Thursday, August 31, 2006

The president's reading list

I want to say mean things. But then, I always do.

Here's the video of our beloved president talking about his recent reading. (I first saw the link on Shaksper. Hardy Cook, the editor, has created an amazing resource.)

When he says he's read "three Shakespeares" do you want to ask which sonnets? Or do you want to know if he makes a distinction between passing his eyes over words and comprehending? Do you want to ask if he makes connections between what he reads and the policies he supports and promotes?

If I could ask the president to read (and think about, preferably with some decent discussion) three of Shakespeare's works, which would they be? And why?

Measure for Measure - why? Ask him to think about pre-marital sex more seriously, and the ways sexual practices have meaning for us. Ask him to think about babies born to poverty, or babies born who's mothers don't want them or can't take adequate care of them. Ask him to think about what it means to release Barnardine even though he's unrepentant (maybe we can send Deb Shuger to talk to him?). Ask him to think about the responsibility of the Duke even when he's absent. Ask him to think about the soldiers at the beginning and why they're worried.

1 Henry IV or Henry V - why? Ask him to think about how much his behavior and policies relate to his father's. Ask him to think about the advisors he's chosen, and about his appointments. Ask him to think about the justifications people use for war. Ask him to think about how war affects the people on the battlefield, and what the government owes, and how we convince people to fight in wars.

I'll have to think longer about the third text. What do you folks think?

The one where I mentor the mentor

As I've posted previously, on Friday this week, I'll have a mandatory (for me) class meeting with my Special Programs Class, an intro writing class tied to our program to help first year students adjust to college life and such. I have a mentor for the real class (except that she hasn't responded to my emails lately... hmmm), but she's not going to make it to this Friday's session, so the SPC office has assigned me a student mentor who's been in their training program.

We emailed the other day, and I invited her to come talk to me at the office about what we'd do that day. She came yesterday.

Now, I'm going to be critical here, but I want to be clear that I'm not being critical of this student, especially, but of the training she's received. Okay, I'm being a little critical of her because she didn't think about her task much, but I think she was smart enough to think once I put a problem before her.

I started off telling Ms M that there are a few things I really want to accomplish during the session, starting to learn names (and have them learn names, too), giving a short intro to some college culture issues, and having them exchange emails and phone information. Then I asked her what she wanted to accomplish.

She said she thought she'd go through the handbook (not, as I thought previously, the handbook about plagiarism and rights/rules and such, but the massive orientation handbook. There's over an inch thick of 8x11 copies and handouts in the book. Seriously.) and then do some ice-breakers. She said, that's what they did in her orientation, and what they talked about in the mentoring prep classes. (In other words, she thought about what she wanted to do rather than what she wanted to accomplish. I've become such a nerd about teaching these days.)

So I asked her what she'd thought of her orientation, what she'd taken away, what she'd learned? She looked puzzled, and then the light came on. Not much. She'd been totally bored, hadn't remembered a thing, and had just wanted to escape.

We talked a little about how overwhelmed students are with orientation stuff, how they're bombarded with loads and loads of information with little time to process, and little help prioritizing what's important for them. She got it. And then was at a loss for what to do. Yes, trust me to totally undermine all the mentoring training. But what the heck are they thinking telling mentors to plod through this huge orientation handbook? Does anyone think students learn anything useful from that? (Students do learn more about boredom and irritation, no doubt.)

So I asked her what three things she thought were most important to tell first year students. She chose add/drop dates, info about the academic help and counseling centers, and advice to go talk to their advisors early. So, that's what she's going to talk about. We checked on add/drop dates, so she'll be able to give them those dates and they can write them in the ubiquitous oversized academic calendars NWU gives them. And she's going to have the locations and phone numbers for the help and counseling centers, and will show them how to get there on the map. And the advisor thing's just a bonus.

That's it. If they leave the room knowing those three things, she'll have done a good job.

Then we talked about ice breakers, which, frankly, I think are usually useless. Maybe I just haven't done the right ones? My experience is that most people leave ice breakers without really engaging the other person or people; they just do the exercise and that's it.

My goal is to get them to begin to know some peers, to begin to understand that they can work together to get more out of their experiences, to begin to feel a bit comfortable in a community where they'll be challenged to try out ideas verbally and in writing in front of peers. I can begin to do that by getting them to do the name learning thing with me: each person will actually have to name everyone in the class during the session. Yes, that means they'll actually have to pay attention AND try to say something in front of the whole class, even if that something is basically other peoples' names. (And I begin to learn names: it's all about me!)

