Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

Resolutions for 2010:
  • To write something on current projects every working day, even if it's just for a little while.
  • To grade papers right away. It's not as though they're marinating in that bookbag and will be more flavorful for the extra time.
  • To dress a little less in MLA black casual and a little more in fashion fabulous. Picture at right? Totally my teaching outfit for May.
  • To say this to myself when something (or someone) irritating comes along, sends me an irritating email, or otherwise disturbs a happy and uneventful day: "Do you really care that much, and is a response likely to change anything? Let it go."
Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

NY Times: Books You Can Live Without

It's that time of year again, when you clean out your bookshelves in preparation for the new year, (or maybe you just want to forestall anyone submitting your name for future episodes of Clean House or Hoarders).

"Books You Can Live Without" asks several famous writers how they decided to clear out their libraries. Shorter version: (1) books I'm never going to read again; (2) outdated reference books; (3) books I'm tired of pretending that I'm going to read some day.

In a fit of cleaning not long ago, I did a version of this and got rid of a bunch of books, though not without a few pangs. Some I took to the used bookstore to be traded in for store credit (so I can buy more books, of course!) and some I took to Goodwill. Some, sadly, I couldn't even give away: I had to leave copies of old textbooks in the "Free" bin at the bookstore. I usually put them out on the Free Books table on campus, but I wasn't on campus this semester.

I needed to think about each book, but some were easier to chuck than others.
  • Fodor's London 1992, from my in-laws' trip there? Other old reference books? Gone immediately.
  • 10+ years of a print run of a journal now online? Gone.
  • A couple of books of highly elaborate and stylishly difficult postmodern contemporary fiction from 10+ years ago that I bought from the bargain bin, never got around to reading, and have never heard about since? Gone to the bookseller's. Apparently they were neither pleasurable enough to read nor absorbing enough in a literary sense to make the effort of reading them worthwhile. Who am I kidding? If I need to read them--well, that's what libraries are for.
  • Some ancient books of criticism--you know, the kind that talk appreciatively and in general terms about "innate female modesty and reticence" and "robust nature imagery"--that I picked up from a Free Books shelf when some equally ancient professors were retiring--gone.
  • The one book I ever bought in the How I Went to Tuscany, Fixed Up an Old House, and Learned about Life from the Quaint Italians series or whatever that genre of book is called. I bought it in an airport one time but even a long plane ride couldn't make me get through it. This one--gone without a backward glance. Let's just say I never bought another book about privileged white women Finding Themselves while Learning Life's Heartwarming Truths from the Simple, Close-to-the-Earth People of Another Culture.*
But even though they might not pass the "will you read it again in 100 years test," I kept a lot of books. What are your criteria for getting rid of books, assuming that you have to get rid of some?

*[In case it isn't obvious, I think the whole idea is highly insulting to other cultures.]

Monday, December 28, 2009

More random bullets, or denial isn't just a river in Egypt

  • I'm clinging desperately to a few remaining sabbatical days (think: by my fingernails while hanging off a cliff over an abyss that is the beginning of the new semester).
  • At some point, the syllabus for the new course I've never taught before has to stop being like a jigsaw puzzle and become like a mosaic. I have to stop moving the pieces of the course around and glue them down so that the syllabus can be copied.
  • In "Hybrid Education 2.0" over at IHE, Candace Thille of the Open Learning Initiative takes a few more swipes at what she sees as the dead horse/shibboleth of the lecture-only format. Apparently Carnegie Mellon has a new shiny way of teaching statistics and logic online (funded by Gate$$ fund$$) with an in-person assist from professors discussing the material according to student needs. The online logic course has only a "cursory level of instructor contact," though, and the instructors assigned to that are "glorified graders." What I want to know isn't being tested thus far: if a student takes Mr. Roboto's section of online logic in which choices are circumscribed, is he or she going to have the advanced (creative) thinking skills necessary for success in upper-division courses?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Random bullets of the season

  • Getting a reprieve of two weeks on that piece of writing--now that's the holiday spirit. Thanks, editor!
  • Yes, there are still some recommendation letters to be written. Aren't there always?
  • Presents sent to the relatives--check. Cookies made and sent to relatives--check.
  • I'm not going to the Big Conference this year, since I went to the other Big Conference in my discipline earlier this fall. To everyone who's going--enjoy MLA!
  • Signs that the new semester may be approaching: a dream in which I show up at two different committee meetings, only to be told "you're not on this committee." Whew, I think--and then realize that it's time to meet my students for a new course, the one I haven't prepped at all.
  • I read the MLA's new and grim report about the future of jobs but am not going to link to it, since everyone else has, but I will link to this spoof on the 10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time (h/t Old is the New New).
Happy holidays, everyone!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Kate Chopin on writing schedules

