Monday, December 31, 2012

Out with 2012

2012 was a rough year for a lot of people.

It wasn't horrible for me.  I didn't get shot, flooded, or lose my job.  I did have a rough semester job-wise.  I rode my bike some, skied some, went on a beautiful vacation.  Politically, it was a mixed bag.  Still, I'm hoping for a better new year in all sorts of ways.

I spent much of the day going through financial stuff, shredding endless statements (do I really need bank statements from 1999?  I don't think so).  And then wondering how historians feel about shredders, and being grateful that Philip Henslowe didn't have one.

Speaking of shredders:  where do the staples go?  I've shredded a lot of stuff with staples, and picked it up, and dumped it in bags, and picked it up, and I haven't seen bits of staple all over the rug or anything.  Where do they go?  Have we found the one thing that breaks the law of conservation of matter?

So I've filled six bags with shredded paper.  And my house looks like an utter mess, but it will look better as I put stuff away and straighten up.  Still, I'm a bit frustrated by just how messy it looks.

My bike odometer reads 9007.8.

My read at the turn of the year last year was 7703.7.  So I've ridden about 1304 miles this year.  The bike journal says 1296.9. (The difference would come from my rounding errors, walking the bike between rides, and so on.)  I obviously need to ride more!  (and ski more, run more, etc.)

2012: 1304 miles
2011: 460 miles  (away for ~6 months in the UK)

2010: 1020 miles
2009: 2380 miles
2008: 1425 miles (away for ~5 months in Japan)
2007: 2011 miles* (There may have been more miles, before I started using the bike journal thingy, but I seem to have started using it in mid-May, so probably not tons of miles.)

The goal for next year is once again, 2000 miles, and 11k on the odometer.  Wish me luck!

And you, too.  Thanks for reading, and for those who've responded, thank you even more!

A Question about High School Volunteering

I don't want to tie this specifically, but I'm wondering why I hear that high school students should do volunteer work to prepare for their college applications.

I'm willing to believe that doing volunteer work can be valuable in all sorts of ways, and that its value might be recognized by admissions folks at colleges. 

What I'm wondering is: what do college admissions folks see as the value of volunteer work?

What other values does volunteering have?

My guess is that:

--College admissions folks see volunteering as demonstrating that the student has an interest outside him/herself, and thus would be an interesting member of the community, where interesting is about being involved and active in learning.

--College admissions folks may see volunteering as indicative of an attitude of "giving" which may translate into donations to the college.  (Cynical, but there it is.)

If my first guess is right, then it's not the volunteering per se that the college is looking for, but a sense of engagement outside oneself.  A student could demonstrate that in a lot of ways.

But I'm also wondering how many students gain nothing by volunteering (except a line on a resume) because they aren't really engaged by what they're doing, aren't really learning from it, or creating a meaningful experience.

Okay, genius of the interwebs, tell me if and why volunteering may be important to college admissions folks, please.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


I'm reading VA Kolve's Telling Images, the second book he's written about Chaucer's imagery.

Kolve writes with such grace, it's just mindblowing.  You can hear his voice in his prose, and it's just beautiful, seductive, almost.  And gracious.

I love all the images, even though I'm not quite convinced so far by "The Merchant's Tale" reading (I'm halfway through the second chapter on the tale).  The thing is, he writes so well that I want to be convinced. 

The preface is marvelous in itself.  There's a moment when he's talking about his work, when Kolve says that
In the opening pages of the final chapter, "God-Denying Fools"--an argument conceived, in imitation of Chaucer, as a modernist's "Retraction"--I privilege my personal situation for the first time, confessing to a dilemma I have never wholly resolved: how to teach and write "from within" Christian systems of thought wihtout appearing to acquiesce in beliefs I do not share.  (xvii)
It's the best statement of a real difficulty I have with teaching Chaucer, Shakespeare, early modern literature, in fact all literature that takes Christianity seriously as religious truth, and expresses just that difficulty.  And it fits perfectly with the personal tone of the preface; it's Kolve's dilemma, and very personally his, but it also speaks to me.

In the introduction to the notes for chapter 3, Kolve quotes Donald Howard's essay "The Idea of a Chaucer course," "where he reflects on what he thinks our teaching is for
While there can never be agreement on methods [of teaching], there can be agreement on goals, and on this point I will risk being dogmatic.
The goal and idea of teaching The Canterbury Tales is to put the student in touch with the mind of Geoffrey Chaucer.  Chaucer had a certain frame of mind, a way of looking at the world, which in our time we could use to our own great benefit if we could but grasp it. . . . [For there] are moments when we grasp with special clarity Chaucer's unique sanity--his impatience with cant and hypocrisy and with the posturings of seriousness, his sad tolerance for human orneriness, his humorous view of the world and of himself, his tragic and comic sense of self.  This sanity is what we have in our power to offer students.  (Donald R. Howard, "The Idea of a chaucer Course" in Approaches to Teaching Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, ed. Joseph Gibaldi [New York: Modern Language Association, 1980], pp. 61-62, qtd in Kolve, 278.)
I'm thinking of using that as the introductory bit on my Chaucer syllabus.  And yet, because of the rape record (and rapes in the tales), I have a more troubled sense of Chaucer than Howard seems to.  Still, there is very much something to teaching Chaucer and reading Chaucer that's worth doing, I think.

(I thnk that my sense of how to teach patriarchal literature is much like my sense of how to deal with religion in literature.  It's the same sort of difficulty for me.)

Now, off to try out my skis for a bit and then to read some more Kolve.

Work Cited
Kolve, V.A. Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative II.  Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


One of my projects this break is to go through some old papers and put them into recycling.  I was at it today, and found a syllabus I made up for some class.  I don't remember it, but the basic idea isn't half bad.  It looks like it was for a class I taught as an adjuct (on the quarter system).

It was titled: Fantastic People/Fantastic Places: Marvelous Geographies in Earlier English Literature.

And it included texts from Beowulf to Gulliver's Travels.

I think I may recycle it, and rework it for an early Brit lit lower level course next year.

Of course, the amusing thing is that the whole syllabus takes up one double-sided piece of paper, and half of one side is taken up with a picture of a pict (I'm guessing I used one of the illustrations from Emily Bartel's Spectacles of Strangeness.

Anyway, here's what the reading list looked like.  What should I change as I revise it for a semester long course?

Gawain and the Green Knight
"The Description of Cooke-ham"
"To Penshurst"
The Tempest
Paradise Lost (Book 1 only)
Gulliver's Travels

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Read This!

Here's a link to a poem called "Storm" in the New Republic.  You should read it.  /nod

(Nope, not by me.  But really good!  Far better than anything I could imagine hoping to write.)


Last night I had a dream that I was hanging out with another blogger (I'm not quite sure who), and for some reason, Jo(e) was going to be about, and the other blogger told me, and Jo(e) in my dream is actually sort of local, but somehow wasn't supposed to know that I'm a blogger, too.  And we were driving around.  But there were no naked pictures.

Weird, eh?

In my dream, Jo(e) was just as fun as she seems in her blog (we've never met). 

In other news, I'm happy to be home.

I got an email from the missing student, and it turned out zie is fine, and things will work out.  I'm happy about that, and very relieved that zie wasn't in some horrible accident.

I did finish reading Shapiro's 1599, which I enjoyed and found impressive, if a bit frustrating at times (because I'm so used to academic structure, that I really wanted source information in the text more than it was, rather than in a bibliographic essay.  But I'm sure this is much more comfortable for some readers.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Wrapping up the Semester

I've finished grading, finally.

I get frustrated by the late stuff that comes in, even legitimately (because of, say, health problems).  I don't blame the student, but it's a pain to have extra stuff to grade at the last minute.

And then it seems there's always one class where there's a problem, some confusion.  This year it's an exam.  I can't find a student's exam.  And I can't remember if the student was at the final, but zie is one of those students who didn't miss a single class during the semester.  And the exam is in two parts, and I have neither part.  And the student hasn't emailed.

So now instead of submitting grades tonight, I'm going to go to campus in the morning and search my office to see if somehow I dropped it in there.  If not, I'll send the student an email.  (I've already searched the room where I was grading. 

If I were missing one part, I'd be convinced I'd misplaced the other.  But it seems unlikely that I'd missplace both parts, doesn't it?

But this student is very responsible.  I hope zie is okay, and wasn't hurt in an accident or something.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Liveblogging a Final

It's the Shakespeare final. 

And I just finished the stack I brought to grade now, and had to check some stuff on the computer.  And now, this, blogging.

My finals are in three parts, an essay section (one essay, about at least three plays, from before and after the midterm), a short ID/concepts section, and a section writing about specific passages.

My goal for my final is that a student who's studied, participated in discussion, taken notes, and so on, should be able to demonstrate that they've learned a lot.  A student who hasn't bothered to do any of that should fail miserably.  And in between, well, in between.

