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


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.)

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.

RBOC: Early summer edition

    • Hey, my blog got me a (future) publication! I’ve been invited to do a very short, personal essay on managing down-time in academia; it’s for a collection of essays on life in the humanities. I know the editor knows of me mainly through the blog (though he knows my real-life identity, too), and it’s the main reason why he invited me to contribute. OK, so it’s not that big of a publication (not scholarly, not peer-reviewed), but it will be easy and it’s not due until next year. Also, some of the other contributors on board are VIPs, and I think it’s important that not *all* of the contributors are VIPs at fancy R1 kind of places. One of the things this blog has always been about is what life is like at a regional public university, and a collection of essays about the life of humanists should reflect the diversity of careers and institutional affiliations we have. So, I said yes. For those reasons and more.
    • Wait, it’s summer, right? Well, technically it’s not yet “summer” (as in the season that begins later this month), but on the academic calendar it is, and it is strangely cold today! Brrrr, it’s 60F outside!
    • Just how small (for a city) is Rust Belt? This small: my dental hygienist is in the same running group I just joined. And my dentist lives in my neighborhood (according to the hygienist — I actually haven’t seen the dentist about).
    • Oh yeah, I’m trying to get back into the running groove. I joined a 5K training group, organized by the running store in town. I’m in the second slowest group, where once upon a time I would have been in one of the two fast ones, but hey, at least I’m running again! They have a marathon training program, too, and I may do that later in the year. If only they’d had these programs back when I was training all on my own. First of all, it’s a *lot* easier to do tempo runs and speed workouts with others than by oneself. Second, if I’d had faster people to run with, I might have gotten faster. And third, if I’d paid for training and had a group to meet even just once a week, I might not have dropped out of running like I did. I got so bored doing it by myself, especially once I met my goal of qualifying for and running the Boston Marathon. And hey, maybe I’ll meet some new people outside of the university.
    • Speaking of meeting new people, I had the funniest interchange with a neighbor the other day. I was out gardening (my other, newish hobby — I need to post pictures here for those of you who aren’t my FB friends) and she stopped to say hello, introduce herself, and tell me she was on the way to a “Chip Off the Old Block” party (apparently other neighbors had rented a chipper and were inviting everyone to come use it). She said she’d “heard about” me from one of the other neighbors. (Really?) And then she said something about not knowing any of the other neighbors except the “old people” — her words. (Our neighborhood still has a lot of original owners, many of whom are of the grandparent sort.) She kind of encouraged me to come along, but not very directly. I still had a lot of gardening to do and I was all grubby (from an earlier run *plus* gardening — I was a stinky, dirty, hot mess!) or otherwise I might have joined her. It wasn’t until later that I realized that she was kind of awkwardly trying to make a new friend — she was roughly 30- or 40-something, I think, and maybe was looking to connect with someone who wasn’t one of the “old people.” It was a little like a playground interaction when someone’s parent says to the kid, “Go make a new friend.” I could use a neighborhood friend, but now I don’t know what to do — I don’t even know for sure what house she lives in, and even if I did, what would I do? Knock on the door and say, “Can the nice lady come out and play?”
    • Speaking of our neighborhood, besides friendly neighbors and dentists, it has a surprising abundance of wildlife. For instance, our yard is often full of these guys:
    • Frog! This guy was in our backyard, but they're all over the place. I frequently encounter them when I'm gardening.

      Frog! This guy was in our backyard, but they’re all over the place. I frequently encounter them when I’m gardening. I don’t think Pippi ever sees them, since they’re well camouflaged and stay still when another creature is near, so they’re safe from her.

    • And a few weeks ago, we had visits from a pair of these turkeys. No, I mean *actual* *turkeys*:

      Wild turkey! He and his mate or buddy were in the neighbor's yard, just on the other side of our fence.

