Wednesday, November 30, 2005

More thinking about advising and evaluation

Not long ago, Dean Dad was kind enough to address a question I had about evaluating advising here. Basically, I asked for suggestions about how to evaluate advising. Dean Dad suggested that one could look at the professor's keeping of office hours, filling out basic forms, and so forth, and acknowledged that keeping office hours wasn't a great measure because it didn't say what happened in the session, and in fact, while it might have included advising, that advising might be misguided.

I posted a kind of summary and response here, and got some more helpful responses. (I was going to try to summarize all of the responses here with proper attributions, but it filled up the page FAST, so I cut it. Sorry folks!

Obviously, I'm not the only one thinking about advising and evaluation; in fact, it's been a subject of some discussion at NorthWood U. So I've been listening and learning from other faculty and administrative types here.

One of the things that's struck me is how important it is to make a distinction between process and outcomes. Most of the stuff Dean Dad suggested is process oriented: do we "do" something. BitchPhD (who suggested an outcomes assessment of student success measures) turns to something FAR harder to measure, but hits for me what's important: does the advising work.

The first step, then, is to think about what I (or we) want advising to do. Personally, I want advising to help teach students to think critically, to plan flexibly and think about the future, and to make thoughtful decisions, recognizing that there are consequences to each decision, and opportunity costs. I really don't care if a student takes five years to graduate, decides to leave the school or become some other major. Good advising might lead to those acts.

But measuring, especially over the course of a college career, how much a student has matured about planning and decision making is pretty nigh impossible. And to measure how much advising contributed to that maturation (in addition to all the other things we're doing at NWU which are supposed to basically contribute to student growth in all sorts of ways) has to be even more difficult. Yet that's the task, I suppose.

My objectives in advising probably differ from what my students at least initially think should happen with advising; so using student evaluations might not actually evaluate what I (or other faculty members) think is important. I don't think choosing basic courses and filling requirements is a big part of advising. A college student should be able to do that. I'm there to do more, to challenge him/her to take different courses, recognize opportunities and costs, plan ahead, and so forth.

I also don't think it's my job to counsel students about personal issues. My training is in Shakespeare, for gosh sakes! If I counsel based on my training, we're going to have a rash of people killing kids and feeding them to their moms, jumping on swords, or looking for asps in all the wrong places. (I point this out because some advising evaluation methods on our campus ask students about such things.)

I'm generally happy to see my students happy, but I don't think of myself as a hand-holder in their journey through college. If there are body parts involved, I generally think my foot/their arse are the most operative parts.

Here at NWU, we do have an advising award. It seems to dramatically favor professional and pre-professional programs, primarily because the outcomes of those programs are SO dramatically easy to measure. In our nursing program, for example, if a nurse makes it through and gets a job, the program counts a success. In social work, a job might count as success, or a graduate program placement. These programs also demand very close supervision from faculty advisors, as does the education program, which means that the relationship between student success and faculty mentoring/advising is readily apparent to students and graduates. (Is it an accident that these programs are also likely to have faculty trained in counseling by non-Shakespearean methods?)

But how do you measure advising success in an English program? Surely NOT by graduate school placements! We aren't a "find a job with your professional degree" type program. Rather, we're a liberal arts, learn to learn, think critically program. And those things are hard to measure and hard to document. They're also not tied to advising in the same readily apparent way that networking for job X is in the nursing program.

Our exit interviews DO ask questions about advising, though for the purpose of department assessment, and NOT for faculty evaluation. I'm told by He Who Knows that when there are specific complaints, HWK contacts the faculty and takes action.

As I look at my senior advisees, I really can see evidence of serious intellectual growth in their abilities to make good decisions, plan for the future, and so forth. For one thing, most of my senior advisees tend to drop in to chat about their plans and get feedback. They don't expect me to plan for them, but rather I'm a sounding board. I'm there to point out problems, suggest alternatives. So something's working. I can't be sure that something has anything to do with MY advising, though.

It's time for a new advising letter of the month soon; I think I'm going to bring up the issues to give them something fun to think about! Yeah, pass off the hard stuff to someone else!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Shakespeare's death

Rereading The Winter's Tale the other day and pondering the Paulina/Antigonus relationship got me thinking about readings of the romances, and interpretations of Shakespeare's "retirement" and death in 1616. Sadly, it's rather a commonplace in many books and articles about Shakespeare to comment on his marriage to an "older" woman, Anne Hathaway (she was about 8 years older than Shakespeare).

The comments tend to focus on the idea that the marriage was forced on Shakespeare because Hathaway was apparently pregnant at the time (according to the parish register, their first child was born within 7 months of their marriage, not uncommon in the period); often the comments hint, imply, or state outright that Hathaway must have somehow led Shakespeare sexually astray, into temptation, that she was a predatory woman. They then continue on to suppose that the marriage was more or less loveless, a mismatch between genius and inadequacy, as evidenced by the famous "second best bed" bequest in Shakespeare's will.

(The will appears to have been drafted in January 1616; January is crossed out on the document, and March added, suggesting that it was revised or amended in March 1616.) (You can find transcripts of the will on the web in various places; here's one at The New Internet Shakespeare Editions.) (For a more scholarly source, see S[am] Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: A documentary life, New York: Oxford UP, 1975.)

Anyway, when the commenters get to Shakespeare's retirement, they tend to remind their reader that his wife was aging or aged, while somehow at the same time implying that Shakespeare himself was practically a young whippersnapper. There's a good deal of explicit and implicit sexism here. That's no shock, but still irritating.

So I got to wondering: Say Shakespeare "retired" around 1610-1613. (Retirement isn't a really big concept in the early modern period, so it's weird to think of someone retiring. Still, he was by this time a fairly well-to-do man, so may have decided to live on his savings/holdings.) Having been born (or at least baptized) in 1564, he would have been around 46 to 49, which is quite young to think about retirement, at least at first glance. Hathaway would have been 54 to 57. (See, I CAN do basic math still!)

I'm not the first to note that people's health doesn't correspond directly to their chronological age; someone can feel quite old at 50, while another doesn't. Maybe, in fact, Shakespeare himself was already feeling sickly at 46? Is there a family age thing?

So I looked up some ages: John Shakespeare, Shakespeare's father, was born c. 1531, and died in 1601, at about the ripe old age of 70. His mother, Mary Arden, born in 1540, and dead in 1608 died at the age of 68. If genetics are telling, William Shakespeare might have expected to live a long life.

But of Shakespeare's siblings who survived to adulthood and pre-deceased him, his brother Gilbert died at about 46, his brother Richard at 39, and his brother Edmund at 27. Those early deaths lead me to believe that genetics really don't tell us much about life expectancy in the period. There were simply too many ways to die. (Have I mentioned lately how very happy I am to be born into a post-penicillin world? Penicillin! Small Pox and Polio vaccines! Thank you science!)

The dates of January and March 1616 on Shakespeare's will suggest he recognized he was in failing health at that time. Perhaps he had been in failing health for several years; if so, would he have written his will earlier? Would an earlier draft have survived if he'd written another? My guess is that he was in relatively good health up to nearly January, when something happened that caused him to write his will. (Better folks than I have speculated endlessly on the cause of Shakespeare's death, so I'll go no further.)

Anne Hathaway, despite being 8 years older, survived to 1623, outliving Shakespeare by 7 years, and dying at about 67. There's really no telling what her general health was like, except that she survived childbirth twice (giving birth to twins the second time). She may have been feeling lousy and old at 54 or not.

She was 29 when she gave birth to Hamnet and Judith, her twins. Off the cuff, two pregnancies seems like a small number for the period, especially when the last is at 29, and makes me wonder if she had problems with her second, if she miscarried at a later point, if she used abortifactants, or if she and Shakespeare abstained from sex? Hmmm, I wonder what the average number of pregnancies for an early modern woman was?

I've got a few other records in front of me. One is Mary Arden's, which shows 8 children born, the last at the age of 40, which seems a reasonable point for lowered fertility. Arden's childbirths were spaced 2-4 years apart, except for her last, 5 years after the previous one. So, we might guess that she breastfed her children for a year or so, reducing the likelihood of pregnancy, and then became pregnant relatively quickly thereafter. If her fertility were reduced, or she'd had a miscarriage, then the additional time between her last two pregnancies could make sense. Perhaps nursing another two years, further reduced fertility, and perhaps menopause ended her childbearing.

Shakespeare's daughters Susanna and Judith appear to have had one and three children respectively. Susanna had her first within a year of marriage, at the age of 25. Judith had her first in 1616, the year she married, at about 31, and her last in 1620, at about 35.

In the end, I'm left with more questions than answers. I'm not convinced based on the little evidence available that Anne Hathaway was the sexual predator, mismatched and inadequate partner of some commentaries, nor that she was so much "older" than Shakespeare in health. I'm still really irritated by the sexism of most commentators.

