Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How many licks does it take to get to the center of the survey course?

Hello! It's been a while, hasn't it? I have been all out of blogging mojo. And, frankly, teaching and grading mojo. I have no clue why this fall was so exhausting compared to other semesters when I have had a lot more on my plate, but that was the case.

I am debating shuttering the blog --- or at least I was for most of the semester, since I couldn't find the energy to say anything entertaining or interesting or even to think about posting anything at all. I was uninspired. And wondering if there was any point in keeping it up.

Today, however, I am visiting family and am bored. Everyone I know is still working this week, and my nieces/nephews are all in school still, so there is not that much exciting to do here. I am therefore dithering about with my spring courses as a pleasant time-killing activity until people are available to entertain me. And since no one is around here, I need to find people to be social with through the magic of the internets.

The problem is this: people, I am bored by literature surveys. Not that I don't like teaching them, but I think to myself, surely there is some more interesting way of assessing the students, is there not? As an undergrad my surveys were very traditional and held to the midterm-two papers-final exam format, which I always enjoyed and did well in, so I have followed that format in my own surveys. Now, however, I am suddenly bored by the thought of it. So come brainstorm with me.

If we throw out the traditional format of a midterm and final (for coverage and recall of lecture content) and two papers (to teach argument and analysis over a single text at length and in more depth) then we open up the doors for re-justifying the literature survey from the ground up: what is the survey supposed to do? what content goals do I have for the students to be introduced to? What skills and abilities do I most value and want my students to come away with? How important is coverage vs. depth? Textual reading vs historical context? Literary movements?

If I assign a traditional analytical paper, when should it be due? Should it cover a single text, compare multiples, be revised in light of later historical developments down the survey road? (BTW I have TA'd for a class that did this and I had many complaints about how lumpy and mechanical the "grafting" of the two texts/arguments was in the final product.)

If I assign a single large paper near the end of the term (and I really don't want to deal with research-type term papers in this survey), how does that link up with the lecture-discussion-quiz structure of the rest of the class? Or does it seem like some sort of random, disconnected assignment that a prof "throws in" near the end? I don't like that feeling so much. What sort of messages does that send the students about the importance of revision or drafting or planning the writing process? And why assign one instead of two, or three? How many licks does it take to get to the center of ... whatever pedagogical goals essay writing covers?

Maybe I should have the students create Youtube videos of cats, subtitled with the lines from one of the texts we have read. That sounds horrible. And yet...

Now if I assign a "creative rewriting" sort of project, does that emphasize creative connections at the expense of analyzing closely what is in the primary text? Someone I know has been doing imitations and creative rewritings based on the idea in this article that translating a text into a different expository format helps students understand/remember it more. I've had students re-write a text in the voice of another, or write your own sonnet using so-and-so's principles, but would having them write in other genres be helpful? Byron's OK Cupid profile? (with angry messages left from jilted ladies) MacBeth's resume? Frankenstein's creature's travel narrative with the Canterbury pilgrims? The lab report writing up the scientist's results in "The Birth-Mark"?

Leaving aside the point that with first-generation college students in particular, the results you get and have to comment on might be painfully egregious, I think these assignments may promote interesting connections and creative thinking, but not necessarily improve students' close reading or ability to sustain extended analytical arguments, which are sadly lacking in today's culture across the board. Then again, does writing one poorly-structured lit essay for me that gets a B- for "interesting ideas, but a lack of organization and development" actually help a student in any way? Particularly when I teach almost all non-majors and some of them might never be forced to write an essay in their other classes ever again? (Surveying, exercise science, I'm looking at you, majors...)

Likewise, I am interested in the idea of doing something "online" for an assignment but cannot think of anything with enough value. Blog posts and wikis, once you take away the public, shared aspect of them, end up being poorly structured analytical essay that students are even less likely to plan out or revise due to the immediacy and slapdash nature of the medium. And other suggestions I have been given involve new programs and mechanical skills that students need to take quite a bit of time to get up to speed on, time that I am not willing to take away from historical context or discussion of authors and texts. Hmph. I am willing to be converted, however!

