness with us; they were human beings who shared with us their personalities and showed us a little bit of their lives outside of the classroom. I want my students to know me so they feel comfortable taking chances, offering opinions and even challenging me in my class. How can I ask them to trust me if I don't trust them? But with the risk of being taped and misrepresented, how open is too open now for me with my students? I include time in my office and when I run into them outside of class or even off campus (it's a small town) because who knows who is watching or listening? 

I can't let the fear of being caught (caught doing what? Offering opinions? Asking questions? Being human?) change how I teach. But I will definitely now think twice before opening my mouth to talk about politics. At least when a student is paying a little too much attention to their phone while holding it up like they're trying to take my picture.

*I wrote this post before Christmas. Last night, I participated, on Twitter, in the MLA panel "New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Economic Crisis" (check out the backchannel here). Apparently, I'm already too open by blogging as myself. The take-away from the rise in technology in higher education? Don't be yourself. Sorry, Academia, I can't, I won't, do it. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Loyalty or Desperation, Revisited

In honor of the job numbers coming out of the MLA regarding potential jobs for all of us PhDs and ABDs, I want to reexamine an idea I put forward this summer. Last July, I wrote about how loyalty to a university can just as easily mask desperation in contingent faculty (the university that I mention in the post is not the same university where I am currently working). But I have been rethinking the ideas of loyalty and/or desperation in faculty members as it relates to the students I teach. I hope and wish that my institution would show loyalty towards me because of the loyalty I feel towards its students.

I have moved around quite a bit during my career. Being one half of an academic couple has lead to my traveling to multiple universities for work. But I am tired of moving around, tired of learning and relearning a new academic culture, and, most of all, I am tired of never knowing how the students I have taught have done in their academic careers. Teaching developmental writing, especially, creates a type of bond for me; I have invested a great deal of time and effort getting to know these students and trying to help them be successful in college. And I want to be there for them if they ever need me during their four or five more years in college. I want to be readily available to write letters for them if a reference is ever needed. I want to help my student who wants to get a PhD in Economics achieve that goal, even if it is just cheering him on from the sidelines. And I want to be there at graduation when they cross the stage and finally achieve their goal of getting a degree and becoming a teacher, a nurse, a vet tech, or whatever else they are hoping to do with their education.

But I can't do that, at least not easily, if I am not employed at the university. I told my students that even if I didn't have a job on campus next year or beyond, chances are I'd still be around because my husband is on the tenure-track and we have just bought a house in town. But how much weight would a letter carry from a former instructor, versus a current one? How easily could they track me down to ask for help, guidance, or a pep-talk, or would they even bother, if my campus email was shut down and I no longer had an office? I hope that I am still an employee, even as an instructor off the tenure-track, for many more years, not only for myself, but for the students I have taught and will teach.

My loyalty is to them. Many of them have come from very difficult situations, and I really want to help them succeed, or at a minimum smile proudly when their names are called and they cross the stage to receive their diploma, knowing I had played a small role in helping them achieve that goal. So, to my institution I say, your students have won me over. Now, are you going to show me a little bit of loyalty in return?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What Can We Expect From Freshmen?

I asked, in a recent post, what do we expect from Freshmen? I was responding, in part, to the criticism, that I had expected too much of my students in their final assignment. And then, today, I came across (or rediscovered) the following essay by Alfie Kohn, explaining "How to Create Nonreaders." In it, he radically proposes that we empower students and allow them to shape the curriculum in their language arts/reading and writing classes at the K-12 level. 

Now, imagine if we did that in our Freshmen Writing or Introduction to Literature classes. Based on the comments on my blog post about allowing students to propose a fictional course, I don't think that it would go over very well. 

Here is the paradox that Kohn points out and that can be extrapolated even further into higher education: 
The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools.  In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day -- than do kindergarteners.  Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.
We expect even less of students in college classes. Part of it is the institutional tradition: students come to higher education (and pay a lot of money) in order to benefit from our (the professor's) expertise. If they wanted to direct their own learning, they are free to do so, for free. You get what you pay for, and they are paying for my wisdom, experience, and knowledge. But why does it have to be that way? As Kohn points out, the instructor is not removed from the equation; they are important guides in the process of shaping the educational experience. Why does our experience have to be shared with students in a top-down approach?