And I'm suddenly strangely interested in pregnancy rates and stuff in the period. Are Hathaway's two successful pregnancies typical? Does having twins affect later pregnancies or health? (And at the risk of sounding like I'm blaming Hathaway for not producing a truckload of Shakespeare babies) Are low birth rates common in Hathaway's family for some reason? (In other words, are her daughter's birth rates low, and if so, is there a genetic/familiar component?)

So much for waking up before dawn thinking about Shakespeare!

Monday, November 28, 2005

L337 skillz!

After linking those posts yesterday about how to write an email to your professor, today I sent a totally blank email to the dean.

Phear my L337 computer skillz.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

My Winter's Tale

I was rereading The Winter's Tale again recently, since we're reading it in my Shakespeare class. Once again, I'm stunned at the complexity and beauty of that play.

When I reread plays, especially plays I really love, I tend to focus on one or two aspects of the play with a fair bit of attention. I'm interested, for example, in the ethical responsibilities that subordinates have to their superiors: Kent's responsibility to Lear, Camillo's and Antigonus's responsibilities to Leontes, and so forth. And since early modern English culture had a pretty rigid gender hierarchy, I include a wife's or daughter's responsibility to her husband or father. In early modern drama, that ethical responsibility tends to run in the "tell truth to power" area.

Once again, as I reread WT I was struck by the relationship between Antigonus and Paulina. In Act 2, scene 3, Paulina carries the Hermione and Leontes' baby (unnamed as of yet, but she'll be called Perdita later) into Leontes. (Leontes, King of Sicily, has decided that his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful, and so "logically" that anyone who disagrees is traitorous.) Paulina presents Leontes with the baby and tries to convince him that Hermione's been faithful.

Leontes interjects with a variety of attacks, primarily aimed at Antigonus, asking why he can't control his wife Paulina.

Antigonus responds with a fair bit of good humor, noting first that "when she will take the rein I let her run, / But she'll not stumble" (2.3.51-2)*. In other words, he trusts that Paulina will do and say the right things. But his words also imply that he does indeed have control, that he controls the reins, and only lets her run.

When Leontes complains that Antigonus should be hung for not controlling his wife, Antigonus answers that Leontes would have to "hang all the husbands" because none of them can control their wives (2.3.109).

Yet Antigonus doesn't speak to Paulina or try to stop her from speaking to Leontes.

After Paulina leaves, Leontes sends Antigonus off to expose the baby in the wilderness in order to kill it (though, of course, she survives). Antigonus, though, gets killed by a bear.

At the end of the play, after the reunion of Leontes, Hermione, and Perdita, (and after she's learned for certain of Antigonus's death) Paulina tells them to

Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to everyone. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some withered bough, and there
My mate, that's never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost. (5.3.130-135)

["Turtle" here is short for Turtle Dove, a common metaphor for a true and faithful love.]

She's thinking of Antigonus. After 16 years, she's mourning him anew, now that she knows he's dead.

At this point, yours truly is generally teary eyed. Yes, hard hearted Bardiac is really a softy!

Shakespeare doesn't show many mature, married relationships in his plays, and those he does show are generally pretty tense, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Coriolanus and Virgilia, Leontes and Hermione. But here he shows a mature relationship (they have three daughters, the eldest 11 when the play begins [2.1.144]) in which the husband seems to expect his wife to be outspoken, and trusts her to speak forcefully and directly to the king.

We don't see them alone together at all; instead, we see their social interactions, and see them with Leontes or others. And when Antigonus reports his dream of Hermione's ghost (when Hermione's ghost came to him, named the baby, and cursed him), he reports that he'll never see "Thy wife Paulina more" (3.3.34-35). (He tries to dismiss the dream, but since he dies shortly after reporting it, the audience can't dismiss it easily.) The important thing is not that he'll die, but that he'll never see Paulina again. That reinforces how vital their relationship is.

*I'm quoting from Shakespeare, William. The Winter's Tale. Ed Stephen Orgel. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

(One of the things I hate about html is how hard it is to space things over. In case it doesn't come out, pretend that the first line of the blocked quotation is tabbed over about half way, since it begins as the second part of a verse line.)

Some useful "how to" articles for students

Wandering through the internet ether the other day, I found a couple of useful "how to" pieces for students. Both are written by Michael Leddy, who blogs at Orange Crate Art, a site well worth a visit.

The first is "How to Email a Professor." The second is "How to Talk to a Professor."

Anyway, I thought these might be useful.

And seriously, if you're a student, take pity on your professor who probably has 70-100+ students each term, and when you appear in the office door, unless you're SURE your professor will instantly recognize you (because s/he has called you by name on numerous occasions), introduce yourself and give a context for your visit.

Oh, and book buyers, just don't come to my office, please! I give my books to a local organization that sorts them into "useful overseas" and "sell to fund mailing more useful overseas books overseas" and then either sends or sells them.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Theory rant

I'm a bit of a theoryhead. I like working through theoretical writing, trying to understand the complexities, tease out the logic, see the argument. I love when a theorist writes well, even when I think the theory lacks in some ways. Freud, for example, lacks in some ways, but is a great read, and still helpful in thinking through issues, especially regarding imagery and authorial authority, auctoritee, as Chaucer would put it. I'm especially charmed by theoretical playfulness.

I'm not, however, charmed by colleagues and students who whine about how hard theory is or how it uses specialized language.

Is there any other field in which a faculty member can get away with not knowing technical concepts and language AND bragging about that lack of knowledge? I can't imagine a biologist refusing to learn the difference between "meiosis" and "mitosis," or a physicist whining about the difficulty of understanding quantum mechanics. And yet, some faculty members in English departments who can't bother to learn basic theoretical concepts do just that.

Worse, they teach students that it's okay to dismiss theoretical texts without engaging them, trying to understand them, or working through the difficulty.

I have a graduate student who wants to write a paper about how bad theory is. In her most recent note to me, she said that she thought she could write this paper without really reading much theory, because it's arcane and difficult. Yes, theory is difficult; so are Shakespeare's sonnets and just about any other literature worth reading more than once. But if you're in college or a grad program, your job is to work through difficulty and try to understand what texts say.

You don't have to like all texts, but saying that you think they're useless before you read them with reasonable respect is just... disrespectful and irritating.

We've had this basic conversation a couple times, now, and I've gotten to the place that I publicly told her that if she doesn't want to engage in the kind of work we do in the grad program, then our grad program probably isn't a good place for her. She didn't like hearing that. But it's honest.*

Here are Bardiac's basics for reading theory.

1) Look up the [fill in your favorite expletive] words that you don't know. Look up words you aren't sure of. Make notes. If you try, you WILL learn the words that are important in the argument or theory. And you'll have a better understanding of the nuances in the argument.

2) Work out what each sentence actually says. (Why oh why isn't that obvious?) If you don't understand what a sentence says, don't go on. Figure out the subject and verb, and work from there.

3) Think about the period/culture the text comes from. Recognize that different academic cultures teach different kinds of arguments. In the US academy, we generally teach a structure that involves thesis, support, support, support, conclusion (resulting all too often in horrid five paragraph essays.) If you're reading Marx, be aware that he's likely to use a Hegelian structure of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The French academy tends to use a more Hegelian structure than we do in the US, so if you're reading Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Irigiray, educate yourself!

Oddly enough, these are also Bardiac's basics for reading Shakespeare, or any other text.

*I sound dogmatic here. Certainly there's room for someone to enter a field and to try to change the discourse in that field. But in order to change the discourse, you have to engage the old discourse enough to understand it, to understand why it's dominant in the field, and then you have to convince others in the field that a new discursive mode is more useful.

If she wants to argue against a theory or theorist, she needs to understand that theory and take it on, and explain convincingly that it's bad theory, or inapt, useless, whatever.

And, of course, we hae neither world enough nor time to read all possible texts, so we do have to make choices.

Thanks, I feel better now.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Advising - documenting, measuring, evaluating?

Recently, I asked a question of Dean Dad about how we measure or evaluating advising, and he was kind enough to take on my question here. (Thanks, Dean Dad!)

Faculty members in my department do a fair bit of advising; it's part of the job description and so has to be part of our evaluations. Each faculty member who's being evaluated in a given semester puts together a file documenting their work in various ways, copies of research, evidence of committee work, copies of teaching materials, and so forth. But consistently, we all seem rather lost when it comes to documenting our advising. As a result, when our personnel committee puts together evaluation letters, we tend to have only the most perfunctory information about advising.

So I'm looking for a way to document my own work better, for ways to mentor my junior colleagues, and for ways to evaluate files. And, of course, I don't want to add a bunch of work for anyone. The documentation and such shouldn't be painful for anyone, so it's got to be as natural and easy as possible.

So far, the discussion at Dean Dad's has been really helpful and interesting.

Dean Dad notes some basic ways we might monitor, including the basics of seeing colleagues in the office. Dean Dad, being a Dean and all, is worried about worst case scenario's, while I'm interested in a best case scenario: how can a colleague who's a fantastic advisor show that so evaluators know?

Here in my department at NWU, our lead advisor assigns advisees to each faculty member, which balances the work amongst those who advise in various areas. (The English Ed advisors tend to have more advisees, and a more complex program to deal with.)

