Where have you been, Dr. Virago?

OK, that doesn’t scan quite onto “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,” but close enough.

Well, since I last posted in March (!!), the Polar Vortex winter we had here in the Great Lakes continued unabated, giving us an April snow that killed the buds on my flowering bushes and trees. Boo! The hyacinths you see pictured survived, though:

This just isn't right

This just isn’t right

And I finished up my first semester of being Humanities Institute Director with a big talk by a visiting bigwig and a couple more Humanities Happy Hours. The latter seem to be very popular and growing in attendance, so I’m definitely continuing them this coming year. I need to work on publicity, though, especially to draw in off-campus people. I met with a couple of high school teachers this year and they gave me good advice for getting their attention, so that’s good. And I’m collaborating more with local library events coordinators. At the very least, we can publicize each others’ events.

Then after the semester was over, it was off to Kalamazoo for the annual Medieval Congress. I think we did a good job of being more welcoming to newcomers at our annual Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society meeting, and I’m hoping we continue that trend in years to come! If you’re at all interested in medieval drama and are at the Congress in Kalamazoo, please come to our business meeting and find out what we’re about!

Speaking of medieval drama, then I took a long weekend trip to NYC over Memorial Day weekend to see The Mysteries at The Flea Theatre with another medieval drama aficionado and to hang out in Manhattan and Brooklyn with my sister and one of my best friends from graduate school. It was a *gorgeous* weekend, so my sister and I walked the High Line (where I think I was too stunned by the crowds and the thing itself to take pictures) and I spent a day strolling through Brooklyn water-front parks and walkways with friends:

Lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Promenade

Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade

I also did a dumpling tour of Brooklyn’s Chinese neighborhood, Sunset Park, went for drinks and dinner in Red Hook, strolled Williamsburg, saw the Ai Wei Wei exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and had a mostly Brooklyn weekend (well, except the day and evening in Manhattan). When I left NYC in 1994, that’s not something I would’ve done back then (except that I did have a friend who lived in Park Slope and did a walking tour of Brooklyn Heights back then) — Brooklyn is a whole new world compared to then, so it was like visiting a whole new city. (Even Sunset Park, which was a Chinese neighborhood back then, too, was much sleepier back in the day, as I recall.) And the High Line neighborhoods in Manhattan, too, were largely new to me — I don’t think I’d ever gone over that far west before in that part of Manhattan. And, of course, the skyline of lower Manhattan has sadly changed since I last lived in NYC, too.

And then in June, I went to Hong Kong for the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes annual meeting. It was kind of a weird conference, since, as scholars, we all work in different disciplines and subfields, but it was very interesting and largely pretty fruitful (though I would like more practical panels and sessions), and hey, it was in Hong Kong! Given the location and the theme (performative humanities), we were treated to performances of Cantonese opera and traditional music, and a poetry reading by a contemporary Cantonese poet and his translator. The reading and music performance also happened to take place during the 10-course opening feast of Cantonese food, which was *included* in the registration price. Other conferences have a lot to live up to! The conference was held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in the New Territories, so many of the rooms reserved were at the Hong Kong Hyatt Regency Sha Tin, right next door. Best. Conference. Hotel. Ever. This was my view of Tolo Harbor (which you could also see from the bathtub because one wall of the bathroom was also a window — though it had a shade if you wanted privacy):

Wish I could have taken this view home with me!

Wish I could have taken this view home with me!

I also wish I could have taken any of the charming Buddhas from the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery (really a temple; not a working monastery) home with me. This shrine, nestled in the tropical mountains just steps away from the Sha Tin MTR stop, was such a peaceful respite from the city and its equally busy suburbs that I went there twice. Here’s just a taste of it. I wish you could hear the deafening sound of the cicadas and the chattering of the monkeys, too.

One of the over ten thousand individual Buddhas, each with their own personality

One of the over ten thousand individual Buddhas, each with their own personality

IMG_1410IMG_1414IMG_0964IMG_1416

Nearing the very top

Nearing the very top

The ultimate Buddha

The ultimate Buddha

The view from the very top.

The view from the very top. See the red fences at the bottom, to the right and in front of the buildings in the center? That’s where I started! (The pagoda on the far right is not part of the 10,000 Buddhas monastery, but a cemetery/ancestral hall next door to the base of the monastery entrance.)

These are just a few of the over 700 pictures I took in Hong Kong, and only one of the sites I saw! I had about a day of free time before the conference started and two and half free days after, so I went to the top of Victoria Peak via the tram, visited the Hong Kong History Museum (really great, and new since I was last in the city in 1992), watched the Symphony of Light in the harbor, got a tour of the Chung King Mansions by an asylum seeker from Ghana (arranged by the conference), took a Star Ferry across the harbor, rode all the way up the “Mid-Level Escalators” (outdoor escalators! neat!), visited the Man Mo Temple (where I lit incense sticks upside-down! d’oh!), walked around SoHo and various other mid-level districts on Hong Kong Island, rode the “ding ding” tram car just for fun, and visited Lantau Island, where I saw the Big Buddha, had a delicious vegetarian lunch at a real, working monastery, wandered around the fishing village of Tai O (and felt miles away from the city), and took a boat to see Chinese White Dolphins. And the conference also organized a quick visit to Macau, though the bus tour concentrated too much on the casinos and didn’t give us enough time in the historical parts.

