Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last bullets of 2008

  • I dreamed last night that I was at the inauguration. In fact, I was Obama. Do I want to take over the world, or what?
  • Reading all the MLA reports makes me feel both relieved that I didn't go and sad to have missed some of the good times.
  • Eager colleagues are at it again, going through their to-do lists and firing emails at me. The next one gets a throwdown challenge: "Do you want to meet tomorrow at 8 a.m.? No? Then shut up and leave me alone." No, what I'm really doing is much more insidious: I am rudely not wishing anyone a Happy New Year who contacts me with it-surely-can-wait work details. Yes, no one will probably notice.
  • I have been loving having this time to read and work. I've written a fair amount during the break, and now I'm getting ready for classes in a very random and relaxed way. It's actually a lot of fun.
  • Happy New Year to you all!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Brave new technologies: online manuscript submissions

The publisher of one of the pieces I had promised to do this fall (now finished and submitted--hooray!) required the work to be sent to the editor AND uploaded to its manuscript submission site. MLA does its program copy for the convention this way, of course, and ASA has an elaborate online system for panel and paper proposals, as do some other conferences. Most of the manuscript reviewing and program committee work I've done for conferences, however, has been done the old-fashioned way--via email and sometimes paper.

Here's what I want to know: I know that online submission of manuscripts to a database is common in the sciences, but is it widespread in the humanities?

If you've had experience with this (as either a submitter or as a reviewer), what was that like? Is it a better system? Worse? Easier? More frustrating?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The grass is greener, academic edition

After several years in a row of going to MLA, I'm glad that I didn't go this year. Grateful. Relaxed. Happy. Christmas was wonderful with the family.

And yet . . . lots of the cool kids are at MLA, so there's a little twinge that says "we're having a party, and you're not there."

Proof positive that academia is an addiction, don't you think?

Edited to add: I didn't realize that What Now and Sisyphus were there, too.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

We pause for this message from the holidays

Despite two more messages tonight from eager colleagues (stop, already!), I'm going on an academic fast for the next week--nothing but family, too many cookies, and a little writing, if I'm lucky.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Secret message to eager colleagues

To all those who are contacting me this week, when there is not one single administrative thing I am responsible for doing or can do until spring, about

--policy discussions that you want to have right now but that can wait until next semester
--procedures that you think ought to be discussed at length but can also wait until next semester
--handwringing about the terrible state of the economy in regard to certain cuts in the university budget
--hypothetical "what if?" scenarios for program development that will never come to pass (see previous point)
--whether I plan to be in the office next Wednesday to discuss any of the above

my answer is this:

--I am not going to deal with any of this right now.
--Chill out.
--Back away from the computer.
--Get a life.

If you don't, I will be forced to use the dreaded Annoying Autoresponse as a defense shield.

[Edited to add: Anything discussed or decided this week would have to be redone at the beginning of next semester anyway, because so many people are already gone. Having these discussions twice seems like a waste of time and effort, to put it mildly.]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's not you--it's the market

This is bad news and good news.

From Inside Higher Ed:
Today the Modern Language Association is releasing information on just how bad the situation is: The number of job postings in the MLA’s Job Information List will be down 21 percent in 2008-9, the steepest annual decline in its 34-year history. For English language and literature, the drop will be 22.2 percent and for foreign languages, 19.6 percent. . . .
For English jobs, the 1,420 positions the MLA lists this year is a drop from 1,821 last year. While the English totals hovered between 1,000 and 1,200 for several years during the mid-1990s, they have not been as low as this year’s figure since 1997-8. For foreign languages, this year’s MLA total is 1,350, the smallest number of jobs since 2003-4.

Over at the Chronicle, on one of the job boards, there is--or was--a little bragfest going on in the guise of problem-solving: "I have twelve MLA interviews and just don't know how to schedule them."
I submit to you, the jury, these ideas:
-- such claims are either highly exaggerated or just plain false
-- the job market is as bad as it has been in a long, long time
-- especially for Americanists
-- and that if you don't have an interview, it's not necessarily about you, your publications, your teaching, or anything else that you can control.

