Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Kwame Alexander and Li-Young Lee

I'm teaching two amazing poems today.  First, Kwame Alexander's "LIfe" and second, Li-Young Lee's "The Gift."

Days like this, I have a really, really good job.

Thursday, March 09, 2017


Earlier this week, I had a chat with a student who's missed more than half the class sessions this term because they're suffering from anxiety and depression.

I don't know what to say.  Shakespeare doesn't help here.  Don't kill a king.  Marry someone who's wit and personal qualities match yours if you can.  Don't ignore your day job if someone else is going to come in and cause problems for your dukedom.

It's not that I want to be unsympathetic, but I'm at a total loss.

I don't have much experience with real depression, but from the far sidelines experience I've had, it's horrible.

The thing is, if someone is too anxious or depressed to come sit in a classroom where little is demanded of them (a little small group discussion, maybe sharing ideas, but it's not like we're doing brain surgery and someone's going to die if we mess up), then really, my class is the least of their worries.  How can you hold down a job?  How do you deal with relationships?  (Bad things happen in relationships: loved ones get sick and need care and love, for example.  That can be hard under the best of circumstances.)

What I want to say, but don't, because I know it's not helpful is "just get up and drag yourself through the day like most of us do."

I don't say that, and I know it wouldn't help.  But seriously, I think for an awful lot of people in the world, getting up and dragging themselves through the day is how they get by a lot of the time.

And I think it's probably always been that way.  There was probably some Homo erectus out there who really didn't want to get out of the nest they'd made the night before, but then got hungry enough to either get up and go forage or decide to just lie there and get eaten by something else.  And until they couldn't any more, they got up and went to forage.  And even if they went out to forage, something else might have eaten them.

Those of us who are lucky, mostly get up and are happy to do what we're paid to do, at least mostly.  (I would be happier not to have to grade or fill out assessment paperwork, but there you go!)

I tried to help this student, gave them an option to help them catch up, dug out handouts for them, and so on.  I wish I felt even slightly confident that I could be helpful.

What's the most helpful thing for students with anxiety/depression (for an academic instructor) to do?

Edited to Add: I should have mentioned the counseling services stuff before.  The counseling services and the student were already working together, along with the Dean of Students office coordinating.

Thanks, all!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Losing Touch

There's a recent article by Deborah K. Fitzgerald in The Chronicle of Higher Ed about how "Our Hallways Are Too Quiet."  In the article, Fitzgerald laments that after a ten year absence (deaning), she returned to the faculty area to find it feeling empty.  She notes that faculty are busy working elsewhere, especially at home, something made possible by changing policies (allowing folks to work at home as a way to make things better for families, for example), and technology (networked computers enable us to work away from specific offices in ways we couldn't earlier; though to be honest, I've had networked computer capabilities for about 18 years now, and I'm guessing my campus isn't as tech quick as MIT, nor am I as tech savvy, in all likelihood, as she is).

Fitzgerald suggests that it's hard to get "work" done in campus offices, and that tenure demands for publication fuels faculty needs to work off campus.   (At NWU, requirements for tenure and promotion subtly shift up all the time, at least partly the faculty's fault, but also in response to administrative pressures.)

While that seems likely, I'd also suggest that faculty may be in their offices with doors closed, doing the additional paperwork sorts of work that seems to keep getting added to our loads in various ways.

Even basic stuff, such as writing syllabi, seems more complicated.  A while back, I found a syllabus I got in college.  It's one side of one page, and basically gives the readings for the semester and test dates.  We're now expected to give information about how we're evaluating students, what plagiarism is and how we'll deal with it, absence policies, various sorts of help available on campus, and on and on.  Some of it's cut and paste from previous terms, but sometimes we add new stuff; I have a colleague who wrote up a civility policy after dealing with a particularly rude student last semester.

And then there's "delivery," how we try to teach students whatever we're tying to teach.  How much time do people spend on powerpoints so that they can make them available to students?  I'm guessing a lot more than my art history prof used to spend picking out slides for a lecture.  In addition, we probably all spend time setting up course management sites, putting up assignments, arranging whatever.  (Does this take longer or less long than the copies of readings that were stapled into folder  for check out at my undergrad library for readings not in the textbook?  I don't know.  I think I probably assign more out of text readings than I was assigned, but I wasn't an English major.)

Don't forget about advising and student services: we're all asked to send notes to the Dean of Students if we have students "of concern," students who aren't coming to class enough, students who seem depressed, students who come to class hungover.  We're supposed to track these students' emotional states and notify whatever offices on campus seem appropriate.  (And in order to do that, we're asked to take special computer modules about student depression or whatever.)

