Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Student evaluations: unrequited love?

I'm not always a fan of Stanley Fish's columns in the New York Times, but his recent ones on student evaluations are interesting:
I respect students as persons who deserve to be treated with courtesy, which means, minimally, that they should not be harassed or singled out for ridicule or graded up or down on the basis of gender, ethnic, racial or religious affiliation, or sexual orientation. But this courtesy and respect does not extend to their ideas, which may or may not be given a hearing depending on the instructor’s preferred teaching style, and which may be summarily dismissed if they are judged to be beside the pedagogical point. Treat them as human beings with inherent dignity by all means; but don’t treat them as sages before the fact.
While I don't agree that we can summarily dismiss their ideas--with proper discussion, mighty oaks of good ideas can grow out of little acorns of bad ones--he has a point.

Fish quotes a lot of commenters as saying that they feel hurt if they get bad evaluations. That's something that we've all experienced--forgetting the 30 good evaluations and remembering in vivid detail the one from the student who obviously hated you. Why do we beat ourselves up about this (besides the issues of hiring and promotion)?

I think Dorothy Parker had it right in "Two-Volume Novel" when she talked about unrequited love:

The sun's gone dim, and
The moon's turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn't love back.

Now, the sun doesn't necessarily go dim, but we put a lot of ourselves into those courses and those students, so when they don't love us back, it hurts.

I looked at my course evals for spring recently, and while they were good overall, there were a couple of students who were sort of "eh--who cares? It was okay, I guess" about the course (and me). Some of you may remember the course on flying dinosaurs that I was so excited about teaching. I had poured all kinds of energy and time into that course, neglecting my writing in favor of lavishing attention on pedagogy and interesting assignments. While some really liked it ("fantastic course"), a few comments were along the lines of "all the flying dinosaurs sucked."

Now, while I understand intellectually that the comment speaks for itself (then why did he take the course, which was conspicuously titled "Flying Dinosaurs"?), emotionally, it feels as though I loved the course and students and they--or one, really--didn't love me back, even though I've been teaching for long enough to know not to take it personally. For them, it was just another course; for me, it was a project in which I'd invested a lot of time and effort.

What to do? Disengage from your courses and students so that you have no investment in them? Can you really do that and be an effective teacher? Or get cynical (like "Dr. Bob," one of the commenters Fish discusses) and cater to an entertainment mindset, handing out A grades like M&Ms?

Or maybe this: next fall, scroll back over to this post and think twice before responding at length to every assignment or spending hours over preparing a single class.

Or not.

What do you do?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Repeated lessons from the archives

I'm calling these repeated lessons because they seem to occur to me anew every time I get to an archive.
  • When I'm reading letters, I'm struck every time not only by the graceful way in which the letter writers express themselves (even when they're obviously annoyed) but also by how much of the language of the standard forms (congratulations, thanks, condolences) seems to be a lost art. It makes me want to seize my fountain pen and go forth and write--if only there were anyone who wouldn't think I'd taken leave of my senses to do so.
  • It's surprising, too, how much the pattern of a person's handwriting lodges itself in your brain, so you can pick it out immediately even if you're scrolling slowly through microfilm.
  • Along with pattern recognition, there's something else that happens: sometimes a phrase or word will puzzle me because of the handwriting, and I'll type two different possibilities for the transcription. If I look away or look at something else for a minute, though, and then look back--boom! The actual meaning of the phrase comes through as clearly as though it were typed.
  • The more I read, the more I start to feel as though archives of letters are a vast text in themselves but that I can only find out the narratives of the characters and their relationships if I keep reading and reading. If Mr. F is a mutual acquaintance of Miss Y and Mrs. Z, I can play "guess the context" better with every letter that I read.
  • It does no good to rant silently to myself about conventions of dating letters that range from "Saturday" to "July 17" with no hint of a year in sight. Sometimes the year is clear from the context (mentioning an event, a dinner,a visit, or a work in progress) and sometimes from the paper or handwriting. Still, when I find a correspondent who puts an actual year on the letter, I applaud. And I have it easy, comparatively speaking. I can't even imagine what you medievalists and early modern scholars go through between the handwriting, the abbreviations, and the various orthographic and language barriers.
  • When I'm working in an archive, I don't want to stop, or eat, or go home. There's always just one more source, isn't there?

    (I'm trying a new template, but that's not a lesson from the archive.)
  • Sunday, June 27, 2010

    Reentering blogland

    This feels like a strange place after nearly three weeks. Actually, since I haven't visited this blog or any other in that time, it may be more accurate to say that the blog isn't a strange place but that I am strange in it.