Give me some suggestions. Give me bad and terrible suggestions as well as good ones --- the act of shooting down ideas often helps me clarify what I do want.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Magic Minute ---- 12/12/12

Whoah,  I almost totally missed this!!!!

Let me explain. When my niece was little she used to do something she called the Magic Minute --- if you happen to accidentally look at a clock when the numbers are all the same, like 1:11 in the afternoon, you can make a wish. Everything has lined up for you.

Now, I'm not superstitious, but I love silly easy wish situations. How could you not???

And tomorrow is 12/12/12! Look at how lucky and auspicious that day is! I guess everyone wants to get married tomorrow for the good luck it will bring. Imagine how powerful the Magic Minute is on a lucky day like that!!!! So at exactly 12:12 tomorrow I need to glance at a clock and wish really really hard for ...

the ability to make people laugh so hard they spontaneously pee themselves when I point at them.

Oh wait, yeah, tenure-track job offer, yeah. I dunno... vs. magic powers? Ooh it's a toss-up.

Gonna have to think about it really really hard between now and the next Minute of Magic...

(*I had a friend in my grad-school cohort who said this our first year when we were all wishing for superpowers. It was so weird coming from someone as quiet and serious as her, and so hilarious the way she said it. When we asked why she wanted that power, she said, "Oh, you know, there's always the big lecture survey..." and then pointed at various invisible lecture-goers. She did it again when in the actual lecture the next week, making her wish nearly come true among the cluster of TAs around her. This is the same person who wore a Martha Stewart mask to our first Halloween party and made jokes about Point Break. So if you hear of Martha Stewart robbing banks and leaving behind puddles of giggling victims, we never had this conversation, ok?)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Emergency Withdrawl Day

I come back from a completely dispiriting comp class today to smile at the gaggle of English students who happen to camp out outside my door --- there must be an upper division lit class that always starts a little late and the instructor hasn't come to unlock the door. Usually I smile over the piercings and different hair colors (one is literally rainbow-hued on one side of the floppy mohawk cut) and their enthusiasm about Reading Things, which translates into a general loud exuberance and willingness to quote Douglas Adams novels, to relate Douglas Adams novels to classic Russian literature, and to say random things in Japanese (for our majors here all seem to be taking Japanese. And reading lots of manga. It is interesting.)

But then someone jumps up out of the crowd to shout Dr Cog, Dr Cog! and the smile deflates on my face. It is Disappearing Student, who seemed to be a pretty solid writer and hard worker in the beginning of my comp class but then vanished from the face of the earth months ago after mentioning dealing with some psychological problems. I have an unanswered email from this student begging me to somehow get around the departmental absence policy and let the student return. Seeing this student reminds me of the email I never actually got around to composing and sends a pang of guilt through me.

Luckily, the student brushes off my quick apologies with an explanation of some of the problems that have arisen over the semester --- they are mental and neurological. And involved misdiagnoses as well as trying out various medications and dealing with side effects. Disappearing Student asks me to sign some paperwork for an emergency medical withdrawal --- today, not a week later, it turns out, is the deadline, and the student is scrambling to get all the medical documentation and signatures and oh sorry about that, my roommate would spill tea all over the forms --- and the student may have to go away to ____ House for a little while but this person is going to enroll online and maybe even be back by summer for on campus classes and will make it through this, don't you worry about that --- so I say, "Well, you were a decent writer in my class so I think once you get this little problem under control and come back I think you will do fine in Freshman English."

The student comes to complete stillness, no longer a flurry of papers and random objects being picked up and set down and overflowing out of the backpack. Disappearing Student says something like, you don't know how much that means to me. I really 'preciate that. Do you know, I've been doing that pre-writing stuff you taught us? Not just for the classes I'm taking; I do writing of my own and even making out a list before deciding what I want to write about in my journal every morning changed a whole lot. The student goes on to mention being a bit discouraged by the first essay grade and that I might be a hard grader (to which I jump in and absolutely affirm it; that first essay had an F or D average, I forget which) and the student says, Oh, whoah, ok; I guess getting a C+ was pretty good of me then. I just had never ... I don't think I'd gotten below a 93 in my life before that ... before going back to mentioning a couple exercises we had done that are now part of this student's daily writing routine.