Finally, there's the endless assessment game, and all the meetings we have to attend to decide what and how we're going to assess whatever it is, and then the additional time to fill out the forms that the assessment folks demand, with ever changing goals and targets.

And all the committee work that needed to be done ten years ago still needs to be done, but here in my department, we're down about 20% of faculty from 10 years ago, so we have fewer people doing the work, and more work (assessment, especially) is required all the time.

So here's what bothered me about the article.  Fitzgerald seems surprised by these changes.  But here at NWU, at least, people write bigger syllabi in response to administrative requirements (read: the dean's office sends a mandate).  People make up powerpoints and study guides because administration pressures them to in some fields.  And by golly, administrative pressures are behind every single bit of endless assessment work we do.

Did she not notice as dean that the administration was making continually increasing demands on faculty?  (Was she not making those demands or seeing them made somehow?)

Fitzgerald comes up with a typically deanly remedy: she praises the creation of
events such as regular colloquia, lunches, teas, and happy hours to give people a chance to interact. Some may view those social opportunities as a huge time-waster. I would argue that, on the contrary, collegiality and collaboration are part of what we are paid for.
I'm not the best happy hour person (I have a low enough alcohol capacity to not drink anything alcoholic if I have to drive), but these sound pretty nightmarish to me. 

If we really want to make departments more sociable (and I'm not sure we do, for a variety of reasons), then reduce workloads, and give people opportunities to chat over whatever relaxing beverages they like.  But it has to come with a workload reduction that means my friend with a two year old isn't worried about making the pickup from daycare on time, and so the TT colleague who's desperately working on an article can take a breath away.  And the atmosphere has to be actually welcoming.  (My department's social functions pretty much always feel like straight, married folks sit in pairs and talk about being straight married folks in the most gender-normed ways you can imagine.  Maybe that feels welcoming to some straight married folks, but it doesn't to me.)

We also need to recognize that if the sociability fantasy is based on everyone "back in the day" having had a stay at home spouse, having been all white, all ivy-educated or whatever, then we need to rethink whether we want that sociability.  If we've done anything right in the past 20 years (and the closed door thing has certainly been a problem for more than 10 years), then we've increased the diversity of our faculty in many ways: we have more people of color, more LGBTQ folks, more women with children, more folks from different social classes.  Not everyone may want "tea" if it means pretending we're all upper crust British wannabe aristocrats.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Coughing and News

I've had a cold for about two weeks now, it's all stuffy nose and coughing.  Ugh.  It's not as bad as the one earlier this academic year, that lasted until I took antibiotics (prescribed by a PA) after a couple of months of hacking.

But coughing gets very old, very fast.

I haven't practiced my violin for about three days.  It feels like months.  I keep coughing and sneezing, and it's really hard to play anything when I'm coughing and sneezing.  I've also spent a whole lot of time trying to sleep, wishing I were asleep, and on the verge of sleep.  It's hard to sleep when I'm coughing, and that makes me more tired, which makes me go to be earlier, and get more frustrated when I cough instead of sleeping.  And it probably doesn't help much with getting better.

I had two pieces of good news this past week.  One was the official notice about my sabbatical.  The other was that the search I chaired has finalized a very good hire.  I blogged a little about diversity issues in hiring here (Hiring Faculty of Color) and here (Diversity Statements) this fall.  I'm very pleased with our hire, and so is pretty much everyone else who's talked to me about it.  (I've been stopped in the halls, gotten emails, and such.)

But can I say, as someone who's in a department that teaches writing, and so, one would hope, is likely to attract people who've been trained in writing and stuffs: holy cow, some people in our field can't write their way out of a paper bag.  It's not the majority, but there are definitely some.

Here's a hint: if the ad says that the ideal candidate will show evidence of X, then by golly, show us some evidence of X.  If X is teaching excellence, talk convincingly about your teaching excellence, about the work you do to teach well, and so forth.  If X is doing handstands, talk about doing handstands. 

Can I also say, our HR department is a real mess right now with all the retirements and people leaving for better jobs.  Their messiness added a lot of stress to certain people's lives in regards to the search.

I've had it up to here (hand at forehead) with colleagues who don't do some basic aspect of the job, but who expect the rest of us to fill them in.  And when these same colleagues make snotty comments about the job we did in their absence, I don't want to hear them.

On the other hand, I'm going to Kalamazoo!  When I started back to school to study English, one of my first teachers was a medievalist who talked about what a great conference Kalamazoo is, and for the first time, I'm going!  And that teacher and I are going to be able to get together and catch up a bit, which will be splendid.  She's one of the best teachers I had, and was always super encouraging to me.