When I ask the question, however, what can we expect from freshmen, I don't just mean what could we reasonable expect a freshman to do in a class. I don't think that it would be entirely unreasonable to immediately ask a freshman to take control and ownership of their education in order to prepare them for not only the next four years, but their professional lives beyond their degree. No, I am also asking what are we allowed to ask of our freshmen.

Kohn talks about how it's important that students are given "voice and choice." Why? Two reasons:
The first is that deeper learning and enthusiasm require us to let students generate possibilities rather than just choosing items from our menu; construction is more important than selection.  The second is that what we really need to offer is “autonomy support,” an idea that’s psychological, not just pedagogical.  It’s derived from a branch of psychology called self-determination theory, founded by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, among others.  To support students’ autonomy is to meet their need to be in control of their own lives, to offer opportunities to decide along with the necessary guidance and encouragement, to “minimiz[e] the salience of evaluative pressure and any sense of coercion in the classroom” and “maximiz[e] students’ perceptions of having a voice and choice.”[10]
 How can we allow students to generate possibilities when the instructors themselves aren't allowed to generate possibilities, allowed our own autonomy? Instead, we are limited to a selection of pre-approved texts, mandated assignments, and set learning outcomes? My fellow University of Venus colleague Afshan Jafar has written quite eloquently on the McDonaldization of higher education and why it is taking place, but I am interested here in examining the effects on the teaching and course development process. For Mary Churchill, the assembly-line teaching mentality caused her to choose administration over academia. For me, it means that I can't at least try to empower and challenge my freshmen writers.

This next semester, I am teaching Freshman Writing at my institution for the first time. I've taught the course elsewhere, but of course, I have to re-learn a new textbook, fit in all of the mandated assignments, and this semester, the added pressure of being one of the courses whose papers will be evaluated for accreditation and evaluation purposes. Could I, would I, come to class on the first day with the long pre-formatted syllabus with all of the requirements, course goals, learning outcomes, and assignments already in place and pre-selected textbook, and say to the class, here are our guidelines, now we make the class together? I do have the flexibility to assign specific readings, come up with homework/in-class exercises, and a small number of major assignments, as well as the specific schedule for the semester. Could I, would I, hand over the small amount of choice and freedom I do have as an instructor to my students?

I worry about my job. I worry about the perception of me as an instructor. I worry about my students learning. I worry (in my most optimistic moments) that I will upset the expectations of other professors who later have my students, students who now expect a degree of autonomy that they will not receive in other classes. I worry about our accreditation; I have now been at two schools that have completely overhauled their Freshman Writing because of the demands of the same accreditation board. Of course, the accreditation board didn't demand specifically that Freshman Writing change, but they did demand that there be put in place a program that would impact all students. Freshman Writing it is.

I have about three weeks to decide. I'm not going to lie; I'll probably take the "easy" and safe way out, developing my syllabus myself, mostly dictating the readings and assignments, according to the limitations that have already been placed on me. But like I did in my 200-level class this past semester, I'll push the envelope; blogs, self-directed reading and research, and at least one assignment that upsets everyone's assumptions, students' and professors', as to what a freshman can do. It might not be much, but it's a start. It is, literally, the least and most I can do.

Monday, January 3, 2011

An Admission: I am not a Geek

Out in the bloggesphere (I have no idea how to spell this and spellcheck is wholly unhelpful), there was a minor scandal in regards to Patton Oswalt's call for Geek Culture to die because it doesn't really mean anything anymore. The responses came fast and furious, but what stuck out to me through it all was that I really am not a Geek.

I've always considered myself a Geek. I was good in school, not tremendously popular, loved Star Wars, Monty Python, science fiction, Star Trek: TNG, played in the school band, and was on the debate team. I had a wide-eyed naiveté and immaturity that was increasingly socially awkward the further along in high school I got (seriously, what 15-year-old goes and sees Aladdin eight times in the theater?). Thankfully, I had a wonderful group of friends with whom I could "geek out" with. We wrote our own Star Trek: TNG scripts (fan fic, as it would be called now), had Monty Python movie marathons (with no booze or drugs) on Saturday nights, and generally did geeky, good kid things while many of our peers were out drinking at whoever's parents were out of town/didn't care.