And *then*, in July, I went to Reykjavik, Iceland, for the New Chaucer Society Congress. Owing to a weather-related delays and cancellations of flights, I got there a day later than planned, and only had one truly free day, but also a day and a half of excursions organized by the conference. And I played hooky for three sessions. So I still got to see a lot, though I took fewer pictures because I was often in company. (I take more when I’m alone, as I was in Hong Kong.) I fell completely in love with Iceland and so intend to get back there with Bullock in tow next summer or maybe the summer after (for a 5th wedding anniversary/belated honeymoon of sorts).

My favorite parts of the Iceland trip were…well, everything! But especially a) soaking in cheap public hot tubs at public swimming facilities (no pictures of the hot tubs themselves, alas, just the sign for them); b) riding Icelandic horses in the mountains; c) spending a gorgeous day spent at Thingvellir, an awesome site of historical, political, and geological significance.

Not "bacon sitting," but hot tub soaking!

Not “bacon sitting,” but hot tub soaking!

Foreground: Saga, my horse. Yes, that was really her name. Background: a horse with a fabulous mane!

Foreground: Saga, my horse. Yes, that was really her name. Background: a horse with a fabulous mane!

The hidden waterfall to which we rode. The elf got cut out of the picture, alas. :)

The hidden waterfall to which we rode. The elf got cut out of the picture, alas. :)

The horses at rest while we explore

The horses at rest while we explore. Saga is in front right of the group in the center.

Thingvellir National Park, featuring the Almannagja rift, the eastern edge of the North American techtonic plate, and the "logberg" or "law rock" (the white flag pole), the site of the earliest parliamentary meeting in Europe, the Althing, founded in 930

Thingvellir National Park, featuring the Almannagja rift, the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate where it meets the European plate, and the “logberg” or “law rock” (the white flag pole), the site of the earliest parliamentary meeting in Europe, the Althing, founded in 930

But now I’m home in Rust Belt, where I seem to have brought the cool, gray Icelandic weather with me. So where are our public hot tubs?!

Oh, and by the way, I presented a successful pedagogical paper at New Chaucer Society, which I want to write about in part soon. Now that I’ve settled back into a groove here, I will try to get back to regular posting!

Thank you, InsideHigherEd

Dear InsideHigherEd “Around the Web” editor(s),

How sweet of you to link to the previous post today, on my birthday! (Come on, don’t tell me that wasn’t intentional — I mentioned my birthday in the post.)

And thank you, too, for linking to this blog over the years. I feel like we go way back, since this blog and IHE started up at about the same time — a seeming eon ago in internet years. And I appreciate the higher profile your links have given the blog. At first it was a little unnerving, but over time, I got used to it. Sometimes I even write thinking that you’ll link to the post (and I’m usually right about the kinds of things you go for) and that helps me speak to a larger audience.

So thanks and, well, see you “around the web”!

Dr. V

 

Twenty years

Twenty years ago this month I heard from the last of the graduate schools that accepted me into their Ph.D. programs.

And yesterday, the official campus daily news announced that the Board of Trustees personnel committee had met and voted on the cases for tenure and promotion, and for promotion to full professor.

Among those who were approved for promotion to full professor: me.

Yeah, I’m pretty pleased. But I’ve also started that whole rumination thing that often happens when you pass milestones. It probably doesn’t help that my 45th birthday is on Tuesday.

It’s taken twenty years to get from admission to graduate school to the highest rank of professor. That’s not bad within our profession — some people never get to full, and if you take the 7-year tenure cycle as a model, maybe 20 is just about right — but I wonder how it stacks up against against other jobs, especially in the professions. This article says it takes an average of 10.5 years to “make partner” in a big law firm. That’s actually pretty close to how long it took me from beginning the job at Rust Belt U in 2003 to now. But then law school is only three years long, so that means it’s 14.5 years, on average, from acceptance to partner. I don’t think there’s any equivalent to full professor or partner in medicine (unless, of course, you’re a med school prof), but I could be wrong. But what about people in other white collar jobs? My vague impression is that their careers can move faster — and none of them spend 8 years in post-grad degree programs!

In the time since I was accepted to grad school, the babies that were born that year have mostly grown up and are now college sophomores. Heck, at 25, I could have been having one of those babies (hypothetically, anyway) and be the parent of a college sophomore. I don’t know what to make of that, but it’s weird.

And now the real question is, “Uh, what now?” I mean, I’ve jumped through the last hoop, haven’t I? So for the next twenty years, what’s going to drive me? I have no idea, but maybe that’s one of the topics this blog can transition into dealing with: life after/as full professor. But maybe first — in the next post I get around to writing — I should blog about *getting* to full (after all, that’s the new tag I made and tagged with this post).