      Wild turkey! He and his mate or buddy were in the neighbor’s yard, just on the other side of our fence. Pippi treated them more like interlopers than prey — she barked at them and patrolled the perimeter to make sure they didn’t come in our yard.

    • Other critters in the yard include the usual suspects: chipmunks, a cardinal pair nesting in our viburnum, a robin pair who first tried to raise a brood in our holly (but the eggs all disappeared, alas — presumably taken by predator birds, since they seemed to disappear without any disturbance to the bush around the nest) and now are building a nest in the lilacs, and big, fat bumblebees who love our flowers. (So frogs and bees are doing fine by us!) There are lots of other bird species, too, but I’m terrible at bird identification.
    • I’m really enjoying the show of flora and fauna in the yard because Bullock and I finally got deck furniture (other than my little bistro table and chairs, which I’ve had since I moved to Rust Belt, and which sits on the lower deck with the grill). Until today, the weather has been so gorgeous and perfect that I’ve been doing a lot of work outside on the deck. Poor Bullock, who is now chair of his department, has not been able to enjoy it until evening. He’s a little jealous.
    • Here’s our upper deck with our swank, retro furniture (which I think fits the lines and colors of the deck perfectly and makes the 80s style of the deck suddenly seem as mid-century modern as the furniture):

      One end of the upper deck. Someday the near end will have a dining table and chairs. The coffee table is actually an ottoman -- it's two things in one!

      One end of the upper deck. Someday the near end will have a dining table and chairs. The coffee table is actually an ottoman — it’s two things in one! Since taking this photo, I’ve put a big planter with impatiens in it to the right (in this picture) of the chair with the green pillow, which makes the whole area seem a little more finished. I think there needs to be a colorful, funky end table at the near end of the couch, though.

    • In the evenings, we’ve been enjoying a number of different seasonal, regional, and microbrew beers on the deck. Around here, Bell’s Oberon always says it’s summer, but my new favorite of the moment, especially with the chill still in the air, is 5 Rabbits’ 5 Vultures beer. It’s a nutty brown ale made with ancho chilis in it, and has a kind of chocolatey or molasses-like quality. It’s kind of like what a mole sauce would be if it were a beer, if that makes sense.
    • And finally, to bring it back to work-related news, I’ve finally got a 21-page working draft of the article I’ve been toying off and on with for WAY too long, and it finally know what it’s going to be when it grows up. Huzzah! This baby WILL be finished by the end of the summer. Must be all that inspiration I get while sitting on the deck!

A silly post to test post formats


I think the next time someone outside of a university asks me what I do for a living, I’m going to say “Nothing” (and no more than that) and see what happens. Just for fun.

[This post format is called an “aside.” Other than the fact that it doesn’t have category tags, I can’t tell what makes it different from a regular post.  ETA: ah, no title shows, although I gave it one, and there are no comments the comments are only at the bottom, not in a speech bubble at the top. OK, then, I now know what an “Aside” post does.]

>The marriage of Research and Teaching

>Despite my title, I swear this is not an allegorical treatise or a long lost Passus of Piers Plowman, though I do think that someone with more talent than I should write such a thing just for the fun of it!

No, this is my long promised post on what value I think research brings to teaching (and vice versa). It’s in response to a comment left by Anon here, and I’ll turn to that comment in a moment. I’ve actually posted on research in the classroom before, largely on teaching undergraduates how to do research, how to think of themselves as part of the scholarly conversation. That’s also something I emphasize all semester long in my graduate research methods class. Although that post isn’t explicitly about the relationship between my own research and my teaching, it is informed by that relationship, and it’s worth reading if you haven’t read it before. There are a couple of other posts where I talked about that process, and I’ll also be referring to this one later on.

Anyway, in the post to which Anonymous responded — the one immediately preceding this post — I was talking about the expenses of my upcoming plans for research and conference travel this summer. And Anon replied (in part):

While I appreciate the value of research, I do worry that the demand for research in universities is overshadowing the need for good teaching skills. … I have to wonder if professors like you are becoming extinct, if the demand for research (which is quantifiable, hard evidence of success, unlike teaching) is having a negative impact on the universities.