So, the IDs and concepts?  About a week before the exam, we make a huge list on the board.  And I try to choose from the list mostly.  (And there's always some choice on the exam, so if someone just doesn't remember one thing, there's something else to write about.)

The passages?  They're all passages we've worked through in class discussion.  So someone who's been in class, active in discussion should have good notes.  The key then is to review and study well.  Again, there's some choice so if they just can't remember one, they can do another.

And the essay questions?  We take some time as finals approach to talk about potential essay questions.  Then I make up a set of five or six potential essay questions.  And then we talk about them, brainstorm, and they get to choose three potential essay questions.  For the exam itself, I'll choose two from those three, and they'll choose one to write on.  That means they have to prepare two essay questions.

The essay part is open book/open notes, while the other part is closed book/closed notes.  (It's a small enough class that I can do this.  Everyone brings two blue books.  I make the exam on two different colors of paper.  If they have the essay colored paper exam on their desk, and are writing that, they can have notes out.  If they have the ID/passages colored paper on their desk, they can't.  I can walk around a bit, and I'm not seeing obvious cheating.  That doesn't mean it can't happen, but it's not blatant.  That is to say, it's not happening more because they're using notes on one section.)

The thing about notes, and I warn them about this, is that if you know you can use notes and use that knowledge as an excuse not to prepare for the exam, you can sink yourself by getting caught up in finding whatever it is in your notes and running short of time.  People who prepare well are going to be well enough prepared either way.  I've seen people come in with their notes all organized, with tabs, and highlighted sections, tabs on their books.  All that perparation generally means that the notes are needed for little more than confidence and comfort; they may check them just to be sure, but they don't really need them once they've done that sort of organized reviewing.

Once I had an essay exam set up like this, where we were allowed to use our books, so I outlined two essays in my books as preparation.  I may have referred to the outline a bit, but because I'd prepared well, I didn't really need it.  The act of outlining was enough to really set it in my memory.

This semester, for the first time I remember, several people asked if they could write out essays and bring them into class as part of their notes.  I said yes.  Seriously?  Imagine that they're spending time to draft out two Shakespeare essays.  That's going to help them learn and remember!  Yay for learning!  (If I thought I were trying to test some "make it up right now on the spot skill" rather than trying to test whether they've learned and can connect what they've learned from one text to another, I might not like the preparation.  But since what I'm trying to test is that they've learned and can connect, I'm happy for them to prepare all they want.)

I'm not always thrilled with tests.  I guess they tend to make people study for real, but I'm not sure the sort of last minute studying some students do really contributes to their learning.

I don't remember the specifics of a lot of classes I took tests on in college.  I do remember that college changed my way of thinking and learning, and made me a stronger critical thinker.  Did studying for the tests accomplish that?  Or just being in lectures?  Or doing the reading?  Sitting in the stairwells chatting with other students about their lives and experiences?  Arguing about whatever it was we cared about (usually not related to our classes, by the way)?

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Remember when I posted this about the last snowstorm?   I was worried because I was expecting to get home late to a big old berm at the end of my driveway.  I didn't start for home until late, so I was thinking that I'd just park on the side of the road, climb over the berm, leaving it to dig until the next morning.  But that didn't happen.  No.  No, it didn't.  It didn't happen because when I got home, my driveway was beautifully clear.

So I asked the neighbor whose dog I dogsit, and who often does me kindnesses, but no, he said, it wasn't him.  And I asked the neighbor with the super snowthrower across the street, and even took him cookies, but no it wasn't him.  And I asked the paramedic neighbor, and no, it wasn't him.  But he said he thought the new neighbor had gotten a snowthrower and had done them, so maybe it was them?

Well, today we had a bit of snow, and this afternoon, I went to clear the drive for the second time (It's WAY easier to shovel if you're shovelling 4 inches twice then 8 inches once.  At least, that's my belief.)  I finished mine, and saw the new neighbor out, so I walked over and yes, it was him, and the other neighbor on the side, the accountant.  But the new neighbor's snowthrower had broken down in some way, so while I was there, I helped them dig out enough to get their cars in and out.

And then I headed home.

And then my other neighbor, the accountant was snowblowing, so I went to thank her.  And then, a moment after I returned home, the city plow came through.  So I dug out my berm.

And then I went to help my new neighbor dig his out.  And when we finished his, we went to help the third neighbor who'd helped with my berm, and then he came out with his snowthrower, and we did a couple more neighbors.

And now I'm good and tuckered.  But we're all dug out on the street.  And we're all feeling pretty neighborly, too.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Help from Medievalists, Please!

I'll be teaching The Canterbury Tales for the first time in a couple of years in spring, and once again, I'd like to ask the real medievalists out there for some suggestions for reading over break.

What one or two newish books (or articles) should I read to help me prepare again?  What's the latest and coolest Chaucer stuff I should look at?

I was thinking of Kolve's Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative II.  But I may be biased.

Thanks in advance for your help.

One other thing: there's a post phud person teaching some comp classes here (and I assume, being on the market) who's a medievalist but not had a chance to actually teach any Chaucer.  So, I've invited hir to teach a class or a tale (hir preference).    I thought I'd also try to mentor a bit re setting up a CT course.  What should I think about specifically to help hir gain some experience?

Thanks again!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Quiz Answers!

1)  b, of course.  This student fell asleep in class, sitting in the middle of the front row, pretty much once or twice a week (it's a five hour/week class).  Perhaps not surprisingly, this student revealed an active gaming life at one point.

2)  a.  Yes, two men had signed up.

3)  b.  One of the men brought a heated chip dip, though he did reveal that his wife made it.

4)  c.  So, yes, it could have been worse.  Nonetheless, two hours too many.

Bonus question.  I lost count.  But, that's partly because there were a lot of retirees there, too.  And life partners. 

We have one lovely couple (well, there's more than one) with one partner in the department; the other partner is charming and delightful, and baked a yummy pumpkin treat with pumpkins they'd grown in their garden.  And several of the retirees brought food, too.  And some people who hadn't signed up when I saw the sign up on Friday brought food.  So I lost count.

No one got all the answers right, alas.  But, since you were all good sports about participating, I will haply send you postcards!  Drop me your mail address to:, and I'll pop some cards in the mail!

Having the retirees there made me realize that I'm now one of the oldsters in the department.

Senator Inouye

When I was a kid growing up in the early 70s, politics were important.  In my family, we talked about the Vietnam conflict, and the adults had conflicted feelings, so far as I could tell.  My family talked about the election of 1972, the adults split politically, and then the aftermath of Watergate; no one split politically on that.  I remember watching news bits on the hearings, and wondering about Senator Inouye. 

Other than George Takei on Star Trek reruns, he was the first Asian American I was aware of as a national figure (there still aren't many, are there?  Hmm.). 

And being a kid, I had questions, about his race, his arm, but my parents explained respectfully what was appropriate, and we watched, and he seemed a reasonable, smart man, a senator who was trying to figure out what happened and what he (as a citizen and a senator) should do.

And so, since I became politically aware, he's been in the Senate, often quiet, but one of those senators who, for me, was someone I respected and listened carefully to when I heard him speak on TV.  I sort of counted on him being there, being smart and reasonable, and knowing more about political things than I ever will.

Thank you, Senator Inouye, and rest in peace, sir.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Quiz for Finals Week!

This is a tough one, so take your time.


1)  I got an email from a student this morning.  S/he had sent it at about 1am.  I responded at about 6:40am.

Which person in this correspondence fell asleep in many meetings of a 9am class?

a)  The Professor
b)  The Student

2)  Our department is having a Christmas potluck today.  The department has about 35 people, about half men, and half women.  As of Friday, how many men had signed up to bring food to the potluck (of the 15 or so sign ups)?

a)  2
b) 6
c) 10

3)  Of these male sign ups, how many actually required heating the food in any way?

a)  0
b)  1
c)  4

4)   On the last day of classes, yours truly had how many hours of meetings?

a)  No one would be stupid enough to schedule meetings for the last day of classes!
b)  1
c)  2
d)  3

Bonus Question!

How many men will show up and eat at the Christmas potluck?

Post your answers below!  The winner gets a postcard from some exotic place.  (Unless you're in England, then you probably won't consider it an exotic place.)  (And assuming I remember.  Don't I owe someone a postcard even now?)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hour of Lead

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Emily Dickinson.   Source: The Poetry Foundation

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Job Search - Other Thoughts on Interviews

Reading the comment from Susan, and after the practice interview, I was thinking about interviews, and I thought about interviews as a cooperative venture.  If I'm a reasonably sane interviewer, then what I want out of the interview is to get a really good sense of the candidate I'm interviewing, to get a sense of how that person will be as a teacher, colleague, researcher.  It's in my interest to give each candidate my attention and thoughtful responses.