Mathsophie suggests that using questionaires and advising evaluations would be useful. I think that's a great suggestion. We already do exit interviews with our majors as part of our ongoing departmental assessment, and could perhaps ask them about advising in the process. Or perhaps we could ask them to fill out a short survey. (The exit interviews are sometimes done by non-tenured faculty members, so they aren't in a legal position to evaluate other non-tenured faculty members, but a survey could be seen only by the advisor and personnel committee members.) Thanks, Mathsophie!

BitchPhD adds that advisors could forward/copy emails to people responsible for evaluations. Since I have a feeling we all do a fair bit of email advising (I do), we could at least make some hard copies and put them in a file to document how we handle typical problems. That seems like a great idea, which wouldn't add that much to anyone's work (people are already putting together files, and a few extra pieces of paper isn't too much to print out, nor too much extra to read over).

She mentions the idea of asking advisees to write letters of support. I know I did that for several professors when I was a graduate student. I wonder how well that would work at the undergraduate level? Would students feel coerced? Should the personnell committee solicit letters from students suggested by the faculty member?

She also suggests that we could look at students' success at graduating and fullfilling requirements. That, too, sounds like a possibility; I wonder if it could somehow be combined with an exit survey? Because the student would be graduating, it seems less likely to feel coerced or problematic for the students, doesn't it?

Thanks for the great ideas, Bitch! (Gosh, that feels sort of weirdly rude to type! My Mom would wash my hands off with soap or something.)

So far, I'm getting some really good ideas! My thanks to Dean Dad for starting the discussion!

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I hope yours is wonderful. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


A couple years ago, one of my students came to my office, apparently having decided that my teaching Chaucer made me an expert on Christianity, and told me that her boyfriend had told her that Christianity said that women should be subservient and obedient to men, and she should obey him, and asked me if he were right.

I don't remember quite what I said, something about how people interpreted Christianity in a lot of different ways, and that my understanding was that most theologians no longer supported the idea that women should be subservient.

Retrospectively, I wish I'd asked her if her boyfriend was abusive or hurting her. If someone came to me with her questions now, I hope I'd think to ask, and to make sure she had support to get out of the relationship if he was. But I was too stupid, embarrassed, unthinking, or unconfident to ask at the time.

Apparently, it's not just me. According to this article on Medline (may be time sensitive), even "real" doctors (you know, the kind who don't ramble on endlessly about Shakespeare), people who are supposedly trained to figure such things out and help people, don't actually follow up, EVEN when people answer yes to questions about domestic violence on screening materials.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised.

When I was procrastinating about grading by trying to figure out medical benefits issues after I'd moved to the NorthWoods (and, you know, actually HAD medical benefits to think about!), I explored the web sites of local "providers." One of the websites had a questionnaire program that was supposed to help you figure out your basic health/safety status. So, I filled it out, twice. Yes, I was curious about the kinds of questions they asked, and since the first question had to do with gender, I filled it out answering the first question "both ways" (I would have tried more, but they only gave two choices. Clearly they haven't been reading Judith Butler).

Among the other questions for women were questions about being abused, experiencing domestic violence, unwanted sexual contact, and so forth. But, apparently, here in the NorthWoods, this particular "provider" (and I hate that term) doesn't ask men about domestic violence; doesn't ask them if they've been subject to it, or anything else. Those questions simply weren't there.

Do they think men aren't ever subject to domestic violence or unwanted sexual contact? Or do they think that men wouldn't answer the questions "yes" even if they were?

Way back when, I had an injury that required a doctor's visit. It's apparently an injury that's sometimes caused by being punched, and so sometimes caused by domestic violence. And the doctor asked me four or five times, in different ways, if I'd been punched, or if my partner had hit me. (I think he was unconvinced that I said I didn't know how I'd gotten the injury, but I was sure it wasn't from being punched or beaten.)

The thing is, even if I HAD been punched by a partner, I'd never have admitted it to some strange doctor. Much less some Shakespeare professor.

Recently, one of my students came to class with a shiner. I thought about it a couple times, and finally asked her (quietly, after class) if she was okay. She said, yes, sure. I pressed a little harder, making sure, and she laughed and said that someone had tossed her something and she'd missed the catch, and gotten hit in the face. And then she said that all her professors had asked if she was okay.

I think she is okay. I hope so. But if she's not, and I asked, would she even tell me? And if she did...

Trying to be a Better Advisor (Part IV)

A student stopped in to talk to me yesterday. At the end of our class earlier, as we were departing the room, she'd asked if I were available to talk, and since I have office hours, I was. I figured she wanted to talk to me about an assignment for the class, but no, she wanted to talk to me about advising. This student isn't my advisee, and isn't an English major, but what the heck, I'm in my office and I'd rather chat than grade any day.

She's not the best student, not because she's incapable, but because she doesn't seem terribly motivated in my class. Maybe she's brilliant and completely engaged in classes where she has better teachers?

She's thinking of leaving NWU for one or another educational venues.

Pretty much all colleges and universities care about retention and graduation rates. (Dean Dad has taken on the issue from the angle of course offerings, specifically on-line courses, and faculty availability for advising here, for example.) Retention means that students stay on long enough to get a degree. Graduation rates show how many students graduate within four, five, or six years.

These numbers are important for recruitment (no parent wants to send his/her beloved child to a school where 50% drop out or hate the place, and no reasonably smart student wants to go to a school that lots of people have hated), and also for accreditation, financial aid support, state support (for public schools), alumni support (alumni rarely donate to a school they hated or didn't graduate from), reputation, and so forth. On a smaller level, departments try to retain majors or student enrollments in classes.

NWU clearly cares about retention and graduation rates. Faculty and staff discuss it in meetings, and we have numerous administrators whose jobs are tied to retention in some way. At best, these folks provide resources, programs, and information which support and encourage student learning in a wide variety of ways. At worst, in some nightmare schools, these folks treat students as customers who are "always right" to the point where they discourage or prevent faculty from pursuing academic dishonesty (plagiarism, for example), try to manipulate what faculty teach in classes, or try to manipulate grades or standards.

Back to my student. She's thinking of leaving and wants me to advise her about what classes to take in spring (to help her prepare for the new schools) and how to go about applying to those schools.

If there's one rule I should have put in my very first post on the subject of advising, it's this:

It's the student's life.

That means my job in advising is to put the student first and foremost, to be honest with him/her about whatever we're talking about, to try to understand what s/he is after, and to try to help him/her achieve what s/he wants to achieve. NWU isn't the best place for everyone, and some people really are better off leaving. Me, I'm a lifer, but it isn't the best fit for everyone.

My student tells me she's interested in a business field which uses skill X, and is thinking of going to a school to study X specifically. Unfortunately, I know nothing about this career path. I'd have a better chance telling someone how to become an astronaut or Antarctic explorer.

She tells me that she has an appointment to see her advisor about classes for next semester, but asks if she could talk to me first. So we talk. She wants to know what classes should she take to prepare her to go to school for X? We looked at the websites of a couple schools to try to determine what pre-requisites if any the programs have. As we looked at the schools, my student started asking, "Are these schools okay?"

"I don't know," I replied, and showed her how to look for information about accreditation. The schools are accredited. I tell her that's good. I ask how much these schools cost, but she doesn't know, and we can't easily find tuition information on the website. She seems concerned about that, but neither of us pursues it.

The schools are very focused on teaching specific skill X, so, I ask her a bit more about what she wants to do long term. When she thinks ahead 20 years, does she imagine herself doing skill X? No, she tells me, in 20 years, she imagines herself starting her own company or doing something more managerial in the field.

It seems likely that knowing skill X would be useful to managers in the field, and might help her get an initial job, but if she studies skill X, we wonder, is she likely to be "stuck" doing skill X? Could she learn the business skills informally (and be taken seriously in the field as she progresses)? Or would she be better off learning the business end formally, and learning skill X informally (and be taken seriously)? (Neither business nor skill X, by the way, is neurosurgery. No one will die if she slips up in learning.)

Fortunately, while I know nothing about skill X or the broader business field, I know a lot of people around that do. Okay, I don't know them (certainly not biblically), but I know where they live, or to be more precise, where they probably work.

So I sent her off with some class ideas, first for a couple general ed courses she should think about to help her learn skill X, and then for a couple of courses that will help her more broadly in the field. Then I gave her some homework: contact some people who do X (remember, we know where they work), and see where they learned X, and also find who does X on campus, and start learning the skills.

She's also going to talk to the people about learning the business end, and find out what they can tell her about managers in the field, and how much they need to know about skill X. Finally, she's going to ask about internships at several places, internships which might give her a chance to learn skill X and give her a start learning the business end.

I don't know what she'll find, but if she does what we talked about, she'll make a much better decision than she otherwise would. I hope I find out what decision she makes, but since she's only in my class this one semester, it seems unlikely that she'll come hang out in my office in the future. I'm curious, though, because I think she has untapped potential, at least potential that I haven't been able to tap, and I wonder what she's going to be like when/if she gets that light in her eye.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Further thoughts on the grad school question

I've been thinking further about the issues raised first by Dean Dad in his post advising a History student not to pursue a PhD. A conversation ensued; first Dr. Crazy responded by arguing that when we advise students not to go on to graduate school, we're advising against diversity in graduate programs. Then I responded. And then Dean Dad responded again, noting that economics programs have managed to control admissions, and so are less impacted by the dismal job market prospects in most traditional humanities fields.