Undergrad students (and even some grad students) care very little about their professors’ publications-they care about what happens in the classroom. Perhaps the drop in the number of English majors is more than just the economy–perhaps it is also linked to the push to publish. Students might not be lucky enough to have a professor like Dr. V.–many have ones who are so consumed by the need to research and publish (whether of their own making or through pressure from their institutions) that they forget that they are teachers.

OK, first of all, let’s get the business about “the drop in the number of English majors” out the way, because it’s a somewhat faulty premise and really can’t even be correlated to whether or not professors do research. If you look at this handy chart on “Bachelor’s degrees conferred…” published by the National Center for Education Statistics (which I found via Michael Bérubé in this post), you’ll see that while there was a drop in degrees granted in English in the ’70s and ’80s, there’s generally been a rise in the ’90s and the period 2000-2007. The numbers aren’t quite up to that 1970-71 number, but that’s because that year and the few years before it were an anomaly. Unfortunately, you can’t see that on the chart, but as Bérubé has argued and shown elsewhere (in What’s Liberal for the Liberal Arts, I think, and in talks he’s given, including one at our university), the numbers of English majors is more or less steady over the post war decades *except* for that influx in the late ’60s to 1970. Of course, I realize that there is a drop (of about 1%) even over the last two decades if you look at English as a percentage of all degrees, but there are increases in some related fields, including Communications, which is on this chart, and Creative Writing, which isn’t on this chart, but which Bérubé talked about when he came to visit our campus. (And while most Creative Writing professors don’t do “research,” they most certainly have to produce their own creative work.) And there are increases in other majors where surely faculty at research-oriented universities are doing as much, if not more, research. And given the proliferation of majors and degrees over the same time, and the fact that the growth in college attendance is largely coming from first generation college students, that drop isn’t surprising or cause for panic (though perhaps for serious thought about recruitment) and probably has very little to do with what professors do outside of the classroom (or inside, for that matter, since we’re not getting the students there in the first place), and more to do with wider cultural trends.

So I strongly doubt that whether or not we produce research has a strong effect on the numbers of our majors. And at our university, where all of our assistant and associate professors, and most of our full professors, are very active in professional activities (research or creative work), our numbers are trending upward, in English literature, in general writing, in creative writing, and in linguistics.

That was all tangential, really, to Anon’s comments and questions, but I thought it was important to address. And it’s the only numbers I have to give. Alas, the rest of this post’s arguments come mostly from experience and may seem anecdotal, but I do think I’ve got a wide sense of the field, not just from my own experiences in college, grad school, and my current position, but from my huge network of friends and colleagues who teach at a range of colleges and universities. And of course I invite all my readers to chime in.

First of all, I think few people go into a PhD program in a humanities field without the recognition that they’re entering a teaching *and* research field. The possibilities of some organization, government agency, or corporation paying you (through funded research) to concentrate entirely or mostly on your research are few and far between for humanities folks. Even at the most prestigious research universities, the humanities professors have much more intense contact time with students — through a combination of classroom teaching and advising theses and dissertations — than in other arts and sciences fields. I’ve never heard of a humanities prof teaching only one class all year, for example, but I have heard of many science profs with such an arrangement. My point here is that people go into English and other humanities fields knowing that teaching will be an important part of their profession, and so that influences how we think of our professional selves; and I think that has become more true over the generations. And in English, largely through the expertise of composition specialists (whose research and teaching are inextricably intertwined, btw), we’ve been at the forefront of making sure that graduate students get pedagogical training prior to or coincident with their first teaching experiences, with continued advising, mentoring, and evaluation along the way to their degree. My own Ph.D. program — a top ten program whose faculty and graduates number many heavy hitters in research — required a pedagogical course before we taught for the first time, and another during our first quarter of teaching. We had a staff person and two senior TAs assigned to overseeing and mentoring TAs, and while I was there, they developed even more oversight, training, and mentoring. And in the MA program for which I am academic director and adviser, our first year students receive 40 hours of intensive training in a boot camp before the start of their first semester of teaching, and must also take a 3 credit hour seminar concurrent with that first semester — all run by our composition faculty, who are specialist in both the research and the teaching of composition. That seminar is currently graded S/U, but the director of composition and I have been talking about making it a graded course, since students do a serious composition studies research project in it, related to student assessment. (Again, note the intertwining of research and teaching in composition studies.)

