Sunday, January 12, 2020

Reading Ibsen

NWU is doing a production of Ibsen's The Doll's House next semester, and since I'm teaching an Intro to Lit, I thought I'd teach it.  And it's in the anthology.  So I started to read it so that it wouldn't be totally new when I taught it.  (I don't remember reading it before.)

I'm just in far enough that one of the characters is basically blackmailing another about the way she handled signing for a debt.  And I feel totally stressed out and tense.

I don't have any big financial stresses, and my only real debt is my mortgage.  But just thinking about the legal stuffs and financial problems makes me stressed out and tense.

I don't have a problem reading about a character in a play deciding to kill their king, perhaps because it's quite clear to me that 1) I'm not going to go out and kill anybody on purpose, and certainly not a national leader, and 2) in part that's because it's clear to me that killing someone, except under extreme duress (like actual, real, self-defense) never makes anything better.  So it doesn't stress me out that Macbeth wants to kill Duncan, or that Henry Tudor wants to kill Richard III.  Nope, not the least.

But the debt thing?  For some reason, that was so unpleasant that I just put the play down and went and did some cleaning. 

I may not actually teach it after all.  It will depend if I can make myself get through it.  But there's a certain point at which I really don't see the need to read lit to teach that makes me unhappy.

I really don't understand the theater folks wanting to put this on...

Friday, January 10, 2020

Reading Applications

I've been reading applications, and I've noticed a couple things. 

First, a number of the letters of recommendation are targeted, at least by an address and salutation, specifically at our search.  I've never noticed that before.  It means letter writers are reworking letters (at least minimally) specifically for each institution the applicant is applying to.  Maybe that's not many, but holy cow, it's a whole lot of work.  And it really doesn't seem necessary or even really helpful.  It's not like the faculty at Prestigious R1 are actually likely to know enough about a regional comprehensive such as NorthWoods U to really make the strategy effective.  And it's got to make things MUCH more complicated for submitting letters on time.  (Whose letter writers weren't always pushing the deadline?  Anyone not have that issue?  So it's got to add stress.)

The second thing is how few of the application letters clearly address some of the stuff in our ad.  If we put in our ad that, say, speaking a foreign language is vital, then the letter should tell us about the foreign language the applicant speaks and how well.

In my role as future chair, I've talked to some folks who are on the market in different fields, and at least one has told me that doing an invited talk is a real CV booster.  From my point of view, it's so not.  A conference or three is great, but an invited talk doesn't really catch my eye.  And given that a lot of candidates have multiple conference presentations, an invited talk basically disappears into the background.  It's certainly not the make or break thing that my colleague seemed to think.  For others?

What do folks see as make or break?

For me, a well written letter that addresses our job ad requirements.  Research that sounds interesting.

A clear CV that shows growth and ... exploration, experience, interesting work.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Academic Anxiety Dreams and a Question for Medievalists

Last night, I had my second anxiety dream about teaching Chaucer.  The first one, I was without any syllabi on the first day of classes, and then for some reason, went home instead of going to my first class (intro to the major) and then was trying to get back for the Chaucer class, but still didn't have any syllabus or calendar for any

The next day, I wrote up the basic academic calendar template for next semester.  That was three weeks ago, I think, soon after the previous semester finished.

Last night, my dream was more focused on not having the Chaucer calendar ready.  And when I woke up, I was thinking, but that's three weeks away, almost.  And it is, but there's no telling the dreaming that.  So today I'll start rereading the Canterbury Tales and thinking about the calendar.

I was looking at the Harvard Metro site the other day, and on one of the teaching pages, they suggested starting with the Shipman's Tale, as easier to read (in part because it's short and has a really basic plot-line) than the General Prologue.  So I'm thinking of doing that...  are there medievalists out there with thoughts?

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Visit from a Former Student

I was in my campus office yesterday, having gone to get my computer back, and then trying to delete some emails and do some little chores. 

And a youngish person stood in my doorway and said hello.  I didn't recognize them at first, but then they reminded me: a former student.  This one had gone on to grad school in Practical Basketweaving.  They'd stopped by because they'd learned from a faculty member in the department that there was going to be a new chair, and had dropped by the department to find out who it was, and then came to my office.  They lamented the difficulty of finding an academic job, and the earnest wish to come back to our department.  They mentioned that they'd made it to the interview stage for a job we had a while back.  And they hadn't even gotten a phone interview for the short term hires made by the chair.