Some wise man has promulgated an eleventh commandment, "Thou shalt not preach," which, interpreted, means, "Thou shalt not instruct thy neighbor as to what he should do." But the Preacher is always with us. Said one to me: "Thou shalt parcel off thy day into mathematical sections. So many hours shalt thou abandon thyself to thought, so many to writing; a certain number shalt thou devote to household duties, to social enjoyment, to ministering to thy afflicted fellow creatures." I listened to the voice of the Preacher, and the result was stagnation all along the line of "hours" and unspeakable bitterness of spirit. In brutal revolt I turned to and played solitaire during my "thinking hour," and whist when I should have been ministering to the afflicted. I scribbled a little during my "social enjoyment" period, and shattered the "household duties" into fragments of every conceivable fraction of time, with which I besprinkled the entire day as from a pepper-box. In this way I succeeded in reestablishing the harmonious discord and confusion which had surrounded me before I listened to the voice, and which seems necessary to my physical and mental well-being.

from "In the Confidence of a Story-Writer"

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Two sides of online teaching

From Inside Higher Ed and Clio Bluestocking. Let's call them "ideal" and "reality."

From Inside Higher Ed:
“Most of the professors who teach at the university level have had no experience with pedagogy or instruction in general,” says Janet Buckenmeyer, chair of the instructional technology master’s program at Calumet. “They’re content experts, not teaching experts." . . . Since most professors have spent their lives holding forth from the front of a lecture hall, many have not had to engineer their lesson plans with the sort of rigor required of a well-designed online course, Buckenmeyer says.
Puh-leeze. Not again. Most professors "holding forth in front of a lecture classroom" without a clue about teaching? Can't they let this monster die, along with the "teaches with yellowing notes from 1963" deadwood professor? They're like Bigfoot: everyone has heard of him, but nobody's actually seen him. There may be some, but this is more a 30-years-ago situation than the case today, isn't it?

Here's what I'd like to tell the "education consultant": While university faculty may not have taken education classes, most of them have been taught or have learned to teach well through observation, mentoring, talking with colleagues, and, well, the kinds of critical thinking that we apply to research.

Think about it. No one wants to fail at teaching, and it'd be a rare person indeed who wouldn't spend massive amounts of time figuring out how to succeed--that is, how to engage the students, construct good assignments, and so on. We're eager to find out different ways to do things, different techniques, and different assignments. We look at what's worked for online and traditional courses and reverse-engineer them so that we have the principles of a successful course as we design our own. We want to improve.

We know already that we need to have a sense of the goals for the class and what our students need to do to attain them. We also know to let them know what those goals are and what our expectations for them will be.

What I haven't liked about my dealings with "educational consultants" is this: they have a one best way to do everything (sorry, but that's my experience), and even if you have a better way, they don't want to hear it. Blackboard is the One Best Way. Using a rubric defined by them is the One Best Way. Having a pointless splash page with nothing but the course title instead of announcements on the main page is the One Best Way to set up Blackboard. And they're patronizing about it, too, as they inform you about how wrong you are--again, your mileage may vary.

So I read with interest Clio Bluestocking's run-in with a consultant who wants all the online sections of a course to be identical and--here's the thing--unchanging, with a "designing instructor" and lowly underlings non-designing instructors who can grade but not change anything about the course:
Maybe I'm being unfair. The non-designing instructors CAN change things, they just have to go to the designing instructor. The designing instructor then calls a meeting of the "team." The team then debates the change. Then, if the change is accepted, everyone must adopt the change. A year later.
In short, we are not stupid. We want to be good at what we do, and, guess what? many of us are. Please do us the courtesy of believing that we know a thing or two when we seek your advice instead of telling us that we are mere "content experts" and not "teaching experts." For what it's worth, I don't think you can be one without the other.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Robert Caro on writing

Apparently I can't get enough of the whole "writers on writing" thing, so here are Robert Caro's thoughts from this month's Esquire (in the "What I've Learned" series). I haven't read his Robert Moses bio or Master of the Senate but I really liked The Path to Power.