But now, I’m off to celebrate an early birthday and promotion with a friend!

The conference job interview: time to kill it? A few thoughts.

First, some background for any readers who might stumble upon this post and not know the basics. (Academic readers in English and other fields that do first-round interviews at discipline conferences can skip the next paragraph.)

As all my regular readers know, fields in the literature and language in the US generally do their first round of job interviews for tenure-track assistant professor jobs (and sometimes higher ranked ones) at the Modern Language Association convention each year. That convention used to be held the weekend after Christmas, but has now been moved back to after the new year. This year’s convention will be next weekend, January 9-12. Department interview committees come to the conference to interview somewhere in the ballpark of 10-15 first round candidates for the job they advertised earlier in the academic year (the MLA “Job List” opens in September, but many ads get placed after that). Candidates come to the conference to be interviewed, but they often have to make travel arrangements before they’re sure they will *have* any interviews. I think that was the case for me the first time I did it, but the second time, I was lucky to be informed of at least one interview more than a month ahead, and so made my arrangements knowing that I had a purpose for being there. (A person *usually* doesn’t give a paper in the same year that they’re interviewing. First of all, there are only ever a few panels in one’s particular field, and it’s hard to get on them. I’ve given exactly *one* MLA paper, versus many multiple Medieval Academy, New Chaucer Society, and Medieval Congress — K’zoo and Leeds — papers. Second, you’ve got enough to worry about with interviews — who needs the worry of a paper, too? Third, you want to be as flexible as possible with times for interviews. But I do remember one year in which one of our candidates was giving a paper, so it’s not unheard of — just unusual.) After that round of interviews, departments then bring 2-4 candidates to their campus for the second round.

OK, that’s the background. There’s a lot of talk around the internet (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) about how much of a financial and mental stress this whole process puts on candidates, and at the present moment, I think that’s true. (There’s way too much to link to. Just trust me on this. You’ve probably already seen it anyway.) I’m not even that old in the field, but a lot has already changed since I was on the market in 2001-2 and 2002-3. My department gave some travel funding to job seekers, enough, iirc, that covered my airfare even cross-country, and I wasn’t even in a particularly rich department. The first year I shared a room, but the second year, I decided that managing my anxiety would be easier without a roommate, and I took the extra financial hit as an “investment in myself.” But as bleak as the job market was then, I could still believe in that kind of Pollyannish financial pablum. And that year I had 13 interviews, so the per-interview cost of the hotel room and other expenses was relatively low. But that is not the case for most job candidates today.

The last few years I’ve been to MLA — I went to LA and to Seattle recently — I’ve talked to seriously *outstanding* job candidates — people whose excellent work I know — who had 0, 1, and 2 interviews, even on their second and third go-rounds, with the PhD in hand. I don’t think I met anyone who had more than 3. I really felt bad for the ones who shelled out for the conference and ended up with no interviews. Even the year I had only 2 interviews didn’t feel as bleak to me as these recent years have felt — there was still a sense of hope for the next year.

Anyway, like many people these days, I’m generally in favor of moving to a discipline-wide practice of Skype (or other video) or phone interviews for the first round of interviews. Yes, both can be awkward in comparison to face-to-face interviews, but they also avoid some of the awkwardness of the latter. For instance, in a Skype or phone interview, I’ll never feel bad about the female candidate who realizes her skirt is a little uncomfortably short when she sits down, and I’m unlikely to see how a candidate’s hands shake when he’s understandably nervous. And no one will be sitting on the hotel bed! (Yes, that still happened in my interviews, but it was the committee person who had to make do with the bed, not me.)  A phone or video interview lets you ignore physical distractions (remind me someday to tell you about the committee that kept fighting over the thermostat) and focus on the things that matter. In my experience doing phone interviews as an interviewee and helping a friend practice for his Skype interviews, both are actually a little more relaxed once the weirdness of the technology is smoothed out.

I realize that there might be some technology cost associated with doing things this way, and perhaps some logistic wrangling, but surely that’s cheaper and easier for all parties than the conference, isn’t it?

And there’s a kind of democratizing and leveling out that goes along with such a practice — one that benefits both candidates and hiring departments. I still remember the interview I had with RBU. They’d picked one of the mid-level price hotels, an old grand dame hotel that probably looked *fabulous* on the web site. Indeed, its lobby was absolutely grand, full of rich woods and Persian carpets. But unbeknownst to my future colleagues and to me, there was an unrenovated wing of the hotel that still had some SRO residents in it (!). Guess where the RBU committee’s room was. Yup. It was really weird. I got off the elevator and turned down a secondary hallway where suddenly the wallpaper and carpeting changed (I think I even had to go down a step) and the lighting got very dim. It turned out to be an ice-breaking kind of thing — the committee all laughed about my finding them on the edge of doom and asking if I’d been accosted by the lady next door (who was convinced my colleagues were being visited by prostitutes!), and explained that had they known, they would’ve picked another hotel, but I very nearly had a *bad* first impression of RBU (“This is all they can afford?”). And has anyone ever had to have an interview with a committee that met you in the mass-interviewing room, the one with all the tables? I haven’t, but I always felt sorry for the institutions who had to do that. What kind of impression does that make?

