Monday, March 29, 2010

Unleash the inner Puritan

One of the nice things about teaching literature that's not from the 21st century is that students get to have a window on the past and to think about things that they might not have thought about before. There are two areas or subjects, though, that they seem especially fascinated by: race relations and sexual mores.

Because we still (sadly) live in a racist culture, they "get" the racism of the earlier texts pretty well, although they bridle at the unfairness of racist practices and are angry at the laws reinforcing them. The whole white panic over "mixed blood," and the pseudoscience that supported theories of race in the 19th and early 20th centuries, seem to them so deluded as to seem incredible to any rational person--which it is, of course, even though we have to understand those attitudes in order to understand points in the plots.

The harder sell, I think, is the issue of sexual mores. Just think about the books in which either reputed sexual waywardness (by 19th-century standards) or evidence in the form of the unmarried mother appear:

Pride and Prejudice
Adam Bede
The Scarlet Letter
Bleak House
Daisy Miller
Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Jude the Obscure
My Antonia
The House of Mirth

(I know there are more--commenters?)

The difficulty lies in trying to get them to see what a huge deal it was to be pregnant and unmarried in those days, and the amount of scandal that it would have brought not only to the woman but to her family. Even if she married the man who had impregnated her, she'd be at the very least a topic for gossip--and a target of barbs from malicious family members who refused to go along with the polite fiction that the baby was "premature" if born less than 9 months after the wedding. Other possibilities, if marriage wasn't an option, included abortion (illegal), being sent away to live with relatives or put into a home, putting the baby up for adoption, or even having the baby and then having the family pretend that the grandmother was actually the mother.

Students are problem-solvers, and even after they understand that unmarried pregnancy is a problem, they have a lot of questions:

"Why can't she just go and get a job somewhere?" Respectable employers aren't going to hire an unmarried woman with a baby, so she'll have to pretend to be a widow and risk being found out. Also, there's no day care, and "baby-farming" means the death of the child, pretty much.

Can't she go back to her family?" She can--Tess does, for example--but a lot of families considered the disgrace too great.

What if the man marries her?" Too late--the stigma is already there, except perhaps in a farming community like the one Antonia lives in, and Antonia doesn't marry the father of her child.

The really heartening part of this exercise is that they genuinely don't see what the big deal is about this issue. What that says to me is that huge portions of that whole pernicious culture of shame and secrecy and having one's life ruined over this issue are just not part of their vocabulary, even if they joke about the "walk of shame." But to get them to understand the literature and the importance that the characters place on their sexual situations, I have to put them back in that culture momentarily. I have to get them to unleash their inner Puritan.*

*Yes, I know: a lot of Puritan brides were pregnant before marriage, but you know what I mean.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Lessons learned over the weekend

  • I read a book this weekend--not a newsworthy event for an academic, I know. But this was a book I'm rereading because a student is writing on it, and it's a book I first read and reread ages ago. I liked it back then, although it's not this author's Big Novel. (Think The Rainbow or The Plumed Serpent instead of Women in Love or Sons and Lovers.) Guess what? I still liked it, even though I can see the critics' objections better now than I could then. Lesson learned: I wasn't a total doofus for liking it back then, and it didn't induce in me some of the forehead-smacking embarrassment for enjoying it that I've experienced when going back to other youthful book crushes.
  • If in your ecstasy to be at home rather than on campus you throw yourself with extreme enthusiasm into some home activity like moving furniture, chopping vegetables, or cleaning cupboards, be prepared for (1) bruised limbs, (2) cut fingers, and (3) seeing stars after you crash your head into a cupboard door that has mysteriously opened in front of you.
  • Sometimes (see above), the universe is trying to tell you to sit on the couch and watch a movie rather than risk more self-inflicted injuries. That's what weekends are for.
  • The quality of a weekend is in direct proportion to the paucity of work-related emails that you receive.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A test in academic diplomacy

Here's a hypothetical situation for you.

