Friday, April 29, 2011

Library tales

The Little Professor has a post up about the University of Denver, which decided that a modern library could do without those messy paper things with pages. You know the things I mean: they have no digital content at all and are thus entirely useless. Best to put them in an off-site storage facility where they won't be in the way of students who want to hang out with their laptops. Here's someone who speaks for a lot of us:
Faculty members who have objected say that, while database research is important to modern-day academics, Denver researchers will invariably lose out on serendipitous discovery that comes with perusing a library’s stacks. “I know it’s kind of a touchy-feely argument, and I wish I had documented my own experience to prove it,” Headrick said. “But it’s very, very common in a lot of the social sciences. I’ll leave with five other books that I find while looking.
It's funny. We believe in digital serendipity: we find things when we're searching online that we never thought we'd find, and we boast about it. That's what Twitter is for, apparently. So why are we so apologetic about the "touchy-feely" nature of paper serendipity, which is at least as important to those in humanities fields?

And is anyone else getting tired of the argument that those of us who find it useful to look at books on shelves just don't get the digital age? I get it. I really do. Being able to search for and access texts online is a wonderful thing. But to sing the old song again, paper is a technology, too, and sometimes it's the most efficient one. I can scan through a book, read a few pages, check the index, and know whether to take it out or not in a minute or so.

I was thinking of this the other day when I went to our campus library, which was filled with students studying. (The presence of books doesn't seem to have hurt their ability to do this, by the way.) As I was checking out, the librarian helpfully pointed out that books could be delivered to departments if faculty ordered them. I appreciate that service and will probably take advantage of it at some point, especially if I'm pressed for time. There's a tradeoff, though, and its name is serendipity.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Spring madness

I have a question: how many of you have noticed that at the end of the spring semester, universities (or departments) get a little squirrelly?

Maybe some issue comes along that wouldn't rattle anyone in the fall, but in the spring everyone starts sending furious emails about it.

Or maybe a department meeting gets very tense all of a sudden over a seemingly minor issue.

Or everyone gets in an uproar about some announced policy that's been around for ages but now is seen as the decline of civilization and the end of Truly Serving the Purposes of a Liberal Education.

I can't describe it any better than this, but in my house, we call it the annual spring madness and all but place bets on when it will strike. I've seen it wherever I've taught, so it's not limited to one place. Have you seen it, too?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Notes from a former adjunct

There have been two blog threads I've watched going the rounds recently, threads I've watched from afar. One is the "burnout after tenure" thread (seen at Historiann's and elsewhere), and the other is the controversy over Tenured Radical's advice to adjuncts. I spent a lot of years as an adjunct, so I have a few thoughts:
  • When TR tells you "Don't listen to senior colleagues who tell you that there will soon be a line in your field and that you are ideally positioned for it," believe it. Repeat it. Cross-stitch it on a sampler. Tattoo it on your forehead. Anyone who would tell you that is probably trying to be (1) kind or (2) hopeful about your prospects, but it's just cruel.
  • Let me put it this way: If they're not willing to put a ring on it, so to speak, when they're telling you that they can't live without you because of all your fancy extra service work and great teaching, they're not going to be more likely to do so when a shiny new parade of faculty candidates comes to campus. If you decide to stay when your department is courting the shiny ones, that's your decision, but do so with your eyes open.
  • Let me put it another way: do you remember the movie An Officer and a Gentleman? For those who didn't see it, Richard Gere is a Navy officer-in-training and Louis Gossett, Junior, is the grizzled old sergeant. Gossett knocks the snotty attitude out of Gere and teaches him life lessons. At the end, Gere is a shiny new officer, ready to have an exciting career, and Gossett is . . . the grizzled old sergeant, waiting to knock some sense into the next batch of snotty recruits and show them the ropes. I did not want to become that grizzled old sergeant (adjunct) showing the new officers (t-t faculty) the ropes of the place, even if it meant getting out of teaching altogether.
  • On the other hand, New Kid says that "there is a whole cohort of people out there for whom contingent employment is their career." Absolutely true. A lot of people who were adjuncting in my old department are still adjuncting there many years later, either because they had family ties or because they didn't want to leave grad school city.
  • I have known people who have retired from their positions as adjuncts, and they were happy about their careers.
  • I've also known people who became administrators of programs, or advisers, or otherwise were employed in academia without tenure-track positions, and they were happy, too.
This isn't to say that there shouldn't be more tenure-track jobs, or that the job market is bad, or that those who want t-t jobs shouldn't be angry, or any of that. I don't have any advice.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Scenes from the front office: "Excellence without Money" in action

It's registration time, and two days after it started, Required Course X is completely filled up for this summer and next fall. I've fielded my share of desperate emails this week and went to our departmental front office to see if there were any options. Nope--no options.

Students were coming through the doors as I waited, and the phone kept ringing. The message our administrative assistant gave was always the same:

"No, sorry, there aren't any more sections available."

"Sorry, but because of budget cuts, we only have so many instructors to teach that, and the sections are all full."

"I can put you on a waiting list for fall."

"Sorry, the sections are all full.



It's not the students' fault. I know that some of them have been trying to get this course for a while, and that others were ready to sign up but it was already closed when their registration time opened.

It's not my fault. I volunteered to teach the class this summer in part for the money, of course, but in part because it's something that students need to take. (Yes, this goes against the "put research first! Only teach your specialty!" ethos that we all get told, but I believe in this course and its benefits for students, so I'm teaching it anyway.)

In a way, it's not even the fault of the upper administrators, since after the state budget cuts, they may not have the money to pay for this, either.