So the bad news is this: It's about the market, which is awful.
The good news, such as it is (and it isn't much), is this: It's not about you.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell on teaching

There's an essay by Malcolm Gladwell called "Most Likely to Succeed" over at The New Yorker this week. After having read (and listened to) some of his stuff, I always am a little suspicious, because everything seems to end up with the equivalent of "And that's why 2 + 2 really does equal 5!" Since I'm used to literary criticism, though, that doesn't bother me too much, and what he says about teaching does seem to make good sense.

Gladwell makes two major points: (1) for some occupations, you can't tell how good someone is going to be until he or she is actually practicing that occupation; and (2) good teachers have a quality that he calls (after Jacob Kounin) "withitness" and that I've always thought of as watchfulness. What this means is that a good teacher is always aware, as far as possible, of what's going on in the class--not just the activities, but the level of engagement.

It's easy to tell if students are engaged in a class if they're talking, but what if they aren't? Someone once commented after watching me teach, "you watch faces." I don't know if that's good or bad, but watching faces enables me to see if people are paying attention before they completely check out. Of course, no one can do this all the time; if that were true, Planner Girl wouldn't have gotten as far as she did with checking out of the discussion because I'd have noticed it earlier.

I've observed a lot of people's classes over the years, and "withitness," the ability to relate to individual students while keeping the group together as a whole, really stands out as something that keeps students engaged and motivated. Gladwell gives this example:
Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which Pianta said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

That's why, I think, teaching takes so much energy and we all talk about how tired we are at the beginning of the semester. If teaching doesn't take a lot out of you, in the immortal words of LOLcats, "Ur doin it wrong."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Printed blogs?

I guess you could call this another nail in the coffin of print culture, but in this case, the magazines are the ones shooting themselves in the foot with the nail gun. (How's that for a mixed metaphor?)

As a magazine junkie of long standing, I've stayed faithful to--and subscribed to-- some of the old standards for years: Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Atlantic. I've bought subscriptions for family members year after year. I stuck with The Atlantic after it stopped publishing fiction. I even stuck with The New Yorker when the only articles it published were the ones about Hollywood deals (aka the Tina Brown years).

But lately, I've noticed something about the writing in Newsweek: it seemed familiar, somehow. That tone of knowing smartassery. The factual errors in the snarky opinion pieces that pass as cultural criticism. Beginning every story with a long personal anecdote, preferably one that emphasizes the writer's snark credentials or (if it's a serious story) something that Makes the Reader Empathize with the situation being described. (I've taken to skipping the first five paragraphs routinely, just to get to the news.) Trying to be provocative and fun, even if it means asking supremely stupid questions in the interview section. Then it hit me: Newsweek is trying to be a blog. News blogs started out by imitating and modifying print culture, and now print culture is imitating online culture.

You can't blame Newsweek for trying. Readership is down, and the magazine is " trying to be more provocative." It's the same impulse that The Atlantic is now following: it ran a long article about Britney Spears earlier this year and a medium-length article about a boxer in the most recent issue, and its redesign makes it look like Esquire without the ads.

But wait--don't we already have blogs? For free? The Wall Street Journal article says that Newsweek wants to have fewer readers and charge a higher price. The media critics (of which I am obviously not one) can better predict how this business model will work out, but as a longtime subscriber and a blog reader, I'm not convinced.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

If you're thinking about going to graduate school

Tenured Radical has had some (as usual) fine posts recently about going on to graduate school. The latest of them explains that, yes, the market is bad, but that grad school isn't the "Ponzi scheme" that one of her commentators called it.

If you get the MLA Newsletter, you've seen this graph already. It represents about 30 years (1975-2007) of the job market in MLA fields, which by traditional accounts tanked after the 1960s and never recovered. I am not saying that the job market is good; it isn't. What I am saying is that if the oral history is correct, there would be a diagonal going from the midpoint of about 1500 jobs advertised in 1975 down to 0-100 in 2007. What the graph shows is that there are peaks and valleys, the latest valley being circa 1993-1997. I leave you to draw your own conclusions about that.

