Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Turning Group Work into Collaboration

I was desperate to find a way *not* to blog about some very real drama that is hitting one of my Peer-Driven Learning classes. It's amazing how one bad, poorly-prepared, attention-starved apple can spoil the whole bunch. And now the class has decided to break out into working groups, with the Bad Apple's group suffering from a horrible case of regression. Unlike the other groups, where learning and discussion is taking place at a fast and furious pace, this group's other members have regressed back into sullen, defensive silence, the kind that I'm met with in most ordinary classes when asked to participate or do anything at all. 

(I'll be writing more about what each of the classes is doing on Monday, as well as how tomorrow goes, trying to mitigate the damage.)

No, this post is going to be about turning group work, something most of our students see as a burden or tedious, into a collaborative unit, which most see as a positive force for good in the world. It's timely, as last week the #FYCchat was on exactly that, and much of what we talked about was how to create an environment conducive to collaboration, creation, and collective wisdom, instead of competitive units of who-did-more-than-whom. 

Coincidentally, last week's episode of Project Runway featured a perfect case study on how group work doesn't work and collaboration does. For those of you who don't know, Project Runway is the brainchild of former supermodel Heidi Klum. She pits a group of designers against each other in weekly clothes-making challenges, eliminating one a week until the next-big-thing in fashion is declared the winner. The challenges can be ridiculous (clothes made out of materials found at a pet store!), and the drama...Oh, the drama. Sleep deprivation and other physical hardships often push designers to the brink, and the contestants are fighting for their creative and professional life. 

Last week's episode, Off the Track, is no exception. If you don't have an extra hour or so to spare to watch the episode (which is what I linked to above), you can read a pretty good recap here. Unlike most weeks, where the designers work as individuals, in Off the Track the designers are forced into teams of three and then expected to create a three-outfit cohesive line. Two groups in particular dissolve into complete and total chaos. One group gets completely wrapped up in drama, and while the team member  (Bert) certainly deserved their ire, the other two forget to actually design clothes and the trouble-maker creates the "best" garment. The other group, equally drama-filled (Him: You're designs are dowdy. Her: TEARS), but the team leader sucked it up, said he was sorry, and she sucked it up and accepted it, they put their differences aside, ending up creating one of the winning dresses

(Personally, that dress is a big "Meh" for me, but compared to a lot of the other designs, it was the least offensive. I honestly think Heidi was rewarding the group that was able to work through, or at least get past, their differences.)

I really invite you to watch the full episode to see how the "group work" mentality can deteriorate and destroy the final product while trying to really collaborate can produce good results, in spite of conflict. The team that found a way to work together was rewarded. Another important lesson is that you can only control the work that you do within the collaborative setting. While certainly a trouble-maker who doesn't play well with others, Bert still remembers that the purpose of the challenge is to create good clothes; the other two didn't even seem to bother, focusing instead on complaining about how useless and difficult to work with Bert is. 

I don't know why this realization about Project Runway has eased my mind; I still have to teach tomorrow and I still have to deal with the Bad Apple group. But at least now I have an external example to think about and refer to in order to work through the issue. A few hours ago, I was despondent. Now, I'm hopeful. I need to get my students to become the successful collaborators, not the petty group workers. 

Eat your heart out, Heidi!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Readjusting Expectations

Programming Note: I'll be taking a break from writing weekly Bad Female Academic posts, mostly because I don't have anything left to add. That's probably because I'm teaching again and am trying something completely new, trying to create a course based on peer-driven learning. So instead of Monday posts on gender in academia, you'll be treated to posts on my ongoing adventure in allowing my students to decide for themselves what we're going to learn and produce in our class.

Week one is over, and I'm staring down the reality of week two. Last week was hit and miss. The students seemed to really respond to Paulo Freire and the idea that there is, in fact, a different way to learn (well, lots of different ways to learn, but you get my drift). When I told them to pull out their cell phones and start texting their answers to question and that those answers would appear (anonymously) on the overhead, it was like I had just cured cancer. A teacher who was encouraging them to text, to use the technology that was most available to them and with which they were most familiar with? I blew their minds. 

Their blog posts (sorry, not public) on their initial reactions to the class and the readings were positive. One of my favorite quotes from a student was that they'd been trained to sit and not talk in class the same way a dog is trained not to pee on the rug. Another student also astutely observed that learning technology is only useful if it allows us to learn in new and different ways, instead of recreating more efficient versions of the banking concept. There seemed to be a consensus that the class was different, exciting, terrifying, would be a lot of work, but it was work they were willing to undertake because they "knew" (or at least claimed to know) that it would mean that they would learn more. Students were emailing me to ask about contract grading or if we could use tumblr instead of blackboard. I was psyched. 

