Friday, November 25, 2011

Writing group week 12: An extra week

Hi folks!

I got so caught up this morning in posting my pumpkin cobbler recipe that I forgot about week 12. But ADM and I chatted, and decided that, what with the holidays and travel and all, it would be a good idea to postpone week 12 check-ins until next week. So: I'm going to put up the final post next Friday, to give us all (yes, me included) a chance to recover from the holidays and get those last few things taken care of on our projects. I hope you all had a good holiday, and we'll see you next Friday!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

My favorite breakfast of the year

... is pumpkin pie and strong black coffee, in the quiet of the morning the day after Thanksgiving.

You may have noticed that what you see there is not pumpkin pie. That's because I decided to try something different this year and go for a pumpkin cobbler. Why not, right?

Turns out, pumpkin cobbler is excellent. So, here's how you make it. Or rather, here's how I make it, because I've discovered that, while I'll go for the for-serious from fresh ingredients while cooking, I tend towards the quick-and-dirty approach when baking, and this involves processed ingredients. Feel free to go all from-scratch gourmet all over this thing, if you want* -- I'm sure you'll be rewarded with some excellent results. But the way I made it, it takes only 15 minutes prep time. Can't beat that with a stick.

1. Preheat oven to 425.

2. Make cobbler crust:
  • 1 box yellow cake mix (set aside 1 c. for topping, step 4)
  • 1/2 c. butter, softened at room temperature
  • 1 egg
Cream together these ingredients, and pat into a lightly oiled 13 x 9 inch pan (you may want to lightly flour your hands for this step)**

3. Make filling:
  • 1 large can pumpkin
  • 1 can condensed milk or evaporated milk (the former will be sweeter; either one can be a low-fat version if you want)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2/3 c. (packed) brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
Mix together filling ingredients and pour into pan on top of (unbaked) crust. Put the whole thing in the oven, close the door, and lower the heat to 350 to bake for the next half hour. While that's going...

4. Make topping:
  • 1 c. reserved cake mix
  • 2-3 Tbsp butter
  • 1/4 c. (packed) brown sugar
  • pumpkin pie spice to taste
Cut together topping ingredients -- or give them a few quick pulses in a food processor -- until you have a nice crumble (if it sticks together on the sides of the food processor, you probably need to add a touch more flour; if it won't hold together into crumble bits, add more butter). Once the cobbler has baked for 30 minutes, take it out, and sprinkle on the filling, then immediately return it to the oven and bake it for another 30-45 min., until a knife in the center comes out clean.

Remove pan from oven and cool at room temperature for an hour before cutting (I think that 15 portions is about right for this size of a pan, but YMMV).

And now, between snapping that picture, and editing this post, I've already finished my piece this morning. And it was everything I'd hoped it would be.

[UPDATE: Historiann has tried this out using stewed fresh pumpkin, to rave reviews, though she finds it a bit on the sweet side, and decided that next time she'll use less sugar in the crumble. True enough: the cake mix used for the crumble has its own sugar, so you may not need to add more, but you'll likely want to add a tablespoon or two of flour instead to get the right texture. I also found that using condensed milk instead of the evaporated milk gave the filling a slightly fluffy texture, which I liked, but it did make it extra-sweet, so I'll probably reduce the filling sugar by half.]

*Fresh pumpkin? Cream rather than canned milk? Make your own batter for the crust? Grate in some fresh ginger? It's all good.

**The picture above makes it look like I patted the crust into the bottom and sides of the pan. I didn't. It would actually be impossible to do that, because you're working with a thick batter rather than a dough. But somehow, mysteriously, the crust creeps up the sides during the baking stage. I always knew that baking involved a lot of chemistry; now I see that physics also plays a role. Amazing.

Counting My Blessings

  1. I'm healthy, more than I deserve to be.
  2. I'm employed, and make a salary that allows me to pay down my debts, little by little.
  3. I have both my parents, both my siblings, and some ridiculously wonderful nieces & nephews that remind me about joy in life, in case I forget.
  4. I have the privilege of making most of my own life choices, with only a few constraints, and I think I've fashioned a life that suits me well.
  5. I find my work personally satisfying.
  6. I have friends who care and appreciate me for who I am, and a comfortable distance from those people who do otherwise.
  7. I have enough coffee to last me through the long weekend, a fridge full of food (mostly nutritious), and will be making a pumpkin cobbler tonight. And I haven't had to worry about running out of these things for many years.
  8. I have several days before I need to be back at work, with my grading completed.
  9. I don't have everything I want, but I have everything I need.
Happy thanksgiving, everyone. Here's a picture of a fish:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How Dragons Changed My Life

Another Damned Medievalist has a post up about the recent death of fantasy author Anne McCaffrey. I'm glad she did, and she says it beautifully. I'm just reprinting here (with a couple of small edits) my own comment that I left over at her place, because reading ADM's post made me realize how much of an effect McCaffrey's books had on me:

I read the McCaffrey's Harper Hall series when I was… oh, eleven or twelve? And I was completely taken with the young female heroine. I hadn’t thought of the “damaged outsider” angle [NB: see ADM's post for an explanation of this], but it makes complete sense.