You're on campus and in your office (except for teaching) all day long, eight or nine hours at a time, three and sometimes four days a week. In fact, when you stop by your colleagues' offices, no one is usually there.

However, by some invisible decree, meetings are held on the one day you're not there.

Someone mentions a committee that you've volunteered for but expresses concern about your "limited availability" and asks, "Which day [!] are you on campus?"

To use the title of that children's book, what do you say, dear?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Random Bullets of March Teaching

  • I almost took a picture of the bag of folders with corrected papers, all neatly paperclipped to quizzes and whatever else I had to give back. For one brief, shining moment, that grading was done in all its handcrafted loveliness.
  • Yes, I did have one student come up to say . . . that he couldn't read my handwriting.
  • An added benefit of spring break: students really do seem revved up and ready to discuss the texts.
  • Or maybe it's just that from here, the end is in sight.
  • I have put so much work into teaching the flying dinosaur studies class this semester that I'm going to be crushed if it turns out they didn't like it. They seem to be enjoying it, but you never know. They got into such a spirited debate today that I had to stop them so class wouldn't go over time.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Not much. How about you?

What I've been doing for the last week: reading other people's words.
  • Reading student papers and expending good advice and ink upon them. Thanks, commenters, for the advice on writing comments by hand. The eco-unfriendliness of printing the papers (double-sided) is mitigated, I hope, by filling the fountain pens I used with ink from a bottle--and yes, I had to refill them a few times to get through the stacks.
  • About grading: although the words I write are my words, sometimes, when I'm finished with the individual comments and am summing up, it feels like automatic writing, since the phrases are ones I've used before.
  • Reading emails and responding to them.
  • Reading and responding to drafts sent to me by students and colleagues.
What I haven't been doing: my own writing. I'm hoping to get back to it soon.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lectures as warm-up

In "College 2.0: More Professors Could Share Lectures Online. But Should They?" Jeffrey R. Young interviews some professors who have put their lectures online and some who have hesitated. The reasons for hesitation vary from seeing the classroom as a "sacred space" to a recording system that doesn't let you log in even though you have the password (we've all been there, haven't we?).

There are a lot of interesting parts to the article, but the one that stood out was this one:
And lectures might just fall out of popular use in physical classrooms, because professors could just point to their past recordings or those of others and assign viewings for homework. To keep students interested in the classroom, some professors would focus more on discussion or group projects and things that can't be easily captured on video.
I can see how this would work for science classes, as Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor at the University of Virginia quoted in the article, mentions in the comments. But what about humanities classes where discussion is already a big part of the class? What if the "lecture" is really a warm-up to and framing of the major business of the class, which is the discussion of a text?

That's what my "lectures" really are, and they rarely last more than, say, 20 minutes. The purpose is to introduce concepts and terms for talking about the literature, and as I talk, I can see by looking at their faces whether I need to expand on a certain concept or give another example. I can stop, backtrack, or cut short something that they don't seem to need--or I can ask them directly if they need more explanation or if I'm going too fast.

I'm imagining how this would work if I just assigned them to watch a previous lecture, as the quotation suggests.

"So, did you all catch me last night on YouTube? Do you remember what I said about the principle of X? Stu Dent, can you summarize this principle for us?"

Maybe Stu Dent summarizes the principle, but maybe Stu Dent sits with a blank look on his face and the only sound I hear is crickets.

Given the trouble we've all had at points getting students to read the material, what makes us think that they'd be more eager to spend time watching our lectures?

Also, if given a choice between watching a video and reading an article about a subject, I choose the article because watching a video takes a lot more time. Wouldn't students feel the same way?

In a discussion-based humanities classroom, a lecture isn't a waste of class time that can be outsourced to YouTube or MIT for greater efficiency. It's a fundamental technique for focusing attention, for putting students and the instructor in the same classroom space mentally as well as physically. The point of the lecture is to put us all in the same place so that we can talk about the work, and immediacy is a key part of that.