Then came Friday. This, I said, is where the hard work begins. Now we have to start making some decisions and actually designing our course. What, I asked, do we need to decide? In my first class, there was silence. Absolute silence. I am proud to say that I waited it out, but it was painful. I have a number of students in the class whom I had last year, students who I know have something to say from reading their blogs, and yet, there was nothing. We finally got through a list, and their job over the weekend (I didn't want to call it homework) was to participate in a discussion (online) about each of the elements we need to decide on, offering ideas, brainstorming, and, you know, discussing. Communication, I reminded them, is a key element in making this class work.

My other class was better; I barely had time to get the question out of my mouth when a hand shot up and said: "Grading! How will we be graded?" We all laughed. This class had already proposed to break off into smaller groups, and each group would/should have a technologically savvy person in it to guide communication and innovation. They also want me to agree to learn something; one student offered to teach me how to weld. Another student asked if we were limited to our physical classroom in which to hold our meetings. We got threw the list and they, too, had the responsibility of discussing their preferences online so that next week, we can start narrowing our options and making choices. 

The discussion, thus far, at 9:30 PM on Sunday night, has been a relative failure. Very few students have even post or participated. I created an internal wiki to share other innovative class and project ideas, so they could be inspired (I know, make it all public! I'm working on it; most of this is really, really new to me, too). I'm not even sure anyone has looked at it. Most of the suggestions that were made were vague and not well articulated (We should read about Class, Poverty, and Wealth because it looks interesting). I was ready to throw in the towel, declare this whole experiment a failure when I took a step back and remembered that this is really, really new for them, too. No one has ever asked them their opinion on what they should learn or why they should be learning it. While I might have been completely exhilarated by the opportunity as an undergrad, I was a massive dork (still am, obviously). My students will need a little more patience and guidance before they believe that this is for real and that this can and will work. 

I also have to remember that I no longer run on a student's clock. Did I honestly expect an excited and intelligent exchange of ideas by 2 PM on Saturday afternoon, the first weekend of the school year? I did, and there is my problem. As the weekend has drawn on, the discussion has gotten more interesting, and more people have posted. I half-expect to wake up tomorrow morning and find that the whole class has been decided while I slept (not likely, but you get the idea). The whole idea of this class is to let the students run the show. Of course the students aren't going to work at the same times I would do my own work and preparation for the course. I need to readjust my expectations to meet their reality. My only fear is that they won't give themselves enough time to actually discuss; they will just post something and forget about it. 

Communication, true honest communication that represents an exchange of ideas, is something that is completely foreign to these students, both outside, but especially inside, the classroom. When I told them that I had commented on each of their blog posts, they stared at me in disbelief. It never occurred to them that one of the great strengths of social media and other technologies is to truly level the playing field between professor and student. I am just one voice in a sea of voices all sounding off on the issues in this course. The work that they produce isn't simply to earn a check mark or credit towards a letter grade at the end of the semester. We're all readjusting our expectations, and these things take time. 

Time, and patience. And, the strength not to lose faith at the first sign of trouble. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fall Burn Out: Uninspired Writing

I'm stuck. I don't have writer's block, but I am suffering from some pretty uninspiring writing. I volunteered to do a guest post on a pop-culture subject that I am (or at least I was) pretty excited about. And then, I sat down to write the thing. The words came, but once I got about three-quarters through, I stopped, re-read it, and hated it. It wasn't bad; it was coherent, followed the rules of standard written English, and communicated what I had intended it to say. But it was so...boring. 

I don't know what to do. It's due tomorrow and I want to send them something. But I also would like them to accept guest posts from me again in the future. Will a boring (seriously, this thing is so dry) post be worse than no post at all? Or, should I just chuck it, start again, and send off whatever I come up with (which, I have to admit, will have to be better than what I've already written). But what if it isn't? What if it's worse?

The timing of this guest post couldn't be worse. After a summer of writing, I am a week into classes starting, meaning I am absolutely exhausted. I had forgotten just how physically and mentally demanding teaching five classes (three preps) can be. Add to that the fact that I am trying to completely and radically reimagine one of my courses, well, it's not the best time for inspiring prose, even about a subject that I am excited to be writing about on a platform I am thrilled to be (potentially) a part of. 

This is rare for me, the inability to write and write halfway decently. This summer, starting in May, I've written 43 posts for this site, 11 posts for Chasing Laferrière, 5 University of Venus posts, 3 academic essays, 2 book proposals (one of them based off of my dissertation, one on my next project), and...I think that's it. This is the most writing I've done and longest sustained writing period I've had since I finished my dissertation days before my first-born showed up. So, maybe I should give myself a break if I'm a little burnt out. 

