Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Conference panels: a pop quiz

I'm getting the Inspiration Award post ready (thank you, profacero!), but in the meantime, here is a pop quiz about putting together conference panels. You may think these are no-brainers, but I've heard arguments put forth for all the options over the years. (My answer to #3 is below.)

1. You are putting together a panel for Big Conference, which encourages you to have an "expert in the field" (i.e., a famous person) on the panel or as a respondent. A friend of yours, very junior, has submitted a brilliant proposal. Which one do you include?

a. Famous person. Academe is cutthroat, and having Big Conference on my vita is important.
b. Friend. I am not THAT soulless yet.
c. Get them both, if I can.

2. You're in charge of a panel that you know will run because you're the Division Head or Discussion Group Head or whatever. You have a number of really good proposals from graduate students and several that could be good from Dr. Famous and the Oldbloods, who have been writing about these issues for years. What do you do?

a. All grad students. Dr. Famous has had his say; let's hear from some new blood.
b. Grad students and Dr. Famous or one of the Oldbloods. Dr. Famous is a draw, so having him on the panel brings exposure to the grad students.
c. Dr. Famous and the Oldbloods. They're famous for a reason.

3. You want a panel that will go well and people who won't go over their allotted time so that you have to suffer through a terrible presentation or use the hook. Whom do you choose?

a. Graduate students.
b. Mid-level scholars who've been doing this for a while.
c. Dr. Eminent

4. Panelist A wants to use A/V media in her presentation. Where do you put her on the panel?

a. At the beginning to draw people in.
b. In the middle, so that it wakes people up.
c. At the end, because fiddling with the tech stuff and using PowerPoint or media always, always takes longer than expected. Besides, this gives people something to look forward to.
d. I can't believe you're shallow enough to think about this. Put the presentation wherever it fits thematically and don't worry about it.

5. What is the best method of giving the hook to a panelist who is well over his or her allotted time?

a. a card or note saying that time is up
b. tapping on your watch
c. an air horn

Answer to #3: Trick question! All levels can give great papers, and all can give poor ones. Think about how often you've seen these:
--the grad student who brings in an unedited diss chapter and flips through it while muttering "I'll skip this part, but here's what I say in it"
--the mid-level person who has a paper of the appropriate length but feels compelled to gloss every sentence with commentary
--Dr. Eminent's intense love affair with his own voice and confidence in his mad skilz at extemporizing, which results in a scenario in which you get, say, 25 minutes of background on something that everyone already knows. No kidding: I once heard a presentation for which the closest analogy would be telling a group of American historians who Abraham Lincoln was.

What are your answers? There's extra credit on the line here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Blog trifecta: human hibernation, Malcolm Gladwell, and writing

I guess you'd call it a trifecta of blog obsessions, anyway: Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers not only has a lot to say about what creates success in writing (and everything else) but also, yes, weighs in on human hibernation.

It's a really interesting read (er, listen), even if it does have a little of the "2 + 2 = 5" quality I mentioned earlier. A sample of what I have learned:
  • The 10,000 hour theory. Exceptional performance has less to do with natural ability than with the capacity to work hard and consistently at a task. The Beatles got to be The Beatles by playing the Reeperbahn in Hamburg 7 days a week for 8 hours a night. Bill Gates was ready when the opportunity came because he'd already been programming for, yes, about 10,000 hours. This is also why a longer school year would be better, as Gladwell shows with statistics.
  • Being born at the right time helps, too. If you're a hockey player, it helps to be born early in the year so that you're big enough to get the extra practice and coaching (see: 10,000 hours) that will help you succeed. It helps to have only a few people in your cohort (fewer New York lawyers born in 1930) or to have skill sets that no one else does (Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York who could sew in the early 1900s.) Oh, and privilege (better schools) helps for some things, too, you'll be shocked to learn.
  • You are your ancestors, basically. The nineteenth-century "culture of honor" in the South originated in rocky highland regions (Gladwell cites Scotland and Ireland, but the same would be true for Albania) where herdsmen had to defend their property--goats, cattle, or sheep--because the property could be taken from them if they weren't prepared to fight to the death for it. Gladwell shows that this persists in Southern students even in the North in the 21st century, but is this the only reason?
  • There are three things that make work meaningful, and two kinds of intelligence. Unfortunately, I can't remember the names of them but will look them up when I get the book version.
A couple of things seemed a little too pat; maybe they're footnoted in the book version, but my eyebrows went up.
  • I had no idea that European farmers were such lazy people* (I'm paraphrasing) in medieval times, especially in comparison to Asian rice farmers. I thought Piers Plowman and company worked pretty hard, but according to Gladwell they worked only until noon in the spring and fall and then sat around all summer. Life after noon was just hanging out waiting for the next kermess or for harvest, whichever came first. This doesn't sound like the farmers I've known or read about, who work very hard indeed, but maybe I'm missing something.
  • Annnnd--human hibernation. Gladwell accepts uncritically the accounts of travelers who said that the French peasants and the Russians went to sleep after the first frost; he even quotes the same accounts that I had posted about previously. "They deliberately weakened themselves so as not to use up too much food or energy," snuggling together spoon fashion to keep warm and sleeping all the time. So I ask again:
  • If this is true, how did they get their strength back in time for spring planting?
  • Who took care of the animals, if they slept all the time?
  • Cooking anything, and making bread especially, is a muscle-intensive activity, as the bakers among you know. Assuming that the hibernation cases ate, what did they eat? Who nursed the children? Or was it just the men who slept while Gretchen and Matilda kept the pot stirring? And how did they get the two-year-olds down for a six months' nap, when any toddler worth her salt won't sleep for two hours without a fight?
  • Now that we've mentioned toddlers, what about the conventional wisdom that more babies are born in August, September, and October than in other months? Was this not true in medieval times?