I point out all of that to say that even at the top Research 1 programs like my PhD program, teaching and the training of teachers is taken very seriously in English. I’d also add that the chair while I was a grad student was very fond of trumpeting the fact that the English department had won more outstanding teaching awards than any department on campus.

On a more individual level (whether the individual student or the individual faculty member), I have to say I think a professor’s research expertise — and I mean continuing research expertise, not just what you did as a graduate student — is of indispensable value to students whether they know it or not. And I wouldn’t be the teacher that I am without that research expertise. I also wouldn’t have as much job satisfaction without my research (and job satisfaction is at least correlated to performance in all sorts of professions, but I would say that’s especially important in any field where you have intense face to face interaction with constituents). But let me address each of those points — the benefit to students; the benefit to the faculty member — separately (though I think they’re ultimately intimately related).

I’m going to reveal myself as a partisan here, but I think college students majoring in a subject — whatever the subject — should be taught by experts in that discipline and its subfields, especially in upper-division courses in the major. That doesn’t mean that I think that the professional activity output of all faculty members at every kind of college should be the same. And it doesn’t mean that I think that all sets of research expectations are sane and fair. Some are particularly insane; for instance, any English department that expects two books before tenure is clearly run by robots — megalomaniac, workaholic robots with stay at home robot spouses. But in my ideal world, everyone would be doing some research — even if it’s only a slowly written article every few years, with conference presentations along the way — related to the field(s) they teach. Otherwise, they’re really not going to keep up with what’s going on in the field on their own (the most diligent might; but many won’t). Alas, at many small colleges this is the case, and that’s unfortunate, in my opinion. They hire one person to cover everything before 1800 Brit Lit, for example. And in many of those places you’ve got a guy teaching medieval lit through the Romantics who wrote a dissertation on 18th century literature 20+ years ago (for example) and hasn’t read any research on medieval lit since his first year in graduate school. Sure, in the beginning, he threw himself into getting enough up to speed to be ahead of the students, but over time he fell behind. And who can blame him really — there’s no reward for keeping up and the consequences are beyond his ken. But I can tell you he’s going to be giving people some seriously out of date ideas about medieval literature. Now, if that guy is teaching the big survey and the students eventually have to take the upper-division class taught by the actual medievalist in the department, that’s less of a big deal. (Side note: one of the profs in my grad program who taught the big survey use to say to the students over and over: “As your upper division professors will tell you, everything I’m saying is *a lie*.” It was kind of hilarious.) But if this guy is the only pre-1800 Brit Lit person, he’s also teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare and the medieval and renaissance lit courses, and so on. And maybe he has tremendous pedagogical skills, which are certainly important, but he’s not an expert. And I think when you’re majoring in something, your goal should be to learn how to become an expert (not necessarily to become an expert — that takes longer — but to see what the path to that expertise is). If you don’t have experts guiding you, how can you learn that?