We weren't the geekiest kids in high school. We didn't play D&D, we weren't a part of the stock market club, nor were we complete social outcasts (one of our core group went on to be senior class president). And while I was in the band, I wasn't really a band geek, a la "This one time, at band camp..." I didn't know how to speak Klingon, didn't know what Middle Earth was (seriously), and was generally wary of those who, you know, seemed a little too invested in these things.

There was one area where I totally geeked out: swimming. My friends at school tolerated it, but I was obsessed with swimming. I never noticed my friends' eyes glazing over while I talked about the sport. But I was even too much of a swimming geek for my teammates; my passion for the sport far outstripped my talent, and so I was that girl who killed herself swimming for no seemingly good reason. Because of my lack of talent, I was essentially bullied all through my tweens and early teens. I outlasted those naysayers, and once I was one of the team leaders, I tired to make sure that everyone felt welcome on the team; if you loved to swim, then you were embraced.

Hang in there. This gets back to teaching and higher ed.

So although I always considered myself a geek, I am quite happy to shed the title, if only because of the smug, self-satisfied, and, dare I say, elitist attitude of some of the responses to the essay calling for the death of geek culture. They, those who are outside, late to the party, wanna-be geeks, will never understand or could possibly ever call themselves real geeks. We, long-time, long-suffering, all-knowing geeks, will never bow to the mass media co-option of geek culture. And I agree that as long as there are weird (read: different), slightly obsessive, socially awkward teens, there will be geeks. To claim ownership, exclusivity, and superiority, however, is exactly the thing I hate about "geeks."

And it is exactly that "geekiness" which can make academics insufferable and terrible teachers. Let's face it, most professors are geeks in the sense that they are obsessed with their academic interest, which are typically highly specialized and often obscure. You'd have to be obsessed to get through a dissertation and then the demands of the tenure-track. This obsession can go one of two ways: the passion can infuse their teaching or the obsession can fuel a feeling of superiority caused by the idea that you are a persecuted geek whom no one could possibly understand or appreciate. But, let's face it, the obsession also makes them excellent academics.

In part because of my own history of being bullied and not letting it destroy my passion, I am the type of teacher who wants to share their passion in the classroom. I geek out about teaching. I geek out about helping students become better writers. I geek out at the opportunity to teach students about literature. I geek out when I get to turn students on to "reading" again. And God forbid anyone ask me about my current research interest, Dany Laferrière.

But, it would seem, I am not a geek about it, which makes me a great teacher, but a poor academic.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Here's to 2011

Over on the University of Venus Facebook page, the questions was asked, "What's your word for 2011?" Most came up with words like adventure, change, whatever. For me, my word for is "stability." 2010, the last five years in fact, have had enough change to last me for a little while. 

In 2005, I got married and moved to California. In 2006, I had my first experience teaching developmental writing and got pregnant. In 2007, I had my daughter and defended my dissertation. In 2008, we moved again to Florida for a tenure-track job for me, but not before moving into a bigger place in CA and finding out I was pregnant again. In 2009, I had my son, and we moved to Kentucky for a tenure-track job for my husband. 2010 saw me not teaching for the first time since I taught ESL in a summer program back in Canada. So I started my own business, started blogging, and got in Twitter. And then, I got a full-time job and we bought our first house. 

I'm exhausted just writing about it. 

To extend on my metaphor about trees, I want 2011 to be about putting down roots, providing a stable base or foundation for myself and my family. I want to grow what I have started, instead of continually uprooting and starting over. I want to give myself a chance to explore who I have become over these past five years. I want things to be a little (ok, a lot) more stable than previous years. All of the change has been a blessing, but I'm ready for a year where I can take a breathe and focus on what's in front of me because I have a better idea of what that is. 

My adventure is ongoing. But I hope 2011 is about the lull that sometimes comes in the middle. Now that I've written that, something is going to come along and completely change it. Stability is my hope; as I have learned, I have little control over what the year has in store for me.

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