Friday, November 21, 2014

It is that point in every semester...

... where I have given up any dreams that I will finish the semester well, and now am concentrating on merely surviving.

... when I have realized that my brand-new class has lived up (?) to my usual bit of sardonic advice for good teaching: "Never teach a class for the first time."

...when I am spending too much money on restaurants because my fridge has been empty for a week and I am too worn out to go to the grocery store.

...when I wonder what I was thinking taking on as many commitments as I did, and patting myself on the back for saying "no" even a few times.

...when I eyeball yet one more grant application and wonder whether I can squeeze it in...?

...when I can't even think about the holidays, and am perversely glad that I don't live near family, because I so desperately, desperately need the entire Thanksgiving holiday to get caught up.

Yeah. It's that time. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Am I Full Professor Material?

Thursday, I turned in my promotion file.

Here's the deal: at most universities, you have to go up for tenure. "Up and out," they say. Every school has its own standards: some require a book, or even a book plus progress on the next one. Some, more teaching-focused, want lots of good teaching, course development, plus more campus service than you might think is humanly possible. Some schools (primarily religion-affiliated ones, I think) want a heavy dose of community service in there -- making connections between campus and community. My school falls somewhere in the middle of all this, and people work the teaching-research-service balance in various ways across the campus. But in any case, you have about five and a half or six years to prove you're doing the kind of job they want to see. And you don't have a choice. You can't just say, "Oh, I'll take the lower salary or whatever and will go up when I'm ready." It's up or out.

Going up for full professor is a mite different, in that, at most schools, you never have to do it. And if/when you do it, you can do it on your schedule. And if you don't get it, you can try again the next year. And the next. But the file itself takes about a month and a half to put together, so you don't want to do it until you're reasonably confident that you'll pass. Most people at my school do it five years after tenure. So, last year when it was my first opportunity to go up... I declined.

I just wasn't sure. I mean, I had done some pretty good stuff with teaching. My service was okay -- nothing spectacular, but I wasn't shirking. But I still only had the one book to my name, and only one article and another in the pipeline. The second book was a stack of documents, some scribbles, a couple of conference papers, and a title (though a damn good title, I must say). How to count the first book was the toughest thing to gauge: I had sent off the manuscript literally two days before submitting my tenure file. As anyone who has published a book knows, there is a lot of work after that point -- even after you get the contract, there are months of revisions, then copy edits, then page proofs and an index... but still, it was just one book. And I just didn't think it was enough.

Here's the thing, though. I was judging my record based on the paths of the faculty at the university that I got my Ph.D. from. These were my models. And if you earned a Ph.D., you were at a research institution. But very few of our post-Ph.D. jobs are at such institutions. And sometimes we forget that our jobs are different. You can't crank out an article every year plus a well-reviewed university-press book every six or seven while teaching three or four courses a semester. You can't get to the archives every summer if you don't have research funds. And that's okay. You are doing different work. No less valuable.

So, the point of this story is that this year -- in fact, just two days ago -- I turned in my file for promotion to full professor. It has a couple more articles in it than it would have a year ago. It has a major service commitment. And it has a well thought-out book proposal. But my senior colleagues looked at my record and asked me why I didn't go up last year. The answer is that there will always be a significant part of me that doesn't feel like full professor material. But I'm trying to let that go.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What I'm Learning from my Grad Students

How about: way more than I thought I would?

I have a system for my M.A. exams for my grad students. I developed this system to try to balance student interests with me not going completely insane trying to make sure I knew all the material that they'd covered for their exams. I haven't been in the biz long enough to have an eight-page bibliography from diverse medieval stuff topics from memory or in my notes already, and since I'm the only medievalist, I've got to be able to cover students interested in stuff all over the continent, for the entire thousand-year period.

Here's how it works: Students taking a M.A. exam with me have to read about 45-50 items, spread out over 5 different subtopics. I have a list of about a dozen topics that I've got reading lists ready to go for.

But, here's the deal: if there's something they really, really want to explore, and it's not on my list, they can design a field of their own. They come up with the topic and a preliminary reading list; I tinker with the list to make sure it works, and off we go.

What this means is that, for most students, I end up reading up on a field that's totally new to me. Sometimes I couldn't care less about the field. Anglo-Norman institutions? Do. Not. Care. But I read them, and I try to design a question.  But sometimes, it's pretty interesting.

Which is a long way to say that this month, I'll be reading a whole heck of a lot on Islamic, Norman, Angevin, and Aragonese Sicily. And I think this is actually going to be one of those reading lists that ends up being a lot of fun.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Rookie Mistakes

You know how we always tell students to read the directions?