It's a living example of Roxie's "Excellence Without Money" in action.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Why the study of history matters: April 12, 1861

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, I'd like to say a little something about why the study of history matters.

Now, unlike my esteemed blogfellow Historiann , I'm not a historian, nor do I play one on tv, although I get a little dramatic in class sometimes about historical events. I'm what movie stars or the Mafia would call a "civilian" as far as history is concerned--an interested civilian, one whose idea of a good book is something by Drew Gilpin Faust or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, but a civilian nonetheless.

When I was in elementary school and we learned about the Civil War, we learned that it was fought over slavery. Slavery was wrong, and the North wanted to put an end to it, and the South wanted to keep their slaves, and they fired on the North at Fort Sumter, and the war was on. We had learned about Harriet Tubman (but not Frederick Douglass), and we admired her work on the Underground Railroad. There were, in fact, some Underground Railroad houses in the area, although I didn't know that at the time.

When I got to high school, though, I was told that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. No, that was a simplistic, babyish way of looking at the causes. "States' rights" was the issue, plain and simple: a conflict between the federal government and the states over governance. This may have been the same year we learned about "triangular trade" rather than "the slave trade." At any rate, I remember this vividly because it made no sense to me to be told that slavery was just a side issue, basically an economic spat in which the North wanted to deprive the South of its labor force. People were being bought and sold, yet "states' rights" was the issue? That seemed just plain wrong, even to a daydreaming teenager like myself, but history was presented as Holy Writ back then.

Here's why the study of history matters: because otherwise history gets taught as Holy Writ in one immutable narrative strain with no acknowledgment that it is just one of a number of strains and not necessarily the best one. What I realized some years ago is that my history teacher, high school edition, must have been caught up by the revisionist Southern historians and that that was the narrative he was teaching us. We did not know that there were other strands that told a more truthful story, or that historians were always working on finding more information and telling a more truthful story. But that's what studying history teaches you--that the story is always evolving--and that's why I'm glad there are historians.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Online high school education: what happens when they get to college?

I've been wondering recently what happens in online high school classes, since that seems to be the least expensive and least common denominator solution wave of the future for a lot of cash-strapped states. Here's one example from the NY Times Education section:
Jack London was the subject . . . In a high school classroom packed with computers, [the student] read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

[The student], who had failed English 3 in a conventional classroom and was hoping to earn credit online to graduate, was asked a question about the meaning of social Darwinism. He pasted the question into Google and read a summary of a Wikipedia entry. He copied the language, spell-checked it and e-mailed it to his teacher.

Okey-dokey, then! If your teacher is some kind of automated software, I guess you're good to go with that answer. If this is flagged for plagiarism by a real teacher (as the article suggests), how do you have a conversation with the student that is a learning experience rather than a punitive conversation if you can't meet face to face?

I'm concerned that these students who "learn" in this manner are in for a world of hurt when they get to college. What happens if they haven't been taught already that "copy and paste from Wikipedia" isn't acceptable as a methodology?

What happens when they're asked to analyze a text, construct an argument, compare points of view, write a coherent response to a question, or any of those other pesky critical thinking skills that college instructors insist are important and that are, some say, the reason students go to college in the first place?

I can think of a couple of things that could happen:

1) There'll be an even greater culture shock for first-year college students when their skills meet a college-level set of expectations ("But I got all A's in high school!").

2) There'll be an increase in the number of "readiness" or remedial or whatever the college chooses to call them courses, which research suggests (via Dean Dad) don't help as much as they should--unless the state is strapped for cash and decides that remedial courses or extra programs cannot be offered at all, leaving students without support.

3) There'll be pressure on college teachers to "recalibrate" their expectations to the new normal for what high school graduates can do in terms of writing and reading.

4) The students could step up in as-yet unseen ways that might surprise us now. Since they've already taken responsibility for their education by the self-paced learning online, they might be more amenable to the kinds of instruction that we offer.


Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Writing Process: Little White Lies

Profacero has a post up about writing and time. While I agree with most of what she says, I can't completely go the distance on this one: "One, as I have said before, you must allow yourself to estimate time realistically. Perhaps it really will take 120 hours total to write that piece. If so, it is of no use to try to force yourself to take less time; you have to plan to free up all of the 120 hours."

Yes, if it really will take 120 hours, you have to plan for that at one level of your mind, the Rational Writing Brain. RWB allows you to estimate how long certain kinds of writing will take.

But to the Primitive Writing Brain, that 120 hours is an invitation not to start. PWB would say "120 hours? Okay, I'm out of here. No way am I sitting in that chair for 120 hours."

So RWB has to set to work and coax PWB with the Five Stages of Writing every day:

Denial: "Naw, it won't take 120 hours. Why, I'll bet that if you sit down today, you can get 5 pages done! Remember when you wrote X piece so fast? I'll bet it'll be just like that."

Anger: "Yes, it's lousy right now, and it's going to stay lousy unless you get to work and fix it. Get moving!"

Bargaining: "If you just write for the next 20 minutes/200 words, you can get out of the house for a while."

Cheerleading: "See, you're almost finished with this part! You really can do this."

Acceptance: "It's not so bad, after all, and this part is pretty good. You won't have to revise this again tomorrow."

See all the little white lies? Of course it will take 120 hours. Of course it has to be revised tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, but if RWB said that to PWB, PWB would never let the writing alone for the day, let alone pick it up again the next day.

Writing's like making bread. No matter how diligent you are about kneading it, if you don't let it rise or rest at all, you'll never be able to do anything with it.