That is, interviews aren't us vs them, or they shouldn't be.  They should be more along the lines of a dance, where you want to have a mutually fun time, to communicate with the people you're dancing with, to get out without smashed toes. 

I think phone interviews are difficult for cooperative dancing, so to speak, because we can't see each other, can't nod appreciatively, can't make eye contact, can't read body position.  And as an interviewer, I tend to feel awkward making verbal comments in response because it's weird to say "uh huh" in a room with an interview committee and I don't want the candidate to feel that I'm cutting him/her off.

I was also thinking about some other stuff.  When I ask a question, I want to hear the answer.  The candidate can redirect it, and if s/he does this skillfully, I'll feel answered.  But if the candidate just doesn't answer, I may ask a follow up (or someone else might), or I may let it go and feel unsatisfied.

So, for example, as a candidate, you should be expecting a question about how you teach some class in your field, or where you scholarly work is going now that you've finished the dissertation or MFA.  But listen to the question and make sure you answer it, and don't just give a canned response. 

Maybe, for example, I'll ask how you approach a lower division class in your field.  But maybe the question will be which texts you choose for a lower division class in your field.  The first question asks for bigger information, more theoretical, perhaps, more philosophical.  The second asks for specific information.  Now, you may give some examples of specific texts you teach in the first response, but if you don't give those examples in the second response, it's not as good.  (Then you might want to redirect to talk more theoretically about why you choose those texts, of course.)

If you're interviewing at a teaching oriented school, mock up some basic class syllabi.  You don't have to do it by date or anything, but if I ask how you would teach a basic basketweaving class, be ready to talk about which forms of basketweaving you start with and why, and how you get students to move into different water types in weaving, whatever.

If we ask you about your dream class, first, be enthusiastic.  It's your dream class, for gosh sakes.  And choose one class and go to town, and then maybe add another class for a someday.  But if I don't get a sense that you have a deep sense of pleasure about your dream class, and if it has no connection with anything else you've done ever before, I'm going to be unconvinced. 

And that leads me to thinking about connections.  It's not like I think everything should always have a deep connection, but I'm smart enough to realize that it's really, really hard to teach 12 credits a semester of deepwater basketweaving and have a research agenda that's totally focused on reed cultivation.  So, say your research agenda includes some multicultural reed cultivation, specifically reed cultivation practices in Asia and Africa; maybe one of your dream courses would be on multicultural reed cultivation practices, which (you'd mention) would also help you develop your research interests, so your teaching and research would support each other somewhat.  Of course, that's got to fit with what the ad says the department's looking for.  So if they're looking for deepwater basketweaving, hopefully they're interviewing you because that's your field and that's where your dream teaching and research work will lead.

Finally, unless you've got 10 interviews, take some time and look up the basic structure of the curriculum for the places that are interviewing you.  Is the Intro a one semester theoretical approach to deepwater basketweaving?  A survey of basketweaving?  A combo of reed cultivation and basketweaving?  Should your approaches for these different structures change?  Probably.

I'm wondering what candidates are experiencing re interviews?  Are most interviews still happening at national conventions?  Are some happening by phone?  by skype?  I'd be really interested to learn about your experiences on the other sides of these interviews, too.

It's the season to wish all job candidates good things on the market and a TT job for the new year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Job Search - Practice!

Here at NWU, we recently hired some post-docs on a limited contract to help teach (mostly) comp.  It's a compromise, as are so many things in academics these days, but it helps us reduce the class sizes in our first year comp program to 20 (from 28) for most classes.  And so we did it.

Part of our rationalizing is that we're hiring these folks with a commitment to mentoring them and giving them some support and so on.  I'm not hugely hopeful, but it is what it is.  Our chair has taken the lead on this, and done a really good job, I think.  So the other day, one of these folks gave a practice job talk; we listened (and it was interesting), and then asked job talk sorts of questions, and then did a debriefing.

Today, another faculty member and I are giving someone a practice interview.  We've got some of the same sorts of interview questions we talked about here in a previous post.  And we'll try to be helpful.

Doing the practice talk got me thinking about how important practice is.  But I recognize that a lot of grad programs don't have a formal way of doing practice interviews or practice talks.  Obviously, it's a great help if you can get some faculty to do them.  But even if you can't, if you can get a small group of grad students, you could give each other a lot of help and learn a lot.

You can start with interviews.  You could even use some of the questions in that previous post.

And while it's good practice for the interviewee, for sure, I think it's probably even better as a learning opportunity for the fake interviewers because it puts you in the position of listening for the response, and realizing what sorts of responses are effective for you as a listener, and what aren't.

The same goes for the practice job talks.  You'll learn as much by listening as you will by giving a practice talk.  And as you're listening, make sure you're thinking hard about the sorts of questions you can ask the speaker.

Then, for both the practice interview and talk, debrief and talk about what the person did well, and what could be done better.  Practice some of the questions to ask your interviewers.

I'm thinking that talking a bit about job talks would be helpful?  Next, perhaps?  And some campus visit stuff?  Should all that wait until after finals, or should we get it out there and start thinking about it?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Great Horned Owl!

I saw one!  My first!

I was just getting set for bed, turning stuff off, closing up the house, that sort of thing, when I heard some hooting.  Hoo hoo ... hoooo.  And again.

So I looked out, and around, and there, big as a hawk, in my neighbor's tree, was a ... well, a big something looking very solid in the snow glow.  So I got my binoculars, and had a good long look (Fortunately, it was a patient owl).  And I could distinctly see the "horns" or "ear tufts" or whatever real birders call them. 

I thought about getting my camera out, but with a big enough lens to see the bird well, it would have needed an exposure time WAY longer than the bird would have been still for (it moved its head as I watched).

So I just looked with my binoculars, and then when I went to try a different way to look, it flew off.

Still, my first Great Horned Owl!  And it was BIG!

(And it was sitting in a tree in my neighbor's yard, the same neighbor who sometimes lets her cat out, and whose cat sometimes comes over and hangs out near my feeders, though I've asked her not to let it.  It's not worth making a big deal of, but I hope the cat doesn't meet the owl, because the owl would win, I bet.)

The cat guest I have at my house, though, joined me at the window to look out, though I don't think she saw the owl, and I'm sure glad she wasn't outside to see it up close!

Monday, December 10, 2012


We had a bit of snow yesterday, enough to... well, enough.

When I first moved to snow country, I was surprised by a few snow... err, features?  characteristics?  results?  Something like that.

The biggest, and the one that always amazes me still, is the way the world glows in the dark.  Even with only a few stars, the local lighting from the city is enough to make everything glow and sparkle in the middle of the night.  Get a full moon, and it's almost like daylight, somehow.  I still can't quite get over that, and always sleep so I can see the glowiness from my bed if I can.  (And glowiness is all I can make out once my contacts are out, but still, glow!)

Another thing was the sounds, the sounds of car tires crunching, of feet crunching, of this weird sort of creak.  I guess I didn't expect that at all.

And finally, snow is a lot dryer than I'd realized, especially if it's really cold when it snows.

There was a movie on TV that I saw part of at some point, where the temperature in, say New York, dropped drastically, and the characters were talking about it being so cold that you couldn't survive even moving with gear on, and it was snowing.  And now I know that when it's super duper cold, it doesn't much snow.  Or something.

I dug out my driveway several times yesterday, a few inches each time.  One time, by the time I'd finished the four inches or so that were there, it had snowed another inch.  But it was dryish, that inch, and quick to push off to the side.  When I got up this morning, there was probably another inch on the drive, and the street hadn't been plowed, and other trucks and SUVs had driven on the street, so I was fine to get out and didn't have a problem staying in their tracks and getting to where the plow had been.  I expect I won't be able to get to my drive this afternoon without a goodly bout of shoveling the berm.  I hate the berm.

The good news all around is that there should be GREAT skiing, and soon!  I wonder how long it will take them to groom up the golf course?

Thursday, December 06, 2012


My Younger Relative called me recently, and asked me to give hir some feedback on a high school writing assignment.  The assignment requires students to write about three characters in a text in terms of one or more characteristics from a list.  The draft YR sent was about nine pages, all in these long, overly long paragraphs.  The paragraphs wandered a bit, but there were ideas there and they addressed the assignment.  I realized after not too long that he'd written a five paragraph essay.  And I was smart enough to realize that the five paragraphs are a requirement.  And indeed, they are.


Here's this high school student who has worked hard to think of and write out his ideas, and instead of teaching him to organize them into meaningful paragraphs, the teacher is teaching him to fit them into a really nasty box.

I recognize that there's good reason to limit page numbers, but a five paragraph essay that is five paragraphs long is just nasty for the teacher, isn't it?

So, help me, dear readers.  Why teach the five paragraph essay?

Do state boards require it?  And why?  No one who studies writing thinks this is a good idea, do they?

