Monday, January 19, 2015

The Interview

No, not that kind of interview.  Yesterday, I was interviewed by a sixth-grader about what professional historians do.

It was one of those things that kind of gets dumped in your lap. In my case, it fell to me because I was the only one in the office when the call came into my chair. Sure, I thought: why not?

It turns out that the young woman in question was delightful. She had fallen in love with ancient history, and when she was given the opportunity to do a report on a profession for extra credit, she thought of finding a historian. Her mother helped her by making the initial call, but after that, the young woman took charge.

So, what did I tell her? Well, I told her that my job mainly had three parts: teaching, reading, and writing. I told her that you needed to learn lots of languages to work in ancient or medieval history. That most of my research was done in archives, which are like libraries with lots of old, scribbly documents. That my favorite part of the job was that I got to learn new stuff all the time, and that my least favorite part was grading papers. She told me she liked history, but some teachers "only want to study boring stuff like names and dates." I told her that I felt exactly the same way.

When she asked me what my advice was for someone who might want to be a writer (she had written 42 pages of a story about a girl who turns into a wolf and protects other wolves), I told her "write every day" and "read a lot of what other people write." When she asked me if her mom was right that she should learn to type, I told her that my mom had made me do the same thing, and that it was a skill I used in my job every day. And I told her not to be afraid of coming out with the wrong answer, because if you're right all the time, then you're probably not learning anything.

And then today, she sent me a very nice thank-you note.

Who knows? There might be hope for humanity after all.

Friday, January 16, 2015

I've done it to myself again

Remember when I took that Don Quixote course? In Spanish?  At the time, I predicted that it would both improve me and really complicate my life. I was right on both counts: I'm here to tell you that DQ is probably the best novel ever written... and that taking a course while teaching full time and trying to write your own book is going to make things very silly.
Well, apparently I'm still a sucker for that whole "lifelong learning" thing. Even when it has nothing to do with the things I'm supposed to be working on. Or maybe especially when it has nothing to do with the things I'm supposed to be working on.

I'm not 100% sure who that finger is for. Probably for the voice in my head that, once again, convinced me that this was a good idea.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Putting Down that Load: Service to the Profession Edition

A few years ago, I made the mistake of voicing my doubts about how a certain Big Ongoing Project transition should be handled. Stuff along the lines of, "Hey, have we really thought these things through?"

Silly me: They put me in charge of it.

Anyway, Big Project ended up being a five-year commitment. Every fall, I'd start working on Big Project. Every fall, it would nag at me mercilessly, yet another thing to do. And because I'm a perfectionist, everything needed to be perfect.

And it was always later than I'd like. I always wanted it done by early October. And usually, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas was more like it.

Here's the thing: as of two days before Christmas this year, my five-year commitment was finished. Oddly enough, "Auld Lang Syne" was playing on my parents' radio as I sent off the last official communiqué and handed the whole thing over to my successor.

Here's the thing: when you're mid-career, your service load expands. A lot. And one of those things is "service to the profession," wherein you serve on the boards of organizations, read and review book and article manuscripts, and do other stuff. This labor is mostly uncompensated. And it's actually pretty fulfilling. And it's all voluntary. So you can't complain that you're having this foisted on you. I actually enjoyed working on Big Project -- sometimes quite a lot!

But it also felt good to put it down and move on to other things.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hindenburg Student

Sometimes students explode. Sometimes they burn bright and then fizzle. And sometimes, the crash is long and slow, but nevertheless ends in flames.

This student's crash I saw from a long way off. From week 2, it was obvious that s/he was one of those students that was a voracious but sporadic consumer of facts. They'd pop out randomly in class. Yet they seemed to have little to do with the actual reading. So we had a talk about that every few weeks. I mentioned that talking about outside materials (a) didn't let me see that s/he'd been doing the classwork, and (b) shut the rest of the class out of the conversation.

Then there were the odd behaviors: the close-talking, the need for immediate verbal feedback at the end of each class, the need to shake my hand at the end of every conversation. These struck me as possible spectrum disorder issues, so I talked to hir -- gently! -- about getting to see the folks at DSS. I even mentioned a specific person who I knew was particularly helpful.

Then there were the anxieties, the near-tearful breakdowns in my office. For these, again gently, I mentioned how helpful our free on-campus counseling program could be. That it was totally normal to feel overwhelmed in the first semester of transferring from a two-year school to a four-year one. That we had lots of resources to help hir; s/he only needed to use them.

By week five, it was obvious that this airship was going down in flames and I was suggesting withdrawing from some of hir classes. By week 8, it had gotten bad enough that I was floating the possibility of medical leave: "just to give you time to get in the position where you can really succeed the way you want to."

S/he insisted that s/he was "just going to stick it out and see it through."

And today, I got the e-mail: after three missed appointments to talk about the final paper and two extensions, s/he wrote to say s/he wouldn't be turning in the paper. S/he was getting Ds or Fs in all hir classes, but s/he was going to do better next semester.

For which s/he was enrolled in five classes for a total of 16 credit hours.

Sometimes, you see a crash coming from a long way off. And sometimes, despite your best efforts, the student crashes and burns, all the while insisting that everything's fine.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Yeah, I'm one of THOSE bloggers

Namely, the kind who will retract and redact her own posts. In this case, I poofed the last post because several comments have cause me to seriously rethink what I said there, to the point where I couldn't stand behind my own words anymore. A braver blogger would let it stand, but what you've got is me. And sometimes I say some pretty uninformed things when I'm feeling cranky & peevish.

So thanks to my commentariat who is often more informed than I am, and a mea culpa to anyone who was offended.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

There ought to be a mathematical equation... express the relationship between a given student's effort on a project or in a class and the amount of time a professor spends on that student alone.

Mathematicians? Care to take a crack at this? While you're at it, I'd appreciate a bar graph with student grades plotted along the X axis, and average professor-hours per student on the Y axis.

Friday, November 28, 2014


That is, unfortunately, what my e-mail inbox looked like on Wednesday.

2996 messages.

1088 unread.

Yeah. If you haven't gotten a reply from me, it's not that I'm ignoring you. Apparently I'm ignoring everybody.

Part of this has to do with the fact that I've been writing. Focusing on other things. I've been going on these 10-week "write-every-day-even-two-sentences" binges, and while it's been really productive, it's also been keeping me hopping.

Part of it is that I don't have home internet anymore. But let's not kid ourselves -- I was bad about this long before. 

What it really is is that "keeping up with correspondence," never among my top talents, has become more difficult as the e-mail proliferates. And as the junk e-mail proliferates, the real stuff gets buried. And I think "I'll get to it later." And then I get busy again.

So, this holiday weekend has been a process of digging out. Wednesday I resolved to myself that, for every day this week, I'd shrink each of those numbers by 50%. Yes, I know -- those of you who do math, or even those who know the story of Achilles and the Tortoise -- will tell me that, at this rate, I'll never get there. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. But this morning, I'm at 600/50, and falling fast.

I really think that "keeping up with my correspondence" needs to be my major resolution in the upcoming semester.