And believe it or not, the practice of interviews at the MLA conference was actually begun in order to democratize the process, so the move to phone/video interviews would be in keeping with that spirit. Michael Bérubé, former MLA president, writes about this in a public Facebook post in which he dispels a number of myths about the MLA convention and the interviews. He’s what he has to say about the interview process:

But it’s worth pointing out that the conference-interview system was created not to discriminate against anyone, but precisely to break up the deeply discriminatory and opaque system as it existed in the 1960s, whereby dissertation directors or directors of graduate studies got on the phone with their friends at other universities and let them know that Horatio Q. Shuttlecock was completing a most excellent dissertation and would like an assistant professorship in their department. Or, conversely, department heads called their friends to find out if they knew of any good prospects among the new crop of Ph.D.s. That, folks, was the old boy network, and guess what? It was run by old boys. Back then, making the job process into a national, centralized system with conference interviews at the fulcrum (followed, usually, by campus visits for a handful of finalists) was a way of taking the whole thing out of the hands of the old boys.

I think it’s really important to keep some sense of “national, centralized system” — or at least a practice that is universal. But for that to happen, everyone has to start doing Skype/phone/Google Hangout/video-conferencing interviews at once, or at least swiftly, and it has to start with the richest, poshest, most prestigious universities. A few years ago, our administrators wanted to know why it was our department had to go to MLA to interview candidates — couldn’t we do cheaper phone or video-conferencing interviews? It’s not that we were all dying to make a post-Christmas trip (this was back when MLA started on or around Dec. 27), but we were afraid that our department would look bad to the best candidates, who would also be interviewing with richer universities at the MLA. If there’s an uneven trickle of departments doing video and phone interviews, starting with the RBUs of the world, it’s just going to make things bleaker and more confusing and more stressful all around, and candidates will be shelling out money for MLA for even fewer interviews, and then trying to schedule video/phone interviews around that. (Of course, it might make the posher universities look like bigger assholes for insisting candidates come to MLA. Still, I don’t necessarily want that for them, either.) So it really has to happen pretty much all at once — like the change in dates of the conference did.

Here’s where the MLA (and other professional organizations that run conferences where interviews are held) might be of help. I realize that their word is not law and that they don’t decree or control how interviews are done, but they could strongly recommend that departments move to video/phone interviews for the first round. As Michael points out in that post I linked above, the MLA doesn’t actually make any money off the conference interviews, so it’s of no financial consequence to the organization how these interviews are done. But at some point in the 70s, they helped create this system in order to counter the old boys’ network, so they could have some influence in creating another system now. And other influential voices could join them — other organizations, present and past presidents of them, big names that everyone knows, bloggers, etc. It might take a loud sea of voices, because the MLA makes a whole lot of recommendations that get ignored (for example, if I’m not mistaken, they recommend that committees not ask for additional materials up front — but how many committees follow that?). And individually, if we know folks who are running searches next year, *especially* at prestigious places, we could urge them to set an example.

Meanwhile, I think it’s important to keep some sort of first round of interviews. Bullock is in a field that doesn’t do them — just jump right to the top three candidates, whom they invite to campus. And guess what? The field is overwhelmingly represented by people with degrees from about ten institutions, even among profs at lower ranked universities. (He’s in a social science, and some social scientist decided the crunch the numbers and publish this finding in their organization journal. This isn’t just anecdotal.) I don’t know the numbers for English, but my impression is that this is not the case in our discipline. It’s probably still true that there’s a *lot* of overlap in the 10-15 people who get first round interviews, but I suspect that that larger number allows for a broader range of candidates from a variety of programs. And from the conference interviews I’ve done (where we interview 14-15 candidates), I can tell you that there is *always* someone who looks great on paper but turns out to be not what you’re looking for in person, and *always* someone who just made it on the interview list, but who surprises and wows you in the interview, and moves up in the list. With only 3 candidates, you might get stuck with nothing but the former, and you’re unlikely to discover the latter.  And apparently, Bullock’s discipline is starting to realize this, because some places are *adding* Skype interviews to their process now (it’s still unusual, though, he says, but he thinks it’s a great idea).

I still like the idea of the conference interview, but in practice, it does seem an awful burden on candidates especially, but also on cash-strapped institutions. And I don’t see any real negative difference between an awkward hotel-room interview and a Skype interview (though phone interviews have extra challenges and awkwardness).

What say you all? How can we help make this happen in our disciplines as soon as possible?

Update: Michael Bérubé has posted a follow-up FB post (he really should just go back to blogging!) about what a post-Skype MLA without interviews would look like. The short answer: pretty damn good. I especially like his point that departments could easily interview *more* applicants via Skype over a longer amount of time instead of squeezing in 10-15 at the conference. And, for the record, I would totally drive over to a Cleveland MLA. (He suggests smaller cities could host the smaller resulting conference.)