So, why?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Deep Breath

I just finished a big committee responsibility, and it's probably done for real now.  Fortunately, the other committee members were excellent, and good to work with, and we accomplished our responsibility well.

I feel like I can breath a bit again.

I have one huge stack of papers to grade.  (But I just got them, so they're not late or anything.)
I have three classes to prep for tomorrow.
I have an observation  to do tomorrow, and then to write up.
I have a small bunch of stuff to grade.

And I feel like I can breath again.  I felt this weight lift the minute I finished part of the committee responsibility, even though there was more to do in our final meeting.

And an aside.  You know how you meet people at cocktail parties or whatever?  (In my case, more whatever than cocktail party, but the idea is the same.  It's a non-work thing, social, friendly.)

So there are a couple of people chatting, and one says that hir spouse does X, so zie basically knows all about X.  Now imagine X is nanotube science.  Yeah, being married to someone who does nanotube science does not make you an expert on nanotube science.  Nope.  It doesn't.

Or law.  Nope, being married to someone who's a lawyer doesn't give you a deep understanding of the law.  Further, if your spouse is talking to you about confidential case stuff, I'm doubly unimpressed: that your spouse broke the confidentiality, and that you think you should blab it at this [not a cocktail party] gathering.

I feel strongly that confidential stuff should stay confidential.  However, the number of times someone not at a confidential meeting has stopped me to talk with inside knowledge about what happened in that confidential meeting leads me to believe that my ethical belief here is not as widely shared as I might wish.  (That said, I hope I haven't broken confidentialities on the blog.  I don't think I have, but I sure hope I haven't.)

Monday, December 03, 2012

Job Search - What not to Say

I thought it might be worth talking a bit today about what not to say in job interviews.  These might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised.

In previous comments, some folks have suggested helpful questions and unhelpful ones.  Susan suggested not asking about personal issues in an initial interview, but saving those for an on-campus visit.  And that got me thinking about other questions not to ask.

Like other interviewers, I really like the interview question where we ask candidates what questions they have for us.  But...

1)  If we've listed a deepwater basketweaving position, with a secondary interest in reed cultivation, don't ask us about teaching mathematical weaving course.  You can safely assume that if we needed someone new to teach it, we'd have put it on the ad.  Further, if the person who teaches mathematical weaving is on the interview committee, and a bit defensive anyway, s/he is going to get cranky.

More important, we're looking to hire someone who will want to teach deepwater basketweaving, whose life will be better because they're teaching deepwater basketweaving, not someone who will pine about not teaching mathematical weaving.  If you're going in a direction where you want to be doing more mathematical weaving, then we're going to find that problematic, and if we have candidates who are enthusiastic about deepwater basketweaving, we'll look to them.

2)  Don't ask us about salary.  If we're a state school, you may be able to look up salary information.  We may be able to tell you what we make as individuals, but we'd probably find that uncomfortable.  And that wouldn't necessarily help you know what you'd make.

What you may not realize is that a lot of colleges have what's called "salary compression" going on.  Here's how it works.  Say Dr. A got hired in 1995, at 40k/year, and got a few raises, and tenure and promotion, and now makes 48k/year.  (These numbers are fairly close to beginning salaries at my school, so try not to react with too much scorn.)  Dr. B got hired in 2000, at 42k/year, and got a few raises, and tenure and promotion, and now makes 49k/year.  The school knows that neither of these folks is going to leave because they're both mid-career, teaching 4/4 and so on.

Dr. C got hired in 2007, at 45k/year, and hasn't gotten a raise. 

And now we're hiring again, and Dr. D may be offered a salary of 47k/year.

There's talk around here of giving people who've been hired more recently a fairly chunky raise, a couple thousand a year.  The university, we're told, is worried about retention of young faculty.  The admins aren't worried about retaining Dr. A and Dr. B, though, so they won't get raises.  Dr. C will be making more as an assistant professor than Dr. A and Dr. B, and when Dr. C is promoted and gets that raise, will be making more.

Since there haven't been raises around here for a long time, we're not likely to be privy to initial salary offers, and we're maybe not going to be comfortable talking about our salaries, depending on who's in that interview room. 

3)  I'm not sure about this, but I probably wouldn't ask about spousal hire possibilities.  I'd appreciate hearing what other folks have to say.

So, everyone, what shouldn't a candidate ask during an interview?

Sunday, December 02, 2012


Here's a really interesting post from JJ Cohen at In the Middle on "Early Modern."

Periodization is both useful and problematic, and Cohen does a good job getting at that.  You should go read!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Job Search - Advice from the Admin Friend

I was chatting with one of the admin folks today, one who has spent some time lately making happy phone calls inviting search candidates to interviews.  And here's hir advice:

1)  If you don't already have a professional email address, set one up.  Don't use hotsexnowATproviderDOTcom.

2)  If you've been applying for jobs, and you're hoping for phone calls, answer your phone like a professional.  Say, something along the line of "Hello, Mary Smith speaking."  Yes, it feels awkward at first, but it's way better than "Yo yo yo!" or something, at least according to this admin person.

And that's it from the happy admin side.

Other thoughts?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

This Small Stack...

... stands between me and a grading-free weekend for the first time since mid-September.  I'll still have a big committee project to work on, so it won't be totally open, but it will feel pretty wonderful.  (The stack is about 1cm high when compressed.)

Between now and Friday afternoon, though, I have nearly 8+ hours of meetings scheduled.  FML.

On to my stack!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Job Search: What I'd Like Our Candidates to Know

As we're figuring out stuff about our next steps and preparing for those steps, I thought I'd take a moment to tell potential candidates what I really want them to know.

First, when we say "thank you" for talking to us, we mean it.  We all know you're under a lot of stress, busy, and that you've put effort into preparing to interview with us.  Thank you for that.  Our thank you isn't perfunctory or empty.

Second, when we offer to answer questions you have about the job, we really do appreciate your questions.* 

Third, if you could see our notes as we prepare to talk with you, you would know that we take the process seriously, too.  (You'd also realize that we probably don't google your name, because we just don't have time.  It's enough to reread your letter and writing sample, to look again at your letters of recommendation, and to think about what to listen especially for in our interview.)  We know we're working towards a decision that will make a difference in your lives, but we also know the decision will affect our lives.  At least here, when we hire someone, we're committed to helping them succeed, and, if all goes as it should, get tenure.  We're thinking in terms of hiring a colleague for the long term.

Fourth, if we seem to like each other during the interview or visit, it's because we pretty much do.  We may be up in the icy north, but we're a pretty decent, humane bunch.

And finally, whether or not we think you're well qualified for our job or a good fit, or whether we even ask you to talk to us, we pretty much think our pool of candidates is amazing, and every single one of them worthy of having a great job.  We still only get to hire one person.

So, shared wisdom of the internets, what would you like to communicate, either to candidates, or to search committees?

* When I was in the Peace Corps, the local missionaries had a little tale about some potential missionary.  (As a background, you have to know that the town I lived in didn't have any paved streets then.  They were all either cobbled or dirt.  There was basically a single block that was the town center, and that was it, and from there, one road led to a town to the north, one road to a town to the west, and a couple others out some miles to where they simply stopped and became tracks in the rain forest.)  So, the tale went that this potential missionary had written about a position, and asked for something that wouldn't be too far from the subway.  Another version had the missionary wanting to be not too far from the Sears.

Please don't ask about our subway, okay?  Or our Whole Foods.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Three-Ring Circus

I was working in a class the other day, and asked students to get out their copy of the assignment handout, which I'd given out several days before.  Most of them opened up a binder of some sort, or a folder thing, and started flipping through loose sheets, trying to find the paper, with varying degrees of success.

And suddenly it struck me, in one of those "holy cow, how can I not have seen this before" ways, that their binders looked pretty much exactly like my junior high binder had looked, with no organization, just piles of loose papers through which I'd flip and try to find whatever it was I'd lost and forgotten about until I was in trouble for not turning in homework.  (Yes, I was that student.)

At some point, though, I switched to an organizational system which basically included a light cardboard folder for each class that had bendable metal pieces to form basically a two ring booklet to which I could add stuff easily (or take it out less easily).  And that system pretty much got me through college.  It wasn't perfect, or at least my use of it wasn't, but I used a hole punch to punch holes in handouts, and dated them, and every few days would put things in order, with handouts, my notes, and so on in the folder.  And at the end of the term, I had a little booklet that included my notes and such for the whole term.

My students, though, even the most prepared students, have no organizational method for handouts beyond just putting them loose in the pockets of a binder or something. 