So, of course, in the throes of grading procrastination, I've been thinking further about the issue.

The two areas of English studies which seem to have reasonably healthy job markets are composition studies and technical writing (which I'm using for want of a better umbrella term, though in practical terms, this also includes rhetoric, scientific writing, and so forth). Composition studies researches how people write, learn to write, writing practices, and so forth, focusing not only on college writing, but on writing in grade school and outside of academics. It's often allied with educational schools/departments for obvious reasons. Technical writing studies how writing and rhetoric work in non-fiction fields, most obviously in scientific and technical fields.

Why are the job markets in these two fields less dismal than in literature?

First, there are relatively fewer PhD programs in these fields, and those PhD programs tend to be fairly small. There's little incentive in these fields for faculty who want to avoid teaching lower level courses to recruit graduate students to teach those courses.

PhD students in composition studies do generally support themselves by teaching composition, but at most PhD granting institutions, most composition teaching is done by an army English grad students. Technical writing programs tend to offer few lower-level courses, and few large lecture format courses (the kind that use graduate student teaching assistants to lead discussion sections). Thus, tech writing grad students tend to teach in composition (still owned mostly by English departments), and in editing type courses, which, compared to first year composition, have a relatively low demand.

Second, each field has another "outlet" for PhDs. Composition studies people can find jobs in education departments as well as English or Composition departments, or find (semi-)administrative jobs directing writing and tutoring centers. And these jobs are as well-respected as composition studies jobs in general. (That respect issue deserves more time than I'm going to give it, I'm afraid.) Technical writers can find jobs that pay a whole lot better than academics if they move into editing and writing in technical fields.

Third, these fields attract relatively few graduate applications compared to English departments or other more traditional humanities departments. I haven't been wildly looking, but I haven't noticed an undergraduate major in composition studies, so while there may be one out there, few students have that option.

For most undergraduates, "composition" begins and ends with their first year writing course. They aren't taught composition by someone who's a specialist, so they aren't seeing a specialist in action the way they are when they take a Shakespeare course. These classes are all too often taught by an instructor who'd rather be teaching something else, with whatever skill, experience, and enthusiasm s/he brings to the class. If only extrapolating from my own experience teaching first year writing courses, composition teachers rarely enthuse about the latest research in the field.

In PhD granting institutions, undergrads can't help but notice that "real professors" don't teach that course, so they don't think of it as a field for real research and study.

I've seen a lot more technical writing majors available, but they're still relatively rare compared to more traditional majors. And technical writing majors have many more obvious job opportunities available in their major field with a BA. You simply don't need a PhD in the field to get a good starting job.

So, both fields turn out relatively few PhDs, some of whom leave for greener pastures, and some of whom go on the job market in academics.

One of the things that interests me about study in these fields is that since they're not traditional humanities fields (well, rhetoric is, but not in quite the same way), Ivy type schools simply don't tend to offer majors or graduate programs in these fields (though they must hire writing center directors and such, I suppose?). Instead, the places that tend to offer PhDs in these fields are more often state universities. This tendency suggests that these programs are already more diverse in some ways than most PhD programs.

So somehow, they've avoided the job market problems AND the lack of diversity problem.

Now if they just seemed one tenth as fun as studying and teaching Shakespeare! That's the rub, of course. I studied a little composition theory, and while it was indeed interesting, and remains very useful to me in my work, it just didn't seem nearly as fun as literature.

English departments often "support themselves" within universities by serving as the home of first year writing or composition programs. The upsides are that English departments sometimes get more faculty, which means people can teach more specialized upper-level courses, English departments may have more clout in governance, and there are actually more jobs for literature PhDs in some places than there would be without those first year classes to teach.

The BIG downside is that we lit folks rarely know as much about composition teaching as someone trained specifically in composition theory does. Most English grad students learn along the way, and the quality of composition teaching varies more than it should.

The other downsides include (ab)using lots of adjuncts, and overproducing English PhDs because PhD granting departments have a service commitment they fulfill with cheap grad student teaching, and can't/won't fulfill with the literature faculty they hire and value. Oh, and contributing to that dismal job market.

And here, of course, I've driven myself into a conundrum. Have I mentioned lately how glad I am to even have a job? To have a job that involves reading and talking about Shakespeare and other literature? I know my department depends on my (our) "service" teaching first year writing, and I try to do a good job at it. But I also know that someone who's put in the effort to get a PhD in composition studies is probably better at it than I am (or better out the starting gate; I suppose I may have learned something over the years. The Flying Spaghetti Monster knows I've tried!)

This is my punishment for grading procrastination.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Letters of Recommendation: Help your writers!

The other day after class, one of my students asked me about letters of recommendation. Oddly enough, she didn't want to ask me to write for her, rather, she wanted to know what she should give her writers to help them write the best letter possible. It's a great question.

I don't pretend to be the best writer of letters of recommendation out there, but I've written a few, and read some, so I have some ideas about what makes a good one. The best letters of recommendation give a sense that the writer knows the student well; usually good letters give specific examples of a student's written work, class work, and perhaps some relevant information about the student outside of class. For example, the letter writer might talk about Joe's work as a tutor, or Anne's leadership in a student organization.

That's probably easy if the writer actually knows the student fairly well. And there, gentle reader, is the problem for most students. How well do your professors know you? Do they remember you from that class two years ago? If you're in a school of 2000 students, they may remember you. If you're in a school of 20,000, they may not remember you nearly as well.

Your job in requesting letters is to give each writer the tools to write you a good letter. It goes without saying that it helps if you've gotten A's and such. (If you're reading this and aren't actually at the stage of requesting letters, and aren't already an active contributor in classes, now's the time to start!) But even if you don't, you can help your letter writers write the best letter they can for you.

Take time to meet with your letter writer when you ask him or her to write for you. And be sure to ask what materials (in addition to the things on my list) you should provide. Meeting with the writer will help him or her remember you if it's been a couple years since you've taken a class with the person. It will also give you a chance to make sure that the letter writer can write you a good letter in good conscience. If the person hesitates, ask if s/he has reservations, or sees potential problems with writing you a letter. Take potential problems seriously.

For example, I had a student ask me to write him a letter for a professional program for which he'd done no academic preparation. He was in my office, so it was easy for me to quietly close the door and tell him that while I thought he was an excellent student and could, in fact, do that professional work very well at some point, I was concerned that he hadn't taken classes (or done other work) to prepare him for such a program. I explained that while I could write a letter about what a great student he was in general, the people reading his application would wonder why he hadn't taken steps to prepare for that program, why he didn't seem to be interested in the profession enough to be working towards the program already. I noted that he'd be competing against others who had put in serious time to prepare for their program.

Happily, the student listened to my concerns and realized that he was unrealistic in his expectations. He decided to make some changes in his planning to prepare himself for the kind of career he wanted.

I've also had students ask me for letters of recommendation whose grades or GRE scores just weren't up to par for entering the kinds of programs they wanted to enter. Again, part of my responsibility is to give students an honest sense of how their grades/scores compare. I've still written letters for some of these people, sometimes very good letters, but I'm able to be honest and ethical about the grades/GREs. (In at least one case, I was able to write a much better letter of recommendation because we'd had the conversation.)

(If you have to make your initial contact by phone, mail, or email, then give the person a context so s/he can remember you better.)

I'm dividing the materials I like students to give me into two groups, mundane and special.

The mundane group includes the information/materials people need to just get the job done: put your materials into a file folder of some sort with your name on it, so they're easy to keep all together. Whether you're asking for one letter or six, make sure you provide a cover sheet with addresses and due dates for each letter. Provide stamped pre-addressed envelopes if appropriate. Provide copies of forms. Some graduate schools will ask you to sign a form that says you will waive or not waive your right to read letters in your file. Decide which you'll do, and sign.* Provide a list of classes you've had with your writer, including the year and semester, and the grade you earned. If you've done other work with the professor, list that, too. Provide a copy of your resume or curriculum vitae (your "life's course," aka a CV, the academic version of a resume). If you're having the letter written for a career center file, make sure that the appropriate forms are included.

The special group includes things that will help you stand out in your writer's mind. As a start, you need a copy of your letters of application or statements of purpose. If you're applying for VERY different jobs, then give your writer that information. But if you're applying to three similar graduate programs or jobs, then give your writer one copy. Give your writer a graded copy of the best work you did for his/her class, and if appropriate, a copy of the paper you're turning in as a writing sample. Give your writer the titles and class information (and perhaps a paragraph summary) of other papers you wrote for his/her class(es).

This is the information that's really going to make you stand out and going to give your writer a chance to talk about you specifically. S/he can talk about the argument you made in your paper and how at the time, s/he thought it was [and here the professor quotes from his/her original comments]. You get the picture, right?