It was awkward.  I'd better get used to that, I suppose.

They kept sort of asking why they weren't getting a job.  And probably the real answer is that the job market sucks, and they aren't quite competitive, given the absolutely stellar people that are out there in Practical Basketweaving.  Which I didn't quite say, though I mentioned the incredibly bad market.

They revealed that they'd had a TT job at a strong regional comprehensive, but had left to follow a now-ex-spouse.  I didn't ask more, but I did silently realize that a friend of mine also teaches at the former school.

I finally told them I needed to get going, and wished them well, and they left.

I feel an odd sort of responsibility for a graduate of ours who goes on and doesn't get a job, though I can say with absolute certainty that if they talked to me about graduate school, I would have told them the bad news about the market.  But the person they were closest to, I think, wouldn't see that as their responsibility at all.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Running in Place

On Friday, I went to the office, turned on the computer... and waited.  So I started cleaning up my office, which was pretty messy, as happens towards the end of the semester.  It took about half an hour for the computer to get to the log in stage.  So I logged in... and waited.  And reshelved my books, put away files, the usual.

I tried to do computer stuff, the things I'd come to campus to take care of, but every time I tried to open a program or something, I got the "(not responding)" thing, and it hung up.

Finally, I called the nice people at campus tech support.  The person who answered was, well, hesitant.  I said I needed help because my computer was so slow, and they suggested I could wait until next week.  I said I needed the computer sooner to do my work, and finally they agreed to send out a tech.  So I started reading.  And the tech came, and started doing stuff on the computer.  And waited...  because it hung up every time.

So at least it wasn't just me.

The upshot was that the tech took away my computer for re-imaging, and I'm supposed to meet with someone this afternoon who will bring it over and set it up for me.  So, YAY!  That should be good.

I have so much to do before classes start:

Chairing a search committee: our application deadline is soon, and we have to read everything before our first meeting.

Rereading the Canterbury Tales, because I haven't taught Chaucer in about 5 years.

Reading The Dolls' House, because I'm teaching intro to lit and the theater department is putting it on.  I don't think I've ever read it before...

Reading a couple of books.

Trying to exercise.

Practicing the violin...

Friday, January 03, 2020

A New Year Begins

Happy New Years.  Let's hope 2020 gets better.

(Though I saw that the US military basically committed an act of war...)

I spent much of the break so far with my Mom, helping her travel to visit my brother's family for Christmas, and then at her retirement community, trying to help make things work. Her short term memory has really failed over the past several months.

A medicine she was taking may be at least partially responsible.  So she's off that medicine for almost a month now, and seems slightly less confused, but she's not at all where she was 6 months ago.  (She began taking the medicine about May, and it was stopped in late November, I think.)  I don't know if things will get better or not.

It was a hard year for her: she had to move from a retirement community she loved that closed (because the fire department said it couldn't be made reasonably fire safe or accessible for firefighting) to a much smaller one.  And she got a cancer diagnosis (very early stage).  And her last sibling died.  These are all very hard things, and there's a lot of uncertainty, and it's all taxing for her.

Fortunately, my brother has stepped up wonderfully, as have two of my aunts (my Dad's sisters), so I'm very grateful.  Still, it's hard when you can't make things any better, not really.

I got home last night and slept in my own, comfy bed.  I'm happy to be home, and have a lot of work to prepare for the coming semester and for taking over as chair.

There may be big changes in our department.  We may drop our tiny and weak MA program.  That would mean that we'd lose four grad courses a year and a two course faculty reassignment, so basically 1.5 FTE in support for graduate students.  (We'll have to continue at least some grad courses for at least a year so the folks in the program now can finish.)  I'm imagining we can teach a couple more general education type courses, which would be helpful for the university. 

At least some folks in the administration want us to continue our grad program: grad students pay much more tuition.  At least one administrator wants us to go all on-line, and promises massive help recruiting people in business.  However, we've never been able to support or compensate faculty for working with thesis (or whatever project) students.  And we're very much a regional university, and have served students in our region.  If we go all on-line, then the regional students might as well do an MA at a much stronger program (there are many).  (Our program's strongest days were in the 80s or so, when local schools gave teachers who earned an MA a raise; then the education program started doing an MA in teaching program that was pretty... weak and easy.  Once we lost that cohort of teachers, our program got even smaller and weaker.  And then the raise went away...)