One of my students was in my office this morning, just a few minutes ago, digging through her binder for her class stuff, and I thought to ask if she would put things in the binder if I gave them to her already punched.  And she thought she would.  And then I asked her why she didn't punch them herself.  And she looked at me like I was a total idiot, and said she didn't have a three hole punch, and didn't have a car to go get one.  Which, of course, I said was a poor excuse, since she could get one cheaply at the campus store, which is between my office and the dorms, and so not something she'd need a car for.  And she looked at me like I am a total idiot.

Now I'm wondering: should I start doing the three hole punch for handouts in hopes that students will actually keep them in some sort of minimally meaningful order in their binders?  Can they really not manage this minimal effort themselves?

Should someone (me?) tell my students that actually keeping notes in some sort of minimally meaningful order might be useful, and give them some hints on how to do so?  Have they never been told this before?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Being a Professor: Surprise!

When I was in grad school, I vaguely knew professors had committee responsibilities.  After all, someone had to decide who to let into the grad program.  But I didn't think much beyond that.  So, I think the part of the job that I was most surprised by and least prepared for was committee work.

In my first job, I'd never taken minutes for a meeting, and suddenly I was taking minutes for a meeting with the dean in the first weeks of the first term.  (I took notes that were WAY too detailed, and had a quick lesson in taking minutes.  I still tend to put in more detail than is absolutely necessary.)

In my current job, we try to give first year TT folks a year without committee or service responsibilities (though we're not always successful).  And then we pretty much expect them to jump in.

I like committee work that actually gets stuff done.  I'm frustrated by committee work that's basically a rubber stamp of administrative decisions, and I'm frustrated by committee work that's just rehashing without progress.

This week, I have an overwhelming amount of committee work, most of it in meetings, but some of it prep or writing a report.

And I'm wondering, thinking about job search stuff, how grad programs might (should?) prepare students to be ready to take on committee responsibilities?

For those with committee responsibilities, what's the most important thing you think job searchers should know?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Daytime TV

Let the weekend begin!

Yesterday, I was supposed to be grading.  And I was, slowly, with the TV on.  That was a mistake, because I wasn't in the mood to watch football or sappy movies, or even more than one Hitchcock movie.  So I ended up with this show about people who are basically worried about a sort of catastrophe and getting ready so that they'll survive it.  It was like watching a car wreck.

Each of the people profiled worried about a specific sort of catastrophe, and their readiness was specific to their sort of catastrophe.  Except the catastrophe and preparations were, well, not really realistic.  Even the tv show voiceover that judges their readiness acknowledged that whatever sort of catastrophe the person was worried about was pretty unlikely.

So, instead of someone in, say, LA being worried about a major earthquake, and putting together a few days supply of water, some candles, food, and first aid stuff, they showed someone worrying that that earth's magnetic field would reverse and nothing electrical would work.  Instead of having someone here in the northwoods worry about a massive blizzard, and storing up some fuel, food, blankets, and so on, they had someone worried about the total financial collapse of the world, which would result in no one selling (or bartering anything), and so on. 

My favorite, weirdly, was this woman who was worried about a flu pandemic.  That's actually not so unrealistic.  But instead of starting with flu vaccines, she has this absolutely overwhelming supply of medical stuff.  And food.

One of the people, it may have been the flu woman, said they have over $100K of supplies.  My mind boggles.

The worst was that these people imposed their readiness stuff on their families, and you could tell the family members had either gone along and joined the crazy, or hadn't, but were too young or dependent to get out of the situation.  There was a cruel bit where the sister in law (?) of the flu woman came late to a preparedness drill, carrying her toddler looking kid, and the flu woman insisted they be put in a special quarantine area.  The sister in law looked like her patience was tried, but the poor little kid looked so scared.

Or maybe the worst was the level of fear the people seemed to have.  I mean, they seem completely convinced that everyone will be coming to kill them when the disaster hits.  They're all armed to the teeth.

I can't decide if this or the show about hoarding is a worse grading show for me.  At least the hoarding show inspires me to clean out a closet or junk drawer once in a while.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Secret Life of a Professor

I hope all the USians out there had a lovely Thanksgiving!  I hope the Native Americans out there forgive us intruders.

I'm interrupting the discussion of job searching.  If you have ideas for other things to talk about, I'd be glad to hear.  I'm thinking of talking a bit about campus visits, but I have to mull.  I can't bear the thought of talking about MLA, but perhaps it would be helpful to some?

Meanwhile, I'm going to have three more days without classes or committee meetings!  Three days! 

Yesterday was beautiful.  I cleaned the front yard up pretty much.  It needed it!  I took two wheelbarrows full of dead plant stuff and dumped it into the greenspace behind my house.  (It's on my property, and will be mulch once spring hits.)

I also graded two papers.

I have 18 more papers in that stack.

Then I have 20 abstracts and annotated bibliographies.

Then I have assorted small assignments, probably 10, that I need to grade.

And finally, I have a big committee report to work on.

And there we are: the secret life of a professor is...  grading, endless grading and committee work.

And when that's done, I need to work on my SAA paper.  I have the barest beginnings of an idea I like, but I need to flesh it out and do some reading.

And then I need to rework and submit a paper I did for a recent conference.

I'm getting some cat therapy at some point, and need to stop at the local co-op to get some coffee.  I'd like to stop and get some grocery type stuff at the aiming circle store, but I dare not go near.

And for the next month, I will avoid approaching my neighborhood from one direction no matter what.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Job Search - A Disabilities Question

A couple posts ago, I got a great question from Nitewriter.  I don't have any great answer, alas, but I wanted to put up the question and the responses it's already gotten, so more people have a chance to respond.

Here's Nitewriter's question:
I've been asked how one brings up disability issues during the application/interview process. I have invisible disabilities but it doesn't much matter because I work full time online teaching. I don't have to go to campus to teach classes; in fact, none of the colleges where I teach are even in my state! Still, there are applicants who have disabilities and wonder how/when to self-disclose. Any suggestions? 
Here, in order, are the responses (If I miss one, let me know, please.):

from Susan:
I don't think I would bring up disability issues during the interview process unless an accommodation of some sort is required for the convention interview (I'm thinking here in terms of English processes, obviously). The people on the search committee aren't necessarily the people who will actually know anything about accommodating disabilities, and in general I think it best to use the convention interview to focus most closely on the job-related issues that will help you move to the campus visit. I could imagine that you could actually get some very wrong answers from a search committee about disability issues.

I would self-disclose the issues on an as-needed business in terms of what you need to interview successfully (so if you need a chair during a presentation or need interview locations close together because of a mobility impairment, e.g., ask for that). If you get a campus visit, you should get asked if there are any particular people or offices you want to meet with, and perhaps ask then for some time with the registrar or access office or whomever might be a useful resource (although it can be hard to figure that out from afar).

It might be helpful to reframe the issue here not so much as "when should I self-disclose" but "what information do I need to know about this dept/campus?" and work back from there (who has that info, and when do I need it?) . It's not like the search committee needs to know about anyone's disability. But candidates dealing with a disability might need info about the campus--so is that info necessary before accepting a campus visit? is it info necessary while arranging logistics of a campus visit? or it is info that you need while weighing a job offer?
Nitewriter responded:
Susan, I appreciate your thoughts. That all makes a lot of sense. In my case, the disability is mobility-related and, while I can for short periods of time, hide it (i.e. walk normally, stand for certain periods of time, even walk up or down stairs), on a daily basis, working full time would necessitate mobility aids which make the disability quite obvious to all. 
And Susan later responded:
Nitewriter, I have been thinking more about my response to your question. My partner, also an academic, has a mobility impairment that makes it difficult for her to stand for long stretches of time. She did a campus visit once that did not result in a job offer. During her job talk, she ended up sitting down on the table at the front of the room, and some people in the dept thought this was very unprofessional. She later wished that she'd mentioned to someone that she couldn't stand that long and would need a way to sit (although as I type this, I end up thinking "really? you didn't like that someone sat at the front of the room?"). So I guess that sort of thing might be a reason to self-disclose. And also a reason to wish for more generous interpretations of others' behavior. 

 I found Susan's responses really helpful, especially in thinking about reframing the issue.  I'm no expert on disability issues, so I really appreciate hearing from those who know more.

My thought is about me and other not-yet disabled committee members, and adds support to Susan's response.  I think the fear I have, and maybe others have, in hiring a disabled colleague would be the very selfish fear that I'd have to do extra work.  I fear that because I already feel pretty much at the edge of what I can do. 

I know and I'm sure my colleagues know that discriminating based on disability is illegal.  But I think that may mean that we'd hide our fears in the way that racists have long made racist decisions but tried to convince themselves and others that the decisions aren't about race.  I think my critical thinking about race is further along than my critical thinking about disability.  I have work to do.

Meanwhile, I'd say that Susan is on the mark in her suggestion about first waiting to self-disclose until you have the campus visit, and then framing it in terms of having a successful campus visit.  I think I and my colleagues would respond reasonably to a request to sit during a talk, for example, and positively if you framed your sitting as not only a way to deal with mobility, but also as having to do with thinking about classroom strategies and not being the "sage on the stage" type of teacher.