I repeat that the student is just fine as a writer and should be able to do well in later English classes, and that it is mostly the department's required attendance policy that did Disappearing Student in, but that this class is structured to meet constantly to help --- here the student breaks in --- a gateway class to keep the crazies and the stupids out of college --- No, no, I interrupt. It is ... a class in academic socialization. I joke sometimes that some of my students were raised by wolves and I have to introduce them to society...

That's sure me, says Disappearing Student. I was raised by wolves if anybody was. No, no, no, I say. I want to do something to help, something more than the tiny, pitiful amount of help involved in listening for a few minutes, in making one stupid encouraging comment --- I want to give something to this smart, troubled, misfit student who, for one moment, looked completely at home in a misfit, outsider community --- but I don't have anything in the office but books. Can you hand something about journaling and madness to a student who is mentally ill? Would handing the student some crazy,  incandescent, world-transforming poetry make things better, or worse? What would They say, over at _________ House?

It is over in a smooth movement as I say my goodbyes to the student and close the door. Alone in the office, I feel useless and defeated. I think of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Robert Schumann --- probably all terrible choices to hand somebody. And I think of the poet's claim that poetry never stopped a tank --- and yet, and yet --- what else are you going to use?

Monday, December 3, 2012

On the Grid

I brought home two classes' worth of comp drafts today in addition to the lit papers I got on Friday and have only barely touched, and was feeling so run down that I fell asleep for an over-two-hour nap while partially sitting up, drafts scattered about me like snow. Instead of facing them, however, I will write a blog post about what I did this weekend, which was serve on a search committee.

Now I'm not sure if this search is going to a) make or b) be allowed to stand, as it turns out the HR website wrongfully closed the search a couple times before the deadline and candidates got locked out (and also the JIL deadline was accidentally set far out into the future, so they are debating opening it once again), but even if it doesn't go any further I learned several interesting things about how applications look from the other side of an electronic search committee.

First of all, whatever program this HR place uses, you go to their site and sign in with a password and you click a couple buttons and blorp! you download everything as one big pdf. This is very important, job candidates. It is all one big pdf. I guess I could print out all the separate documents and stack them in the order I want them, but that to me seems like a waste of doing it on the web. But while the material for each candidate was all together, the individual documents were in some random order each time. I just started reading wherever and in whatever order because of this.  I am not getting paid to do this, but am the "adjunct faculty member" or whatever pressed in to service for this committee, so I at least am not going to take the time and effort to do a really thorough job as opposed to a basically decent one.

This means you should consider what's going on at the very top of all your documents. I am reconsidering my choice to omit a "from" header on my cover letter, as I found out it made a big difference in the ease of filling out our grid (more on that later) if I had the name of the candidate rather immediately rather than scrolling to the bottom of the cover letter and then scrolling back up. But the HR gremlins might not even put your cover letter on the top! If the cv or teaching philosophy was first in the pdf packet, I started reading that first. A nice header labeling what I was looking at and who it was from really helped me out.

Secondly, that first paragraph of the cover letter is actually kind of a deal-breaker. I have discovered that it should not simply state "Hi, I'm applying to your job from the MLA JIL," but it should sum up all the specific dealbreakers from our ad. Because when they did list off all (or maybe 4 of the 5 things) I was all happy and excited and read the dissertation paragraph etc. with a happy "ooh, how well could this person fit in to the department" whereas otherwise I started reading with a kind or sour "ehhhh, is this person really a Blankety-Blankologist? I mean, this project is nice and all, but if this person doesn't have the field experience listed in the ad then I am just getting all excited for nothing."  It changed my tone and attitude toward the rest of the materials.

I think my letters have a generalized "Ohai JIL I am awesome" paragraph but it could be tailored more to the key words of the job ad, I am now understanding. Or maybe not, since with many of the jobs I am expressing an interest rather than a hard qualification.