I have one more day this week of my peer-driven classes, and perhaps after I get that done, I'll be able to take a deep breath and try to write this piece again. But, I don't think I'll be doing much writing this fall (save for here and for UVenus). And, you know what? I'm really, really ok with that. I think I've earned a little break.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: The Challenges of Letting Go of Control

Tomorrow is my first day of crowdsourcing my course, or, perhaps more accurately, working with my students to create a peer-driven course. We had our first class(es) on Monday, where I introduced the concept and we went through the syllabus, such as it was. I assigned two posts from Cathy Davidson's HASTAC blog, as well as the Paulo Freire essay on the banking concept of education included in their reader, in an attempt to inspire and challenge them, to help them see things a little differently. 

First, the good news. One of my classes seemed really excited about the possibilities. I could see them smiling and nodding their heads and wheels starting to turn. One of the students (he took me for both of his English classes last year) has already emailed me about "contract grading" and if we could do something like that in the class (my response, after shrieks of joy, was to say that it was up to the class and if he thought it was something we should do, then make the argument). Tomorrow, I'm going to use a text messaging instant survey service to gage my students' attitudes and see where we stand on some general issues in the course. I am very excited about this. No one has seemed to have dropped my course (yet).

Now, the less good news. My other class showed little enthusiasm and looked more terrified than invigorated by the possibility of deciding the direction of the course. I feel unmoored by this experience; usually, I'd have my first two weeks of classes down cold and I could skate through the first few weeks on my charm and well-practiced lectures and exercises. Now, I'm completely without a rudder. And, apparently, relying on heavy-handed, cliched symbolism. I have a plan, but I don't want to have too much of a plan, in case I fall back on my well-trained habit of lecturing and steering the course where I think or would want it to go. 

And I, too, am terrified. There are few places in my life where I feel completely and totally comfortable; one of those places is the pool, another is in front of the classroom. When I stepped in front of a class for the first time to really teach, it didn't take long for the nerves to disappear and for me to feel like I was right where I was supposed to be, right where I wanted to be. In the same way I had always felt "right" in the pool, I felt "right" while teaching in front of the class. This is a rare feeling for me. I've always felt slightly awkward, slightly out of place. Even in academia, I don't quite fit (that's one of the things that Bad Female Academic has been about). But put me in front of a group of students and tell me to teach them...

Maybe it's because I was in a position of authority and (relative) control; so much of my life growing up felt outside of my control that it was nice to finally be somewhere where people respected me, listened to me, and (dare I say it) had to do what I said. Don't get me wrong, I never took that for granted or took advantage of my position of authority, and I work hard to make sure that I deserve my students' respect. But that power, the feeling of being in control, it's something that I am already worried about missing. 

I know this will make me a better teacher. But will that be as personally fulfilling to me? This is a selfish, selfish question to ask, but I think it's a question we need to ask ourselves as educators because this could be one of the reasons we are so resistant to radically changing how we teach. There is a sense of fulfillment and pride in seeing our students learn and succeed. But, if we're really honest with ourselves, there are other reasons why we teach, more personal, more selfish reasons. Those reasons often remain hidden, unexamined. 

I am giving up a large portion of the control in my class. I am re-learning how to assert my authority in ways that don't involve dictating what my students need to do and when. And it's really, really hard and really, really scary. 

I must be doing something right, then. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bad Female Academic: My Bawdy Body

I'm currently working on an essay about how Nalo Hopkinson uses the (postcolonial, black, queer) body in her short story collection, Skin Folk. The female bodies in particular in her works, both short stories and novels, are very physical; they are pregnant, nursing, menstruating, eating, going though menopause, coming, and they come in all shapes and sizes, lovingly described. This element of her work has always resonated with me. In my research for my current paper, I came across the book Rites of Passage in Postcolonial Women's Writing from Rodopi. One of the essays deals with the difference between "female" and femininity:
If femininity represents the socially acceptable, aesthetic side of 'woman-ness', then femaleness exposes its socially unacceptable, abject underside, the undesirable leftovers of existence. Thus, while abjection deals in the undeniably physical - the messiness of the body's materiality - so aesthetics traditionally shuns the corporeal in favour of the polished, pretty veneer of femininity. (267)
The essay uses Kristeva and goes through the ways women's (particularly girls on the cusp of or going through puberty) are policed. Good girls are sugar, spice, and all things nice (but, not allowed to be seen eating those sweet things). We smell good, we look good, we are clean and fresh.

I've never had a problem with being "female" so to speak. As a tomboy or growing up as "one of the boys," I never felt ashamed of the messiness of being female; it was just something that happened, like the messiness of being a male. Growing up with the boys and their locker room talk just meant, to me, that bodies and bodily functions weren't anything to hide.

Of course, I quickly learned how wrong I was and what the double standard was for me and my female body versus males and their bodies. But being feminine just didn't fit with my personality or my body. I loved to eat, which I could do when I swam almost 30 hours a week. One might be tempted to discuss eating as a substitute for...something I was missing growing up, but for me eating was a simple pleasure that I would not give up simply because it was "un-lady-like" to stuff my face with the boys after a long practice.