I think my colleagues and I would be reassured if we saw a candidate give a strong talk, and do strong interviews, and that would reassure us about our workload fears.

Finally, I'd like to second Susan's comment that most search committee members will be clueless about disability issues and how our campus can work to be open to everyone (I'm trying to get at being more than just accessible, but more; like the different between tolerating and respecting, I guess?).  I, for example, don't think the restrooms on our floor are accessible, and I'm not sure where the closest accessible restroom is.  But now I'll make sure to look around a bit more carefully.

Now I'd like to ask your help.  First, if you have thoughts to add in regards to Nitewriter's question, please share.  And also, as I go off to figure out where our accessible restrooms are, what else should I look for and think about that I don't usually?

Imagine, for example, that we invite a candidate to campus with a disability, say mobility, or specify some other disability.  What should I know as a matter of course that I probably don't?

Now I'm going to go walk around and find some accessible restrooms.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


During the last few weeks of, and shortly after the election, I saw a number of stories coming out of Ohio expressing a bit of frustration about how "no one" outside of Ohio bothered to think about or visit Ohio until it was a key state in the electoral college numbers, and then suddenly, a bunch of people spent a whole lot of time thinking about and visiting Ohio.  But there was an emptiness to the approach of those people, these articles implied, as they argued that Ohio is worth more than a thought or visit every four years.

My impression of these articles is that they're pretty defensive; and often, they take very seriously comments from outsiders that don't seem all that serious to me.  But then, I get comments from my family members about my small town airport, our downtown, camoflauge, and so forth.  I also get comments from local people about where I'm from, and they aren't uniformly pleasant comments, either.  And I don't take either all that seriously, because I know our town is small, and I suspect the people who comment most know the area their criticizing the least.

But as I've been working through the job search stuff, and really thinking about it, I've noticed that though our search pool is large, it's not as regionally diverse as I'd expect.  Given the population densities on the coasts, and the fine graduate programs there, I'd expect more applicaitons from coastal folks than from midwesterners.  But my casual observation is that we have a good many more midwestern applications than coastal applications.  (We have a plentiful supply of strong, well-qualified applications, so that's not a problem.)

And being me, I wonder why.

Is it regional, with people thinking that it's just too cold, too midwestern, too flyover to want to apply?

Is it state, with people thinking that the state's a mess, and they don't want to come here?

Is it our school, a regional comprehensive with a high teaching load?

Is it our town, too small and seemingly uninteresting?

(I will admit here that I didn't apply to religious schools in the deep south, or religious schools anywhere that seemed too religious to me.)

Underwater basketweaving is a competitive field, with far more people earning terminal degrees than there are TT jobs.  Yet there seems to be a population of potential applicants that has chosen not to apply here.

Help me understand why, please.  And also, if there are things we can realistically do to change false perceptions, that would be great to hear, too.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Job Search - Interview Questions

Once again, here's another in the continuing series about the job search from the searchers' point of view.  (And again, the caveat that I'm writing from my necessarily limited experience.)  Folks at community colleges, SLACs, and research schools will likely have different experiences (and I hope will tell us something about those in comments or their own blogs).

Application Advice
Search Meetings

After the focusing meeting, which led our imaginary search committee to focus on 10 candidates the searchers want to interview, things sort of disappear into a black box.

For one thing, the chair of the committee may have to go up the chain of bureaucracy to get approval for the interviews in some way.  (Someone higher up may have to look over the list to approve it, especially if the department has had problems for whatever reason.)  Someone may have to approve the conference interview plans, or the phone interview situation. 

So the candidates aren't hearing yet.  But things are in the works.

Meanwhile, the search committee is busy figuring out questions.  I'm not sure if this happens at other places, but here we prepare a few questions, say 5-8, and every single interview candidate will get those questions in the same order.  We'll also allow for follow-up questions, but the point is for every candidate to get a fair shot, so if a question is really hard for someone, it may be hard for everyone.  Or not.  And the follow ups will go along depending on what the candidate says and how our time looks.

We usually email around our list of potential questions, often starting with the list that was used in a different search a year or two earlier.  Typically, we may start with a question that asks about the introductory course in the field.  Let's imagine in our deepwater basketweaving course we have a GE intro that a lot of students take.  We'll ask the candidates to talk about how they approach teaching Introductory Basketweaving to general education students.

Then we may ask about the intro to the major course, Baksetweaving Fundamentals.  How do they approach that?

We want to signal that we require and support research, so we may ask about their current basketweaving projects and what they see themselves doing in their next project.

We want to hire faculty who are committed to multiculturalism, so we may ask about their experiences in multicultural basketweaving.

We then almost certainly ask if the candidate has questions for us.

What we don't ask, but others might?  The first thing that comes to mind is graduate training.  R1s are way more likely to ask how you think about teaching a grad class in your field, or something similar.

Let's talk about these questions a bit, and I'll try to say what I'm looking for, which may help candidates prepare well.  [Edited to add: there are really helpful comments below, some of which have different opinions, so they're very useful.  Please look.]

How do you approach teaching Introductory Basketweaving?

I'm looking for someone who has ideas about what's important to teach in Intro Basketweaving, and who can be adaptable to our needs as well.  (We don't have lots, but we do have some.)  I want realism in the amount of weaving required, a sense of how to approach general education, and a sense of how to teach.  Talking about the general outline, a specific assignment, perhaps, these all work.

My department sometimes sends candidates information about the school.  Otherwise, you might want to check a website and look at how the school does general education.  Is everyone required to take Intro Basketweaving?  Is it only water-based majors that take it?  You don't have to be an expert on the school, but having a sense of how our general education works, and being able to compare that to how things worked at your undergrad/grad institutions may be really helpful.  Be aware that at any given time a school may be in the process of rethinking its GE requirements, so don't be totally wedded to an idea.  And don't talk about how superior your own program is.  If the ad has asked for a secondary asset or specialization, think about balancing that in here.  For example, in our imaginary ad, we talked about multicultural basketweaving.  You'll convince people you are committed to multicultural basketweaving more if you include multicultural basketweaving as a component of the intro course.

How would you approach teaching our intro to the major course, Basketweaving Fundamentals?

You'll find it really helpful to look at the major(s) the department serves in order to answer this.  Does the department's fundamentals course serve the Reef Management majors as well as the UB majors?   How does that change your approach?  What does the course description in the catalog say?  (If it's not on-line, your library may well have a copy in microfilm.)  Again, if we've put multicultural basketweaving in our ad, think about how that belongs in the fundamentals course.  Think about what majors need, and how you can get them started learning it, and then design your imaginary course based on our description, the organization of the major, and your sense of what UB majors need.

Tell us about your next project.

You should have a rough idea for a next project in your mind.  You may be revising a major basket, producing a new series of baskets, revising your dissertation into a book, writing an article, whatever.  For an R1, I suspect the book thing is pretty standard, at least in book fields.  You need to sound like you're going to be a realistic and productive scholar/basketweaver.  If the school you're interviewing with talks about faculty/student collaboration (and a lot do, these days), and you have a project that would work well for students, think about including that, too.

What's your experience with multicultural basketweaving?
I'm going to say right now, if you're a white person (as I am) and you don't have anything to say, you need to go get some experience with multicultural basketweaving.  If you have time, take a multicultural basketweaving course, or request to TA for one.  Take some time and make sure you do some reading (Beverly Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria is a start, as well as Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."  Go at these with an open mind.)  And if you're a person of color, don't depend on just presonal experiences.  Take time to read up a bit, too, and be ready to talk about being a person of color in the classroom, teaching, and as a colleague.

What I'm looking for when we ask this question is a colleague who will contribute positively in our community, both within and without campus.  I don't care if someone's white or a person of color; I do care that they've thought about privilege and teaching, and why it matters that our students need to be taught to think about privilege, racism, sexism.  This isn't just about race, either, or ethnicity.  Think about LGBTQ, second language learning, and so on. 

You may want to look up information about the community, and if the school has any information up about social justice issues, check that out.  Keywords to look for are: Diversity, multicultural, equity, social justice, anti-racism.  (There are probably others, too.)  You want to be aware, for example, if there's a major Somali refuge community in the area, and think about how you're going to work with first generation Somali students.

I can imagine at some schools, this question is sort of pro forma.  At other schools, not.  I'd say, if the school website talks about these issues, then it's important, and you should prepare.  And just, if you're a human being and want to understand social justice issues, you should prepare.  (I'll get off that particular soap box now, but do take it seriously.)