You may also want to highlight a few things from your CV to remind your writer that you worked for a student organization or something, though if it's important, you've probably also written it in your application letter or statement of purpose.

Timing is everything. Not really, but it is important. Give your writers your information a couple of weeks to a month before the first due date. Remember that many professors have raised the arts of procrastination to impressive levels, that they're busy; so don't be shy about gently asking if they've had time to get to your letter during about week three. With some professors, you will need to ask more than once. Don't take it personally.

*The waiver: I generally advise students to sign the waiver. You've asked people you think have a positive impression of you to write your letters. Unless you think they're incompetent (in which case, you shouldn't ask them), signing the waiver says basically that you trust that they're not incompetent. I'm willing to guess that a few people in this world have been abused in some way by bad letters, but I seriously doubt that not signing the waiver would have made a difference.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

To grad school or not to grad school

Once again, Dean Dad has taken on a great question from one of his readers, and answered it as well as he always does. In this case, the question is from a history/second ed major who's thinking of going on to graduate school in History; Dean Dad quite reasonably recommends against it.

And Dr. Crazy weighs in with some further considerations. I think she hits the mark especially well in her point 3, where she recognizes that students from elite, especially private, schools will continue to have the means and support to go on to graduate school and that discouraging students from non-elite backgrounds means we're basically "advising diversity out of the academy."

Like Dr. Crazy, evidently, I got my encouragement to go on to a PhD program at a teaching-oriented state university. And I think we need a lot more diversity in academia rather than less, not only in terms of race/ethnicity, but also in terms of academic and socio-economic backgrounds.

When I talk to students who are interested in an English PhD program, I try to give them a realistic sense of how much dumb luck is involved in getting into a good program, surviving, finding a good advisor, and especially getting a job. I also try to give them a sense of how competitive such programs are in all sorts of ways, how both wonderful and deeply unpleasant they can be, and how horrible it is to have friends who are brilliant scholar-teachers living on the edge as Freeway Fliers (our term for adjuncts who drive long distances between different schools trying to cobble together a bare living while striving to get a tenure-track job, or just something a little more secure). I make sure they realize how much I love my job, but also how lucky I am to have it at all.

If they still want to go on, I advise them to look at their chosen programs' placement rates, and to try to talk to students already in the program about funding, teaching, time to degree, and so on. I also try to give them a sense of how much the system favors people from more elite schools, but I find it difficult to communicate this without sounding like a bitter Bardiac.

The point I'd like to add to the discussion is that we in academia have created the problem and continue to create it by enrolling a vast number more students in PhD programs than can realistically get jobs in what we train them for. PhD granting institutions enroll extra students for some compelling, if unethical reasons.

First, they need cheap teaching. It's no secret how much teaching grad students in PhD programs do, or that they're paid poorly with relatively lousy benefits. (I posted about the NYU strike the other day; the basic conflict from the students' point of view, as represented by the union, is about benefits.)

Second, faculty in these programs want to teach graduate classes and to reproduce themselves by turning out PhDs. So they put pressure on departmental and campus committees to admit more students, especially more students interested in their subfield.

Let me give you an example (my first year writing students would nod in approval, I hope). In my graduate institution, one year we suddenly had an entering class made up of about one third students interested in a particular era (many English departments are roughly divided by nation/era: English Renaissance, 20th century American, and so forth). The students already in the program were surprised, and started asking questions. The basic answer we got through the grape vine was that several faculty interested in this era had gotten onto the admission committee and pushed the admissions in their era into the ozone because they wanted students to take their graduate courses (which hadn't been filling or "making" for the previous several years) and they wanted dissertation advisees.

The problem we recognized was that students weren't taking classes (from these several professors) because they were less than stellar teachers with reputations as sexual harassers, jerks, or whatever.

Even in fields (like, oh, say, Shakespeare and early modern English lit/culture) with an abundance of students in the program, certain professors ended up with a bunch of grad students and classes that always "made," while others had few or none, and didn't teach grad classes because they didn't "make."

There was noise at some point in my graduate department that they should cut PhD program admissions (which they did, slightly) in order to be more ethical and realistic about the numbers. (The nearly hidden "benefit" was that they needed more of their own post-PhD students to work as adjuncts, thus giving some people a few more years of "hope" on the market.)

Such a strategy will only work if PhD granting institutions around the country make a similar commitment. But they have to do it in a way that won't further restrict the diversity of the academy; it's no good if they simply limit PhD program opportunities to Ivy or near Ivy grads.

This doesn't mean PhD granting institutions should make up the teaching difference by hiring adjuncts, and paying them poorly. I know the cost differentials between hiring adjuncts and tenure-track faculty, but depending on poorly paid adjuncts to teach an increasing load of regular courses weakens departments in all sorts of ways, especially in curriculum development and governance. (But that's a whole different post...)

Under Construction

I decided to procrastinate about grading today by trying to enter some links in the side bar. Wow. All I can say is that my html skills are completely minimal. I finally DID remember that the pointy parenthesis br slash other pointy parenthesis indicates a line break. (And, of course, if I type that out in here, I'll get a line break instead of showing what I'm talking about.)

And I read a ton more sites than I've linked so far, but that's because I'm one of those people who've thoroughly read the sides of cereal boxes just to read something.

Anyway, excuse the messiness and incompleteness. I'm still learning!

I still haven't figured out how to use trackback stuff.

Outside Program

I got great news the other day!

Early this fall, I'd applied for a scholarship program which provides funds for university faculty to lead programs at the local public library. I went to one of the programs last year, when one of my colleagues led a discussion on linguistics, and it was fascinating and a load of fun. I even learned some stuff, which is always a bonus. Seeing the discussion group that formed and watching how it went gave me the idea that I could do something on a Shakespeare play. So, I wrote up an application and program outline for a four part discussion of The Winter's Tale.

My application was accepted a couple months ago, but there was a funding glitch, which now seems to have gotten worked out. (Don't tell, but I'd have done it even without the funding, just for the fun of it.)

I unabashedly love The Winter's Tale, even though it makes me cry pretty much every time. Still, the sense of magic, of hope, of possibility when (oops, SPOILER INC!) the statue comes to life (or not, since Hermione may just have been hiding out all the time) thrills me. Every time, when I read as Leontes approaches the statue of his dead wife and so wants it to be alive, and then she is, I'm moved pretty much to tears.

Who doesn't have someone they wish could come back from the dead, whole, healthy, forgiving, loving? Somehow this play lets me have this little fantasy without making it trite or immature, just for that moment.

Mostly my students go with the "Hermione's been hiding out" theory, but Paulina tells us she's dead early on, and I believe her honesty. (Not that Shakespeare is above having someone hide out for a while pretending to be dead but I really like feeling the magic.)

The Winter's Tale should work really well for this crowd, if they're anything like the folks who showed up at my friend's program.

This program will be my third foray into outside programming since coming to the Northwoods. My first was a short talk last year before a play presented on campus by an outside theater company. The campus activities folks invited me to give a talk to people who'd buy extra tickets for desert and a pre-show talk on campus. Mostly these were community members who come to campus for performances, talks, and other activities. It went well. (What could go wrong? Let me blather about Shakespeare for an hour or so, and I'm a pretty happy Bardiac.)

My next was scarier! One of my colleagues (let's call him T) from the theater department who works in children's theater education invited me to participate in a program for local high school students; they worked for two weeks and then did several public performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream. T asked me to spend about an hour a day for the first week with the group of students talking about Shakespeare and the play. They were all pretty much in my "class" and also chose from costuming, set design/building, and props, and spent a good part of their morning learning about those and preparing for their production. Afternoons they spent rehearsing.

I was hesitant at first about working with high schoolers because, after all, they're HIGH SCHOOLERS, and just thinking back to what a miserable piece of work I was in high school makes me want to crawl under a bed and hide in a fetal position. But T assured me these kids were self-selected, motivated, and generally really a pleasure to work with, so I did it.

T was right. The students were a blast! It helped immensely that they were all interested in acting or theatrical stuff (some were doing the technical side rather than acting), and were also memorizing and preparing to put on a play. Yes, motivation rocks. But the whole week, I wasn't sure they were getting much out of our work together, and I was worried they were bored. (Just an aside: it's darned hard to work a room without a board if you're used to writing on a board; a theatrical space is also hard to make work as discussion area, especially with dim lights.)

We spent about a day on each act, focusing on working through the meaty speeches, talking about staging issues, texts, language, and other stuff that makes Shakespeare so fun.

For example, in the first scene (uh oh, SPOILER INC again), Theseus is eagerly awaiting the wedding night with Hippolyta, who's less than eager since she's basically being forced to marry him after he conquered her. Yes, he's pretty much waiting to rape her, and she's understandably less than thrilled. So, when we put on this play, or read it, or watch it, we need to come to terms with that marriage "problem" (to put it mildly).

