Friday, December 31, 2010

Cleaning House (NOT a New Year's Metaphor, I Promise)

As the parenthetical subtitle says: this is NOT a New Year's post about metaphorical housecleaning. This is a post about real housecleaning as a single person, a woman, and an ostensibly upper-middle-class person.

This post was inspired by an offhand comment overheard in the coffee shop I'm currently sitting in: one of the baristas, as she went out to clean the condiment counter, noted that she'd "called the maid about doing it." This was by way of a funny: we, the comment said, are the ones who do the cleaning-up. Household help is something so utterly foreign as to be silly. The foreign-ness comes partly from being a 20-something working in a coffee shop, but also, I suspect, from being a person living in this particular neighborhood in this particular city. Since this is the city and the neighborhood I grew up in, I felt myself included in the unspoken "we."

I thought most people in my peer group were like me. And here in Puddletown, they are. But do you know what? The four academic women I am closest to in my department all have someone clean their houses** once every one to two weeks. Granted, one of them only has a housecleaner because her husband had one, and when she moved in with him, the housekeeper was already installed. But honestly, I was shocked. Because all of a sudden, the thing I thought was a joke had become normal. I found myself an "us" on the "them" side of the line (or the other way around, depending on your point of view).

Now, "Why do people have housekeepers?" is a question with many answers. "Why do professional women have housekeepers?" is one I can answer myself: Because they'd rather be doing something else, and no one else is going to do it for them. And I can certainly appreciate that on an intellectual level, and don't begrudge any woman the choice of what to do with her own hard-earned money. If my friend is using her money to buy her way out of scrubbing the toilet, I can totally get behind that.

So, at this point, the question is: "Why don't I, when other people do?" Here's what I've come up with -- admittedly off the top of my head while on the second cup of coffee:
  • I can't afford it.
  • Okay, so maybe I could, but I'd have to give up something else that I value more than paid domestic labor.
  • The Gender Thing: I have a hard time paying women in particular to do things that I've always successfully done for myself. This is why I only rarely get pedicures; the image of a woman more or less on her knees for me just to earn a lousy couple of bucks makes me want to scream with outrage.
  • The Class Thing: I feel like I'd be exploiting the people I came from. Yes, I'd be providing employment, and any work is good work in these times. And I could pay a real living wage and tip generously. Yet somehow, it just feels wrong.
  • The Race Thing: See both "class" and "gender" reasons, above. Since most "house help" in the Grit City area are immigrant women, all the above reasons apply here.
  • I rent 500 square feet. Really, doesn't hiring someone to clean a teeny-tiny space that I don't even own seem like overkill?
  • I'm the kind of person who takes perhaps unreasonable pride in doing for herself whenever possible. I can change my own bicycle tire; I can navigate my way solo around a foreign city's bus system; I can damn well sweep my own floors.
  • I can't live in disorder, clutter, or filth, but do I really need floors I could eat off of at any given moment? If my bathtub or kitchen floors are only really thoroughly cleaned every two to three weeks, will something bad happen? Does anyone really look at the baseboards? The answer to all three, I've concluded, is: Probably not.
So, I guess that's kind of it. For me, personally, it's a list compelling enough to ensure that I will keep on doing my own half-assed housecleaning. So come on over to Casa Notorious, help yourself to what's in the kitchen... and keep your line of sight well above the level of the baseboards, okay?

Happy New Year, everyone.

**For what it's worth: 1 full-sized house, 2 two-bedroom condos, 1 two-bedroom apartment; all are women living with their spouses, no children, and no pets. If that makes a difference.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Miricale (Academic Version)

Here's the cool thing that happened today:

After four days of very intense family activity in which I'd had no time to myself, I arranged to have an afternoon off. I met up with a good friend who also happened to be in town for the holidays, and we headed to Puddletown Books, which is a wonderful place to be at any time of the year.

Another reason to love Puddletown: longer lines at the bookstore than at the mall.

Good friend was wonderful, in that she gets where I'm coming from with the holidays.** We sat and had coffee and talked, and then spent an hour browsing the stacks, where I picked up a discounted copy of a book written by an early modernist I knew from back in grad school.