Such situations are particularly detrimental to those students who want to go on to graduate school in their major. That’s one reason why our MA program exists, and one of the ways in which it’s particularly good. We get a lot of students who couldn’t get into Ph.D. programs straight out of college (they tried), but then who get into them after some more concentrated, research-oriented work in their chosen specialties in our program, with expert guidance. I’ve had to spend last two years unteaching a certain student, trying to get her to rid herself of all the out of date and misinformed ideas she has about the Middle Ages (she wants to be a medievalist) courtesy of undergraduate instructors who stopped paying attention to scholarship circa 1970. And really, that’s a short answer to why research is necessary in my particular job — I teach graduate students. I teach them in my specialty — medieval literature — and I teach them how to do research in the research methods class. After all, you shouldn’t expect to be called a master of something unless you’re learning about the current scholarly debates in the field and learning the methods and practices of how to contribute to the knowledge in that field.

But even if we were an undergraduate-only institution, and even if none of my students ever went on to graduate school, I think our students should be taught in their upper division major courses by experts in the field. And those experts should actively and explicitly bring that expertise into the classroom and demonstrate to the students why it matters — to the students and to the world at large. Contrary to what Anon says, students do care about our research if you show how it has a direct impact on their classroom experience. It’s actually fun — for me and for the engaged students — to see them realize that all those books and articles they’re reading for their research papers in my classes were written by other people’s professors. Sure, I could teach the undergraduate research paper, I suppose, without having published research myself, but where would my authority come from? And how could I talk authoritatively about the process, about learning to enter a bigger conversation, about writing for an actual audience? And wouldn’t that then reduce the assignment to pure exercise? If I’m going to teach my students where new knowledge comes from in the humanities, and how we argue, present evidence, and write with an audience in mind (or with different audiences in mind for different projects), shouldn’t I be talking from experience and expertise? And if I’m going to be teaching them to imagine their research writing as having an audience, shouldn’t I know what it means to write rigorous research for an actual audience? And as I talk about in this post (also linked above), my students are fascinated with the process we go through, and the fact that we’re reviewed and “graded” by both peer review and book reviews after the fact. I think it’s important to talk about peer review, too, to show them how to weigh the value of information and arguments they get from various sources — and that’s a skill generalizable to all sorts of “real life” situations and issues.

And given our “information age,” in which too many people give equal weight to all “opinions” (and think everything is mere opinion), I think it’s very important indeed to teach students about expertise and also to model it for them — not to bow down to it unthinkingly, but to appreciate where expertise derives from and who is (and isn’t an expert). I also want my particular population of students to know that the experts are NOT only at the Ivies and the flagship research universities, but that they have experts teaching them right here in Rust Belt, and that they, too, could become experts if they so wanted. And in the short term, they can become an expert in something a little narrower, whether it’s the history of interpretations of Grendel’s Mother or of sexuality in Marie de France’s Lais, or the applicability of deconstruction to understanding The Pardoner’s unraveling in The Canterbury Tales, or whatever. I’ve had more than my share of students doing Honors Thesis projects with me on such topics, and yet none of them went on to graduate school in English. They pursued these topics because they were interested them and also, as they have expressed themselves, it gave them a sense of pride in knowing something deeply and intimately, of being an expert in some limited way. Given the collective low self-esteem that this town and university and its citizens and students have, that sense of pride is a huge deal.

Could I give them that opportunity without doing research myself? Yes, I suppose. After all, I remember writing research papers for English classes in high school and feeling like quite the expert. And my high school teachers weren’t published experts on the authors and texts I was writing about, but they did a good job of teaching me how to come up with research questions, how to do research, and how to write a readable, well-argued paper. But then I went to college, where my professors were experts, and wrote more on those same works, and my professors challenged and pushed me in ways specific to the subject matter that my high school teachers didn’t do. And so I understood both my subject matter and the process of doing research on a more sophisticated level. Isn’t that what college should be, especially within a major? Shouldn’t it be bringing a student to a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of a subject? I’m not sure that can be done with faculty who don’t do some research in their field.