The play doesn't really work it out for us, since we don't see them again until near the end, in Act 4, scene 1, when Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus (Hermia's father) and other court folk hunting in the woods stumble upon the young lovers, Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander. Egeus goes into patriarchal power mode, and wants Theseus to force Hermia to marry Demetrius or suffer serious punishment. Demetrius, however, has changed his mind, and wants to marry Helena. Theseus comes down on the lovers' side and pairs them off.

None of the women has anything to say in the process. When we talked about the bit, I had the students play it with only the speakers on stage. It worked okay; you really don't need the women hanging about just staring, and it forefronted the male power. Then I had them play it with the women hanging about, and that made the male power feel even more overwhelming.

Finally, I had them try it with Hippolyta being proactive: she went over to Hermia and they "whispered" quietly together, and then while Theseus was listening to Demetrius, Hippolyta went to Theseus, touched his arm so that he turned some attention to her, leaning to hear her while she "whispered" to him. The students loved it.

Now when Theseus came down on the lovers' side, it felt like Hippolyta had some say in the matter, that he'd listened to her. She then took his arm (before he tells her to "come"), and off they went.

Of course, the scene's still incredibly patriarchal, but it's different, too, since Hippolyta seems proactive and more powerful. Only the men speak for the audience to hear, but there's a clear implication that the women have some quiet input, and that their input matters.

Playing the scene this way resolves the rape issue somewhat, since it shows that Hippolyta's not just unwillingly waiting, but rather that the relationship with Theseus has changed: he listens to her, she chooses to touch him, she takes his arm. It's fairly subtle, but it works pretty well. At least, it worked pretty well in their performance, since it was one of the things we talked about that they used in their production.

I went to the first night of their performance, and boy was it surprisingly good. I was also surprised at how warmly the students greeted me, how happy they seemed to be that I was there. Most of them said they'd really enjoyed the classes; one of them told me that some outside theater director/expert person had come to see their final dress rehearsal, and had been full of praise for their work, noting especially that they seemed to actually know what they were saying. The student thought our classes had something to do with that. (I heard the same from T, who was also impressed at how well the students seemed to understand the play.)

All in all, it was a hugely satisfying experience, which I'd gladly repeat.

So, now I get to try a new outside program, and I'm really looking forward to it!

Monday, November 14, 2005


I've been doing a bunch of conferences lately.

One student's aunt just died, killed by a drunk driver. My student was way more together than I would have been under the same circumstances.

One of my best students was visibly shaking during our conference. I don't know why, but I suspect nerves. It boggles my mind that I make someone nervous, but I remember being horribly embarrassed and nervous talking to professors myself. She's writing her research paper on dealing with student stress, a topic that seems especially fitting. I hope it's going to help her learn how to deal with what she's going through. She's got great potential and is a real pleasure to have in class.

One of my students actually interviewed (on the phone) a professional who's been working with her family on a family matter (for her research paper), and was thrilled that the professional took the time to talk to her and answer her questions.

Another student reports that he went to talk to a professor for another class about the topic of her paper, and the professor offered helpful resources.

Here's a quiet thanks to all the teachers, lawyers, professors, social workers, counselors, doctors, nurses, and other hard working folks who've taken time out to talk to a student about a research paper. I know you folks are busy, but if you could see how much your time and consideration matters to my students, you'd feel amply rewarded.

One of my advisees came out of the woodwork to have me sign a drop sheet. She usually wanders by once a semester to have me sign something, but doesn't seem to want much more.

I ran into another advisee in the hall; he's getting ready to graduate! It's so great to see how much he's matured and come into his own.

And so, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, it goes.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Grad Assistants on Strike

At NYU, the graduate assistants have gone on strike because the university has decided not to recognize their union any longer, or so says CNN's article, "Graduate Assistants on Strike at New York University."

Universities mostly don't like graduate students associating with unions; they argue that teaching assistantships are a kind of apprenticeship rather than a regular job, and that union membership and activities damage mentoring relationships. On the other hand, grad students pursue connections with unions in order to gain better pay, working conditions, and benefits. Grad students are very cheap teaching labor at a lot of PhD granting universities.

Their programs are, of course, supposed to prepare graduate students for both research and teaching, and TAing gives many students a lot of experience in classrooms. Unfortunately, for most students, this experience is completely unlike an apprenticeship, and includes little guidance, mentoring, or instruction in teaching.

Many programs accept more students than they can afford to really support. Too often, universities make it easy for graduate students to hang on, teaching and doing whatever grunt work they can get because the universities need cheap teachers. And, many graduate students spend a great deal of time teaching, and many years working on their degrees. It's a vicious circle. (And, the overproduction of PhDs contributes to the super competitive job market.)

The $50,000 "package" referred to in the article seems like a lot, doesn't it? Here's NYU's FAQ page about the issue (probably time sensitive). From the FAQ page, this looks like a move on NYU's part to deal with rising health insurance costs (covered by the previous contract); NYU also says that the UAW is inserting itself into academic affairs (including teaching assignments) and time to degree rules. The actual stipend for PhD students looks to be about $19,000. That's better than a kick in the pants, but probably doesn't go far in NYC, especially when you consider that people spend 5-8 years in PhD programs.

(That means that if all goes well, your average PhD goes into a first job at 28-30 with a fair bit of debt and no savings nor retirement savings. They're 5-8 years behind their peers in all sorts of ways. The FAQ doesn't say anything about retirement benefits, but I would expect they aren't included in any way.)

The UAW GSOC site (probably time sensitive) says that graduate student health benefits have already been cut.

I have to admire the graduate students who are willing to confront their university's administration and faculty by going on strike. Given the highly competitive job market for academics, they're taking a chance, potentially, if one of their letter writers doesn't like unionization, s/he can drop a subtle hint which may damage an applicant's chances for some jobs.

On a practical level, I avoided worrying too much about union issues when I was a grad student. I just wanted to finish my degree as quickly as possible, and my advisor and mentors completely encouraged that approach. In a way, of course, I was selfish and short-sighted.

Most graduate students are one serious injury or illness from disaster; reducing their health care benefits makes their economics even more tenuous.

There's no easy solution to these conflicts. No one's really getting rich in higher education (with the possible exception of a few football coaches and athletic directors. But that's fodder for another blog).

I'm so glad I'm not a graduate student any more!

Terminally Hip

Not words anyone expects associated with Bardiac, eh?

Recently S, a student in one of my classes, came to confer with me about a research project he's working on (not for my class). He edged around the topic delicately, saying that he's interested in writing about science fiction/fantasy characters and sexuality, but not in the actual books.

"You mean, like slash?" I asked. (NB. I love Urbandictionary dot com.)

S looked at me, eyes widening. "You know what slash is?"

My internal alarm went off. Uh oh. I've outed myself in some bizarre way? Naw, couldn't be. If I know something from pop culture, then, well, it's got to be such common knowledge that anyone under, say, 60 knows about it. (Unless we're talking about pop culture of England in the 16th century, then, I like to think, I'm a bit ahead of your average bear.)

"Everyone knows what slash is. It's common knowledge, isn't it?"

S insisted I was wrong, and that, in fact, it was... rather unexpected that I knew. (That was the polite way to put it.)

We went on with the conversation. And it got me thinking. So, of course, being the overly curious fool I am, I started randomly asking around my department, except, of course, I wasn't really random. I only asked people I felt fairly comfortable with, because while I'm abnormally curious, I'm not alone in my department. As is true, I hope, of all academic communities, we're a bunch of inquisitive nerds in this department, and I was sure that I'd have to explain the term to everyone I asked who didn't already know it. So, for sure, there were people I didn't ask.

Of the 15 people I asked, two knew the term. (Now, of course, all 15 do.) And those two were just the people you'd guess: faculty who teach sci-fi and pop-culture/theory (though not all the faculty who teach these topics knew the term). I asked one person outside the department, and as I expected, she knew.

I sent S an email explaining my research and congratulating him on my error. Evidently, S was much amused by the thought of me asking other innocent and well-meaning faculty members if they knew what "slash" is. (I live to entertain.)

The bonus is that I have apparently gained a bit of a reputation among a very small, select group of students for being ... well, for lack of a better term, hip. That's me, terminally hip.

Slash is actually a fascinating phenomenon: it's mostly written about two male characters in a homoerotic or gay relationship, and yet mostly written by females. (Often the writers need serious lessons in anatomy.) Slash fics sometimes explore issues of power, dominance, and sexuality in some pretty challenging and interesting ways; sometimes, they're just really unreadable.

My mind goes exactly where you'd expect: Shakespeare slash! Horatio and Hamlet! Leontes and Polixenes! Ferdinand and Caliban! Lest you think I jest, there actually does seem to be some Shakespeare slash. (These things are rated by explicitness and audience appropriateness.)

So, think I can fly it for a seminar at SAA next year?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

When do our Students Learn to do Research?

Dr. Crazy reveals at the end of her entry the other day ("That Time of the Semester") that her senior level students have confessed that they don't know how to do research. Boy howdy, does that sound familiar. I really came face to face with the problem here at NWU the first time I taught a real senior level seminar and had students tell me at the end of the class that they'd never learned about the MLA International Bibliography On-Line, much less how to use it. Worse, far worse, they mostly still thought in terms of wanting to write about a vague topic rather than having a question they wanted to answer or even work on.

