Monday, November 29, 2010

Headdesk: A Timeline

T-minus 6 months: As part of an overly ambitious post-tenure career plan, agree to take on major project for outside organization: I am to Revise the Thing, a process that involves a new format, new content, new mechanism for dissemination -- and, like most academic projects, no budget or staff (though other organization members have been generous in making sure I have whatever materials and guidance they can provide).

T-minus 4 - 2 months: Figure out content for the Thing. Worry that I don't have enough, or that it potentially sucks. For the first time in the history of academia, receive promised contributions from outside contributors well ahead of schedule. [?!?] Lapse into false sense of security.

T-minus 2 months: Realize that I need to figure out a design for the Thing. Find software to make it work. Figure out software. Sink back into sloth.

T-minus 2 weeks: Realize that deadline is approaching and, in a burst of activity, get the Thing three-quarters done, then procrastinate for several weeks, letting the guilt build up to critical mass, until...

Liftoff!: Finally finish the Thing (about a month behind schedule) and make it available to organization people.

2 hrs later: Read and respond to two notices (out of 400 recipients) reporting the same minor technical glitch that appears to have occurred in the dissemination phase.** Deduce from the evidence that the problem is likely technology-related, user's end (since the issue appears to have only affected a few individuals rather than everyone), and provide a one-click solution.

24 hrs later: Receive terse one-line e-mail from one of the two correspondents (the other had no problem viewing the Thing once I resolved the issue) explaining that since s/he still can't view the Thing, s/he will be forced to cancel hir organization membership.


**to be fair to myself, this was balanced out by half a dozen e-mails received in the first 24 hours, congratulating me on what a good job I'd done with The Thing.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Another Recipe for Thanksgiving

My mom can bake like crazy: seriously, if you saw a family portrait, you'd say, "Now there's a bunch of people who know how to whip up a batch of butter and sugar." But cooking? No, other than a few house specialties (mom's pot roast with roasted vegetables was one that always turned out well), mom was a baker, not a cook.

This is not entirely mom's fault. Looking back, I think my mom really wanted to be a good cook. But it was the 70s, when there wasn't much variety in the grocery stores, and processed foods and lots of meat were the thing. And we had a lower middle-class income. And though mom tried mightily to get us interested in vegetable gardening, we just couldn't be bothered. So I suppose that mom is to be congratulated for cooking a decent variety of relatively nutritious meals for a family of five on very little money. But try culinary experiments on three kids and a husband who grew up on a meat-and-potatoes German/Irish diet? Then have one daughter after the other go vegetarian in high school? Mom played it safe. There was a great deal of "-helper" and "roni" in our diet, and as a young person, I was just fine with that -- what kid doesn't like an extra helping of fat, sugar, and salt? But as an adult, I'd never say "I must have mom's recipe for X" (Except maybe the cookies -- and canning: did I mention that mom knows how to can? Note to self: have mom teach you to can).

My sister, now: she can cook up a storm. Even her seven year-old says, "Yep, mom sure is a good cook." And I do pretty well myself. I love food. I love fall food especially. Root vegetables, butternut squash, cranberries, rice, nuts, soups...

So Thanksgiving is great for me, in spite of the fact that the two main things -- turkey and stuffing -- are off my menu. And because I usually get taken in as someone's stray kitten, it's an occasion for me to do some serious cooking. A couple of years ago, I made butternut squash lasagnae. Probably the best Thanksgiving entrée I've ever made, it's delicious, and has the added advantage of adding 5-8 pounds per serving, to help you stave off the cold.

This year, since I'm walking to the home where I'm invited, I'm going with something that I can carry more easily, and that won't need to be reheated before serving: brown/wild rice and cranberry salad. It's easy, it's a nice texture (and fiber) counterpoint to the typical dishes on the Thanksgiving table, and it's best served at room temperature, so there's one thing you don't have to worry about timing just right (not that your true friends will mind what temperature the food gets served at -- they're just happy to be with you). So, here's the recipe. It's a super-easy, dash-of-this, dollop-of-that kind of recipe, which can be adjusted to taste.

Rice Salad, Girl Scholar Style

Get this stuff:
  • a wild/brown rice blend (I like "Lundberg's wild blend", but grab what looks tasty to you) -- you'll need about 2 cups dry measure
  • dried cranberries
  • pecans
  • parsley
  • orange juice (I actually like to use an orange-pomegranate blend)
  • prepared balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing (the non-emulsified kind; reduced-fat is fine, if you like)
Do this with it:
  1. Prepare the rice a bit in advance, and let it cool to room temperature. With two cups of dry rice, you should end up with about six cups cooked.**
  2. Chop the pecans & parsley, and get the cranberries at the ready. You'll want about 1/3 cup of parsley, and maybe 2/3 cup each of chopped pecans and dried cranberries -- give or take.
  3. Get a little tupperware container and put in a quarter cup of juice and a quarter cup of prepared dressing; cover tightly and shake vigorously to blend.

