Sunday, January 23, 2011

Teaching My Way to Words on Paper (or: Making a Teaching Assignment Work for Me, Rather Than Against Me)

God, how I hated this question in interviews: "How does your research affect your teaching?" Sure, maybe I should have been able to answer it, but as I was applying for generalist jobs most of the time, so I couldn't see what to say without making myself seem too narrow. Of course, now I have a good answer to that question, one that has to do more with keeping myself interested and excited, but at the time, it was a stumper.

I have, however, discovered something even more delightful: My teaching can actually help my research. And a semester like the one I've got coming up is a perfect test case. here's how it goes:
  • Monday: Graduate research seminar (3 hrs): 20-25-page paper
  • Wednesday: Undergraduate research methodology/intro to the discipline (4 hrs): 10-12-page paper
  • Thursday: Graduate capstone research seminar (4 hrs): 18-20-page paper
Anyone noticing a theme here? Yep, basically I'm doing the exact same thing in all three classes, though at three levels, and with three topics.** Most importantly for the purposes of my discussion here is this commonality: all three culminate in the students producing an original research paper (different lengths), and all three directly incorporate a lot of steps in the process of doing that.

Coincidentally, I have to write two things this semester: a conference paper (10-12 pages), and a presentation for the department research seminar (about 20 pages). Also, I am a person who does best with concrete deadlines: only fear of looking like an ass in front of other people really motivates me to actually getting something done.

So here's the deal: I write these papers right along with my students -- and I let them know I'm doing it. When they have to write a preliminary proposal, I make sure that I've written my conference abstract. When they have to do an outline, they get to look at mine. We keep each other honest, and keep each other working. At least, that's the plan.

Wish me luck!

**There is actually a reason why I don't use the same topic for all three, having to do with available sources and what the students are prepared to do at a particular level, but that's a whole 'nother post.

***image lifted from the "Hyperbole and a Half" store. Perfect gifts for the reluctant academic.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Overcoming Post-Traumatic Semester Syndrome

Another semester is upon me, and I'm jumpy.

Those of you who followed this blog last semester know that I totally revamped my approach to my undergraduate courses. I added some more challenging assignments, but compensated by putting in a lot more scaffolding and a replaced a few of my lectures with one-on-one tutorials in the upper-division classes. And it had exactly the opposite effect from what I was aiming for: low performance and (more recently) the lowest evaluation scores I've ever gotten in over ten years of university teaching. To add injury to insult, one of my bread-and-butter classes was, for the first time ever, canceled, as a result of catastrophically low enrollment. The fact that students are staying away in droves may not have anything to do with my new approach. On the other hand, it might.

It has been, to say the least, demoralizing. This is made worse by a quirk of my own personality: I'm such a freak about personal accountability that when something like this happens, my first internal response is "What am I doing wrong?" Part of me simply refuses to consider that it might not be (entirely) my fault.**

fig. 1: temporarily empty seats ≠ Professor Notorious sucks and ought to give up

But you know what? I've looked at it from every angle, and even consulted with other people in my department, and I've reached the conclusion that I did it right last semester, perhaps righter than I've ever done before. So what if I got handed the utterly-grueling-for-everyone-concerned boot camp course two days ago in order to replace the underenrolled course? You know what? I'm going to go into that course and kick some instructional ass. I will not listen to the one colleague who I know will tell me that I'm expecting too much, and ought to give up the research paper requirements, because I know that having my favorite courses fill is not the point: it's about what the students are learning, rather than the ego boost that comes with having popular courses. I'm going to be the best classroom teacher I know how to be, and if that's not enough, then fuck it. Because I can't do any more than that.

Watch out, semester: I'm going to take you down.

**This applies to areas of my life other than teaching, but that's a post for another day -- or more probably, never.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

There Is No Try, Only Do

You know those days when you seem to be running your ass off all day, but at the end, you feel like you've gotten nothing accomplished, and are perhaps even further behind than you were before? I know that I, at least, have them quite frequently.

Well, don't hate me, but: yesterday for me was the opposite of that day. I wrote over 600 words. I finished one last little touch-up edit on an essay that I'm going to send off today. I got the last of my grocery shopping done, riding my bike for the 30-min round trip so I even got some exercise in. And I still had time left over to set up a Goodreads library, make a delicious soup, read a bit for fun, and take a hot bath. And even with all that, I felt relaxed, with effort to spare.

Now, a day of effortless productivity is something I am NOT taking for granted -- in fact, the fact that I'm blogging about it should let you know that I recognize how extraordinary this is. But it reminds me of something my yoga instructor said in a class this week. I can't quote it exactly, but as we were doing some sort of difficult-for-me pose, she noted that "this pose can be difficult to hold because you're trying so hard."


Friday, January 14, 2011

Just Not Feeling it Today

You know what? I plan not to write today.

I feel a twinge of guilt. I want to be a "write a little every day" person. But today, I'm just not feeling it. And even though I'm stuck at home all day waiting for a UPS delivery,** I just don't feel so into the writing.

I can't let one day become a week, and a month, and so on. But today, I need to not think about the documents and what they're saying. So my "three things" list for today doesn't feature the standard "write 600 words." I don't think that's such a bad thing. Except that maybe I do, or else I wouldn't be blogging it.