[*Edited because I felt like it.]

OT: Obama and Fred and Ginger

President Obama, Inaugural Address: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking."

I knew that our new president had echoed Thomas Paine and Lincoln, but Fred and Ginger? Nice.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

OT: Inauguration

To repeat a post from November: Obama! Yay!

His speech was just right. He is just right. I hope there's a moratorium on all the pundits' dissections of speeches, because, just now, for once, let's dispense with rhetorical analysis and just revel in the moment of hope that he's providing.
Wordle: Inaugural Speech of the 44th President of the United States Barack H.Obama

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Next stop: Academic Idol

From The Chronicle :

The chancellor of the Texas A&M University system wants to give faculty members bonuses of up to $10,000, based on student evaluations, but some professors are raising concerns about the plan, saying it could become a popularity contest, The Bryan-College Station Eagle reported.

Faculty members can decide whether to participate in the pilot program, which is being offered at the system’s flagship, in College Station, and at its Kingsville and Prairie View campuses. Though details are preliminary, officials said, the goal is to offer awards starting at $2,500 to the top 15 percent of participating instructors.

Instructors, you've won a ticket to College Station to compete on Academic Idol, except that the voting will be without the benefit of comments by Simon Cowell and company.

What might this change?

1. Teaching styles. There's no question that this could affect people's teaching styles, but would it do so for the better? Philip J. Tramdack, one of the commenters at the Chronicle, says that if he had to teach again (he's a librarian), he'd pull out his popular "lounge act" style of teaching instead of the "casino act" in which he actually asked students questions. Sometimes you can teach students difficult concepts AND entertain them, but not always.

2. Syllabus. Hmmm, what to choose--800 pages of Bleak House or the graphics novel version of Bleak House? Or Bleak House in text-message format?

And what about writing assignments? Writing is hard, and no one likes to hear anything but "superb job! brilliant!" when turning something in. We all, professors included, have to learn to take criticism about our writing, however, and it's only natural to have a hard time separating the messenger from the message. With a fortune like $2500-10,000 hanging over your head, would you be more likely or less likely to wield the red pen as usual, even it if means student displeasure?

3. Academic rigor. Another commenter mentions that the evaluations ask about things like "this course challenged me" and so on--in other words, students are asked to judge the academic rigor of the course.

Here's the problem with those kinds of questions: students all want to take challenging courses as long as they can get an A in them. There's no glory to getting an A in an easy course. On the other hand, if the student doesn't get a good grade, it's the instructor's fault for making the course, as students sometimes put it, "to hard" with "to much writting."

It would be nice to reward good teaching, but making evaluations the sole criterion is daft. To quote our soon-to-be-ex-president, the question that's not being asked is "Is our children learning?"

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Archives and fresh starts

Mel's post on archiving and cleaning out old letters (with a link to Flavia's post) struck a chord.  Yesterday I was on a cleaning out rampage, and a lot got thrown away.

What got thrown away (or put in the recycling bin) are things like empty spice jars and a couple of broken colanders.  What is still sitting in the garage and in my filing cabinets taking up space is the detritus--or should I say impedimenta?-- of academic teaching and service: notes from meetings, final exams from classes that have long since graduated, and reports on long-dead issues that have since either been resolved by policy changes, or, in the usual course of things, left to gather dust.  In any case, none of this is material that needs to be saved.  

I've gone through a few of these boxes and have gotten rid of some things.  About twice per box, I'll come across a teaching exercise that I had developed and forgotten about that could still be useful.  The rest of it is just paper, and it gets dealt with accordingly:

1.  Anything with student numbers on it gets shredded.
2. Anything printed on one side that won't wreck a printer gets put into a pile for draft printing.
3. Everything else, including anything with a staple in it, gets tossed.  

What isn't clear is why I kept a lot of this stuff in the first place. Documentation in case anyone ever wanted to know what a committee said in Section V, subsection 3 of a report? Backup in case a disgruntled student came back 10 years later and wanted to know why he got an 88 instead of 90 on his final exam?  Teaching notes in case all the computers on which I'd stored ecopies (office and home) went up in flames at once?  This last one is particularly puzzling, since I try to reinvent the teaching each time I teach a course anyway. 