On a side note, if you have ever applied to an English department that had cannibalized about a half a dozen other departments and is now called the department of languages, theatre, communication and journalism, that's basically the department I am in. And we are asking for a specific, weird specialist position that I am confused why it's even in an English department, which is part of the problem with the specificity of the job ad and our reliance on a candidate grid. If the job ad insists on active journalism experience and proven experience running a student paper or mentoring student reporters, you gotta have that as experience, not as an interest, sorry. At least, that's what I saw --- I will report back if that was the consensus of the committee.

Because we had quite a few candidates, who, to continue my example, studied journalism in literature or the rhet/comp of journalism, rather than had boots-on-the ground experience in journalism-ology. (Shut up. It is too a word!) For my perspective, I look at that and go, pffft, a lit person! Dude, I'm a lit person; we have plenty of those. What assurances can you give me that you can supervise the student journalists and run the entire internship program and the publication and the credentialling and teach the upper-division "how to be a journalist" class and the "how to teach journalism in the high schools" class? This job is all about doing the technical stuff that not just any old professor can do, or wants to do. So there need to be assurances that you, the candidate, can do all that. Grad classes in the area are good and all that, but what got an extra star and comment on my grid (broken down by key phrase in the job ad) were graduate level pedagogy classes in the "mentoring future Blankety-Blankologists" category. 

(Side note number 2: Yes, we insist that you will teach composition as part of being a professor here. But that doesn't mean we are impressed by comp teaching experience or grad comp pedagogy classes. Those are kind of a basic norm everybody has these days --- at least, since our candidate pool consists only of people from middling-to-low public schools, pretty much all of our candidates have been teaching the whole way through. Again, I was looking for experience teaching majors or running the internship program, which some of our candidates had. Some of our candidates are asst. profs looking to move and have not only taught the majors classes, but masters' level "how to teach this major" pedagogy classes. If you feel you truly are a Blankety-Blankologist, you should try to get some of this upper-level teaching experience. If you aren't really a Blankety-Blankologist and were throwing your app in here as a "stretch," well, what I've seen is that stretching doesn't really work. Not with the grid system.)

And so, the grid:

When I was a grad student I served on a search committee for an immensely popular English field, and it was a very valuable, eye-opening experience. I learned a lot. But at a fairly highly ranked doctoral-granting institution, we had very open parameters within the basic time and place of this field. I only got to see the long shortlist --- I think about 50 apps? --- and we read for strength and interestingness of the project, followed by how well the candidate used the ad to anticipate the direction the department wanted to go in. We considered the polish of the project and how close it was to finishing, and how much of a publishing powerhouse that person might be.

With a grid for candidates, we have a box to fill out for name, PhD completion date, field or fields of the PhD, teaching experience (I subdivided for each of those levels as well, since as you can see from above that seemed particularly important) and experience in ____ (about 4 or 5 different qualifications we asked for.) The projects I thought were strong and interesting did not necessarily end up with high scores on the grid, nor, god help us all, did the applications with better writing skills. It felt much more like what I was told hiring for community colleges goes (and what I have been able to mimic more successfully over the years of applying to community colleges). There is also a box for "red flags" and it will be interesting to see what other people put in. I marked the people who weren't done here --- one of whom was really obscure about completion date who I think is still near the beginning stages of the dissertation. I also marked one application that was so lacking in affect or any sense of human style that it stood out in an odd way.

I don't know if this really applies to straight-up Shakespearean or Victorianist or English Generalist type jobs; maybe interestingness and quality matter more when pretty much everyone has the same types of qualifications. But I could not do this job as it is listed in the job ad. I do not have the specific, graduate-level training for it. So for a job that has to cover some specific skills that none of the other people in the department actually do, the qualifications are a must and there is no ability to "stretch" or "express interest" or "be interesting" to make up for a lack of fit.

I could also talk about place and references to the place we are in in the country because I found it very weird. I think I will wait until the committee meets --- which I guess based on today's email is not happening until January now? --- to find out what other people think about that, and whether or not my initial emphases and assumptions are correct.

Til then: candidates, get your name out there! And by out there, I mean on that top half-inch to an inch or so of every page of the application.