Whatevs. Here's a photo of people reading things:

**A pair of sensible work shoes, and a yoga mat to replace the one that was stolen (WTF? Who steals a yoga mat?), if you care.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Welcome to my "Process"

You know what I'm totally proud of in the 3-plus year history of this blog? My First Book Chronicles. Yeah, I'm enamored with my own wit and trenchant observations in the other posts, and there are all those pretty pictures (especially from the research trips), but the Chronicles are really the only part, so far, that might constitute a contribution to other academic writers trying to get a piece of creative work finished and into the light of day.

Creative work: My niece in action

But the one thing about the Chronicles is that they begin in the middle. I started this blog when I'd just won (but had not begun) a residential fellowship year to revise my first book MS. What you missed was the beginning of the whole thing, all the anxious fumbling that took place during the dissertation stage, the trying-to-figure-out-what-it-means as it became a book, the constant rearrangements, the grant writing...** In other words, what's missing is what real writers would call my "process." Now, perhaps you don't care about my process. And why should you? I won't be able to say whether it's a good model to follow until if and when the thing is actually a book. But you know what? If I keep writing this blog for the next five years, you're going to get a book project from start*** to finish. So -- appropriately enough, almost exactly a year from the first post on this new project -- here goes:

Since returning from Puddletown, I've been reacquainting myself with my writing. The goal has been to pick a few related documents every day, and to spend a couple of hours freewriting on them, with a goal of getting 600 words a day. Some days I get more; some days (like today) I fall slightly short. But I did crack 20,000 words a couple of days ago. Granted, these are "shitty first draft" words, really little more than freewriting. But I'm back to writing my way in.

Better yet: last night, I wrote up my first-ever rough outline of the project. Now, this is going to be the first of many, I know for a fact. That is the way of things. The project will organize and reorganize and take twists and turns. And I can't let myself think of this first outline as anything other than a guide, a set of rules made to be broken. In fact, I sincerely hope it will change and evolve, because right now, it's got no flash. But it's something.

Want to see it? Okay, here it is:

• Introduction (8,000 words)
• ch. 1: Background: The history of tuna-herding, and the great tuna mortality (8,000 words)
• ch. 2: tuna-herding in local/urban context -- social dimensions (20,000 words)
• ch. 3: tuna-herding in regional context -- political tensions (20,000 words)
• Interlude: sexy topic they made a movie about once (10,000 words)
• ch. 4: tuna-herding in broader "international" context (20,000 words)
• Conclusions (4,000 words)

Yeah, that's a bit short for a monograph, but it'll get bigger, likely. Maybe I'll just say "indeed" a lot. Each of the regular chapters also breaks down into two parts, so there may be a couple of article possibilities there, but really the interlude might make the best article.

To paraphrase something CPP once said in a comment thread here: "Saddle up, motherfuckers: WE RIDE!"

**Hell, you even missed a portion in my post-dissertation research where my entire fucking computer was stolen in a bus station. Complete with all my data, passport, credit cards -- my whole goddamned life in that foreign land. That, my friends, was dramatic.

***For "start," you could start here, with a typically anxiety-driven post. Or you could just click on the "another damn book" tag.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Open Thread: Happy Thoughts!

Hello, dear readers!

Well, the last couple of days have brought a few bits of downer news. Nothing serious, but things that are really harshing my mellow. I started this academic year trying to focus on the positive, but as the spring semester approaches, I find that events are making me cranky. Not a good way to kick things off.

In short: I could use some happy thoughts, and maybe others could, too. So I'd like to invite everyone to use the comment thread to post good news. I'll get started:
  1. I've just heard through the grapevine that at least one review of my book is likely to be positive. Which is not to say that others won't; only that this is the one bit of advance news that I have. Also, the book recently cracked 100 libraries, which I suspect is pretty good for the first six months of a medieval book in this age of shrinking library budgets (and if it's not, then please don't tell me).
  2. I'm really enjoying my new yoga studio -- lots of good, positive energy there, and I like how I'm getting physically stronger and more confident in the poses as I go along.
  3. Still loving the new glasses.
  4. An undergraduate who I've watched progress from good to excellent over the past few semesters has applied to work with me in the M.A. program.
  5. My new foster nephew, who has faced more challenges than anyone ought to in their first twelve months of life, has found a loving home with my brother and his family, and is starting to thrive.

The new member of the family, gettin' into it.

I'll probably think of more, once my mood lifts. How about you? What's going well for you? What are you looking forward to?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Interrupting your conference weekend... ask that we spend a few days at least consciously practicing whatever is the opposite of anger. Please.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

To My Friends and Readers in Lit Fields...

...happy MLA to everyone! May the papers be good, and the socializing better. May you get the discount copy of that book you've always wanted but never been able to afford. May those of you with interviews impress the holy hell out of those hiring committees while remaining true to yourself. And may your eyewear be the most stylish of anyone's there.

Newly purchased nerdy-chic glasses: my way of being with my
infinitely hipper MLA brethren & sistren in spirit.
(And also of being able to actually, you know, see things.)