What questions do you have for us?
  You should have a couple questions, at least.  What do you want to know?   I would ask about the students.  What do your potential colleagues think of their students?  (This may be less something to ask of R1s, but I'm not sure.  I think my R1 colleagues think about teaching and students a lot.)   Ask about the school's committment to multiculturalism, perhaps.   Ask about the major or majors.   Ask about the department, local recreation opportunities, the library, research support.   Don't ask if there's a Whole Foods in the neighborhood.  No, really.   What I'm looking for in these questions is a chance to tell our candidates about what's good about our department, campus, and community.  This is where we get to try to sell our candidates on the good things we do have to offer.  And we do, even though there's snow and budget problems (sure, ask about those if you like).   Here's where, if you have a trailing spouse, you can ask about adjuncting opportunities or local employment opportunities.  If you have a kid, you can ask about child care or the local schools.  If you're a person of color, you can ask about how the community is for people of color.   Here's my experience:  I don't think there's anyone in my department who will hold those questions against anyone, nor who will feel they don't want to hire someone with a partner or kids.  In my department, there's no one who would be unwelcoming to a gay or lesbian couple.   I can't say that's for sure true everywhere, but I know it's true here.  We have gay and lesbian folks, married folks, parents, and we value each other.  And we'll be happy to have one of the parents on the committee talk about the local schools or day care, or one of the people of color talk about being a person of color in our community.   We won't ask you questions about your personal/family status, but we're happy to answer yours.     I'd really appreciate hearing about the interview questions other schools ask, and what you're looking for that I've forgotten or don't think to look for.  And also, if you're on the market or preparing to go on the market, please feel free to ask questions.  You can ask by email if you don't want to put it in the comments. 

Friday, November 16, 2012


For three good things.

One, you know how when you have a routine medical screening thing, and then you don't get the little envelop saying everything's fine, you start to worry and worry more?  I finally called today, and no need to worry.  This is a massive relief.

Two, we were talking in my seminar about peer editing, and I asked them if they had a good way to check paper organization, and one talked about "glossing" a paper.  It sounded like a great idea, so I looked it up, and there's lots of stuff on the internet basically explaining the idea.  So I learned something.  Yay for my students!

Three.  Not for sure yet.  But a huge relief so far.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Job Search: Focusing

Recently, I wrote about meeting to discuss job apps here, and also some application advice, here.  Here.I'm going to discuss the next meeting, what I'll call focusing.

As a reminder, our imaginary job ad looks something like this:

Assistant professor of Underwater Basketweaving.
Terminal degree in Underwater Basketweaving or a related field.
Specialization in Deepwater Basketweaving.
Secondary specialization in International Basketweaving or Reed Cultivation.
Ability to teach basic basketweaving.
Strong assets include a commitment to undergraduate teaching, liberal arts, and multicultural basketweaving.

In the last meeting, the search committee split the candidate pool into groups, with one group being candidates that aren't qualified for some reason.  There's also a group that people on the committee want to look at further, ask for materials, and think about interviewing.  Then there's at least one group of candidates who are at least minimally qualified, but aren't in the further interest group.  Some of these people will be well qualified, but they didn't stand out in the ways that the candidates in the further interest group did.  Let's imagine that we have between 20 and 40 candidates in this further interest group; we're hoping to interview between 5-15 people, either at the UBA convention or by phone, so we know we have to focus in on the candidates in this pool who seem most likely to be able to really do a great job and fit well and convince our colleagues of both.

Let's note, here, that we're now looking at a group that's all really good.  They're all well-qualified.  They've all already stood out as really interesting candidates.  But half or more won't be asked for interviews.  And of the folks who are, we can only hire one.

In preparation for the focusing meeting, the search committee will spend time with the other materials in the applications.  We tend to start a new grid sheet for just these applications.

In this case, the grid will have the candidates' names and numbers, and also blocks for their writing sample and their letters of recommendation.  If we've asked for teaching materials or a teaching philosophy, we'd have blocks for that, too.  Then there's an empty block for other stuff.

I like to start in the middle of this pool by number, so that I'm not fatigued at the same level as someone else, hopefully.  I figure it takes me about half an hour to read the writing sample and letters of recommendation, and write my notes for any one candidate.   That means this is a substantial time commitment, and tiring.  Even great writing samples don't look so great when you've been reading for three or four hours.  And this reading is on top of teaching, grading, regular committee work, and advising (and it's advising season, here).  So I try to be careful to take breaks every few applications, and to read generously.

I start by reviewing just enough of the candidate's letter to remember them a bit, and then I start on the writing sample and read that.  Since I'm not a deepwater specialist, I have to read as I can.  I read for clarity: does the argument read well?  Does it explain things well enough for a general reader in the field?

But I also read for interest, by which I mean, I think about whether the project seems to be doing something interesting or challenging.  I try to be self-aware during this part of the process especially, and keep in mind that even if I don't like a deepwater analysis of whale hunting, a paper that makes me interested must be especially good.  I'll make notes about the writing sample in my grid box.

Then I move on to the letters of recommendation.  These can be really difficult.  Do I know the letter writer?  How, or in what way?  I have to make sure my knowledge doesn't influence me in a way that's unfair to the candidate or other candidates.   It's also difficult because the letters are sort of in a vacuum, but we read within contexts.  In US contexts, letters can tend to be pretty enthusiastic, and it can be really difficult to tell how to read that enthusiasm.  In UK contexts, letters tend to be a bit more reserved.  (I once had a review for TAing from a British professor and felt like I'd been body slammed.  But another professor reading the letter said that it was a strong letter from the British professor.)  If I don't know that sort of context, I may misread.  Unfortunately, unless I know the letter writer, I may not realize zie is a racist or sexist [bleep] and so my misinterpret the tone of a letter (because most academics are smart enough not to say outrageously racist or sexist stuff in a letter even if they're biased for/against a candidate based on something I find unethical).

My approach tends to be to look for specific information, especially about the things I care about.  Does the letter talk about the candidate as a deepwater basketweaving scholar/creator?  Or does the letter focus on the candidate's reed cultivation experience?  And, of course, it's not just one letter, but several, so I read for balance.

I also read to learn something about the candidate as a teacher and colleague.  Can the letter writer speak about the candidate's teaching in ways that make me think the candidate is, indeed, developing as a teacher?

Finally, I read for the other assets.  If the letter writer talks about the candidate's commitment to liberal arts teaching or to multicultural basketweaving, I'm impressed.

I hate reading teaching philosophies, but if I were on a search that had asked for them, I'd look for someone who has something to say about their individual experience, for someone who seems to understand some of the bigger issues we think about as teachers, but doesn't just toss buzzwords.  But I know some people love the buzzwords and look for those.  If they talk about teaching specific texts, I'd want to know why.

Were I looking at a syllabus at this point, I'd look for a realistic sense that what they're teaching could be taught in the quarter or semester.  Do they think they can do a full survey of deepwater basketweaving in two weeks?  Do they seem to make interesting choices for their syllabus?  I wouldn't look for a syllabus that directly fits our course labels, since I think that disadvantages a student who comes from a differently organized department, but who may be an excellent teacher and able to adapt (or lead us to change our organization).

After I've read all the secondary materials, I go back through my notes, referring when necessary to the applications, and add information about what impressed or worried me into the new grid.  If I really liked the way the candidate talked about multicultural basketweaving in the letter, or there was a cool publication on the CV, I'll make sure that gets in the grid.  What I want is to know why I was impressed by the candidate or why I wasn't.

Finally, I'll start grouping the candidates again.  If I can put them in three or four groups, I will.  What I'm looking for is a small group of people I really want to interview, and a second group of people I think would be good to interview, and then a group that I'm not so interested in interviewing.  But even so, I recognize that everyone starting in this group is well-qualified.

Once the search committee has read the further materials, we meet.  And that's when the discussions start.

We may start by talking about the criteria we used in reading the materials.  That will give us a sense of who cares primarily about letter writers and who cares more about writing samples, and what we're looking for in each.

We may then do a preliminary round of sharing our top groups, and seeing how much overlap there is.  If we've all chosen the same top ten people, then we probably have a good idea of our interview pool.  If we've chosen 7, but disagree about 10, then we need to select some more from the ten.  And so on.

Then we start talking about applications.  What impressed us, what didn't.  What our concerns are.  If there's a specialist deepwater basketweaver on our committee, we'll want that person to orient us to the letter writers if possible, and certainly to the writing sample within the conversations deepwater basketweavers are having these days.  We may group people as we go, but I try to get the group to hold off on that, so that there's no sense that the last person discussed isn't fully considered.

After this discussion, we start sorting and figuring out which candidates we really do want to interview.  This argument may get heated, or it may be really easy.  Some candidates may have stood out in the discussion, and I may be convinced by my colleague's opinion that they're really good.  Or I may be convinced that someone isn't as good a fit as I thought.  And the same goes for each of my colleagues.  Whether we do it by consensus or voting, we find our way to a smaller group of people we want to interview.