Things got especially difficult once I hit puberty and it became clear that I was, despite my best efforts, not one of the boys. I didn't and don't possess a boyish, athletic body. My femaleness became obvious, in fact, it became hard to ignore. It is one thing to be pretty and feminine (think Betty Draper on Mad Men), it is another when your sexuality is on display (think Joan Holloway on Mad Men). I'm a Joan. As the show observes, it is difficult for "Joan" to be taken seriously, and I learned that many, many times over.

Joan Holloway
Betty Draper
I am and will be forever grateful for my best friend at university. She and I shared many similarities (tomboys, Joan-esque figures, former athletes, distaste/discomfort with being "feminine"). We spent five years together as friends and later roommates, figuring out the balance between our female bodies and the feminine expectations of the world around us. I can still remember the times we got "dressed up" when we went out, putting on skirts or dresses and make-up. We were lucky that we grew up in a time when the predominant style was grunge, and thus we could wear baggy cargo pants and oversized plaid shirts, hiding those parts of our messy female selves while still rejecting the feminine rules we didn't want any part of. 

As we got older and moved on, we had to embrace at least some of the rules, particularly if we wanted to partially fit in at our chosen professions (she is a successful communications account manager). But we also figured out that we could be female and feminine, and largely true to ourselves. I miss her immensely because she was someone with whom I could be myself: messy, bawdy, crude, and honest. There was never any pressure to be anything other than who we were, no female pressure to conform, to be more feminine, less female. 

I still love crude, raunchy humor. I have to remember to watch myself, that I don't say too much about bodily functions, because I know that it's not "proper." But I still eat ravenously and unapologetically. And I won't hide the fact that I'm a Joan. I'm still more female than feminine. I hadn't thought of that when choosing the title for this series, but I'm glad I did. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

What am I still doing here? More Thoughts on Now I See It

In the comments of my review of Higher Education?,  capandgown notes:
well said, it's a completely pernicious system in which everyone higher up the pecking order is incentivised to exploit those below. at the end of your piece i was wondering though - why DO you do it? possibly you will say, because you love it. I'm wondering when the tipping point comes : when love of one's job becomes the privilege of those who can afford it?
These are two questions that I have addressed in the past (why I came back to teaching and who will be our future professors). I wrote the former post almost exactly a year ago, when I was about to start teaching again, full-time, after a year of under/unemployment. Many reasons I outlined there haven't changed; I still need the money and there are very few employment opportunities where I am currently living. Why not move? My husband and I decided, very early in our relationship, that if we were going to decide to be together "forever" that we were going to be together. So I am still place-bound and limited, therefore, in my employment opportunities.

But, and Worst Professor Ever is going to be mad at me for saying this, capandgown is right insofar as that I love what it is that I do. I am invigorated and excited to have the opportunity to completely reimagine and reformulate my classes. I have written elsewhere that it is liberating to "only" be an instructor, and I wonder if I would have had the courage or conviction to do what I am doing this semester if I was on the tenure-track. This job still has something to offer me (other than money), and me to it.

I can't imagine myself doing anything else. And, that might be the problem. I've spoken before about my failure of imagination when it comes to how I see and understand my classes. I have the same problem when it comes to my career trajectory. For so long I could only see myself in front of the class, in higher education, eventually moving up the administrative ladder. Of course, that vision has shifted somewhat, but not much. Maybe it's in part because of where I am living, with limited economic opportunities. Maybe it's because I've never been particularly entrepreneurial. Or, and I think Cathy Davidson would agree, the vision I've had for my life has never really been seriously disrupted enough for me to take a step back and really rethink things.

When I say that my job still has something to offer me, I mean that it allows me to go outside of my comfort zone, even if it's only in the relatively safe confines of the classroom, a place where I feel most at home. Maybe these small steps I am taking to change the way I look at the educational experience will help me build up the courage and the vision to look at my own career trajectory differently. Four short months ago, I was lamenting my inability to radically change the way I teach. Now, I'm making it happen.

Eight months from now, maybe I'll see more things just a little bit differently as well. Until then, I'll keep doing what I love and what challenges me. I'm pretty lucky that way.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Now You See It: Get This Book. Right Now.

I finally finished Cathy Davidson's new book Now You See It. It comes out today (August 18th). I am so glad that I decided to adopt this book for my Freshman Writing class on "The Future." I am excited and invigorated by the hopeful and optimistic tone that the book takes. This is a book that everyone should read. 


But, here's a list of the most important people who should read the book, and why.

1) Educators: This book outline where education reform needs to go, and for those educators who are already there (or desperately trying to get there) who face opposition or derision from administrators or parents, this book is your justification. We love "science" and Davidson makes sure that she has enough science to back up her claims about the benefits of things like social media, video games, and collaboration, to convince even the hardest skeptic. Teachers should assign it to students, it should be adopted as the campus-wide book assigned to students and faculty to read and discuss. 