I'll have them exchange phone numbers and email info because that's the beginning of working together, recognizing that they can ask someone else questions about class. A little tiny beginning, but a beginning. (And, please, Flying Spaghetti Monster, could they please ask each other if I said anything important when they miss class! Again, it's all about me!)

Retrospectively, this post sounds self-serving. Wow, what a smart Bardiac I am. Blah.

Here's what I want it to say: the mentoring trainers need to do a better job training mentors to think about what students most need from this meeting (when they're already overwhelmed with information in general).

Our students don't often think critically about the ways we teach them, but if you push them on things, they're capable of putting things together. The problem is that I won't always be there to push them on things, and I want them to learn to push back on their own. In a way, that basic critical response is the key thing I want students to leave the university with. And it seems like one of the very hardest things to actually teach.

So maybe mentoring this mentor is actually the most important thing I'll do this week.

Office Toys

The recent discussion of my Einstein Action Figure, and subsequent exciting information that there's a Shakespeare Action Figure (there are two! one "poseable" and one not? Which should I order?) got me thinking about office toys.

I have a few, most are gifts from others. First, there's the way cool "pin art" toy. My Mom got me that, and told me she thought students would like it. They do. But my colleagues tend to be way more fascinated, and much more likely to want to leave their own impression. I favor faces.

The second most attractive toys are juggling bean bag thingies. I use them to destress sometimes. Again, while students express interest, other colleagues are much more likely to actually pick them up and start juggling. I used to be surprised at how many people know the basics of juggling.

I have some Tower of London finger puppets stuck onto my pinboard, still in their wrappers. I sometimes think I should take them out; maybe I will for a drama class one of these days. My favorite puppet is the Tower Raven. Yes, I just love stupid, obscure superstitions.

Those are the toys. I also have some display items. An empty box of chocolate bandaids, the chocolate LONG gone. A framed hammer head with my great, great grandfather's initials (the initials are in small indentations smacked into the side of the hammer head). A piece of the safety netting from the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, along with a souvenir letter opener made from flattening one end of a 6" piece of the wire used to make up the HUGE suspension cables.

My grad school mentor had a cross-dressed Ken doll in his office.

A couple of men here at NWU have little Homie Doll collections. But I don't think they either play with them or let their students play with them. Maybe they do and I just haven't been in the right place at the right time?

Most people, though, don't keep nearly enough office toys around. Do you?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

90 minutes

On Friday, the Special Programs classes at NorthWoods U are scheduled (like that passive? yeah, me too) to meet for 90 minutes. The rules are that we're not supposed to "do" stuff related to course content*. The art history prof can't show art history slides; the music prof can't play music, and so forth. And the writing instructor can't have students do a writing diagnostic or talk about what an essay is.

Our residential students (and that includes most freshman) have been on campus for a week doing all sorts of activities, mostly up in the dorms. I'm guessing they've had it up to here (/waves hand over the top of head vaguely) with advice about studying, time management, and such.

So, what to do for 90 minutes?

Usually I try to do three things: I try to learn names (20-30 minutes); I use the one-by-one around the room getting a name and then repeating all the names so far method. I usually try to get them to say something about themselves, but I can't think of a good question yet so far. Suggestions? (added in revision: I'm thinking of giving them a few minutes ahead of time to write about what kind of person they want to be in ten years, and then telling us one of the qualities they've chosen and why. Not career, but what qualities they want to have and such.)

And I try to begin explaining college culture from my point of view: I talk about how to address professors (Mr/Ms, Professor, Doctor all tend to be safe unless otherwise stated). I tell them never to ask a professor if they've missed anything important when they missed a class. I tell them they should go meet their advisor and go see their professors in office hours during the first three weeks of class, just to say hi. I tell them that I respect them as adults, and that I expect them to treat their colleagues and me with respect as well.

And finally, I have them exchange phone numbers and email info with at least five other people in class, so that they'll be able to get notes if they miss class or something.

That's 10 minutes.

The student mentor I've been assigned for the day wants to go through the student handbook. (Just say NO to plagiarism!) And he wants to do some "ice breakers."

And we'll ask for questions.

I'm assuming, then, that we'll have half an hour or more.

Oh wisdom of the internet, what activity would actually benefit my students and me that we can do in half an hour without addressing the content of the class?


After our class meeting, students are supposed to go find their classrooms for the coming semester, and are supposed to have a chance to go to the bookstore to buy books and such.

Classes officially start on Tuesday. Between Friday at about 1pm and Tuesday at 8am, no sane non-student wants to be near Drinking Drive, the student bar area of town.