I'm hoping as chair I can help be creative and get a course reassignment for one of our writing non-tenure track folks to work deeply with our Writing Center and Writing Program folks to develop and support a Writing Across the Curriculum initiative.  Currently, the upper admin in charge provides some financial support for a couple of MA students, but they don't have the education or experience to really do the higher level work we need done.  And once they're all on-line, they won't be on campus to do that work.  On the other hand, if we can provide a course reassignment for a PhD in writing stuffs to work on it, I think we'd make better progress.

The other thing, though, is that with another 1.5 FTE to put into work with undergrads, we'll have a hard time justifying any new hires unless something really specific comes up.  (It's been more than a decade since anyone around here has been able to do an old-fashioned line replacement, the thing where a Victorianist retired and a department got to hire a new Victorianist.  That's a thing of the past, and it's not coming back.)

So there's lots to think about.

Two questions: for anyone who's been chair of a department: please suggest stuff I should read/learn.

And two: I'm teaching Chaucer again, for the first time in maybe 5 years.  I'm looking forward to it, but I'd love some suggestions of the most useful and important books or articles to read before the semester starts!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Anxious and Absent

It seems that this semester I have a surprisingly large number of students who are absent a lot for anxiety issues.  I think I don't quite get it, don't quite really understand how difficult their level of anxiety is.  I just want to say, "get your rear in gear and get to class."  But I don't, because I think their issues are way more difficult than I comprehend.

I admit I've sort of lost track of how often their absences are self-reported anxiety.  And how often they're absent without saying anything to me about it.

I have a fairly strict absence policy in my syllabus.  Three unexcused (like official excuses) are okay, and then starting with number four there's a grade penalty.  But I can't figure out how to handle the anxious students when I think they're probably anxious even if they don't email to tell me that.

And what about the other student who've missed classes?  How do I handle them?

And the "I don't feel good" students who miss more than three?  I'm not going to tell students they feel good; how could I?  But I'm also not especially sympathetic about hangovers. 

And then there's the depression problem.  One student told me they were depressed because it was nearing the anniversary of the death of a loved one.  I can see that might make things difficult.  But I really don't know what to do if the person's absent a bunch.

We have presentations around here to help us understand when students have mental health problems, and to try to convince us to be sympathetic and helpful.  But they never really get to what would actually be helpful.  (One of the folks who came to talk to us suggested that it would be a radical new idea to give students a couple of days when they could not come to class if they weren't feeling well; but the three unexcused absences thing is something people were doing back in the bronze age when I was a student.  So not really new or radical.)

I'm no counselor, but I do try to convince students to make an appointment.  And when they tell me nothing's open for three or four weeks?  What do I do?

I need to have a better sense of when what a student needs is to be told to get their rear in gear and when they need something else. 

And I wonder how they're going to manage with a job?  I can't imagine my employer would be especially sympathetic if I suddenly started taking days and days off because I'm not feeling well or am anxious.  I'd run out of sick leave and then?  (My colleagues are amazingly good at stepping up and filling in for folks who are ill or have family responsibilities.  But I think patience would run thin for anxiety or depression problems.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

We Made the National News

Maybe if you're at a big name university, the idea of making the national news is heartening or exciting.  Maybe your Nobel laureate made a new discovery or got interviewed for something important.  Or maybe your sportsball team won some big game.  Or maybe a child genius finished their PhD at 12.

But if you're at a regional university, the chances of making the national news are low.  And the chances for making the national news for something good are much, much lower.  And so, it's no surprise that we didn't make the news for something good.

Every single day, students at regional universities do good stuff: they serve their communities, do mentored research, help people, learn stuff, act kindly towards others, write good papers.

But it's the few students who do something really obnoxious who make the news.  And so, they made the news, but the dignified, beautiful response of other students didn't.  Nor did the supportive faculty response. 

The problems don't get easier.  Not these days. 

There's a national tone these days that makes certain sorts of obnoxious behavior seem condoned, heck, modeled, by certain people in power.  And then students think that's a great way to behave.  And it's not. Because down here on earth, if you threaten people, it's harmful.  And students shouldn't feel scared to go to class or live in their dorm or apartment.  And they certainly shouldn't worry that classmates are plotting ways to kill them.