2) Parents: All of that hang-wringing about how we're raising our kids? It ends here. It might depress you to know that your child's school is nowhere near as relevant as it could or should be in order to prepare them for whatever the future economy is going to look like, but at the same time the message (or one of the messages) that I take away is that it's never too late. I'm making it sound like Davidson advocates a truly laissez-faire style of parenting, but what she explains is that those habits that we chide or don't understand in this technological age are not to be feared, but embraced. That, and that we should learn from our children about those things that we don't understand. Not what we want them to tell us, but what they are really saying.

This book is all about getting us to pay attention, to disrupt our perception of the world so we can learn something new and truly change and (to a certain extent) evolve. There was a passage towards the end of the book that brought tears to my eyes:
To believe that the new totally and positively puts an end to the old is a mistaken idea that gets us nowhere, neither out of old habits nor finding new ones better suited to the demands of that which has changed. John Seely Brown calls the apocalyptic view of change endism. Endism overstates what is gone...When I talk to my students about the way we select the worlds we see in our everyday life, they often ask how they can possibly possibly change the way they see. It's easy, I always answer. I'll assign you the task of seeing differently. And you will. That's what learning is.
I needed to read that tonight, staring down the reality of trying to teach my course differently, in order to get the students to see things differently. I'll be writing a more detailed review later, but I wanted a chance to be emotional, a little hyperbolic, and effusive in my praise for this book.

Buy this book. It will change your life because it does exactly what Davidson does with her students. She assigns you the task of seeing things differently in this book. It is a book that demands to be re-read, reflected on, and discussed. I hope you buy it, share it, talk about it, and have the courage to allow it to change you.

And remember, if you're on Twitter talking about it, use the tag #NowUCit.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It is (still) all about the Money: Another Review of Higher Education?

I reviewed the book Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus last year (see here for the final review and a list of the other reviews; it was a six-part series). I recently received the updated paperback version that has some additional material, including a new afterward. Much of my criticisms of the original book still stand, but it hard for me not to recommend a book that says the following:
What do we think should happen in college? We want people to use their minds as they never have before, thinking about the realities and issues that strain their mental powers. They should be urged to be imaginative and inquiring, to take risks without having to worry about their transcripts or alienating their teachers. To quote a friend, colleges should be making their undergraduates more interesting people. Higher education is an ongoing conversation, created for students poised at adulthood, which can and will continue throughout their lives. (6-7)
These are some of the things I aspire to do in my classes, and so I think that while their hearts are in the right place, I still have some issues with the authors' arguments. For one thing, everything that is wrong with higher education is a microcosm (or, if you'd like me to get all literary on you, a synecdoche) of what is wrong with society as a whole at the moment: greed, exponential growth, exploited underclass, bubbles about to burst, blind faith, etc. Our students (and their parents) come in not wanting an education but a job and the security that comes with it. So we provide it. The government keeps providing loans, so we take them, both students and institutions. There is a disconnect between those in administration, those who are professors, and those who are off the tenure-track. Perhaps disconnect is the wrong word: massive craters of empty space is a more apt metaphor.

But I want to get back to a question I asked the first time around: How Much is a Professor Worth? Comparing salaries of professors is really difficult to do; depending on where you live, what you study, and the nature of the institution, salaries will vary wildly. So to celebrate the professor living in rural Oregon and their (comparatively) paltry salaries is a bit unfair to those professors who have to try and make a living in New York City, San Francisco, Boston, or any other high-priced center. But it also doesn't take into consideration the economic realities of professors today.

The authors rightly call for the end of adjunct exploitation, as well as the end of student loans as we know them. But, unfortunately, an entire generation of PhDs (and, one would think, the next generation coming through the ranks) have been punished economically by this system. Not only are we facing our loans (and the accrued interest), but we are also facing years of private debt accumulated over the years of low-paying adjunct work. To tell a new professor, you aren't worth it, is a further insult, not to mention ignoring the very real fact that the (apparently) inflated salary is not enough to meet the student loan demands, career demands, and life demands.

We are not coming from schools where tuition could once be easily financed through summer jobs, nor from generous graduate programs that allowed you to live and work on your PhD. And most of us aren't coming from economic circumstances where we have been supported financially by family. We come drowning in debt. And, as inflated as the salaries seem to the outside world, I'd like to introduce them to how much red ink is also peeking from behind.

I write this piece from experience. We are (thankfully, gratefully) a two-income household, both in higher education. My husband has a tenure-track position, while I am an instructor. Our combined salaries are really great-looking on paper. And yet, monthly, we wonder how we are going to make our student loan payments, our credit card payments, pay for our kids' preschool, and have anything left over for savings. If something were to happen to one of us, like so many other families, we'd have nothing to fall back on, no cushion to catch us.

You might be tempted to throw an accusation at us that we lived beyond our means, and that this is all our own fault, but we believed in the myth of meritocracy and that all would be well once the Boomers retired. Student loans are the gateway drug to credit card debt as grad students: we take on these debt because we have been told over and over that it is "worth it" and will be rewarded with the job of our dreams at the end of it.