  • Always type out your interviews before you go to bed, so you remember the expressions.
  • Research is fun. Writing is hard.
  • It's so easy to fool yourself into thinking that you're working hard. It's so easy not to write. So you use any trick you can to make yourself know there's work to be done. That's why I wear a jacket and tie when I sit down to write.
  • Every time one of my books comes out, profiles mention that I write on a typewriter that hasn't been manufactured in twenty-five years. And people send me their old Smith-Corona 210's for free. I used to have seventeen spares to cannibalize the parts. I'm down to eleven.
  • Hemingway said, "Always quit for the day when you know what the next sentence is going to be." I do that.
  • There is no bullshit with books. What's on the page is what's on the page. It's either good enough to last or it's not.
  • I live near Columbia, and I see a lot of college students. My best moment was seeing one of these kids carrying Master of the Senate. I could never ask him if he liked it. What if he said "Mehhh, it's not so great. I have to read it for class"? That would kill me. So I never do that.
  • Monday, December 07, 2009

    Winding down

    As this sabbatical winds down, I'm doing two things:

    1. Obsessively checking the enrollment stats for next semester's courses. Here's an academic conundrum: I (and we, really) want the courses to fill, because, like Sally Field, I want reassurance that "they like me! They really like me!"--conveniently ignoring that what they like, really like, may be a noon class or whatever fits into their schedules. Yet more students = more grading authentic assessment and hours of time devoted to it next semester. But I still can't stop checking the stock market of enrollment, as someone called it a few years back.

    2. Frantically trying to get some more writing done before it ends while realizing how woefully short I've fallen from the rosy sabbatical plan I laid out.

    What the sabbatical has given me more time to do is harder to measure than a simple word count. It's allowed me to read more, including primary texts, than I've been able to do in years, and it has allowed me to conceptualize the work I'm doing in a different way.

    Here's an analogy from, you guessed it, Mad Men. In rewatching Season One, I noticed that amid all the retro flash that had the critics agog, every time the copywriters brought something to Don Draper (the creative director, for those who aren't MM fans), he'd ask them two questions about the product before pouring himself a drink. The first one was "What are the features?" and the second one was "What is the benefit?" The copy they produced had to make sense in terms of both of those questions.

    As we all know from the Microsoft jokes ("It's a feature, not a bug!"), they're not the same thing. The first part, I think, appeals to the "ooh, shiny!" brain area, but the second one, the benefit, is the real reason for creating the product in the first place--or should be. One of the things that the sabbatical has let me do is to think more seriously about that second question in relation to the project I'm working on: not just "how is it different?" but "what is the benefit in thinking about the entire concept in this way?" I had ideas about this before, of course--no one writes without a purpose--but I've been able to think about it in more different ways, and, I hope, more creative ways that I'd done before. And although the report I write after I get back from sabbatical won't mention Don Draper or indeed this kind of thinking, it's one of the most valuable things that the sabbatical has given me.

    Thursday, December 03, 2009

    Slowcoach writing

    I think I first heard the term "slowcoach," as in "Slowcoach McClellan," in the sonorous tones of David McCullough. At any rate, I think I'm going to adopt it as a cautionary epithet.

    Tenured Radical, a blogger I admire, said something in passing this week a couple of weeks ago that made me think:
    But I should think that participation in group blogs that serve a field or a discipline should be taken into account as much as book reviews or encyclopedia entries, which everyone lists in endless, boring detail on their vitae as if they took more than a day to write. [and in the comments, in response to someone who challenged that timeframe] Two days. And seriously, why would they ask you for the entry unless you were an expert in that field?
    I agree entirely with her main point, but the "one day" or even "two day" timeframe gave me pause. That pause was filled with writing speed envy.

    Book reviews--okay, yes, those can be done quickly. Blog posts--nobody drafts those ahead of time, do they? Reports? Piece of cake. I can churn out administrativese at the speed of light.

    But encyclopedia articles, even when I know the material, take time (at least at a slowcoach writing speed), which is why I've been turning them down lately. Here's what goes through my head with every single sentence:

    1. Is it true? Am I misrepresenting the subject or the text in some way?
    2. Is it useful? Is there a better example that I could use?
    3. Is it new? Or am I just unconsciously plagiarizing myself or someone else?
    4. Does it explain the concept efficiently and (let's hope) gracefully?
    5. Does it relate to the sentences around it?
    6. Does it hit the right balance of detail to generality?

    Most of these questions apply to regular scholarly writing as well, which is why it's possible to wrestle with writing and rewriting a paragraph for an entire four-hour period and still not be entirely satisfied. But it's good to have comparisons of how it could be done if I were more efficient. If I don't speed up, someone's going to remove me from the Peninsular Campaign.