Happy New Year!

2013 wasn’t a bad year or a particularly notable year, though Bullock and I did celebrate 10 years together, and I was named Humanities Institute director. Otherwise, it was a kind of normal year, I guess. We didn’t quite end the year in a particularly good way, though — Bullock had a root canal and Pippi had to be taken to the vet for a foot injury, both on the last days of the year. My two gingers are recovering now.

Professionally, 2013 was solid. The anthology that I co-edited technically came out in 2012, but Spring 2013 was the first semester it was used in classes, and it did pretty well for such a specialized volume. So that’s cool. And I taught our gen-ed poetry class three times in a row (well, two consecutively) to reasonable success. Since this was the first time I’d taken on this particular class, that was good. (But I’d forgotten how much non-majors balk at having to learn technical terms. Seriously, guys, when in Rome!) Oh, and I *finally* finished the Article That Wouldn’t Die (or whatever I called it last) and submitted it to Dream Journal. This is the first time I’ve blindly submitted an article since my very first article submission — everything in between has grown out of something else (like a conference) or been invited in some way (but often still peer reviewed). Scary! Fingers crossed!

2014, however, is already shaping up to be a little more eventful, at least professionally. Here’s what I have planned so far, a list of bullet points I offer in lieu of resolutions.

  • A presentation later this month at a selective, by-application workshop for manuscript scholars that I *hope* will jump start where I need to go next on my in-progress not-quite-a-book-yet research.
  • A trip to Hong Kong for the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes annual conference. I’m looking forward especially to the workshops for directors and for the public humanities, and to being in Hong Kong! I last visted HK in the early 90s, but got sick on the way from Guilin to HK and spent the whole three days of our visit in the hotel room. So I added three extra days in the city — one before and two after — to just be a tourist. The conference and thus the hotels are in Sha Tin, which is outside of the city center in the New Territories (where the university hosting the conference is), but I’m actually kind of looking forward to getting around on public transportation and off the beaten track a bit.
  • A trip to Iceland for the New Chaucer Society. I’ve never been to Iceland, so I’m especially psyched to visit a new country. NCS has arranged a lot of excursions of the kind I might have taken anyway, so I’m only adding on two extra days for being a tourist on my own, especially since, holy crap, hotels in Iceland are freakin’ expensive in high season! Strangely, Hong Kong is cheaper. Even at the non-conference rate, I’ll get to stay in a *swank* high-end hotel with a Tolo Harbor view in Hong Kong for about the same as I’m paying for a two-star, bare basics Reykjavik hotel at the conference rate! (Yes, yes, I realize that the Yuan is artificially controlled and that the hotels in Chinese cities like Hong Kong are probably also partly subsidized to encourage tourist and business travel. But still, it kind of surprised me.) Bullock was going to go to Iceland with me, but when we realized that the two of us could take a non-work-related trip somewhere else less expensive for the cost of taking him to Iceland with me, we decided I’d go solo.
  • And I’m excited about what I’m doing/presenting at NCS, too. My anthology co-editor and I arranged a seminar (something relatively new for NCS — I’m interested in seeing how it goes) on a text near and dear to us both. And I’m presenting on a teaching panel about something I’m doing in my medieval lit class this spring, which brings me to…
  • My awesome medieval lit class this spring! I haven’t been this psyched for a class since I did that awesome ASNaC class in 2011. (That’s Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, btw.) It really deserves its own post. Maybe the next one. Anyway, this time I’m focusing on manuscript collections and anthologies from the Exeter Book to the Morte Darthur (which I’m reading, somewhat atypically, as a collection of sorts), with a bunch of miscellanies in between (Harley 978, with Marie de France’s Lais and Fables — collections in a collection! — and “Sumer is icumen in”; Laud Misc. 108 with Havelok and Horn and saint’s lives; the Auchinleck MS; and so on). I’ve arranged the syllabus by MS collections and paper assignments are all going to be about how we read such collections (e.g., read a work not assigned for class from one of our collections and write about how it fits the whole or works in tension with it). There will be lots of digital resources, too, to give students a sense of the material book. And I think I finally figured out how to give the grad students in a “slash” course a more graduate student worthy experience — they’re going to present their research projects in the two-hour time slot reserved for the final and the undergrads will be their audience and interlocutors (something I can totally repeat in future classes).
  • And the Humanities Institute will be up and running soon! Our first event is the first of our Humanities Happy Hours. I’m still trying to get a big speaker for a major event — important people are bad at answering emails! — but I’m actually more excited for the Triple-H (as I call it) series, which will showcase *our* humanities scholars in a public-friendly way.
  • I’m also going to write and submit my first big organizational (as opposed to individual) grant for our HI. I’m going to start with a regional one and then if that’s a success, maybe aim higher next year. I’m kind of looking forward to this. Yes, I know I’m weird.
  • I’m also writing a short essay on “managing down time” for a collection of essays that Greg Semenza is co-editing as a companion to Graduate Study for the 21st Century. So, um, first I must manage my down time! :)  (Seriously, no big plans for the personal life — just the usual making time to relax and exercise and all that. And maybe get back to teaching myself Italian, which I started last summer and then dropped.)