Friday, March 05, 2010

News flash from the Chronicle: most people would prefer to work fewer hours, be paid the same salary

From The Chronicle: "Younger Professors Say a Successful Career Should Not Require Long Hours":
In conversations with a dozen faculty members, researchers with a project on work-life issues run by Harvard University have found that "Generation X" professors value efficiency over "face time" and believe that quality is more important than quantity in academic work.
Where to start?

Note the implicit oppositions being set up here:

Gen X faculty like efficiency whereas senior faculty don't know how to be efficient, not being digital natives, and prefer schmoozing (face time).

Gen X faculty prefer "quality" in publications whereas senior faculty wouldn't know quality if it bit them in the face and are forced to count "quantity" instead.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. But it seems to me that this kind of study (or article) based on a sample size of 12 (twelve!), does a disservice to both Gen X faculty and senior faculty.

First of all, it uses the language of science to reinforce false generational cliches: Gen X is lazy and entitled, and senior professors are too old and stodgy to learn to work smarter. At least it recognizes that senior professors do work and are not simply (as they are over at some sites) deadwood lumps stuck in the middle of the road of academic progress.

Second, it presents as a radical new idea the concept that faculty members in Gen X would like to work fewer hours and not be in the office as much. Well, who wouldn't like to work fewer hours and be paid the same amount, especially in an era of furloughs in which we're being paid less and asked to work more hours? It's right up there on my personal to-do list along with achieving world peace and seeing a unicorn before I die. The point is that the real world has a way of correcting one's expectations. That doesn't mean that you're a bad person for having an ideal; it just means that you work as hard as you need to, and you learn pretty quickly how many hours that takes.

Third, the survey and the article buy into a syndrome of pitting generations of scholars against each other through cliches like this, giving a focus, and an incorrect focus at that, to the free-floating anxiety and resentment that's rampant in the academy today. In Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, Marlowe is about to be beaten up by a couple of detectives who are at odds with each other. He says to one, "Let's you and him fight. I'll catch him when he drops." By using generational labels, universities are saying "let's you and him fight"--except that they're not going to catch either generation when it drops.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Grading by hand: the Amish quilt of the classroom?

Over at University Diaries, Margaret Soltan quotes from a newspaper opinion piece by Robert Duffley:
My loudest complaint is the impersonality of the online model. There’s something reassuring and intimate about a hand-corrected paper. To print a paper is to finalize it, making change all but impossible. Printing a paper brings the writer’s ideas and craft into the physical world. In a realm as tenuous and self-conscious as academia, tangibility provides a reassuring degree of legitimacy. A professor’s handwritten corrections are a sign that, even if the grade is poor, the student’s effort received individualized attention. Inserting feedback via track changes, or any online form, is chillingly anonymous and curt.
The commenters, mostly professors, don't seem to agree; I especially liked Anthony Grafton's comment that "My handwriting, always cryptic, could now be used to defend Google against Chinese hackers." That's been my experience, too: seeing a few students come up after class, I hope to hear something like "these comments were so helpful!" but instead hear "can you tell me what this word says?"

I'm of two minds about grading via inserted comments versus handwritten comments. For one thing, the inserted comments are easier to read, assuming that the students have some flavor of Word (which they mostly seem to use). Also, I then have a record of the paper and what I said, so I can refer to it if I have to write a letter for the student later.

But is this "chillingly anonymous and curt"? Do students assume that because I'm grading using a computer that the comments are somehow generated by computer rather than by me? Is there something personal and handmade, like an Amish quilt,* in writing comments on the paper by hand? I know one thing that I miss in the computer version: all the swooping lines, arrows, circles, and brackets that I can use to point out connections in the paper. There's a nonverbal but visual quality to those marks that can't be duplicated when typing on the computer.

As I veer back and forth, preferring first one and then the other, I wish I knew which one the students prefer. (When I've asked, the answer has varied by individual students; there doesn't seem to be a clear preference.)

Which do you use, and why?

*"Amish" because the quilts are "personal and handmade" by the thousands, like the papers we grade.