What's the take away for candidates, then?

Writing Sample

The more applications I read, the more I want a clearly written writing sample.  I know there's temptation to send the most highly specialized piece of writing possible, but I'd urge candidates to make sure their writing sample demonstrates that they can really make and explain an argument, and that the argument is accessible to non-specialists.  Perhaps for R1s, a more specialized sample is more appropriate?  I don't know, since I've never been on a search in Shakespeare or a closely related field.  And I have been on a search for accounting (at my previous job).  (R1 folks, I'd really appreciate some feedback on this from your search experiences.)

Letters of Recommendation

You may feel that you have little control over your letters, but you're sort of wrong.  I would recommend that you make sure that in addition to your primary advisor/director, you get a letter from someone who takes teaching seriously and who has seen you teach.  And make sure you share some teaching materials with this person or talk about your teaching with them.  I have a sense that some candidates feel that they have to choose Super Important Basketweaver in their program even if SIB doesn't know them well or isn't in deepwater basketweaving.  That can mean that SIB's letter isn't as strong or specific as a different letter might be, so there's a tradeoff.

I don't know how strongly other people around academia feel about reading letters from famous folks.  Again, if I were to be reading Shakespeare letters and read one by someone who's work and opinion I greatly respect, I'd be impressed.  But if it were a weakish letter, I'd tend to form a poorer opinion than otherwise.

I guess this issue, for me, is a lot like the big name school issue.  I tend not to look for a school with a famous name, and look for a school with a strong deepwater basket program.  But I know that if someone's applying with one of my schools on their CV, my ears perk up, and I expect that's true all around academia.  But that alone isn't the thing that makes us choose a candidate to interview.

When I have time in the near future, I'll write about how we prepare for interviews on our end.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Search Meetings

I thought (with some encouragement from others) that it would be good to talk a bit about our search meetings.  I want to demystify the process if I can, but with the caveat that my experience is limited, and that other places or departments do things differently.  So I'm also going to request that folks with input about how their departments do things differently help out here.

Earlier, I posted some application advice.  I'll take the job description from there for my hypothetical search.   Here was the ad:

Assistant professor of Underwater Basketweaving.
Terminal degree in Underwater Basketweaving or a related field.
Specialization in Deepwater Basketweaving.
Secondary specialization in International Basketweaving or Reed Cultivation.
Ability to teach basic basketweaving.
Strong assets include a commitment to undergraduate teaching, liberal arts, and multicultural basketweaving.

After we've gone through the process of developing our ad and putting the ad in likely places, we sit back a bit and wait for the applications to pile in.  And pile in they do.  We also meet with the campus legal eagle if we haven't already, to talk about the process and make sure we're doing things legally.

One of the jobs of our search chairs is to handle some of the legal stuff, specifically filling out a form for each candidate who isn't hired setting out whatever it is.  For candidates who are somewhat qualified but whom we don't list for further information or interviews, this can be difficult.  For candidates who are totally unqualified, it's a bit easier.

As the applications roll in, we put together some sort of grid.  For this job, it might have a row across the top setting up columns, and then names down a column, so that each candidate gets a row.  We number our candidates by receipt of their application, too.

The grid for this position will have a box for name, degree, deepwater basketweaving, international basketweaving, reed cultivation, basic basketweaving teaching, undergrad teaching, liberal arts, multicultural basketweaving, and then other.  The other category is where we make notes about something that interested us but that doesn't fit somewhere else.

For each candidate, then, we'll fill in their name and number, and then I put what degree and where they got it.  I'll note a person with a degree in water management, and probably put a "no" next to the degree right then.  IF I know the area pretty well, and know that a school is especially strong in that area, I may make a note about that.  Or underline the school, or something.  I may note the title of the dissertation, or make a short version, something like "Radical DWB," or "Lacan and DWB," something so that I'll get a sense of the area and specialization. 

As I read through the letter and CV, I'll fill in the other boxes.  If the person has some publications in reed cultivation, I'll note that in the appropriate box.  If they talk about teaching Asian Basketweaving, I'll make a note of that, and so on.  I tend to put an asterisk in the name box of people I'm really interested in, and a "no" if someone's categorically out.  For people who've impressed me rather less than more, I'll put something in the other box.  My goal is to have some sense of who I really want to interview, and who I'm not interested in interviewing.

What I don't look at: 
Dates of degrees.  It just doesn't strike me unless something's weird in the CV.  If someone's missing 20 years, then I'll notice.  If they've been adjuncting, then I'll note that in their teaching experience, that sort of thing.
Local love.  I don't much care if people are from around here.  I don't discriminate, but I also don't start a cheering section.  I'd rather see other things in a cover letter, but I think that it may matter to some people.
References.  I'm not there yet.

After our application deadline has passed, our committee will have a first meeting.  We'll decide based on how many apps we have how we're going to handle it.  If we had 15 apps, we'd probably move right then to decide who we wanted to interview.  But I've never been on a search here with only 15 apps.

Typically, we'll do something like put applications in stacks.  We may have three or four or five stacks.  Stack one will be for the folks who we all agree we think are our strongest candidates.  Stack five is for the folks who aren't qualified for the job as we've described it.  You may be Stephen Hawking, but if you don't have a degree in Underwater Basketweaving, you're in stack five.  Stack four will be for people who have basic qualifications, but give us a bad vibe.  Maybe their letter didn't talk usefully about necessary things or they really don't have much experience at teaching and don't convince us that doesn't matter.  Stack two is for people we think would do a good job, but we aren't quite as excited to talk to them.  Stack three is for people we think could do the job, but aren't quite there somehow.

Then we'll look at stack one, and if we have enough people, we'll move them all onto the next group.  If we have too few people, we'll look at stack two and move some people to stack one.  Our goal is to get a manageable group to look at references, writing samples, and whatever else we want to ask for or have asked for.

In my experience, if a search committee member is really excited about an application, that one will make stack one even if no one else is really excited.  On some committees, there's a fair bit of agreement about stack one.  On others, there's more discussion.  I'm fortunate in my colleagues that we usually manage to handle this stage well, and tend to get really good candidates into that first stack.

What's the take away message for job applicants here? 

The most important one is that the job letter and CV are our initial cut, so those have to speak to our job in meaningful ways.  We understand that someone might have the wrong school name in an application letter, but if your letter says something really interesting about your multicultural basketweaving experience, and you've got the other qualifications in line, we're going to want you in stack one.

The difficult part is that it's REALLY hard to explain to someone who's writing a letter how to make that letter move from the second stack to the first stack.  It's like explaining to a writing student how to move from an A to a B.  A B paper is going to be fine, good, but there will be something that an A paper does that says "I'm an A paper" while a B paper doesn't.  But how do you explain that?  If I could, I would.

The second take away is that while the job search IS a bit of a crap-shoot, my experience is that decent human beings are doing their best to choose the best candidates based on the evidence in front of them.  I can't guarantee that every single person on every single search committee is ethical and decent, but my colleagues are.  The result is that we hire very few people who aren't good teachers and colleagues and scholars or creative basketweavers compared to the numbers we hire who are.  We certainly aren't just throwing darts at a board or tossing applications down a stairwell.

And this is not to say that everything is always fair and a total meritocracy.  If you went to a crap high school, and could only get into a fourth rate college, then your chances of getting into a really strong grad program are low, and your chances of getting a job are low.  And if you have incredible digital basketweaving experience but we're looking for multicultural experience, then you're unlikely to get our job.  If you haven't got strong support in your program for learning how to write letters and CVs, then your chances of hitting the genre well are lower, too.  If you haven't mastered the art of talking about your work in interesting ways, even if you're totally brilliant, we probably aren't going to put your application in the first stack.  And the fact is, if we have 200 applications, and have 25 in stack one at the end of this meeting, we'll probably never look at the second stack further.  And of those 25 probably excellent applications, we only get to hire one person.  No matter how much we love the second and third candidates, especially, we only get to hire one.

If I could make one thing happen for all job seekers, it would be that a year before they go on the market they get to read at least 20 job letters from a search.  I think that would be a huge education, and I think that's partly why people searching for their second job often sound like great candidates, since they've learned how to make their job letter really stand out.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Computer Suckage

The IT folks here put through some big "upgrade" and it was one of those things where you have to turn off your computer again, even though it was off, and then internet explorer ran like molasses.  I switched over to another browser, which keeps giving me messages that I should upgrade this or that thing that I never use.  Now maybe I should have switched over years ago, but the fact is, I shouldn't be forced to switch because our IT folks make things run like ^*(&(.  It should be because I want to or find it better, or whatever.

And then you have to set up things yet again, which since I do it rarely, always takes me longer than it would if I were an IT person and did it every day.

More job searchy stuff soon, maybe, if folks are interested?

I needed to vent about my computer stuff.  And now, back to work.