Sure, her books are a far cry from being "great literature." But they didn't have to be. If we exclude the work of Butler and LeGuin (a bit too heady for most twelve year-olds), there wasn’t a lot of that genre at that time that featured female protagonists — and especially not female protagonists who were valued for their skills rather than their beauty. For the young adult series, you can throw in the fact that the female protagonist was a young adolescent, and you've got some pretty powerful stuff for a girl my age. When I read these books, I felt like McCaffrey was writing for me, and (though I couldn’t have articulated it this way at the time) that there might be a place in the world for an awkward and kind of homely smart girl who never new what to say, how to dress, or how to fit in.

When I tell my students how I became interested in medieval history, I tend to point to the historical fiction on the Tudors and their ilk that I purloined from my mom’s library piles. But the more I think of it, the more I believe that it began with Menolly and all those bitty fire-lizards.

So: Thanks, Anne.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Week 11 is up!

...over at ADM's place. We're coming into the home stretch, folks!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Professor's Prayer for Mid-November

To whatever gods may be,

Please, let me get through this week. Let me survive three more days of nearly back-to-back meetings and student conferences and frenetic grading to make sure that I'm prepared to give feedback in those conferences. Let me remember to finish the half-dozen 15-minute administrative tasks that I keep forgetting about, and that are way past due.

Let me keep my stress and anxiety relatively contained, lest it spill over into my interactions with students and colleagues and department staff. For lo, at this time of year they are all mightily stressed out as well, and none of my shit (well, very little) is their fault.

Grant me 5 minutes of grace every day so that I might shower. Let me not leave the house having forgotten to don pants.

Most importantly, let me hold it together just enough so the students don't see how close I am to dropping every last ball I have in the air. Let my colleagues who know damn well how close I am to dropping every last ball I have in the air forgive me, even as I forgive them for doing the same. Help me to maintain a semblance of competence until Friday at 6 p.m.

And I'll be fine then, I promise.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Writing Group Week 10: How Do You Feel?

“There’s something exhilarating about being near the end of a project, or at least a deadline for one. I’m finding I don’t mind the late nights working, and I just want to fix that one last thing. There will be a time to stop, but I’m enjoying the final push.”
– Amstr

“I feel like, at the end of the article you are supposed to have your big climax with fireworks and all sorts of grand confusions, and right now it’s kind of a mess that doesn’t seem to go anywhere — waving a sparkler instead of showing off some big fireworks.”
– Sisyphus

I culled these two quotes from last week’s comments, and I think they sum up the polarities of reality and expectations as one approaches the finish line of a project. On the one hand, there may be a sense of triumph and amazement at our own ass-kickingness as we approach the finish.

Then there’s the other side: “Is that all there is?” We expect great things, and then when it’s finished, it’s just… finished. Myenh.

So here, at week ten, close to the end, this is what I want to ask: How are you feeling? What are you doing to reward or at least congratulate yourself? Are you underestimating what you’ve accomplished? Or, if you’re feeling like you didn’t make the progress you wanted because of matters that really were out of your control, how do you deal with that and moving forward – without invoking the concept of “failure”?

Talking about how you feel about your work is something that Belcher talks about in Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. It is, in fact, the project of the first week. When I first did it, it struck me as a little hokey. “I am a get-it-done professional! What’s all this touchy-feely crap about anyway?”

But we sometimes forget that writing – even academic writing – is a creative endeavor. And like all creative endeavors, it can be emotionally draining. We never approach the new project or the blank page or the looming deadline dispassionately, do we? We care deeply, and no methodical to-do list (though those help us move forward) is going to change that. Nor should it.

Here’s how I feel: wobbly and uncertain. I’m about to present my first conference paper on a section of the new project, and it’s a high-profile conference. The paper is coming together – in fact, I met my goal of having a decent first draft, though without the conclusion I promised – but now that it is, I find myself beset by doubt again. Is this all too obvious? Did I say anything interesting? Have I reinvented the wheel? I console myself with the certain knowledge that I have felt this way before -- in fact, it's how I usually feel about my writing once it's done, and especially if it's a new-ish topic. But I’m also excited to see where this might be headed.