We faculty folks in the NWU English department have been slowly coming to terms with this problem as we've revised our undergraduate curriculum. In many ways, we've done a really solid job revising the curriculum; we mostly agree on what different levels of classes mean, the core requirements make sense and compliment each other, and the other requirements are clear (and reasonably easy to advise) and give our students the kinds of experiences we want them to have in our program.

But we haven't really discussed where we expect students to learn the research skills (both in finding resources of different sources and in developing meaningful research questions) that we expect them to have by the time they reach our senior level seminars.

As the home of first year writing classes, the English department feels the heat from other academic departments and faculty members who argue that we don't adequately teach writing and research. We respond, generally, by arguing that first year writing classes can't be the be all end all of student writing instruction. Rather, we argue, writing is something students need to work on continually and progressively, especially in classes where they'll learn research and writing skills within their major area.

So it's especially disconcerting to face up to the fact that we in the English department aren't doing quite as good a job teaching research writing to our own majors as we want all departments across the university to do.

I'm not really sure where I want students to learn the basics of research in our field. But I do think that we need to teach these skills in more than one class (or group of classes), and that we need to reinforce and have students practice these skills a fair bit.

I lean towards teaching and reinforcing basic skills at the sophomore level. I think those fairly general classes are a good place for students to learn about MLA and practice finding articles on MLA. I think they're also a good level for students to be exposed to other, more sub-field specific databases and resources. I don't expect my students to remember them forever, but the exposure will teach them that each sub-field has such resources.

At the junior level, I want to reinforce students' skills finding articles and resources, and work more directly on reading critical works ethically. I also want students to hone skills in developing research questions. (Probably, I should find a way to introduce research questioning in sophomore level classes, I suppose?) I know that some of my colleagues think we should start teaching research skills at the junior level, and I have a feeling we're going to have some long discussions in department meetings about this issue.

In junior level classes, I should be able to give a research paper assignment. I think it's too much to think that we can adequately teach resource searching AND developing questions well in one class or level of classes. But if students already know some basics about finding resources, then we can focus on the specifics of developing good research questions. Given our curriculum, our junior level classes are fairly specific and in depth in approach, so students should be able to work with interesting topics in some depth.

Finally, senior level seminars should push students to develop better research questions and to learn to find resources specific to a more narrow area of investigation, to read critical essays more fully, and to say something much more interesting about their question. That's my fantasy, and I'm sticking to it!

I started thinking about the problem of teaching research more critically last spring, after teaching a senior level seminar and talking to other faculty members who were teaching seminars at the time. We generally felt that too many of our students didn't have the knowledge to find resources or the skills to ask good research questions that we expected them to have in a seminar.

This fall, teaching a new sophomore level Shakespeare class for the first time, I tried to build in a few assignments to teach some basic research skills. One of these assignments, I explained a bit in a previous post ("Head Meet Wall"). In the end, the class discussion on sonnet day was GREAT!

I've also asked each student to do three short writing assignments; one of these assignments asks students to use the MLA database to find an article on one of our texts, to read the article carefully, write a short summary of it, and write a short response to it. They have to turn in a copy of the article along with their summary/response. I spent time in class talking about using the MLA database, and also gave them an electronic "handout." So I'm hoping they'll learn a little about MLA and also about finding and reading an article carefully. So far, the papers I've read give me hope.

Now I have to figure out how to work useful assignments into my sophomore level theory class next semester. I just can't really see asking students to research much theory at this point in their education in English studies. I have some colleagues who do research assignments in the class, and they're going to share, when we have time. Yeah, that should be easy!

Random Thoughts

In grocery stores, I tend to only shop the outer perimeter. Not so very long ago, I was the type who never shopped the outer perimeter.

I'm lousy at shopping malls, and worse at department stores.

Most academics I know have waited tables, worked at fast food places, or worked at grocery stores. I've done none of these things. I have worked at a mall, however.

How do I love my colleagues?

It's not that I adore all of my colleagues, but by and large, I like and respect my department members.

The other day, one of my colleagues emailed me to ask if I wanted to help the department group at the local "soup kitchen" last night. There's a rotating group of several couples (the common denominator is that there's a department member in each couple) who volunteer to buy food and make and serve dinner for the kitchen, as part of a program the kitchen has going in our community. I am regularly invited to help, but not quite a regular in the group (life is complicated, and this is a fine solution for all, I think).

Yeah, it's a little thing, a tiny act in other peoples' struggles against hunger, but they do it regularly, as do other groups from NorthWoods U. I doubt most people in the community have any idea how much staff and faculty here at NWU quietly contribute. (One of the things our Boss Administrator would like to do is increase public awareness of how NWU contributes to the community. But how to do this well?)

Our students also regularly contribute through classes and groups to the same kitchen. (Our students contribute hugely to the local communities.)

So yesterday afternoon, we gathered, one brought food, we cooked, we served, we cleaned up, and we had a good time.

What did I learn? Well, it would be no surprise to anyone who knows me that Bardiac is even more inept in an institutional kitchen than at home. I relearn this every time we do dinner there. But I haven't cut off any fingers or anything yet. And I heard one of the diners complimenting the kitchen director guy about how great the dinner was. I also actually learned some tricks that might someday be useful in my tiny world, or at least, in a couple months when we go cook again.

The weird thing of the night? We serve cafeteria style, prepping their plate for diners according to their desires. Last night, one of the diners stopped in the middle of the line to chat on a cell phone. (It's a commonplace these days to hear complaints about people holding up lines in the store to talk on a cell phone rather than answer a checkout person's questions or pay. But in the kitchen, it seemed all the more weird.)

We have too many hungry people in My New Hometown.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Veteran's Day / St. Crispin's Day

I love Henry V, and especially this speech, you know, the one before the battle of Agincourt:

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say "These wounds I had on Crispian's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

I was so moved the first time I read the speech that I thought I should, indeed, remember St. Crispin's day. So, I looked around, looked it up. And along the way, I learned that by the late 16th century, no one in England celebrated or memorialized St. Crispin's day nor the Agincourt battle.

There's a deep irony in this speech when we think of it coming out of the mouth of a 16th century actor on a London stage. (There's a commonplace that the sudden abundance of English chronicle history plays in the period was complexly related to nationalism related to the English victory over the Spanish armada in 1588, which adds to the irony level.) The irony level rises again when Henry speaks of the battle dead a few scenes later, and the report speaks primarily of those who have "names." Once the battle's done, there's no sense of brotherhood with the yeomanry or laborers. Pistol drives the point home by noting that he'll "steal" back to England where he'll "steal."

I make an effort every fall when I teach Shakespeare to teach Henry V during the week of October 25th, hoping that I'll actually manage to be doing the St. Crispin's day speech on St. Crispin's day. Doing that speech on that day highlights the irony and reminds us of the transitory nature of human memory and memorial. It's humbling to realize that memories, even of the most culturally or nationally important events don't last much longer than "whiles any speaks / That fought with us" in whatever important battle or war. Once the war generation dies off, specific memorial moments lose importance, fade from memory, or are replaced, alas, by more recent events the culture or nation needs to memorialize.

When people talk about remembering the September 11 tragedies until the end of time, I can't help but think back to the great St. Crispin's day speech.

When I was a kid, my family had some special friends, H and T, a married couple who, if I recall correctly, had met as soldier and nurse during WW I. Today, even though H and T can't speak any more, I'm remembering them, and I'll stop at the 11th hour and remember what they meant to me, and think about what that generation went through in the "war to end all wars." Only it wasn't, and didn't, and I have a feeling we'll continually have new wars and tragedies to memorialize until long after I'm no longer remembered.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


In my first year writing class, my students are working on their research paper now. The basic assignment is that they have to come up with a real world question they care about and don't already have a strong opinion about, research the question, and write a paper detailing their answer, or the current state of knowledge. (That "opinion bit" means that someone who is completely sure of some social issue doesn't bore the dickens out of me repeating old arguments. But it also leaves open a way for someone who's truly trying to figure out how they feel about a serious social issue to research the issue and come to a position.)

Yesterday, we used about half the class for group brainstorming. In preparation, the students spent a few minutes free-writing and making a list of the things they need help with most as they work on their essay. They prioritized their list, and each had to share the most important or urgent item or problem with the class, one at a time. Then the class brainstormed together to try to help solve the problem or make good suggestions about finding a solution.

Sometimes that meant we brainstormed together to come up with questions from a broad topic. Even though, from the beginning, I've tried to frame the assignment in terms of questions, a few have been thinking in terms of a topic. Our group brainstorming was another chance to try to redirect their thinking to the question approach. For example, a student might say he wants to write about diabetes, without having a specific question about it. With another person from the class writing on the board, we all come up with as many specific questions as we can, from causes to treatments to genetics and chemistry. Pretty much any question's fair game to go on the board. And when we finish, the student has a bunch of potential questions, and (I hope!!) a stronger sense of trying to find an answer to a question rather than writing about a topic.