The authors call on all of us to see ourselves as public servants. And that's fine, but more and more of the best and the brightest are leaving higher education because they can't afford not to. Until the whole system is changed, this is a reality that just isn't going to go away; it's only going to get worse.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Shameless Self-Promotion

My blog recently hit 50,000 pageviews:
And, I accumulated over 2,000 followers on Twitter:

Some of my followers on Twitter asked me how I got to these benchmarks, and I have one answer: Shameless Self-Promotion. Good Female Academics are mild and quiet and work away at their jobs, hoping to get noticed, but well aware that any attempt at blowing their own horn will be met with derision and dismissal. Bad Female Academics put themselves out there. Repeatedly and persistently.

Don't believe me? Read the comments on this recent post on self-promotion for women in academia or this recent piece in the Times of Higher Education on self-promotion. It is unseemly and beneath academics to promote themselves in such a fashion, and even more so for a woman in academia. We might be mistaken as ambitious or loud. Or self-confident.

When I was about 12 or 13, I remember standing in the school's bathroom with my best friend as she ran through the list of things she wanted to change about herself. Then she asked me what I wanted to change about myself, the things I didn't like. I shrugged my shoulders and said that there wasn't anything I wanted to change. She looked at me and spat out, "Well, that's awfully arrogant, isn't it?" 

This is the message we're sent as girls and as women. To believe in ourselves is arrogant, unfounded, untrue. It takes an immense amount of confidence to put yourself out there, to promote yourself, to tweet your writing, to submit your name and your work for judgement and recognition. I believe that my work and my writing is good enough, maybe even great. And if it's rejected, I take the critique, integrate it, and send it out again. I blog as myself because if I want the recognition and respect, it has to be as myself.

My advice for reaching these milestones is just simply to take chances, to put yourself out there. Follow those people who you admire, engage them in conversation, tweet and retweet your work and theirs. Bring it their attention. Post your work in the comments of relevant blogs or articles. Look for both traditional and non-traditional opportunities, from going to conference in your field to submitting more traditional op-eds to stuff that really out there (I'm applying to SXSW this year!).

To use an absolutely sexist and negative term, be willing to whore yourself. How is that for a loaded expression when it comes to self-promotion?

Above all, be patient and be persistent. Be relevant and be accessible. Be open and have thick skin. Don't give up. Find a supportive network of people who will push you and encourage you and be honest with you. But above all, don't let that voice inside of you win.

It's my birthday today (August 14th). In the spirit of honestly, I'm 34. My world in nowhere near where I thought it would be, but I wouldn't change it for anything. I took a lot of chances, none of them I regret. I put myself out there and I don't regret it at all. I want to thank all of your for helping me be the best Bad Female Academic I can be.

No, a better one. Because shameless self-promotion isn't about just you; it's about being better because of the people you've reached.  

Friday, August 12, 2011

In-Class Distractions Are Nothing New

Or, why you should allow your students to have their phones, laptops, and whatever else they want in class.

(This post originally appeared on So Educated.)

A student who is unengaged will find something better to do if they have technology in front of them or not. When I was in school, I wrote. I wrote notes to my friends, I wrote poetry, I wrote love letters to the object of my affection that I never gave them, I wrote short stories, I wrote anything and everything except what the teacher was saying. I had other friends who drew. Still others stared out the window and daydreamed.

We all clearly recognize that banning pens, pencils, and paper in the classroom isn't a good idea (or, maybe it is - what if the students couldn't do anything except sit and listen, or the teacher couldn't just rely on the students to "take notes" in order to learn). And yet, just because a student is writing (or looks like they are writing) doesn't mean they are paying attention. In the same way, just because the student doesn't look like they're taking notes doesn't mean they aren't paying attention.

Read this about Maria Klawe, the President of Harvey Mudd College in California:
If one walked by an all-day meeting in progress and just spotted Klawe, it might appear to be a class in watercolor painting. Only a closer room scan would reveal that Klawe is the lone paintbrush-in-hand participant. Besides any meeting notes, surrounding her are some brushes, paint tubes, a small mixing tray, and a watercolor block.
"I'm a better participant when I'm painting," she contends. "I'm listening to everything but it keeps me quieter. Usually in a meeting I want to say something about everything. If I'm painting, it brings me down to a much more normal level." Those who have been in both types of meetings with her have agreed. 
What if the student who doesn't appear to be paying attention is actually listening more effectively because they are also doing something with their hands?

There is something to be said about quiet, intense focus on one single task. But is sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture the best way to encourage this type of engagement in students? There has been a great deal of work done recently showing that cell phones can be a very effective tool in actively engaging students in the classroom, helping them stay focused. In the writing classes that I teach, it would be ideal (both financially and environmentally) for all of my students to have their laptops or netbooks in order to be able to immediately and actively edit their writing, share their work, and engage in research activities. And for me, the benefit of these devices in the classroom far outweigh the reality that the students will probably also be doing something else instead.