I felt almost sorry for our headmaster because he's dealing with the obnoxious behaviors which he certainly doesn't condone.  But he's also got to face the fact that nothing that's been done in the past 20+ years has taught students not to behave obnoxiously, and nothing he's tried to do in the past 5 or however many years has had that effect either. And now he needs to come up with ways to convince students not to behave in certain obnoxious ways, and he's got to do it on a super limited budget.

He proposed having students learn not to do obnoxious things from an on-line learning module.  And a number of faculty folks basically told him, "no" and pointed out that there's actually a number of faculty members with expertise in these areas, and we need more of us, and more support, rather than paying for some crappy module.  (It's good to know that I'm not the only one who hates the stupid modules we're "required" to do.)

And so, we have a few new things coming up, and a lot of decisions to be made, many of which will involve FERPA protections.

It was a disheartening, hard week here in the North Woods.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Thoughts on Renaming Courses

In response to Fretful Porpentine's question about the possibility of renaming some courses.

We've got a fairly flexible lit curriculum; for majors and minors, we have say, coverage areas, including four geography/time based (early/late British/American), and some identity based (Women's, American Ethnic, World/Post-Colonial), and theory/film.  We have these courses at both upper and lower levels, with the lower level courses serving a lot of General Education students.  We also have genre-based courses at the lower level serving mostly Creative Writing and General Education students.

For the most part, the current naming gives the department and faculty lots of flexibility.  We've hired so that each coverage area has at least one person, and some more.  In a given semester, the Asian American lit specialist may teach a lower level course in American Ethnic lit and a senior seminar in American Ethnic lit; they may choose, say, Hmong American lit for the lower level course, and Asian American Autobiography for the senior seminar.  Meanwhile, the specialist in African American lit may teach an upper level American Ethnic course in the Blues and an intro to lit.  And the person who does Latinx lit may have a lower division poetry course and a reassignment.  (We also have two American Indian lit courses taught pretty much every semester at different levels, in conjunction with the American Indian Studies program, and named specifically American Indian Lit rather than American Ethnic because they're cross-listed.)

Because the courses are only formally named "American Ethnic Lit," each person can follow their interests and specialization.  We can be sure each course will be taught at least once a year, and students who decide they love Area A or Professor X can probably take a course at a different level in Area A or with Professor X if they choose.

The drawback is that when, say, an African American student looks at the catalog, they don't see any courses specifically labeled "African American Lit" that might give them a sense that they feel welcome in our department and major.  So maybe they look at history, which labels courses "African American history" and think they're more welcome there.  Or they look at another of the regional public universities around and feel more welcome in the English Department there.

Would having courses labeled specifically "African American Lit" work to make African American students feel more welcome?  I don't know.  And I'm not sure I know how to find out.

Then there's the offerings.  Given course reassignments, sabbaticals, and so forth, can we be confident that we'll be able to offer a senior seminar in Asian American Lit at least every other year?

It would probably work in the American Ethnic areas, as it does in Women's lit.  But in the theory area, it gets more complicated.  We have one lower level theory course required of all majors and minors.  And then we have an upper level theory and a senior seminar in theory.  And various people teach those, often in conjunction with film courses.  We could, conceivably, offer an upper level/senior seminar in critical race theory, queer theory, post-colonial/transnational theory, or some other fairly specialized theory.  But we couldn't be sure we could offer any one of those every other year without tying down one faculty member to teach it.  And that would mean that faculty member wasn't teaching some other upper level course.  We teach one senior seminar, and one upper level theory each year, so we couldn't name, say, a critical race theory course at both the senior and upper level.  And that would limit the faculty member to that one level; currently, that faculty member might decide to try out a critical race theory course at the senior seminar level, and then decide to try it at the upper level in a different year.  Or they might not get assigned an other upper level theory course for several years.

I guess my questions are about whether students really would feel more welcome if they saw their identities reflected more closely in course names?  And could we actually staff those courses at appropriate levels?

Friday, November 22, 2019

Changes Come

I've been meaning and meaning to update with the pictures from Iceland, and now I finally have, so the plan is to try to resume more regular blogging.  I don't know why, but I just didn't want to skip the Iceland pictures.

A lot has changed in recent months.  I'm back teaching.  Mostly, that's very good.  I'm really enjoying most of the teaching this semester.  I'm teaching a Shakespeare course, a drama course (that I haven't taught in about ten years), and an Intro to the major sort of course that I haven't taught in five years.  For both of the latter courses, the rental texts have pretty much gone out of the system.  I'm using a rental text that others chose for the Intro, and ordered up a different rental for the drama course, in part influenced by my felt need to have Godot in it since the campus theater folks are putting it on later this semester.