What’s more, learning at the college level should be as much about process as content — or more even. Passing on expert knowledge to a passive body of student who are merely supposed to accept it as such (whether it’s your expert knowledge or someone else’s) is a terrible model of education. (Paulo Friere called it the “banking concept,” but you don’t have to go to a Marxist/anti-colonialist thinker like Friere to find objectives to passive learning.) And I think you can best model how to do something if you’re also a practitioner yourself. And in literary scholarship and criticism, those practitioners are all within the academy. We don’t have clinical practices or clients outside of the academy. So, in effect, the fact that we do divide our time between research and teaching is a bit like the part-time law professor who teaches and practices law, or the teaching hospital doctor who is seeing patients, teaching med students, and also writing up unusual cases for presentation and publication. (And I have to say, since I brought up the medicine model, I do prefer the medical practitioners I see in my own life to be researchers as well as clinicians. But like I said above, I’m a partisan for research.)

I really shouldn’t use the phrase “divide…time” to characterize the relationship between research and teaching. Oh sure, I try to set aside time for writing and reading, and I often put it first before teaching prep and grading if it occupies the same day, but that’s because I know the teaching stuff has to get done and therefore will get done (and will expand to fill the time I give it), while the research can be put off (to my own detriment when it comes time for merit review). I’m not very good at this, though, and the truth is that I do most of my research in the interstices between teaching — on Fridays, if at all, during the semester, and otherwise, mostly during breaks and summer. That’s not to say that there aren’t faculty members who do put their research time before their teaching time regularly, and perhaps could spend more time working on their teaching skills. I know they exist. (And what those professors lack in classroom skills, they’re still resources of expertise that a student might approach — say, as an outside reader on a thesis. I have to say, I always learned even from the most uninspiring teachers, and the most dazzling in the classroom didn’t always push my thinking or knowledge enough.) But I have to say, I think the vast majority of my cohort in English across the institutional spectrum has a schedule and a rhythm that looks more like mine.

And more to the point, when we’re doing our research, that doesn’t mean we’re not thinking about teaching. In English it’s much easier to draw these things together than it might be in, say, theoretical physics. (Though I like to think that Brian Greene is a fantastic teacher, and not just because he kind of looks like David Duchovny from some angles. Wait, did I just say that out loud?) Even my current research, which I like to jokingly call “the bad poetry project” and which takes as its subject poetry that I’m not likely to teach per se in my courses, still informs both what and how I teach. Again, I can talk about the process of doing the research — and here, I can tell students that sometimes the research requires slow, methodical, and boring sifting through references like the Index of Middle English Verse to find the stuff you need. But I also draw on it in a myriad of ways in teaching other literature in the period. Since my project involves owners and compilers and readers of manuscripts, I can talk about the audience for medieval literature (especially in the late Middle Ages), and that often gets me thinking about issues of readership and audience in the earlier periods as well, which I draw into my classes. Students often perk up when I bring up such subjects, because, after all, they have more in common with medieval readers than medieval writers. And sometimes the reading I’m doing for my research doesn’t end up being that useful for my project, but shows up in my classes instead. As a result of having to teach myself much more about paleography and codicology to do what I’m doing with this new research project, I’m bringing much more of that into my classes and I’m planning developing a history of the book or manuscript study class for the English majors, to compliment a course on the printed book and the art of the letter press that one of my colleagues offers. Likewise, my teaching gives me eureka moments for my research, and I cycle texts in and out of my syllabus to keep that sort of thing happening.

And finally, I have to say, I really wouldn’t like my job much if it were just about teaching. Plenty of people prefer teaching to research (and really, I think in my discipline they outnumber the ones who prefer research to teaching), and there are jobs that are all about the teaching, but I really need the balance to keep me going. My research and teaching are married and I don’t intend to divorce them any time soon. I think I’d go mad if I didn’t read any new scholarship in my field. That, too, gives me insight for my teaching, as a new interpretation can mean a new teaching approach to a text. Case in point: John Niles’s Speculum article on the ending of “The Wife’s Lament” completely informs how I teach that text in both my literature class and my Old English language class. If I didn’t have to produce my own research, I’d still read the major journals, or at least skim the articles apropos to what I teach, but sooner or later I’d get the bug to enter into the conversation myself. And that’s the same spark that I’m trying to give or convey to my students.