How we always tell them that, if they want a letter of recommendation from us, they ought to get the request in way in advance?

How we always wish they were more concerned about professionalism, and it makes us grumble when they're not? "Nobody ever had to tell me to do this stuff."

Yeah, well, I got another lesson in humility this week. Applying for Big Fellowship #1, I gave my letter-writers a heads-up and lots of materials several weeks ago. But then I made several assumptions about how the online application system worked -- and here is the key bit -- without first reading the instructions.

The result? A near last-minute "omigodheyrememberthatletterwetalkedabout ::deep breath:: it'sdueinfourdayshere'sthelinkkthxbai!"

Okay, perhaps it wasn't that bad. But that's how it feels in my gut. I've got a little stored-up goodwill, but if I were one of these folk (especially the one who's traveling) I'd be pretty damn annoyed.

I've been doing this for two decades now, if you count grad school. Will someone please tell me when it will be that I'll finally stop making rookie mistakes?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Professor Notorious: What the Critics are Saying

Part of putting together my promotion file is assembling my student evaluations. We've actually improved the evaluations in recent years, and changed the tenure/promotion file process so that student evals are only one small part of the picture. But still, we have to include them. We are only required to include the summary sheets (e.g., the raw numbers), but we can include the actual narrative comments as well.

I read these comments as they come in, but there's something about going through six years' worth at once that gives one a bit more big-picture perspective. Sure, there are the loads of "She's great!" or "There's too much reading!" or "She made me love this subject!" or "She should make her assignments not due on the same day as my other classes' assignments." Such evaluations, like the poor, will always be with us. There are also the ones that offer concrete suggestions about how an assignment might be more helpfully structured, or who give me feedback on a new experimental assignment. And I take those into account.

But then, there are the really fun ones (and I do mean that), which I now share with you:

·      “Babbles in connection with lecture” [If only it were just in lecture.]
·      “This was a great class. Too bad it had so much religion in it.” [Well, it is a course on medieval Europe.]
·      “As always, I enjoyed your class. Teach more classes!” [Dear God, no.]
·      “It would be cool if you taught a bit more about the Knights Templar.”  [::backing out of the room slowly…::]
·      “Class was a pain and great at the same time” and “Very dedicated to getting us through the semester without losing our minds.” [Two comments from my methods class – what we refer to as “history boot camp”]
·      “Hi. You are cool.” [Thanks. Back atcha'.]
·     “The Abelard reading isn’t as interesting as Lateran IV.” [I just… What?!?]
·      “I didn’t dread coming to this class.” [I usually didn't, either. Usually.]
·      “SWED => This final is gonna blow.” [SWED = “smoke weed every day.” I had to look this up. Who says we don’t learn as much from our students as they learn from us?]
·      “Good job, tough class, great hair.” [A student who has taken my critiques of wordiness to heart.]
·      "What isn’t the Mediterranean?" [This, from a class where I apparently asked “What is the Mediterranean?” a few too many times…]

And finally, perhaps my all-time favorite evaluation comment: 

 ·      “Her passion for history is as contagious as smallpox and a lot more fun."

Friday, September 19, 2014

In the event you are assigned to a committee...

Hey! Everyone!

If you're a member of a committee, no matter at what level, do your shit on time.

What happens to you if you don't? Well, nothing. And you still get to put on your CV that you served because, really, who's going to check? Especially if you're tenured and stuff.

But if you don't do said shit on time, or you do a quarter-assed job of it, and if said work has hard deadlines, then you know what happens?

Do you?

Answer: The chair of the freaking committee does all the work you didn't. Yea, even if it means that she's up in the office until 7 p.m. on a Friday, two hours after declining invites from friendly colleagues for end-of-week, post-faculty-research-seminar drinks and socializing, because she's making sure everything gets done.

Or so I've heard.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Getting promoted, and getting older

The process of going through my promotion file has gotten me focused on dates -- Can I count this? Was it published after I submitted my last review? When was that, anyway?

And thinking about dates and eras of life and milestones in between, and I was struck by something -- well, two linked somethings, actually:

a. I hit all my major career accomplishments in my thirties: PhD, job, tenure, book (published a month before I turned 40). My thirties were also the last time that I ever got a raise, and the last time that I was in any sort of romantic relationship.

b. My forties (I'm a decent chunk into them) have been marked by zero milestones: no relationships (hell, no dating even), no home purchase, no promotions, no children, no raises -- none of the external markers that tell you that your life is on the right track. It's also so far, the decade of my life in which I have been most consistently happy.

Seriously: it's kinda weird.