In years past, I've invited students to join my dog and me for a walk through the most beautiful part of campus. (Almost no one ever came. Too early, I guess? Too much fear of looking like a suck up?) My dog's been dead for well over a year now, but I'm thinking of inviting them to join me on a bike ride on a local trail.

I'm torn about telling them to rent a kayak from the campus center. First, because they don't have infinite kayaks, and I may want to. And second because the local waterways are already dangerous for student drinkings; encouraging kayaking when students may be drinking seems like a bad mistake, eh?

*Why can't we talk about course content? In its infinite wisdom, the state legislature has decreed that we can't start classes before Labor Day, NOT because we as a state honor labor, much less anything to do with organized labor, but because the state economy depends lots on student labor working in the service industries related to summer tourism. (Except, of course, that most of our students have already left those summer jobs to return to campus or local housing.) So, just in case some students aren't at the Friday session, we can't do anything related to course content.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Observations at exhibition

In the past several weeks, I've gone to four+ museums, and I have some random observations.

I don't like being in crowds. I especially don't like being in crowds when people are running into my shins with their SUV style baby carriages or strollers. Seriously, folks, that stroller takes up the space of two or three adults, easily. If you must bring it, don't run it against people, and don't place it parallel to the display so no one else can get close.

This will make me unpopular in some circles, but children don't belong everywhere. There, I've said it. If it's going to take two or more hours to get through a non-child-friendly exhibit, and your kid spends most of that crying in the stroller, you might want to think about moving out of the traffic pattern a bit, picking the kid up, and comforting him/her in some way. Maybe get a babysitter and leave the kid at home? (No, this isn't a poverty thing; the tickets to one exhibit were $20+ dollars; if you couldn't afford a babysitter, you probably weren't spending $20+ for the tickets, plus parking, transport, etc.)

That said, the children's interactive parts of some museums are really appealing. But I hate when parts don't work! (Because, yes, I tend to try them!)

I like good descriptive exhibits. I like to know which way's north on maps and landscapes that represent the area. I like to know how bits of machinery fit with the larger picture, and so forth. I saw some displays at a cheesy local little town museum that oriented me really well to how the stuff worked in the old Northwoods; as a result, I learned something about local lumbering practices. I saw displays at a national travelling exhibit that didn't do nearly as well; as a result, I didn't learn as much as I might have.

I love museums that prompt visitors to think about the museum's own constructions of narrative and display. It seems that more and more museums are helping visitors become better museum "readers."

I'm alternately fascinated and irritated at the ways some displays assume gender and race.

Best of all, I got an Einstein action figure!

I wonder if they make a Shakespeare action figure? Or character ones? A Hamlet (in)action figure? If you had one for Titus, you could have a removeable hand and such!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Make my day!

I got back from my bike ride this morning and found an email from a former advisee and student waiting!

FAS has moved on to a graduate program, and emailed to tell me about teaching for the first time and graduate classes. Oh, and to thank me for being so encouraging.

My day is totally made.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Not Really Random Reading: *My Freshman Year*

I skipped some blogging during the past week because my Ironic Friend came to visit! Yes, someone actually came to visit me in flyover country. (Read previous posts about IF here and here.)

Ironic Friend always seems to have the best reading suggestions, and this time she suggested Rebekah Nathan's My Freshman Year *What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (NY: Penguin, 2006; first published by Cornell UP, 2005). Basically, Nathan, an anthropology professor, used a sabbatical year to do field research into student culture at her university by enrolling as a freshman, living in the dorms, taking classes, and so forth. She was at AnyU, a pseudonymous public university, bigger than NWU, but the students sound familiar.

It’s one of those books that reminds me of things I’ve forgotten from my own time as an undergrad way back in the stone ages and makes me realize how much some things have changed. Nathan (that's a pseudonym, by the way) got me thinking especially about a couple issues, mostly thinking about how I can do a better job connecting with my students in light of her findings and discussion.

Office Hours
Nathan talks a lot about how students manage their experience at AnyU, especially how they choose general education classes, how they fit in working for money, classwork, and the other things they do, and how they think about their management. I can't singlehandedly give my students enough money that they don't have to work for money, but I can rearrange some of my own schedule issues to work better with my students' schedules, especially my office hour scheduling.

Nathan points out that she'd typically set up office hours during the middle of the day, before or after the lecture classes she taught (136). As a student, however, she discovered that she almost inevitably had another class to attend during her professors' office hours. She also points out rightly that more students work more hours these days than in previous decades.