So what are your plans for 2014, professional or personal, or both?

What do your essay assignments look like?

Yesterday I was putting the finishing touches on an assignment sheet for one of my classes and I looked down at the word count: 1,003 words.  Hm, you’re probably thinking, that seems like a lot, but it depends on the assignment.  The assignment, my friends, was for two 500-word short essays.  That’s right, I wrote as many words *describing* the assignment as I expected the students to use in *doing* the assignment!

Is this bad?

On the one hand, I feel like I should point this out to students and say, “Look, if I can write this many words just telling you what I expect, you should be able to produce this many words on the more substantive topic of your essay. Easy peasy!”

On the other hand, maybe I’m overwhelming students. And yet, I’ve had students praise my assignment handouts because I lay out my expectations so clearly. But still, there are students who are almost certainly reading only every other bullet point (and sometimes reversing what I say there even when they do read it, despite the big DO NOT in bold and all caps, or whatever), and least judging from the work they turn in. So, for them, it’s too much, or overwhelming, or confusing.

Part of why my assignment sheets are so long is that often my assignments are as much about the process as the product, and I lay a lot of that process out. I want students to learn from the assignments, to learn from doing, as much as I want them to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they’ve developed. And sometimes I want to teach them more effective processes. So, for example, if I want students to do a close reading of the interaction of form and content in a poem, I tell them explicitly NOT to consult any other sources (other than, say, the OED, or other reference works), and especially to stay away from the internet. Instead, I tell them, read the poem over and over, first all at once, then section by section, word by word. Make multiple copies of the poem and mark them up, I tell them. Use what you’ve learned in class, I say, and consult your book and your notes.  Sometimes in a set of directions I’ll give them short examples of effective and ineffective methods or argument or whatever (so, for example, an effective thesis and an ineffective one; a smooth quotation of a poem and an awkward one, etc.). And so on.

To be clear, they are *not* anal-retentive checklists of things that must be in an essay.  For as much guidance in the process I give, I leave a lot of openness to content and its organization. (A frequent exchange I have with students: “How should I organize my essay?” Me: “That depends on your argument.”) Often, in fact, my essay prompts raise a number of questions and then I say, “You do NOT have to cover all of these questions in your essay. They are here to generate your thinking.”  For example, here’s a passage from the assignment I was writing yesterday for my upper level undergrad/MA level Old English class, in which one of the essay topics was “What got lost in translation [in the class's collaborative translation of Judith]?”

Write a thoughtful and detailed essay about what your new knowledge of Old English language and literature lets you see in this poem that you would not have seen from reading it only in translation. Tell me about some of the choices you had to make (or that others made) that shut down multiple possible meanings, or that lost meaningful structural or grammatical forms of the Old English, or that obscured significant qualities of the poetic form and its conventions. (Or maybe even discuss points of confusion.)

Words that have multiple possible translations are a good place to start, but try not to limit yourself to that. Think also about poetic form (the structure of alliterative line and its beats), sound effects (look for “noisy” scenes in the translation and then look at what the OE is doing), poetic conventions (including compounds and kennings, but also variation, poetic vocabulary, the OE love for litotes and other irony, and the conventional motifs of poetry), ambiguity, and also the effects of the flexible word order of OE poetry.

You don’t have to cover it all, but a successful essay will dig into the subtleties of what’s lost. It will also put its discussion in context of understanding the poem Judith as a whole.

In other words, my assignments and their focus on process are an extension of my teaching, where I also try to emphasize the processes of reading and interpretation (and research, too) rather than single readings. And they are so because many (perhaps most) of my students need to be taught *how* to do these things well (where “these things” vary by the level of the class). When I was in college (at a more selective college, with a very different student body, I realize — also back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), instructions for essays in all sorts of classes from the freshmen core classes to advanced classes in the major amounted to a line on the syllabus that said: Essay due.  I don’t want to return to that, especially since that wouldn’t suit my students. I need to teach them where they are.

But maybe I should simplify?

Oh wise citizens of the intertubes, what you do you think?

A National Arts and Humanities Month announcement

So, I just learned today, half way into the month, that October in the US is National Arts and Humanities month. Who knew?

Well, from now one I will know, and it will be my business to know, because…drumroll please…I have been named the new Director of the Humanities Institute at Rust Belt University.