After we finished up, I struck out on my own to grab one last present and then rewarded myself with a slice of pizza (pepperocini and feta -- yum) and started reading the introduction to the book I had picked up. And lo and behold, three pages into it, I came across an unexpected bit of background information that I think explains a connection I had wondered about between two documents (one from the 14th century, one from the 16th) that chronicled a certain 14th-century event that is part of my current research. I had wondered at the time if there was a specific reason that these accounts were so different; now, thanks to some serendipitous reading, I think I can explain it. Better yet: I think I'm the first person to figure out how explain it (or even that it needs to be explained!), because so few people (myself included, up until today) read across that medieval/early modern divide to explain events like the one I'm focusing on here.

And so, over pizza, I got an idea for an article -- one that feeds into my current book project, and one that I've got an ideal journal to place it in.

Maybe it's not the most typical of Christmas miracles, but I'll take it.

**For example: when we parted for the evening, rather than wishing me "Merry Christmas," she hugged me and saw me off with a cheery "Good luck!"

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Checked off

I've done the grading.

I've given the apartment at least a superficial cleaning, in preparation for the people who will be staying here.

I've taken out the garbage and cleaned out the fridge; checked the alarm clock, stove, coffee pot, and thermostat to make sure they're off.

I'm about to water the plants.

I've packed a suitcase (full to bursting), a carry-on, and a purse.

And I'm off to my beloved Puddletown -- incidentally, for my longest stay there since I left for grad school over 15 years ago. More pictures to come.

fig. 1: I don't call it "Puddletown" for nothing.

Friday, December 17, 2010

After Angst, A Happy Ending

An epilogue to my epilogue:

This morning, on the last day of finals week, at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m., I gave my last final exam. I've just started on the bluebooks, and have about 24 hours to finish them before heading off to Puddletown. But that's not what this post is about. It's about two good things that happened today to take the edge off my teaching angst.

First thing: I sat down with Master Teacher, and she offered reassurance, but then asked good questions about what I was doing, and told me that I was doing most everything right, but then actually offered a suggestion for improving, with examples from her own courses, and a reason why a small change could make a big difference. She then shared some materials with me. I'm going to think about how to implement the change. I won't do it exactly like she does, because my goals are slightly different, but she's given me something that I can do.

Second thing: at the end of the final exam, one of the last students to turn in her exam was E. E., like all of the students in this 100-level class, is a non-major, taking this course to fill a Gen Ed requirement. She's also been one of the strongest students: her papers have been in the B+/A- range, and her work in discussion shows her to be thinking hard about the material, even if her conclusions aren't always completely on-target. Anyway, E. turns in her exam, then asks, "So, what courses in [medieval stuff] are you teaching next semester? Because I always thought it would be boring, but it actually sounds really interesting now, and I'd like to take a course in it."

Now, you'll just have to take my word for it that E. is not a suck-up. After a semester, it's pretty clear who does or does not fall into that category. No, what seems to have happened is that a strong student, a non-major but in a related field, got interested in something that I talked about for three weeks out of an entire course, and now wants to learn more about it -- from me.

She. Wants. To. Learn. More.

Thank you, E. On the last day of the semester, just when I was getting ready to chalk it all up as a bad job, or at best a "learning experience," you made it all worth it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Better Teacher, Hah, Hah, Hah! or: Learning to Ask for Help

This post is a sort of an epilogue to my "better teacher" series (see here, here, and here). Unfortunately, it's not the happy ending that I had hoped for. You see, despite having done more advance preparation for the semester than ever, and despite totally revamping my teaching to offer more mentoring, more scaffolding, more one-on-one conferences, and letting go of where I thought my students already ought to be in favor of working with where they actually were, the final papers and the first final exam have showed that they, on average, have spectacularly tanked this semester. Not just "they're not improving like I expected them to"; they've actually gotten worse -- much worse.

I am, needless to say, feeling discouraged. I've worked harder this semester than ever before, and gone into it more prepared than ever, and the results have been... well, bad. And I've been at a loss as to what to do about it.

Fortunately, I remembered a bit of advice that I am constantly giving my students: "If you're lost, I will do whatever I can, but I may not know unless you tell me. So ask for help."