So, if you’d like to participate in a bit of writing therapy, tell us how you’re feeling. Then post your report and goals (mine is to get two new books skimmed and incorporate them in areas where the paper seems weak) as usual.

Roll call, with week 10 goals
  • Adelaide [write a conference paper]: Presentation is done!
  • Amcalm25/AMChristensen [finish an article]: choose an angle and just go with it
  • Amstr [revise and resubmit an article]: Make the Tuesday deadline, take some respite at the end of the week, and make notes on the areas that can easily be expanded to turn this into a dissertation chapter
  • Another Damned Medievalist [write/revise a close-to-final draft of an article]: attempt to survive this week’s shit explosions (figurative ones, that is)
  • Belledamesansmerci/Elizabeth [rough draft of a journal article]: Finish the second and third passages. Check Migne, or if the fates are smiling, a newer edition of the various Fathers
  • Bitterandjaded/Bittergrrl [finishing a dissertation chapter]: Write another 2000 words and meticulously edit the first 15 pages
  • Cly(temnestra) [write a book chapter]: draft chapter
  • Contingent Cassandra [complete a full draft of a journal article – note goal may be revised soon]: lengthen Section 2 by at least 500 words
  • Dame Eleanor Hull [complete a chapter of the article-turned-book]: print out completed work and edit it
  • Dr. Crazy [Finish a chapter draft begun this summer]: write 3 pages
  • Dr. Virago [draft a 7500-word essay for a contracted publication]: 500 words
  • Erika [write a complete & final draft of an article already underway]: reading the draft, and do a reverse outline; ILL the German and Italian sources
  • Forthright [write two article-length pieces]: write intro and set structure for article #2
  • Frogprincess [Final draft of the dissertation DONE!!]: revisit the introduction for final revisions, and try to stay sane
  • Good Enough Woman [write the first half of a dissertation chapter]: 1) read 30 pages of primary text, 2) read some secondary sources, and 3) type five pages of text
  • Gillian [4 chapters of dissertation]: continue working to have section ready to give to advisor, go through previous sections to get back on track
  • Heu Mihi [write paper for a faculty colloquium]: Finish the damn thing!
  • Highlyeccentric/nakedphilologist [Draft one thesis chapter]: 1500 words on section 3
  • Janice/jliedl [write a first draft of a chapter]: Last 800 words of the draft
  • Lucie: [Complete a full draft of the PhD thesis]: 5000 words, read two texts, more detailed plan for finishing.
  • Luolin [finish and submit an article]: incorporate citations from the reading and revise outline… without obsessing too much
  • Katrin/StitchInTime [Turn MA thesis into book form]: work at least 15 minutes a day on the book
  • Marie [finish turning paper into journal article]: edit the printed copy
  • Matilda [first draft of a journal article]: more than 2000 words on my project, and re-read related sources
  • Monks and Bones [turn a seminar paper into an article]: Talk to advisor, and work on outlining article version of paper
  • Notorious Ph.D. [write a conference paper]: finish off the last major section and write a draft conclusion, then edit the whole thing from SFD to presentable first draft.
  • NWGirl [Revise one dissertation chapter into a book chapter]: finish the spreadsheet inventory and the book proposal
  • Salimata [write a conference paper]: come up with that final, perfect paragraph
  • Scatterwriter [revise three chapters of book]: make the appropriate changes to manuscript, decide which chapter is next, and start revising whichever one it is
  • Scholasticamama [draft of an article]: Introduction and outline section on Abelard’s Logica Ingredientibus
  • Sisyphus [polish the rough draft of my article and send it out]: finish up the end of the article and make sure it is cleaned up enough to send
  • Sophylou: [finish revisions on an article and prepare it for submission]: spend some time reading, and try to make contact with people who support my wanting to continue with this kind of scholarship
  • Stemi [First (very rough) draft of review article]: 1) 500 new words in outline/draft document. 2) read paper sent by colleague
  • Susan [write a 7000 word commissioned essay]: fill in a few more of the footnotes, and try to clear the decks in terms of grading.
  • Trapped in Canadia [draft two chapters of the dissertation]: Make up the 2,000 words the computer ate last week [argh!!!]
  • Undine/Not of General Interest [Finish nearly done chapter and complete another]: 1500 words, writing every day
  • Viola [writing an introduction and a chapter for thesis]: start writing proper
  • Zcat abroad/Kiwimedievalist [write an article]: re-engage with article 2, get a list of outside sources to read, and try to work out a plan

Week 9 Absences:
  • Britomart [completing a draft of dissertation introduction]
  • Digger [write two book chapters]
  • Jennifer [finish writing a neglected article]:
  • Kris [write up a “full” paper and cut down to a 15-minute conference presentation]
  • Mike [write ch. 2 of dissertation]
  • Opsimathphd [turning a dissertation chapter into an article]

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why My Heart Sinks When One-Third of My Students Fail To Turn in Their Major Project Draft

Partly, it's sadness, for them.