Naturally, that means that some of the plays I'd taught for specific reasons (Brecht's Mother Courage, for example, to teach epic theater stuffs) aren't in the text.  But The Good Woman/Person of Szechaun is.  So, I'm teaching a fair number of new or different plays, and even the old familiar plays have different page numbers so I'm doing a fair bit of "translation."  Still, it's good.  And I've discovered that I adore Glaspell's Trifles.

In the Intro course, we're now onto the novel.  When I was at "the Abbey" in fall of 2017, I taught Jenni Fagan's The Sunlight Pilgrims and really liked it and liked teaching it.  So I've chosen that as the novel I'm teaching.  And I've taught it before, so that's something.  BUT, when I left the Abbey, I figured I'd never teach it again (I don't often teach novels), so I gave the book to a colleague and put my notes in the recycling bin.  So now it's very much like teaching a new text.  Still, it's such a good book!  (I think Dr. Crazy originally suggested it to me, and I thank her for that!)

Next semester I'll be teaching a junior level Canterbury Tales course, a MA level Queer Shakespeare course, and the Intro to the major course again.  So overall, it shouldn't be quite as much new stuff, but will still require lots and lots of prep work.

The really big news around here is that I'll be our department chair for the next three years (starting in May.  Our current department chair, super fabulous though she is, is DONE.  She's served (at the end of this year) six years, and she's ready to not be chair.  I tried to bribe her to serve another term, but she was unbribable.  In our department, what happens is that a committee puts out a call for applications for chair (internal to the department) and then we sort of wander around, encouraging some folks to put their names forward.  It became clear to me about ten days before the application deadline that the people I thought would be best were not going to do it, for very good reasons, and that a number of people were encouraging me to put my name forward.  So I write an application letter, and sat on it, then got some feedback from friends, and then, the day it was due, submitted it.

And I was the only one.  Then the committee gave me five questions they wanted me to answer for a department interview.  The questions were harder than you might guess.  One of the hardest asked about the experiences of students of different social identities in our department.  The thing is, it's hard to know.  I couldn't very well go around asking students, so, do you identify as lesbian?  Low income?  Native American?  The only groups our campus research folks really track are people of color and not people of color.  So I found that research, and talked about lack of knowledge, and possible ways to improve things, perhaps starting by exploring curricular change in naming courses, and maybe also asking students to tell us about their experiences in exit interviews.

The hardest question I got from the department members during the question and answer session was about what strategies I suggested to subvert the business-focused minutia we're forced to click through.  Unfortunately, I had no good answer.  I think if anyone had found a really good strategy, they'd have told us and we'd all be using it already.  In the meantime, since some funding is tied to the click this minutia, we pretty much tend to do it.  (My personal least favorite is the yearly repetition of the 90+ minute "don't get scammed" computer security training we're supposed to do.  It's pretty much exactly the same as the year before.  And I wonder, how many problems are caused by faculty who've done the training once already?  Because I think the school is paying some company for these "modules" and that's money.  But the school doesn't really see faculty time as money for these things.  The administrative folks just add them to our "must do" lists, and know that we aren't going to teach or prep less, we're not going to grade less or do less other work.  We're simply going to add another 90 minutes of work in during the evening or weekend or something.)

Then I had a meeting with the Dean, which basically consisted of him asking me to talk to the current chair about when I would start, and to let him know and he'll send a memo.  So I did, and the current chair is hoping to get sabbatical (well-deserved) and wants to be done in May, so it looks like that's when I'll take over.

It seems to me that the best blogging comes when folks are learning something new or going through a new and challenging experience, so while I'll need to be circumspect, I hope I'll blog well.

In other news:  Last year I joined and then dropped out of a middle-school level orchestra.  This fall I rejoined, and even though I'm probably the weakest player, and I'm so far back in the second violins that I'm practically in another room, I'm pretty much able to keep up and play the pieces.   In some ways, I don't feel like I've progressed very far in violin this year, but in orchestra, I do feel like I've made some progress.  And it's really fun to get to try to make music with other people.

I'm also continuing to participate in bird banding at the local nature center.  I don't get to go often during the semester, but I really enjoy learning more about birds and the other people involved are exactly the sorts of people I want to be around, active, interested, caring.