Our HI was founded in the 80s, but it’s been defunct for about 5 or 6 years now, so I’m essentially presiding over a “reboot,” Humanities Institute 2.0, an HI for the 21st century. I think I’ll take Doctor Who and Sherlock as my models (though with less of Steven Moffat’s disappointing sexism, thankyouverymuch), since the old HI was pretty beloved here and I want both to do it justice, but also to make it new, to make it useful for the humanities at RBU now. I’m meeting with my college’s dean this week to start the ball rolling — including putting together a steering committee, etc.– and I’m going to work on a draft mission statement today. We’ve only got a small budget to start with, so for our first semester of events and activities, I need to keep things realistic as I also seek out other funding. But my general vision for the Institute is one that makes connections: across humanities disciplines (and with those scholars who do humanities-type work in non-humanities departments), of course, but also between RBU and the wider community. I also primarily want the Institute to be an engine of advocacy and support for the humanities, both within the university and in our community.

So, internet hive mind, if your university were just starting up a Humanities Institute, what would like to see it do?

Woah, I got “Reddited”!

Wait, is “Reddited” a word yet? Well, it is now. What I mean is, I got linked at Reddit. OK, so it was only in linguistics subreddit, but sure enough, it seems the whole point of linking me was to tell me I was wrong. Well, at least it wasn’t one of those parts of Reddit where a person gets called worse things.

Anyway, the joke’s on them, because most of the commenters misread my post entirely. (It was my post about Anglo-Saxons ‘getting’ teaching by using a double accusative for both the subject taught and the person taught.) They thought it was actually a post about linguistics. Sigh. Only one person commenting realized it was really just a pretense — a hook — to talk about teaching. This smart Redditor, shadyturnip, even did me a solid by elevating my musings to a metaphor. Thanks, dude!

Anyway, even though only 6 people commented, thanks to them and the original person who shared it, I got my *highest* number of daily hits (478!) since moving the blog to WordPress. And that was over what was pretty much a throw-away, thinking-off-the-top-of-my-head post.

The internet is a weird place.

Dr. Virago – bicycle commuter?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

So yesterday I didn’t have to teach my Thursday 8 am class (I gave them the day off to break up the intensity) but I did have to go to campus for two meetings with departmental colleagues. So I thought, “Ah, perfect opportunity to try out riding my bike to campus from the new house” (which I’d been meaning to do since we moved in last year). Now, I occasionally rode my bike to campus from the old house, but not nearly as much as I should have. I think I gave up on making that a regular thing because it didn’t really provide *any* fitness benefit — we were only a mile and a quarter away from campus. But now we’re 6 miles away by direct route and 8 miles via the protected bike trail (which is what I took — no way am I ready to ride in traffic).

So yeah, I did a 16-mile round trip yesterday. Yay me! Physically it wasn’t that taxing (although I *really* need a gel seat cover — ouch!) and it was really pleasant to be outside (it was muggy, but in the 70s). But I found out that doing this has its drawbacks and I’m not sure I’m going to become a regular bike commuter, as much as the idea appeals to me on many levels, unless I work out some of the problems here.

First of all, even though I was riding at what I thought was a gentle, easy pace, I arrived a sweaty mess, mainly where my body was making contact with the bike or my backpack. So that means my back was sweaty — and not just a bit of a “glow,” but *dripping* *wet* — as were other areas that I’m sure you can imagine. (Luckily, nothing showed through my clothes — I had on a loose cotton blouse with a really loud print that disguised the sweat on my back, for instance.) OK, so how do bike commuters avoid this? Do they bike in one set of clothes and towel off and change at work? I know they don’t all do this — I remember seeing tons of Londoners and Parisians biking in their work clothes. (Btw, the scenes of crowds of Londoners and Parisians biking everywhere is part of what appeals to me about being a bike commuter. I’m such a Europhile that I’ll take any opportunity to pretend to be European. Shoot, I get excited because our Bosch dishwasher with its little pods of detergent make me feel European!) Anyway, unless I can solve the sweat problem, this isn’t going to happen.

The other problem is that I’m not sure this is a time-efficient way to commute and/or exercise, and I can burn equal amounts of calories with shorter runs. (Though it *is* a fossil-fuel-efficient way — another reason why it appeals to me.) According to various calculators on the intertubes, I probably burned about 340 calories on each leg, and the trip each way took me 50 minutes door to door. I burn the same amount of calories in an easy 30 minute run (so 60 minutes would give me the equivalent of the round-trip bike ride). Of course, running doesn’t get me to my destination, but it takes up less of my day than an hour and forty minutes of round-trip biking. Meanwhile, my *driving* commute is only about 20 minutes door-to-door. So it all kind of breaks even in terms of time spent in the abstract, if you combine everything: 40 minutes of driving + 60 minutes of running vs. 100 minutes of bike-commuting, both burning about 680 calories. But I don’t normally run 60 minutes on a day I’m going to campus (I usually squeeze in 30 on weekdays when I run), so in reality, by biking I’d be spending *more* time on those days.

Of course, in reality, if I’m going to do this, it will only be on Tuesdays after my 8-week class ends, because there’s no way I’m going to be out there biking to work on days I have to teach an 8 am class. So maybe I can afford the extra half hour of combined exercise and commute each week.