Partly, it's frustration, because I work so damn hard to keep these students on track, giving them what the literature calls "all the tools they need to succeed."

Partly, it's puzzlement, because when we had our most recent one-on-one conferences (this is a conference-heavy class), they all walked out seeming to have purpose and confidence.

Mostly, though, it's the sure knowledge that, when I stick to my guns and refuse to grade late work, as laid out in the syllabus, their shame will turn outwards to anger, directed at me, and I'm gonna get hammered on the evaluations. By fully one-third of my class.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

What's the Matter with Higher Ed?

Short answer: Money, and entitlement.

Wait!, you say. Whose money? Whose entitlement? Well, I suppose I could elaborate, but be warned: when it comes to educational inequity, I do tend to go on. So pour yourself another cup of coffee and settle in for ten minutes or so.

Ready? Okay, here goes:

Historiann's call for bloggers to address the question in the title of this post, in response to Tony Grafton's recent piece on the spate of books attempting to answer the same question couldn't have come at a better time for me. You see, just these past few weeks I've been considering the matter, prompted by the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose complaints about the systemic nature of economic inequality in the U.S. were recently reinforced by a report of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. I teach at a mid-tier public university, where most of our students work part- to full-time, and many are first-generation college students. Our faculty come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, but many have terminal degrees from elite universities, so they know their stuff -- we're hiring smart people. More importantly to the point of this post, many are the prodcut of undergraduate educations at small liberal arts colleges (my own had a student-to-faculty ratio of 12:1, I think), so they know what's possible with good teaching practices.

So if any institution should be positioned to help the 99-percenters (or let's call them 95-percenters, in the case of education) bridge the gap, it's us. And yet, because we are part of a large state system, and thus are dependent on shrinking public funding, we are instead emblematic of a two-tiered educational system that perpetuates that gap, and may even be widening it.

Grafton notes that most books critical of higher education fall into the trap of looking for the Bad Guy. Some blame entitled, lazy, out-of-touch faculty who can't be bothered to teach, and wouldn't know how even if they were made to. Others decry the ever-increasing number of administrators, vastly overpaid, blindly bound to a business mentality that has nothing to do with the mission of higher education, who impose reams of assessment paperwork on faculty in order to numerically prove that learning is taking place. Still others lament that today's students arrive at college coddled, unprepared, and aimless, and gravitate towards "pre-professional" majors that sell job training as education, and are short-sighted to think the goal is the piece of paper at the end, rather than the challenge and growth that gets them there. Grafton argues that all of these may be factors, but warns against the monocausal explanation, and for the most part, I think he's right.

Except when it comes to money.

On that note, Grafton also takes on the "rising costs" issue, as addressed by the authors he evaluates. But unlike those authors, he suggests that the high price tag at these elite schools often (though not always) pays for better educational quality for the students: wealth starting out will facilitate your entry into a more intellectually rigorous and nurturing (no, those two are not mutually exclusive) educational system.

To put it more bluntly than Grafton may be comfortable with: anyone who thinks that higher education is the last meritocracy is fooling themselves. I've seen a number of incredibly gifted students come through my classrooms. These students are here, rather than Oberlin or Williams or Swarthmore or Reed or whatever, because they don't come from a privileged background, and our in-state tuition is about 15% of what those schools charge. Some others arrive vastly underprepared for college, and struggle to get passing grades, and some fail to finish. But mostly we have a broad and varied middle of average students, some of whom have the potential to be very good, given the proper resources and attention. Over the years (and more often in recent years), I've seen some of them become aware of what they're being deprived of: "I've never had someone write so many comments on my paper!" "It's really frustrating to be the only person talking... I don't think that most people did more than a couple pages of the reading." "Wow! Thanks! That [half-hour one-on-one paper conference] really helped – I think I get it now." And heartbreakingly, one time, from a junior (or was she a senior?): "I've never been to a professor's office hours before – I guess I didn't know I could... or maybe I was a little scared."