So I did something I haven't done since I was a rookie teacher: I reached out to a superior teacher in my department (demanding of her students, and they rise to the occasion; won a university-wide teaching award a couple of years ago), told her about the problems I was having, and asked her if she'd take a look at what I was doing and offer me honest feedback and whatever constructive suggestions she had. Her first response was to reassure me that this may not be my fault at all; that our students lately had been less than stellar. But then, generous soul that she is, she went beyond mere reassurance and said, yes, let's meet for coffee and really see if there's something you can be doing better. Not "more" -- she's a firm believer in efficiency of effort and understands where there's a point of diminishing returns -- just better.

We are meeting on Friday. I'll report back then. But whatever happens, I'm grateful to have such a generous colleague, and happy that I remembered the simple rule: If you're struggling, ask for help.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

'Tis the season for grading

Yes, indeed.

Just a short post: while normal people may be out shopping for gifts, the proffies are all locked away from the world, trying to get those final papers graded so we can have our desks cleared for grading the final exams. My schedule:

This past Monday-Friday: Grade 30 papers from lower-division survey class (@ 3-4 pp.)

Saturday & Sunday: Grade 24 final research papers from upper-division class (@ 5-6 pp.); write final exam for same class

Monday: Administer final exam for upper-division class; collect papers from grad class (6 papers @ 18-20 pp.)

Tuesday-Thursday: Grade all of the above; write exam for lower-division class

Friday: administer above final exam; begin grading

Saturday: finish grading exams, because...

Sunday: leave for holiday visit to relatives.

It's best not to think about it all at once.

UPDATE: below, in the comments, a new discussion topic, regarding how much writing we assign in our courses in the Humanities.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Welcome to another installment of what is rapidly becoming "Girl Scholar's recipe blog." Today: Ginger-Molasses cookies! This is a pretty standard recipe, I think, adapted from one of my mom's. Let us count its virtues (besides yumminess):
  1. It has only a few ingredients, most of which you may already have on hand
  2. It takes only 45 minutes to whip up a batch (the recipe below makes about 3 dozen), start to finish
  3. Because the molasses provides so much moisture, you need very little butter. This will allow you to convince yourself that the cookies are healthy.
  4. The recipe can be made vegan-friendly by using soy milk (I like vanilla-flavored), margarine, and whatever egg substitute you like.
  5. The cookies are soft, with lovely winter spices. It's basically gingerbread in cookie form.
Convinced? Of course you are. so let's get going.

fig. 1: Internet-supplied cookie photo; actual cookies
did not sit still long enough to be photographed

A few hours before you start, you should set out half a stick of butter to soften at room temperature. New to baking? Then don't make the rookie mistake of rushing things by melting the butter. This won't turn out well. If you get a spur-of-the-moment craving for these cookies and happen to have a gas oven, you can put the butter in a dish in the oven with the heat off, occasionally flipping the thing over. The ambient heat in the oven will soften it in about 20 minutes.

Right. So once your butter is soft (but should be holding its shape until you prod it), heat the oven to 350, and get started:
  1. Cream together the half-stick (1/4 cup) of butter with 3/4 cup white sugar until smooth. (I use a food processor, but you can use a mixer, a whisk [takes a mite longer], or even a Swift Whip!).
  2. If you've used a mixer or food processor, then transfer the butter/sugar mix to a large bowl and add 1 egg, 1/4 c. of warmed milk (30 second in the microwave oughta do ya'), 1/2 c. of molasses, 1-2 Tbsp. fresh grated ginger, and 1 t. mixed pie spices (usually marked as “pumpkin pie spice”, but a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, etc. will work fine). Stir it up good.
  3. Now add the dry ingredients: 1/8 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking soda, and 2 c. flour, and mix well. I usually add the flour a bit at a time so it all gets well blended. You may find you want to add a bit more flour at this point, depending on the dough's consistency: by the end, you want a dough that's not going to be as stiff or completely hold its shape like a chocolate-chip cookie dough, but that isn't so thin that it splooshes into a puddle when you drop it by rounded teaspoonsful onto a lightly greased cookie sheet.
  4. In fact, do that now, and pop it into the oven for 9 minutes. Remove, and pop in the next one. Let the finished cookies cool for 1 minute, then transfer them by spatula onto a cooling rack and get the next one going.
  5. Once the cookies are mostly cool, you can dust them lightly with powdered sugar if you like, or make a sugar glaze, or decorate them to resemble the faces of your favorite gender theorists, or just eat them plain.

So. Very. Tasty.