In a big bowl, start with about 4 c. of the cooked rice mix. Stir in about half the dressing (shake well immediately before adding), parsley, cranberries, and pecans. Now you use the remainder of all your ingredients to adjust to your own particular taste. You don't have to use them up if you don't want to -- make this to your taste. Remember that the flavors will intensify slightly as it sits (and you're going to let it sit, refrigerated, at least an hour), but not a whole lot, since there's nothing like onion or garlic in there.

After it's to your liking, refrigerate at least an hour. Serve at room temperature or so, perhaps garnishing the dish with a bit of the cranberries, nuts, or parsley right before placing on the table.

Enjoy! And if you don't already, why not try Girl Scholar's traditional morning-after-Thanksgiving breakfast: leftover pie (pumpkin or pecan) and strong black coffee. Yum.

**If you're unfamiliar with brown rice preparation, then it goes like this: twice as much (minus a skosh) water as rice; bring to a boil, add salt (or substitute), add rice and return to boil; cover tightly and reduce heat to one click above simmer & cook there for 10 minutes, then without lifting the lid, reduce heat that last click and simmer another 35 minutes; turn the heat off and let sit, covered, for 10 min. Larger amounts (like making up 6 cups cooked for this recipe) will require larger pans (I use my big stockpot for this) to make sure the rice cooks evenly, and may require slight temperature/time adjustments.

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Office of One's Own

All right, folks. Since most of my readers seem to have found my last post earnest enough to induce a diabetic coma (I yam what I yam, people, and make no apologies for it), I thought I'd post something brief in the more typical woe-is-me vein. So here it is: I'm fucking tired of sharing an office.

Now, office-sharing is typical when we're graduate TAs. Not great, but typical. My 10-by-10 grad office was shared with two other TAs, in the sub-basement of a "sick building" complete with asbestos, exploding plumbing, wildly canted floors and ceilings, and, ominously, a health survey sent out by campus lawyers a few years ago asking if any of us had experienced certain cancers or respiratory conditions. But at the risk of invoking the old "rank hath its privileges" thing, I assumed that I would have my own office when I got a tenure-track job.

Not so. I have shared my 8-by-12 office every year since I've been here.** None of my office-mates has been obnoxious, but one was a compulsive hoarder, and one semester I shared with two people, rather than the normal one. This year, my office-mate has a class schedule exactly the same as mine. So, with his mandatory student conferences this week, I find myself typing this post from an on-campus coffee shop, where I'm holding my regularly scheduled office hours. And the asbestos and capricious plumbing are still a part of my life -- though at least I have a window now. What makes it worse is that there are serious inequities in this respect. I'm not the only one sharing an office, but the way that the solo-office privilege is distributed seems to be utterly random, and sometimes downright weird.

Was I hopelessly naïve to think I'd get a room of my own once I hit the big time (that is, the tenure track)? How common is this?

And yes, I have mentioned it to my chair. And there have been noises, but nothing happens. On the other hand, part of the reason that it doesn't happen is me. For example, my chair offered to move my office-mate, but only when it was already the middle of the semester. I thought this would have been was unnecessarily burdensome to both instructor and students, so I gave it a pass. I think that was the right call, but I also think it may have given Chair the impression that, since that, I wasn't willing to evict my office-mate mid-semester, it wasn't that big a deal.

But it kind of is a big deal. If I could have an office of my own, it wouldn't solve all my problems. But it would be a start.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go: the coffee shop is filling up, and several students are eyeing my table.

**The only year I've had my own office was the year I was on fellowship leave. In other words, I had to get another university to give me an office. And let me tell you, it was amazing how much more work I got done.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's a Wonderful (Academic) Life

Yes, I know I owe everybody a part III for my post on teaching. And maybe that'll happen sometime this weekend, since (mirabile dictu!) I seem to be caught up on grading.

But this morning, I bounced over to In the Middle, where Karl put up a very thoughtful post, complete with New! Video!, with regards to how we, as faculty, might be reinforcing our own cynicism. As I mentioned sometime earlier, one of my goals for this semester was to try to avoid negativity about my work. I mean, really, I could complain, but when both my siblings have been either un- or underemployed this year, and when I am close friends with a professional woman who may be on the brink of losing her home through no fault of her own, and when I know so many putatively successful adults in jobs they dislike, it seems graceless to do so.

And then some student comes along and wants a life like mine... well, why shouldn't they? I mean, it's far from perfect, but depending on your priorities, it can be very good. Nice work if you can get it, as they say. I do still think that it is our responsibility as faculty to alert potential grad students to the overall crappiness of the job market, and to sacrifices that our life choices entail if and when we do manage to land jobs, but why are we so reluctant to balance that out by talking about the positive? Are we perhaps afraid to admit that our sporadic bitching about our jobs may at times be unwarranted, and so we project it onto our students who are guilty only of being as idealistic as we once were?