Sometimes, all we could offer was a suggestion to talk to a reference librarian about finding resources. That's a good reminder in any case, since librarians know how to find lots of things more efficiently than most of us.

I want students to think about who knows answers and information about their question because in the world outside academics, knowing who's likely to know something makes the world so much easier. One of my students yesterday had a question about an political issue, and I remembered from an earlier discussion that he's taking a political science class. So I asked him if he'd asked his political science prof about the question. He hadn't. Well, gosh, I said (except not really), you should! We professors spent however many years working in some field to learn a ton about it because we find it fascinating, love it, and want to talk about it. And then we sit in office hours... and if a student comes in with a question about our field, well, we just go wild! What could be better than having someone want to talk about stuff we love with us? I think he's going to go give it a try!

Yesterday's session was especially good. This class has a lot of sharp, engaged students, and they really go to town together. They stayed really focused, positive, and offered good ideas. I love when someone sets up a problem, and another students says something like, "oh, my sister works with X, you could interview her." That happens more often than I would have expected when I started doing this assignment. The personal connection usually means that the sister is willing to give my student a few minutes, when she wouldn't necessarily respond so positively to a random request from a total stranger, even if the stranger knew to ask her.

The class was also non-judgmental, in a good way. I mean, I want them to judge writing, to recognize when something's done really well, uses evidence well, has really effective organization and so forth. But I also want them to be non-judgmental about questions. As long as it's a real question, I want my students to be able to ask it and learn about it. And this class was great about that, with no awkwardness when someone said she wanted to know why many gays want to be able to marry, or when another person wanted to know about the long term effects of anorexia.

All in all, a great session; I wish all my teaching worked this well!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Look

Usually, I'm a pretty talkative person. (Insert joke here.) But if I actually have to think about something, I come to a nearly complete stop. It's like birding while trying to drive: I just can't do it and stay on the road. Oh, look, a hawk (which I say just as I say "hock," so there's a clue, linguists!), SWERVE! oops.

Now, in a committee meeting, since I'm not usually chatting, mostly people don't notice when I come to a full stop to think something through.

But when I'm advising (or teaching a class or conferencing in office hours), it's very obvious. I used to think I looked either wisely pensive or like empty-headed Bertie Wooster befuddled and flustered at Aunt Agatha's latest suggestion of an appropriate fiance, depending on your point of view. Student question. Bardiac, full stop. Tick, tick, tick. Student (or in class, students) waits a bit. Eventually the student looks on with increasing alarm, wondering if Bardiac is having some kind of apoplectic problem. Tick, tick, tick. Student becomes worried. Tick, tick, tick. Clearly something is wrong.

Meanwhile, my pathetic little brain is clunking along, more slowly than an epic conceit in The Faerie Queene whenas Spenser takes his sweet time, and ours, as the ever-so pedestrian Guyon slogs along missing the fun. I'm usually trying to sort out the issues, complications, possibilities as I think, "gosh, what a great idea! How can we make this class fit into Lovely Student's program? Who do we need to talk to?" or "oh, now there's a really great question! I wonder if I can explain blah blah in the time I have left today?"

And then, of course, even with my dulled consciousness (or subjectivity, if we want to pretend that I have one), I notice that my student looks visibly tense. The student doesn't want to say anything, but s/he's worried. And if we're in an advising meeting, s/he is generally worried about the class or program or whatever and imagines a serious problem.

At some point in my not so distant past, I realized that the look on my face probably doesn't resemble wisely pensive or amusingly befuddled, but rather "concerned" or "uh oh!" You know, that look the doctor gets on his/her face when looking or listening to body part X, before moving on without further comment, and you're too worried or scared to actually ask what the look means and what s/he was so obviously concerned about? That's what I figure my face looks like when I've come to a full, thoughtful stop. Except, of course, I'm the wrong kind of doctor, and Shakespeare has been dead nearly 400 years, so even if I were the right kind of doctor, it's pretty much a wash at this point.

So I've learned, when I come to that full stop and recognize that I'm not going to come out of it very fast, to stop the stop (yeah, that's articulate, Bardiac!), and give the student a rundown of my thinking process. Usually, I creatively begin by saying, "Here's what I'm thinking...." (Impressive, isn't it?)

I find several benefits. Articulating my thought process helps the student get a bigger perspective on issues and understand why we may or may not be able to work things out; it also models how someone with probably more knowledge or experience works through an academic or scholarly problem or question, trying to see multiple facets and issues.

In classes, it usually means we get to talk about meta issues, staging in Lear, or the ways language usage changes, or why someone's designed a text in a specific way.

Best of all, by actually articulating my thoughts, I give my student a chance to respond, ask further questions, clarify points, and become more active and engaged in taking responsibility for his/her learning. Often enough, my student has something to teach me, then, too.

Taking Pleasure, or the Ethics of Reading Rape and Murder (Part I)

Not so very long ago, I taught a course in early modern drama in which we read Marlowe's Edward II, and watched Derek Jarman's film version. It wasn't the only film we watched; for example, we also read Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and saw the Julie Taymor film version. After each film, my students wrote a journal responding to the film as a production of the text; the assignment asked them to think about changes to the plot, the ways film makes some things possible or "necessary," costuming, and so forth, to choose one or two issues, and write a couple pages.

An aside: here's a quick run down of each play's plotline (and a more in depth plot for Edward II and Titus Andronicus.)

Edward II
Edward II, on the death of his dad (creatively named Edward), invites his paramour Galveston to return to his side. The nobles are jealous of Galveston's return to power, and eliminate him. Edward finds a new favorite, Spencer, elevating he and his father to positions of power; again, the nobles are jealous, and Edward's wife, Isabella, too. Isabella turns to Mortimer (a noble) for "comfort" and goes off to France with their son (also creatively named Edward, and later known as Edward III, but that's another play). Edward II has military problems, is captured by the English nobles. The Spencers are executed, as is Edward II. Edward III comes to power, orders Mortimer executed, and imprisons his mother, Isabella. (It's stories like these that make most families seem entirely functional, eh?)

Titus Andronicus
Set in ancient Rome, Titus Andronicus begins with Titus' victorious return from war with the Goths, bringing along his captives, Tamora (Queen of the Goths), her sons Alarbus, Demetrius, and Chiron, and Aaron (a Moor, who we later learn is Tamora's lover, and father of her baby in the play). Titus sacrifices Alarbus at the Andronicus family tomb, and faces the question of Rome's leadership: the powers that be offer Titus the job, though the previous emperor's two sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, both want the job. Titus sides with Saturninus, and the two decide that Saturninus will marry Lavinia, Titus' daughter. But Bassianus takes Lavinia, having apparently established a pre-contract with her; Titus's sons side with Bassianus, and Titus kills one of them (Mutius) in a scuffle. Saturninus, now emperor, takes Tamora as wife, and releases her sons and Aaron. So much for the first scene.

Aaron leads Chiron and Demetrius to take revenge on the Andronici by killing Bassianus and raping Lavinia, and cut out her tongue to keep her from telling. But because they've all read the story of Philomela, they decide that cutting off her tongue is insufficient, so they cut off both her hands, too.

(This is one of those plays where, just when you think it can't get worse, it does. I'm leaving out another cut off hand, a couple cut off heads, and a murdered midwife.)

Despite inconveniently having no hands, Lavinia eventually reveals the identity of the rapists. Titus takes revenge by capturing Chiron and Demetrius. And because he, too, knows the Philomela story, he makes a nice pasty out of them, and invites Tamora (their Mom) over for dinner. Then he kills Lavinia and Tamora; Saturninus kills Titus, and Titus's remaining son, Lucius, kills Saturninus. (Again, this play makes me realize how blessedly boring my life is!)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

When I looked at my students' journals after Edward II (most of which were pretty good for each film), one of my students had written what amounted to basically a diatribe about being forced to watch a film which deals with homosexuality in pretty overt ways because homosexuality is a sin and so forth. His language and sentence structure were jumbled, worse even than his usual writing, which I read as evidence that he was really upset. So I asked him to come talk to me about his journal. He did.

And he was tense, as you'd expect, and unhappy, frustrated, angry, all those things. He told me how utterly offended he was that he'd been forced to read such a vile play and to watch the movie, and he said that he felt I didn't respect his religious beliefs because I'd given him such a low grade on the journal.

So I asked him why he hadn't been upset when we'd read and watched Titus. After all, I continued, his religion put murder explicitly in the Ten Commandments as one of the absolutely worst things to do, and the play was full of murders. And yet, not only had he not been upset, but he'd enjoyed reading/watching the mayhem, enjoyed talking about the rape, the mutilations. (My response was evidently unsatisfactory, as the student dropped the course shortly after leaving my office.)

Here are the ethical questions:
What does it mean to make art of horrible acts (historical or imagined)?
What does it mean to choose to teach art (in my case, plays, poetry, novels, etc) that represents horrible acts?
And what does it mean that I take great pleasure in these texts?

ps. The Blogspot spell-checker just doesn't much like early modern names or possessives.