One of the questions that you need to answer for yourself before you apply, and on the application as you apply, is this: why do I want to go to graduate school? The following are just some additional things to think about in answering this question.
  • Because I'm good at theory and analysis, and I enjoy my classes in (English or history or whatever). Having this kind of aptitude is a wonderful thing. Can you envision yourself putting this toward any other discipline? This is a little like having a talent for acting: more people have it than there are jobs for professional actors.
  • Because I want to be a professor. Why do you want to be a professor? Is it because you want to teach? If so, think seriously about secondary education. The pay is the same, or better, and jobs can be easier to find. Is it because you want to work with college-age students? Have you thought about administration?
  • Because I want to do research. If it's research that attracts you, there may be other jobs (public history, as TR notes, or working at foundations) that may be a better fit. An ADE report from a few years back showed that something like 80% of people in Ph.D. programs had "professor" as their career goal. Only 43-50% ended up as professors in tenure-track positions 10 years down the line, yet the survey showed that those who didn't become professors were still satisfied with their career paths.
And now some other questions:
  • Once you have the Ph.D., are you ready to move anywhere for a job? Like Willie Sutton robbing banks because "that's where the money is," job seekers have to move where the jobs are. This sounds obvious, but people sometimes won't or can't move for family reasons. Those aren't bad reasons, of course, but it's unrealistic to think that you'll get a job in a particular area.
  • Do you have an alternate plan in case you don't get a tenure-track job? In other words, will you regret spending the time in graduate school if a job doesn't materialize?
  • Can you envision working more hours than some of the people you know? The demands of research and teaching take a lot of time; even if you're mowing the lawn, to use the news media's favorite example of academic slackertude, you're thinking about your work. To quote from an old post: if you can't envision working on your research as a pleasure as well as a duty, you should rethink what you're doing and maybe get into another field.
  • Can you imagine spending your vacation money going to conferences and archives instead? Travel budgets will never fund the amount of travel to conferences that you have to do. Are you ready to make the conference/vacation travel tradeoff?
There are more items, but that's enough for now.

Edited to add: I'm not trying to say "go to graduate school" or "don't go to graduate school." Graduate schools need bright, interesting, and committed students with good ideas, and so does the profession. All I'm trying to say is this: if you want to go, know why you are going and what you want to do when you get there.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Class as oasis

A recent article in the news reported on a study that said people who didn't watch much television were happier than those that do. Of course, the cause-and-effect chain wasn't clear: are people who watch more TV depressed because they watch, or do they watch because they're out of work and depressed? Who hasn't felt enraged and helpless at watching the AIG follies and the rest of the news?

The point is that when you're besieged by news that you're helpless to do anything about, including the terrible job market that Sisyphus has been posting about so eloquently, it's hard to stay optimistic. You do what you can to make things better and use what influence you have to create support, financial and otherwise, for job seekers. But when you talk to anyone, the talk always turns to cutbacks, job loss, bad times, and the follies of those in power, so even if you don't watch the news, you can't escape it. That's why I usually focus on the light or amusing or annoying side of life here on the blog. I want it to be an oasis.

I have noticed lately that the only place where I feel really happy is the classroom. I like to teach, anyway, and I enjoy my students, and of course it's more fun going to a class that you enjoy, but this is something more. In the classroom, the news is left behind. In the classroom, we're creating something--a discussion, an analysis, a piece of knowledge--that's positive in contrast to what happens outside the class. And in the classroom, I have control over helping something positive happen. No wonder the classroom feels a little like an oasis right now.

Friday, December 05, 2008

This is the song that never ends

A month ago, at a large meeting:

Person A: "You know, the students really want to take Specialty Course Y; there's a lot of pent-up demand for it. Why can't we offer it?"

Person B: "It's not required for the major, and everyone is teaching essential courses. Besides, you're the only person who can teach Specialty Course Y, and you wanted to teach Specialty Course X instead."

A few weeks ago, in the hallway:

Person A: "I really don't see why we can't offer Specialty Course Y. The students really want to take it."

Person B: "We are all tied up with teaching the courses we need to teach for the tracks in the major. Specialty Course Y doesn't fit into one of those, although the curriculum committee could take a look at instituting that field as a track. Besides, you're the only person who can teach Specialty Course Y, and you didn't offer it this year."