And if we did dare to talk with students about the good things about our jobs -- heck, even the good things about grad school! -- might that contribute to our own happiness?

Oh, nevermind. Just watch the video. It's not the one you've seen before.**

**And yes, before someone tells me: I know that those other videos were in large part snarking on utterly unprepared students. But a not-insignificant portion of the ridicule was also directed at student idealism, which is something I think I (a self-declared idealist who still, at times, romanticizes her job) needed to be called up short on.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Better Teacher, Part II: What I Think They Need, and What They Need

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the great things about a sabbatical is the opportunity to think about teaching. When we're in the thick of it, we tend to be reactive teachers, even though most of us have often thought about tearing down one or more of our courses so we could build it up into something… well, something better. But things just get so busy that we don't have time to reflect what that "better" would look like.

But during my sabbatical and the summer afterwards, I started reflecting more. Part of this was inspired by my visit to my friend Dr. S., who recently won a college-wide award for her teaching. Her institution is different from mine – different students, different work allocation – but one basic point remains the same: what we think our students need may not be what they actually need.

As it happens, this semester's courseload is the perfect laboratory to experiment, as I have the entire range of courses:
  • 100-level gen-ed course, 50-ish students, mostly non-majors. Goals: teach them the basic content; make them decent writers; get them to think analytically and critically (and to understand why this last thing is important more generally).
  • 300-level survey course in Medieval Stuff, 25-ish students, mostly majors (though not necessarily medievalists). Goals: basic content; better writing; higher-level analysis; basic independent research skills.
  • Grad historiography course, 7 students, medievalists all. Goals: introduce them to some of the classics of the discipline, get them to understand the nature of historiography, and how each of the works are situated in the history of the discipline; move their writing from acceptable to elegant, and their analysis from superficial to incisive; advanced independent research.
But that's what I think they need. What do they need? 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.

What I decided to do, coming in part III.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Better Teacher, Part I: Body on Sabbatical, Brain in the Classroom

Some of you may have noticed that I haven't been posting much in the past few weeks. That's because I have been buried in a neverending stream of grading and student conferences. And it's all because I decided to become a better teacher. So in lieu of anything going on in my actual life, here's part one of a three-part post on that topic.

I like to think that I'm naturally pretty good in the classroom. Of course, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a university professor who doesn't think that they're pretty good in the classroom (or lab or studio or whatever), even though they may assign more or less priority to it, depending on their relative emphasis on research and service. There may be someone out there who says, "You know, I'm really a crap teacher, and who cares?" but I have yet to meet them. From the award-winning SLAC professor (I'm looking at you, Dr. S) to the to the harried freeway flier, I'd wager that we all think we're doing pretty well at what we do, given our various circumstances.

But being good in the classroom isn't necessarily the same as being a good teacher. For the purposes of this post, I'm using the former to mean, "Am I doing well?" and the latter to mean, "Are they doing well?" And I recently started thinking more about the latter than the former.

I started having these thoughts on my one-semester sabbatical, by the way, and if anyone in your general vicinity ever starts blathering about how sabbaticals are evidence that we don't give a shit about teaching, you can tell them this: Most of us who spend time in the classroom are so busy that we don't get a chance to be anything but reactive teachers. We may think about totally gutting our syllabi and building them from the ground up, but chances are that we just don't have time to do anything more intensive than maybe rewrite a few lectures, experiment with a new assignment, or assign a new book or two. If you're anything like me, you will probably do three to four of the following five things when your semester break rolls around: (1) Immediately fall incredibly ill as your adrenaline-boosted immune system collapses once you stop rushing around like a meth-addled chipmunk; (2) cross-country visit your family who don't understand why you don't come more often (bonus points for shopping for all your Christmas presents in four days!); (3) poke at your research (in a desultory fashion if it's winter break, more intensively if it's summer – perhaps even a trip to the archives); (4) finally clean your living space, your laundry, and yourself; (5) recharge your battered brain by spending entire days – often several on end – overloading on sleep/fluffy fiction reading/TV. Whichever of these options you choose, I can pretty much guarantee that it ends the same way: panic because you realize that the semester is starting in a week and you haven't even thought about the syllabus yet.

Like I said: reactive teaching. Even if you're good at it, it's not conducive to much of anything.

But when you're on sabbatical, you switch from reactive to reflective. You wonder what you've been doing in the classroom, and how you might do it better. You dream up new assignments and think more deeply about overall learning goals. You replay student reactions (the reasonable ones) and think about why something did or didn't work.

And in between digging through various archives in Exotic Research City, that's precisely what I did. More on the result in part II.