The only good side to this is that the flip side of the impulse to archive is an impulse to get rid of things, for there can't be an archive without selection, can there?  As the semester begins, that impulse to get rid of things takes over. It gives the filing cabinets some breathing space, anyway, and us a fresh start.

What I'm wondering is how much of this kind of stuff is what academics usually keep and how much of it is extra.  What do you end up keeping--class notes? Papers that students don't pick up? Meeting minutes? Old photocopies of articles? Any of it? Or have you gone entirely electronic with these?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A noble ideal, but will it fly?

At Inside Higher Ed there's article on a joint report by the MLA and the Teagle foundation. (Read it. I'll wait.)

While I can see where the recommendations are coming from and I like them overall, I'm trying to fit these ideals into the university systems that we all know and love. Here are the four and some possible real-world reactions.

1. English majors should be able to read literature in a second language. The short version is that about 4/5 of universities had this requirement forty years ago and about 1/5 have it today. Is the MLA on crack?

No, that's too harsh. I think this is a praiseworthy requirement for all the reasons that the report mentions. But is this a realistic requirement? At a minimum, English majors could decamp in droves for less demanding departments. Also, there are only so many credits that a university can require, so many courses that it can offer with a given number of faculty, so many classrooms, and so forth. So what gets tossed out of the Graduation Credits Lifeboat to make room for, say, 15 hours of foreign language instruction?

2. Coherence of course sequences and requirements. Nobody ever says, "Hey, let's make an incoherent course sequence." All the reasons for course requirements seem logical at the time.

But over time, course requirements are subject to mission creep. Maybe the administration has a pet idea that it thinks all students should be exposed to and mandates* required courses in that area. Maybe Dr. Famous Senior Scholar thinks all students should learn about the poetic qualities of widgets and bullies the curriculum committee into making a required course in Widget Poetics. The best use of this part of the report may lie in getting departments to rethink these requirements.

3. The primacy of the study of literature. Again, I like the idea (this being my job, after all), and at first couldn't see any harm in advising that students learn to read complex texts and write well about them. On second thought, though, I can see how all this talk about richness of literary texts, discussing complexity, etc. is going to bring out faculty with the long knives who hate any signs of life in F.R. Leavis and the Great Tradition. Also, new forms of media get mentioned only as "information retrieval systems." Ouch. That isn't going to please people working in this area.

4. Inclusion of all faculty ranks in decisions and teaching. Absolutely right, although again: how might this work in the real world? I don't mean shared decision-making; I mean the recommendation to have senior people teach first-year and gen ed courses.

This would be beneficial in a lot of ways, but here's the problem: How will you get them to do this, aside from making some kind of mandate? Who's going to tell Professor Senior Scholar, Endowed Chair, that he's been assigned an Intro to Lit instead of Widget Poetics? Unless every, and I do mean every, senior person signs on to this and understands its value, it won't happen.

So am I being too much of a pessimist here? How would these work at your university?

*[Edited to add: Not "mandates," of course, but "suggests," as in suggesting that if you ever want to see adequate funding again, you will consider teaching courses in this area.]

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

I am the captain--no, make that the James T. Kirk-- of my fate

As I sat at my desk today, not wanting to go out (if you saw the weather here, you wouldn't, either), I looked around the study.

Extreme left on the bookshelf: books for teaching.
Near left: books for project I've been working on.
Nearer left: shame pile of a book for review.
Piled high on the left-hand side of the desk: books and journals I've just finished using.
Above the desk: books for another project for which I'm making some minor revisions.
Right side of the desk, both on the desk and on the floor: file folders in wire holders.
Two lamps, one on either side of the monitor.
Straight ahead: computer with writing and .pdf articles on it.

Then it hit me: this feels like the command deck of the Starship Undine, and it has a mission to get as much possible done before classes start. No wonder I'm treating incoming email as if it's the Tholian web.

Friday, January 02, 2009

OT: Themes and resolutions

Since everyone's posting either end-of-the-year memes, themes (here , resolutions (here and here), or no resolutions, here's mine:

It's just one, and I had thought about this one even before Profgrrrrl wrote about it in a more elegant post than this one: mindfulness. Instead of a resolution, I'd like to call it a theme or maybe even (so as not to jinx it) a suggestion.

Mindfulness means a lot of things. It means paying attention to what I eat instead of eating out of stress or work avoidance.

It means distinguishing between what really needs to get done, what I need to do, and what someone else wants me to do. Their wishes do not have to become my to-do list, and their wish for an immediate response to something that isn't important doesn't need to push that item to the top of my to-do list.

It means making time for the things I need to do, not being on campus just because people like to see me in my office in case they happen to want something. Chief among those things I need to do is making time for writing.

It means wasting less time on news sites and checking email, because, all dreams aside, I'd rather let Obama handle the anxieties of managing this country and, as my experiments with turning off the internet have shown me, email can almost always wait.

It means treating reading blogs as an after-dinner dessert instead of something to snack on all day.

In short, mindfulness means paying the same amount of attention to my own life and priorities that I routinely pay to those of others.