Recently, in a large meeting:

Person A: "We really need to teach Specialty Course Y. The students really want to take it, and I don't know why we can't offer it. Of course we don't have time to discuss it now."

Person B, jumping up as if his/her pants are on fire: "Yes, we can talk about it right now. Specialty Course Y is not a required course for the major. It is not part of any track in the major; if we want to do that, we have to send it to the curriculum committee. Since you're the one who can teach that course, if you want it taught, you could offer it [instead of Specialty Course X]."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

NY Times on tuition

From the New York Times: "College May Become Unaffordable for Most in the U.S.":
Over all, the report found, published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, while median family income rose 147 percent.

This comment from the comments section struck a chord with a lot of readers, apparently:
Every institution I have attended or taught at has steadily increased the number of highly-paid vice-presidents, managers, directors, coaches, and supervisors, usually while student enrollment held steady or increased only slightly, and sometimes while cutting back on teaching faculty or replacing retiring tenured professors with two or three part-time adjuncts each.

Meanwhile, every administrator needs a team of "assistants." Mostly they push papers, write reports that no one will ever read, and call meetings. As one former colleague put it, "We think of meetings as useless interruptions of our real work, but for them, meetings ARE their real work."


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Secret messages to students and colleagues

  • To Casual Student: Did you know that you could have an A in this class if you exerted some effort? You're smart, you do the reading, and you're a good writer, but it's as though you don't want to put forth any effort beyond what's absolutely required. Why didn't you revise when you were given the chance? Why didn't you turn in Minor Homework Assignment? This doesn't make me angry, because I like you and think you're an asset to the class, but it does make me a little sad. Not everyone has the brains and aptitude that you do. I wish you would make more use of them.
  • To Participating Student: Your in-class discussion skills are great, as are your ideas. Please, please come by the office before you turn in your paper or take it to the Writing Center so that the writing doesn't sabotage what should be a good piece of work.
  • To Vanishing Student: You were a good writer, and you could analyze materials well, but somehow you never connected with the class, did you? You stopped coming to class, and then, when I contacted you about absences, you dropped the class. That's too bad, but it's better than staying if you're not engaged with what we're doing, I guess.
  • To Colleague: I'd like to send you a valentine for the support you've given--really.
  • To Another Person in the Department: Is it a coincidence that whenever I am called upon to tell you something that you don't want to hear from a position of authority that I hold, you never respond but immediately contact the (male) person in authority over me? Coincidence? Sure it is.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Techno-envy: Pulse pen

I recently went through a phase of techno-envy over something called the Pulse pen. It's a recording pen that you use to take notes in special notebooks, and, when you tap a spot in your notes, the pen plays the recording back to you. You can also upload the notes and accompanying audio files to your computer for later playback.

The pen also has a few other features: it can translate words into other languages; you can upload your notes and share your "pencasts," if you want to; and, best of all, if you draw a tiny 8-note keyboard, you can play a tiny piano. How cool is that?

I started thinking about the uses. It would be great for going to conference sessions, because then you'd be able to go back more easily to what was said. Taking notes promotes better retention than typing them, and anyway, conference etiquette still dictates that no one pull out a laptop and clack away while the speaker is speaking. Also, the conference notes could then be stored easily on the laptop, and, best of all, there was a very good deal on it at a local store.

Then reality set in. This would be a great thing for conferences and for students in big lecture halls, if, say, you're in law school (New Kid? What do you say?) or in a STEM discipline, because you can draw diagrams and annotate in ways that you can't do when taking notes on a computer. But how often do I want, or does anyone want, to take such comprehensive notes of, say, a large campus meeting? And if you used this in a small meeting and let everyone know that it was recording their words, as you should, everyone would clam up, I'm guessing.

In addition, I have enough problems writing in a Moleskine, since I'm reluctant to write something down unless it is Important, as I mentioned over at Chaser's a few weeks ago. How much more important would something have to be to get the Special Pulse Notebook treatment?
Also, my note-taking skills, such as they are, have gotten me this far; do I really need this kind of detail in the notes I take nowadays?

In the end, I reminded myself about the difference between want and need, and I didn't buy it. I'm curious, though, to see if anyone else has or what their experiences have been.