Too often, whatever native ability these students have is not going to be properly nurtured, because in a university of over 30,000 students, where tenure-track faculty teach 80-150 students a semester without T.A.s or grading assistance or the like, and the lecturers who make up 50-60% of our staff teach much more than that (because at $3-5K a course, you've got to teach about 5-6 courses a semester just to make ends meet, often shuttling between our university and some other to do so, and your fancy Ph.D. and two bucks will buy you a cup of coffee), it's likely that nobody will notice that spark of brilliance in time to fan it into a flame before it dies. So the capable students coast, or they lose interest, and only rarely do they have a background of experience to know to push themselves, and to ask us for support when they do -- in other words, to demand for themselves what the five-percenters take as a given. In the meantime, they hold down 20 hour-a-week jobs to pay their ever-increasing tuition, and start to look approvingly at online courses because that would enable them to take on extra hours at work to foot the bill, since in institutions like mine, the students are picking up their own tab. And they emerge with an education that looks even less like the one their five-percenter peers receive. And so the cycle continues.

And the taxpayers and their elected representatives wring their hands, and say that the public universities are failing the students, and respond with more numerically-based assessment, and criticize faculty for spending what they see as too little time with students, and increase teaching loads and class sizes, and withdraw more funding, and leave administrations to rely more on adjunct labor and online classes in order to make budget. And so that cycle continues, too.

So what's the solution, for an institution like mine? It lies not in the professors, most of whom are committed to good teaching and good research (until they are too exhausted to do either) and who receive, at most, one course off per year for maintaining an active research agenda. Nor do I want to blame the students, most of whom have precisely the level of commitment and seriousness of purpose and focus on the journey rather than the finish line that almost all of us had at age nineteen. Administrators? Yes, we may complain of bloated salaries at the top, but the vast majority are paid middle-class salaries or less, and are trying to do the difficult job of making ends meet and serving the interests of students and faculty (both of whom can get a bit entitled from time to time) while keeping on top of the latest paperwork requirement to come out of the state capital, all on whatever shoestring budget the institution has to work with in any given year.

In my view, the solution lies in a state's voters deciding that they want to support high-quality education for all who qualify – and by "support," I don't mean buying a bumper sticker or clicking "like" on some Facebook page... or even writing a blog post, I suppose. I'm talking about the kind of support that you can stick into a bank account. This requires sacrifice, and, sad to say, this is not a political or cultural climate that favors personal sacrifice for faceless others or a commitment to the common good that extends beyond oneself and one's immediate circle.

In short: We have met the enemy, and he is us. The problem is indeed entitlement, but it's not that of students or faculty. It's a larger sense that we are entitled to the benefits of society without any corresponding obligations. As Grafton notes, "those already born into the wealthy and professional classes benefit disproportionately from the best educations." We can't rail about economic inequities á là OWS one minute, then demand cuts in public spending the next. We can't support obsessive multiple-choice testing and reports in an attempt to quantify learning, then complain that students don't think critically. We can't keep depending on low-paid contingent labor in huge classes, then blame professors and instructors for not providing the same education as an expensive small college provides. We can't increase class sizes or move to online educational models to save money, then wonder that students who go through this system aren't achieving the same graduation rates or post-graduation results as their peers at elite schools.

We find ourselves facing a choice: use education to expand opportunity and equality, or let it become another area where we let the wealthy have the best, and the rest can take whatever's left over. But let me underline something there: WE HAVE A CHOICE. We are not victims here, unless we choose to sit by and let short-sighted thinking undermine our most idealistic goals. We, as a society, need to take some accountability and realize that, whatever happens, we will get the system we pay for, and the results that we deserve.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

'Tis the season (for making lists)

Am I the only one who's reached the compulsive list-making portion of the semester?

I have so many things I'd like to do over the next week -- all of which will take approximately a day -- that I almost dare not speak them all out loud. Almost.
  • Check in at ADM's place for this week's writing group [UPDATE: It's up!], with my goal for this week completed.
  • Continue to write 400 words a day so I stand a chance of meeting my overall goals.
  • Plow through several stacks of grading, and get up to date on everything except the two small stacks of papers I received just today.
  • Repot one of the plants that seems to want more space
  • Get to at least three yoga classes.
  • Update a mailing list for That Thing I Edit.
  • Distribute TTIE to people on the list
  • Compile and research inevitable bounced deliveries of TTIE
  • Go through my e-mail inbox and stuff.
  • Vaguely tidy the apartment.

I'm nuts for even thinking about this. But maybe stating my goals in public will help me get through them. Stay tuned!