But that still leaves the sweaty mess issue. I can bungee-cord my backpack to the rack I have on the back of my bike, but what about the rest of me? Is carrying a change of clothes (and a towel) the only option? Is it me – am I exceptionally sweaty? Or does it get less sweaty in cooler, less muggy weather? What would a Parisian do??

The Anglo-Saxons totally ‘got’ teaching

So I’m teaching Old English again. And I’m doing it in a quasi-flipped way which requires the students to do a lot of intellectual heavy lifting before they come to class, which, for the moment, has some of them freaked out. But I’ll report on how that has actually worked when more of the course has gone by.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a sentence from one of the exercises on Peter Baker’s terrific, interactive web site, “Old English Aerobics.” And I want to share it because I’m kind of fascinated by it and I think it says something about conceptualizing teaching and what teachers do.  First, a bit about this web site: I’ve been using this site in its various incarnations over the years, but it recently got even better when Baker turned his old PDF exercises into interactive online exercises compatible with multiple platforms (and especially nice looking on an iPad). Students (and I!) can now do the exercises and immediately find out if they’re wrong or right, and sometimes, if the answer is “it’s complicated,” a little pop-up gives a further grammatical note. [Note: when I first started teaching the course 10 years ago, he had an older version of these exercises with technology that had its problems even in 2003 -- it was very browser-dependent. I think it was made with Java? I don't know enough about applet programming to know, but I do know it seemed already a little creaky and dated already in 2003. Great concept, but it took the latest version to work out the execution problems.]

Anyway, there was a question and answer recently that gave me such a hard time that I actually had to contact Baker about it. It was an exercise on pronouns and case, and here’s what the sentence looked like:

Se lārēow onfēng þone esne and lǣrde ________ þā Engliscan sprǣce.

For those of you who don’t read Old English, it says:

The teacher took (or received) the young man (or slave or servant) and taught _________ the English language (lit: the English speech).

OK, in Modern English, the blank would be filled with “him” and I think we should analyze that as the indirect object and “the English language” as the direct object. (Although I should say that syntax is *not* my greatest strength.) Here’s how I think of it: Taught what? Taught the English language. Taught it to or with respect to whom? Taught it to him. Are you all with me now?

Let me explain a little more. Bear with me — this is necessary for the point I’m trying to make (although those of you who know Old English can skip this paragraph). Old English had cases — inflectional forms of nouns, pronouns, and adjective that marked their grammatical function in a sentence (subject, object, possession, indirect object, object of a preposition, etc.). We still have this in Modern English pronouns, although (in standard English) we use the same form for both direct and indirect objects (and also for objections of prepositions) and generally call it the “objective form” — me, us, you, him, her, it, them. Old English had a few more distinct forms (although not in first person — those look much like ours) especially in the third person. In the third person, “him” is the dative form of the masculine singular — used for indirect objects and objects of most prepositions, among other uses — and “hine” is the accusative form for masculine singular, used for direct objects.

Still with me? OK, given that little bit of knowledge, would you chose “him” (the form for indirect objects) or “hine” (the form for direct objects) for that blank? I chose “him”….aaaaaand the system told me I was wrong. The correct answer, according to the computer, was “hine.” What? But isn’t “þā Engliscan sprǣce” the direct object?? (It’s feminine accusative singular, for those who care.) Stymied, I contacted Baker, and even he agreed it was odd, but a check of the Bosworth-Toller dictionary showed an example sentence for the verb “lǣran” (to teach) with both the person taught and the content taught in the accusative case. So Old English does it differently and “hine” was indeed the correct answer.

And that got me to thinking: maybe Old English does it *right*. The Modern English possibility of saying “…taught the English language *to* him” sounds a lot like the “banking” model of education, as if we take a student and fill him or her up with the content of what we’re teaching. But the way Old English expresses it, the student receives the action of “to teach” directly, not indirectly. What do we teach? We teach students. And actually, this sense of direct object *is* still there in Modern English in the very sentence I just wrote: we teach students.* We shape students, educate students (draw things *out* of them rather than depositing knowledge into them), and influence students. The *students* are the object of education, in more ways than one. This especially makes sense if/when you realize that “lǣran” also means to exhort, advise, and persuade, which we also often do where students are concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that the content of what we teach isn’t important, whether it’s “þā Engliscan sprǣce” or something else. It is *also* the object of education. Both the student and the content area are our objects. We teach students but we also teach [fill in your specialty]. And our teaching lives, from syllabus design to what we do each day in the classroom to creating assignments and grading them, is often dominated by trying to maintain a balance between those two objects — what we want them to learn (or what the skill or topic requires to be learned) and what the students can reasonably achieve in a given setting.

So, the Anglo-Saxons got it. They understood that the student and the content of what we teach are both our direct objects, and cannot be easily divided.

 

 

*The more I think about it, maybe in the sentence “I teach students medieval literature,” both “students” and “medieval literature” are direct objects even in Modern English. But since we don’t have cases, it’s not obvious. Eh, the Old English still got me thinking about this and that’s what matter for the rest of this post.