It's the same reason I don't ban pens and paper in my classroom, either.

Postscript: There are some legitimate arguments against laptops in the classroom (see here), but I think, especially as I read Cathy Davidson's new book, that the trick is to actively engage students using their laptops. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Time for a Change: Integrating Peer-Driven Learning

After a summer of research (four articles submitted, two book proposals ready to go), I've turned my attention back to preparing to teach. And this year, I'm finally putting my money where my mouth is; I'm making my 200-level Writing II class entirely peer-driven, student-driven, and crowdsourced (and by crowd, I mean the class). I've taken my inspiration from the great Cathy Davidson and we will spend the first four week of the course shaping the final thirteen. 

Why have I done this? I think my students are capable and should be encouraged to take ownership of their educations, as well as learn to work collectively. I also think that it's about time that I learn, I mean really learn, what it is that they know and react accordingly, rather than assuming up front and correcting my teaching. 

Why I am only doing this in my 200-level class? Mostly because these are student who (in theory) have already learned the "basics" in their 100-level Freshman Writing class. I am hoping that the extra experience will help them feel more comfortable with the arrangement. I also hope that this means we can focus on what we are writing about versus how we are supposed to write about it.

If you would like to see my syllabus and offer comments, please do so below, rather than directly in the document. Please remember that this is a first draft of the document and I will be continually refining it and reworking it right up until the semester starts on the 19th. I hope to receive some good feedback here so that this class is as successful as possible.

I am also going to be using Cathy Davidson's new book Now You See It, which is excellent (more detailed review to come) in my 100-level class, where the theme will "The Future." After we read the book (which will take up about the first third to half of the semester), I will turn the class over to the students and we will read/watch/write works of their choosing based on the theme. At least, that's the plan. 

I have to say, I am at once terrified and exhilarated. I am looking forward to the challenge and I am optimistic that this will work. But I am also terrified that it will fail horribly, either due to my inability to let go or my students' unwillingness to break free of the way they have been conditioned to learn throughout their educations. I guess I have a little less than two week to chicken out and revert back to my usual dictatorial style. 

Please feel free to offer words of encouragement in either direction.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Not Interested in Passing

(See what I did there? That's the second post in a row where I've come up with a clever title with two possible meanings, both in the traditional academic sense and in the socio-economic sense. Anyone? Anyone? Alright, I'll get on with it.)

When Dr. Crazy was talking about gender and class, she brought up the concept of "passing", or being able to move up and fit into a different socio-economic class. Women, especially, have been practicing this since, well, since there were marked differences between different groups of people implying an hierarchy.* I think if this Bad Female Academic series has shown anything, it's that I am not very good at passing myself off as a "traditional" academic.

But writing this series has forced me to look back at my personal history both inside and outside academia, and I've come to the conclusion that I have never really been interested in passing, and in fact now seem to be actively seeking out situations where it would be impossible for me to pass. 

Let me explain, and bear with me if we take a short voyage into my non-academic past.

In elementary school, I was the only girl in my class who didn't at least try to figure skate or do ballet. This was an offense punishable by being mean-girled for all of elementary school. I swam. I never hid the fact that I swam, nor was I interested in giving up swimming in order to "fit in." In high school, too, I wore my hideous swimming jacket as a badge of pride, marking my difference from the rest of the group. It was also in high school when my parents got divorced and I was suddenly thrust into a different economic reality, a reality that was much different from that of my friends. Swimming, while a welcome escape for me, was also a place where I didn't quite fit in, as I was one of the youngest and only girls. 

After a particularly difficult two years at a private CEGEP, where I decided that I couldn't join the socio-economic elite I was going to school with, nor did I have any desire to beat them, so I wore sweatpants for two years, I left to go to a French university. I knew I wouldn't, couldn't pass as a French person, but I didn't care. The impossibility of passing was liberating. 

After my PhD (where I probably tried too hard to pass, failed miserably, and was miserable), after getting married, after adjuncting while pregnant, I got my tenure-track job. At an HBCU. Once again, while pregnant. There was no hope of passing, in fact it would have been insulting and ignorant to even try. But I liked that. I had realized that letting go of the pressure, the desire, the desperation, to be something I wasn't, I learned more, was more open, and a better teacher. I wasn't wrapped up in whatever I needed or thought I needed to do, so I could focus on what my students needed me to be. 

Think about that for a second. If we just stopped worrying so much about what our colleagues or administrators or "the elite" want us to be, maybe we can be better teachers and researcher, actually attuned to what they need from us, and what we need from ourselves. 

Now, I am an instructor in the South. My accent marks me as different. And that's perfectly fine by me. Maybe by being myself, I can teach my students (and my children) that it's ok to be yourself and to be different. 