    The Land of No Internets was its usual nineteenth-century self, even though I didn't spend as much time there as usual. What did I do there (besides a lot of cooking)?
  • I read. It was kind of surreal catching up on my reading of people like Lisa Gitelman and N. Katherine Hayles in a place where the electronic world felt far away.
  • I watched the wild geese and the foxes. The goslings were about half-grown at this time of the year, and they'd eat while the adults stood guard. The foxes watched them but didn't chase them.
  • I paddled the kayak for miles up and down the shore, looking at birds, rocks, trees, sailboats, old houses, and new houses built to look like old houses.

  • Time to reenter the world, I guess.

    Monday, June 07, 2010

    Slow blogging for a while

    I will be in the Land of No Internets for a while, so posting will be spotty. The Land of No Internets is a place where I spend a lot of time cooking, baking, washing dishes, filling the washer with water from buckets, and other nineteenth-century pursuits.

    Also on the agenda: watching the rain and reading. Lots of reading.

    Thursday, June 03, 2010

    Marc Nouri 's warning to ambitious, pathetic, "lonely and isolated" academics going up for full professor

    Over at Inside Higher Ed, Marc Nouri writes about "premature promotion". As best I can tell, being promoted to full professor means "you have demonstrated all the necessary qualifications," which would mean "not premature" to most university administrations. (See Historiann's post on this, too.)

    But Nouri draws a distinction between being technically eligible and some transcendent state that embodies Full Professorhood or Professorliness or The Force or something:
    That honor, in a more intrinsic and meaningful sense, is reserved for those who take a different path, a more patient, methodical and dedicated path, driven by a deep desire to be something really special as a scholar and as a member of his or her university community.

    This kind of reminds me of the old academic system, borrowed from British universities, in which it was thought presumptuous to think about publishing a book until you had 20-30 years of teaching and learning about your subject under your belt. I even knew a few graduate students who believed this back in the olden days; they thought it was presumptuous and careerist to submit an abstract for a conference, let alone try to publish something, and would ridicule mercilessly anyone who did anything so crass. Those who tried to "professionalize" were, in their sights, no better than grade-grubbing students.

    A few more of Nouri's points:

    1. I don't know why he pegs those who go up for full when they're allowed to by their departments as "eager early birds . . . who are lonely and isolated, and for very good reason. No one likes them and their attitude," as though all they're lacking is a three-name moniker and a rifle to be the next serial killer.

    2. Nouri says that you ought to be "A NAME!" or the go-to person in your field before you have the chutzpah to go up for full. What have studies consistently shown about male and female faculty and their respective willingness to (1) put themselves forward, (2) negotiate hard for raises, and (3) do what it takes to catch the positive attention of the powers that be?

    3. Not to get on my pink glitter gender horse again, but while all that university service and that "patient, methodical path" may sound good for the Platonic ideal of the full professor, the way most people have to get there is through research as well as service. Gosh, do we know anyone in the university who's likely to be stuck at associate level through pursuing the "patient, methodical path" of unacknowledged service? Anyone?


    Wednesday, June 02, 2010

    Writing as habit

    I shouldn't even be posting this, but I really need the writing inspiration.

    From Rachel Toor's "The Habit of Writing" at the Chronicle:
    "I only write when I am inspired," Faulkner apparently said, and added, "Fortunately, I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning." Most of them say that you need to take writing seriously, to treat it like a job.

    That's probably good advice. It just doesn't work for me. For me writing has become less a job than a habit.

    A friend who wanted to start running said that he'd heard it takes three months to form a habit. I don't know whether that's true. It sounds both facile and pseudoscientific. But over the years, I seem to have performed a trick of mind, managing to convince myself that getting up every day and going someplace to write was as normal as brushing my teeth, making my bed, or watching reruns of House. Whatever psychological move I used, it seems to have been successful.

    And in the comments, a quotation from Philip Glass:
    In my student days I knew a lot of composers, many of them more talented than myself. But I learned one thing most of them did not: good work habits. When I was still a teenager, I forced myself to write music during a set period every morning, and I also forced myself to stop at one in the afternoon. I refused to take down musical ideas at other hours, even when they came to me. You might say I trained the Muse to come calling at my hours, not hers. And it worked. For years now, I have gotten my ideas in the mornings and never in the afternoons."

    Now back to work.