>Friday insanity and dysfunction blogging (RBOC*)

>*Usually this means Random Bulletpoints of Crap (coined by Ianqui, I believe), but today, for me, it means Random Bulletpoints of Craziness.

Argh. I have *nothing* under control. I am a mess. To wit:

  • There are unwashed dishes all over the kitchen counter; magazines, bills, and tax documents covering the dining room table; and dog hair everywhere.
  • I am not sleeping well and may need to resort to the Ambien again.
  • Perhaps if I take Ambien again I will stop having bizarre stress dreams such as the one last night about trying to make churros which keep getting cold before I can serve them, inspiring my dream-self to rationalize that it’s OK because churros are just a kind of donut and donuts are served cold.
  • I just realized that I was supposed to review an article for a journal and give them my notes/response by last week. Fuck. I think I said yes to this back in December. It’s really quite a miracle that I remembered now, since I’d left it off all to-do lists and calendars. And when I remembered, for a moment I thought it was perhaps just another stress dream I’d had. I e-mailed the editor and promised to do it today. I hope she doesn’t hate me.
  • I’ve got a conference to go to and speak at in three weeks and the paper I’m giving is supposed to be an expansion of last year’s K’zoo paper. I’ve done little if any new work on it. If I’m lucky I’ll get a page of new material into it. Please keep your fingers crossed for me that the people who heard it at K’zoo and will be at this conference, too, will decide to see another panel in my time slot.
  • I’m supposed to be planning a research trip to London this summer but haven’t even started. Does any body have any good ideas about affordable places to stay for 3-4 weeks in London?
  • I’ve got stacks of grading to do. Of course. I should’ve had some of it done by now. Of course.
  • I have no clean underwear except thongs.
  • I can’t remember the last time I shaved my legs.
  • Wiley needs a good brushing in his ‘arm pits’ and around his back haunches because he’s starting to get a wee bit matted in those places. I’m a bad foster-mom.
  • I still haven’t sent out my change of address to friends and family who haven’t specifically asked for it. I moved in July! (Nope, didn’t get Xmas cards sent this year.)


>No, Virginia, honesty *isn’t* always the best policy

>What do students hope to gain when they say to professors such things as, “To be perfectly honest, I’m not really interested in [your subject matter]; my main interest is [something completely different, usually very contemporary]. No offense.” Seriously, what? Am I supposed to reward them for their honesty? Would they expect an equal reward for saying, “To be perfectly honest, I think your shoes are ugly. I prefer mine”?

And what am I supposed to say? What I really, really want to say is, “It’s too bad you have such narrow tastes and a lack of curiosity about anything older than your lifetime.” But what I usually say is, “That’s OK — it’s not for everyone, and you can learn it without liking it.” True enough. And at the end of the day, if they learn how to approach older texts and their scholarship, and realize that the novel or the short story and their conventions do not define all of literary history, then I’ve done my job.

But I also want to shake them and say, “Way to win friends and influence people, bozo!” Seriously. Are they going to say something similar on a job interview (“To be honest, I just need a job, and this will do, even though your business isn’t really interesting to me”)?! I mean, I would never hold this kind of comment against a particular student when I grade their work, but some others might, consciously or not. It’s just not a particularly good life skill to insult the interests of people in a position of power over you. But as I’ve said many a time before here, students don’t seem to get that college and all its experiences teach you more than the subject matter of the courses you take. I swear, next time a students says something like that to me, I *am* going to say, “That’s really not a very politic thing to say — here’s why.” I’ll do it nicely, but they really need to get out of this habit of thinking that honesty is always going to be rewarded and commended.