*I don't use the term "passing" without realizing that it is a problematic term; I've worked at an HBCU and I study Black writers, so I am well aware of the history of "passing" for African-Americans in the US. And even the fact that I have the choice to be able to pass marks me as being a more privilege position. And my apparent rejection of that privilege is also not unproblematic. I don't see what I do as "slumming it" but instead a conscious effort to do things differently. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

There are no words today, only action

I was all set to write a post about how we remain obsessed with the Ivies and those top, elite colleges, to our own detriment. And I'm not just talking about how families will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get little Jimmy and Suzy into Yale or Duke, but how we, in academia and the media, keep pushing these colleges as the standard, for better or for worse. Three items:
Nothing from a regional state school (or community college). Nothing from a PhD from a less than elite program. Nothing about the variety of experiences that are found in higher education, from how English is taught to the experience of the workforce therein. 

And then, I read about an adjunct professor in community college who killed himself. 71 years old, history of depression, and all I can think is, did he not get help because he didn't have health insurance? And I remember reading about another adjunct who worked through his cancer treatments because he couldn't afford not to. He passed away from the cancer (sorry, no link; I saw it on facebook, in a private note, and I don't have permission to share). And how some are trying to create an Adjunct Emergency Fund. And. And. And. And.

So, I'm sorry if your experience at Brown and with elite MBA students isn't all that you imagined it would be; most of us are teaching our "mediocre" and "non-elite" students how to write quite well, thank you very much. And, I'm sorry I'm not the kind of role model you're looking for in English. Or, maybe I am, but you can't be bothered to meet me. Finally, I'm so, so happy that you're academic fairy tale has come true. Doesn't mean that it has for most people.

Ivory tower, indeed. 

For the rest of us, it's real life, and it's about time others started realizing that. Although, most people reading this blog already do realize it. Preaching to the choir. Now, it's up to us to actually DO something about it. I wrote this. I'll keep writing this. 

I need to figure out what else it is I can do. Because these words that I write, while reaching an audience, can only do so much. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Academic Elite: Who Are These People, Really?

So, class has been on everyone's brain lately. Not the kind of class that is about to start in less then three weeks (I really need to get on that), but the kind of class that involves money, social mobility, and how to properly "fit" into higher education. I want to start with a little bit of a roundup of recent posts that are either explicitly or implicitly about class issues. If I'm missing any, please let us all know in the comment. 

Obviously, this isn't all that has been written on class issues in higher education, but these seem to have all come to head, right now, online and in real life, at least for me. Thinking about my graduate and teaching career, I have one question that nags at me:

Who in the heck are these people who are forcing and enforcing a very clear and distinct set of class values on us? Seriously? Who are they?

Because it's not the majority of people that I've met on my path to where I am right now. Maybe it's because I've never attended an "elite" institution, either as a student or a professor. Maybe it's because I self-selected the people I hang around with, naturally drawn to those with similar backgrounds to my own (my husband, for example, who is also an academic, is from the same socio-economic background as I am). Or maybe, like so much of what we believe about higher education, it's all just a massive ruse that we've been blindly perpetuating.

I still remember being put in my place when I was an MA student by one of my professors. I was commenting on a novel we were reading, saying that it was written for "them" and not for ordinary people (or something like that). She took great offense to that, outlining all of the ways she was not one of them, in terms of her background. It was the first time I really took a step back and looked at the people in front of me and around me. Now, we did have a professor who was a stereotypical professor, in terms of both his class and attitude, but it was only one. And, I don't remember one of my peers in the program who came from anything higher than lower-middle-class.

It was the same for my PhD. There was, again, one professor who was clearly "one of those professors" (he came from a very wealthy and influential family, apparently, and my colleague of mine was horrified when I revealed, no, sorry, never heard of them), but the rest of the professors were largely from working-class and immigrant families, as were my colleagues in the program. I've taught at four different universities in two countries and three states, and I have to say that the majority of my colleagues come form backgrounds similar to my own.

So why then does this obsession with class markers persist? Did we all get into higher education so we could be snobs? Really? And why do we keep requiring that aspiring academics perform tasks that we know they can't afford? Go to conferences, work for peanuts, receive little institutional support both before and after the tenure-track job. Take on more and more debt, shop at the right stores, live in the right neighborhood, go to the right shows, the right conferences, etc.

We're suffering in semi-silence. I can't believe that, despite all of these voices speaking out, we can't change higher education, if not structurally, then at least culturally. I refuse to meet certain cultural markers. I'm not good at "passing" (as Dr. Crazy writes about) and, judging by the comments and traffic my blog post has received, I'm not the only one who is either incapable, unwilling, or just plain burnt out about the whole thing.

I am serious, though. Where is this pressure coming from? Because, from where I'm sitting, there are more of "us" than there are of "them."

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