Monday, December 6, 2010

This is not a post about my romantic misadventures

...because there haven't been any. It's merely a small conversational vignette on the topic of hypothetical romantic misadventures.

background: a conversation that happened to touch on the most recent two people I've been involved with.

Other Person: So, you only date academics?

Me: No, no -- I only meet academics. (pause for thought) I suppose I'd be more likely to date non-academics if I ever went anywhere other than my office.

Seriously, the last relationship I was in only happened because the person kept stopping by my office. And put like that, it might look sad. But to me, it's actually kind of amusing: I'm probably only ever going to date again if a potential romantic partner is delivered to my door like a pizza that I didn't actually order.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Better Teacher, Part III: What I did

Finally, a third part to my post on what my students actually need from me. I think it will likely feel more unfinished than the previous two posts in the series, but that's because it is unfinished. There is another week in the regular semester as papers are getting finished, and then a week of finals. So making any assertions that I know what they need now, before I've seen the final results, involves a bit of guesswork. But this is likely the last chance I'll have to do an involved post before the grading storm really hits, so I thought I'd try it now.

In my previous post on What I Think They Need vs. What They Need, I said the following: "The answer, no matter what level, seems to be threefold: detailed guidance, a chance to learn from their mistakes, and potential rewards for making the extra effort to do so."

This semester, rather than my usual groaning at all the things that I think my students ought to know by now (or maybe it's better to say, along with my usual groaning), I started from the assumption that the didn't know anything that I hadn't personally taught them,** and that if I wanted them to end the semester at point Z, then it was my personal responsibility to take them there, beginning at point A. This required two major shifts in how I approached my undergraduate courses.

First I reworked my undergraduate assignments so that each one presented a step in the process. Do I want them writing original research papers based on their own interpretations of the primary sources? Great. So, assignment #1 was a sheet of ten analytical questions, progressing in complexity, that they had to answer about two primary sources I assigned them. Assignments 2 & 3 had them writing source-based essays on a question that I came up with, based on sources I provided (and they could rewrite the first of these if they found that they didn't get it the first go-round). Finally, I gave them assignment 4, which had them proposing their own topics, looking for their own sources (with some light guidance from me), designing their own research question, drafting two proposals, and finally writing a paper with their own original argument.

Second, I required two 20-minute individual conferences, one for the original proposal, and one for the revised proposal, where they're about to sit down and write. My job here was to help them see where the problems were, to explain the process of research in the discipline using examples from their own paper, and to nudge them back in the right direction. If they wanted to do a rewrite of their first paper, that, too, involved a conference, where they were to present me with their plan for revision. This week, leading up to the final submission of the major paper, I've been sending out guidelines for daily tasks ("Today's project is to organize your ideas, so here's how you write a good outline…"), showing them how to break down the paper into small, manageable chunks.

There have been two consequences to this plan of action. The first is that I'm in the office almost constantly. I have a lot of students. And yes, a couple of those students made their appointments, then didn't show up, then begged for another appointment, then didn't show up for that one either. And yes, that was even more frustrating this time around, given the work I'd put in. And yes, this has slowed down my research output considerably.

But here's the other consequence: In those conferences, I got to really talk with all of my students -- even the very quiet ones who don't say a peep in class. One student -- a junior -- admitted to me that this was the first time she'd ever talked with a professor outside of class, because she was too scared to. Others told me that they were convinced that everyone else in the class was smarter than they were. They talked with me about their research. They told me about what they were interested in, and I suggested ways they could research it. They came back for their second appointments, and talked a bit about what they'd found, and many of them actually seemed excited about it – and I was able to encourage that excitement. The ones who didn't know how to formulate a good question? Them, I walked through it, explaining the same thing in as many different ways as I could, and then I got to see the light go on as it clicked for them. "Do you think you can answer that question, based on the sources you've read?" "Yes, I think I can."

And then, sometimes, they smiled. And if that smile was mostly relief that they were not completely lost in the woods anymore, even for only ten minutes, then that's okay, too.

As I said, I'm not at the end. I don't know if I'm just deluding myself that this is working, and that all the extra effort is worth it. I'm still a merciless badass with the grading. And I'm kind of exhausted, and cranky that I let my writing slide. But I do think I'm closer to understanding what my students need for the short time that I have them.

**This is a depressing thing if you think about it deeply, so I don’t.