Here's my situation: My schedule looks like this: classes: MW 9-12, W 6-9pm, and F 9-11. So I actually have two non-classroom days during the week. I also have meetings, of course. One obligation runs from 3-5pm every other Tuesday, another 1-2 on not quite random Tuesdays. I also have my athletic group on Tuesday evenings.

I drive a few minutes to campus, but if I want to park near my office building, I need to arrive before 8am. If I arrive between 12-1pm, I can sometimes find parking in the lot near my building. I'm a slowish starter in the morning, and value my 809am time for drinking some coffee, reviewing teaching notes, and waking up more.

NWU expects me to schedule 3 office hours per week, and to be available by appointment on some other occasions.

Before reading Nathan, I was planning to put my office hours MW 12-1, and F 11-12, knowing that few students would show up, and that I'd mostly work in my office. (But you can never count on that; if I need that time for prep or something, a student WILL show up.)

Now I'm looking for suggestions, and thinking that maybe I'll schedule my hours M 12-1, W 5-6, and F 11-12. The big change is to Wednesday, when maybe some students would be able to come to office hours after their other classes. I'd still have a chance to go home if I needed to, but could also just stay on campus. (Most of my Wednesday evening class prep would be done on Mondays and Tuesdays, I think.)

What do you folks think?

Reading Assignments
Nathan talks about how students choose which reading assignments to do for a given class, and crassly, the choice comes down to which assignments they'll be quizzed on, or they'll need for homework, or for which they'll be a discussion, especially if they're likely to have to participate (137-139).

Now, I KNOW that deep down, and tend to give quizzes a lot in my lower level classes. But Nathan brings out the point that more experienced students are even MORE likely to skip readings they don't think they'll REALLY need. I was exactly that student in many of my classes in college (though I tended to do extra suggested readings for the classes I really liked).

I think I'm going to make a habit of giving quizzes and such in my upper level classes, or having regular writing assignments (yes, which will have to be graded) that respond to readings. I resist giving quizzes in grad classes, but I know tons of times when I didn't do all the readings for a grad seminar, and I know other students didn't do them all either. So how to really encourage people to find the readings worth doing?

Plays are easy. Yes, we're going to discuss the plot and such, and it's not necessarily obvious from the title. But what about contextual readings? I'm thinking that for grad students here, responsive writing to many assignments will help them see that the readings ARE meaningful and will help them understand the complexity of early modern English culture, drama, and such.

Nathan points out that interlibrary loan services seem woefully underused by undergraduate students, and then explains that most student papers get written in a time frame of about a week (even though we'd LIKE to believe our students start their papers earlier), and that they can't actually get interlibrary loan books within that framework (139-140).

I've been aware of this problem before, and have my longer writing class paper set up so that students start WAY early. But I think I need to do more to push them to actually start the research process earlier. What are the best ways to do that?

Nathan's discussion of diversity in college culture is absolutely fascinating. She has a chapter on the experiences of international students, and also talks about the ways that majority white US students don't experience much diversity. That's certainly true at NWU, where some of our students express real disappointment that they don't learn more about diversity, get chances to interact more with international students or students of other races and ethnicities than their own.

One problem is that I can't realistically change the makeup of the great state of the Northwoods. Most people in this area are white, lutefisk white, stereotypically Prairie Home Companion white. And Christian. And so forth.

A second problem is that our students don't always take advantage of the opportunities they have; they don't get involved in different community groups, don't go to the local Pow Wow or international fair, don't introduce themselves to international students, or even talk to international students in their classes. It's SCARY, I know, but part of college is learning to deal with certain anxieties and discomforts, and learning that it's really NOT that scary to say hello, smile, reach out and shake someone's hand.

The international students Nathan interviews sound as if they'd welcome a bit of real friendliness and curiousity. The international students I know here certainly say that they would.

So how to encourage all our students? How to push them out of the comfort zone and into engagement?

All in all, then, a really great book to read at this point in life.

When I first got out of grad school, having taught for several years, I thought I knew how to teach. I looked a bit askance at people who read books about teaching or talked about reading books about teaching. More and more now, I realize I know less and less about teaching. And yet I have reason to think I'm a reasonably effective teacher.

But I'm not a great professor. And that's the goal.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Opening speeches

In plays, we learn a lot in opening speeches. Sometimes we get commentary from "bit" players filling us in on the main action; sometimes we get a chance to see a main character in action.

Opening speeches are important in academics, too. I've been to several in the past week or so, from our Top Dog, the Dean, and various chairs of committees I'm serving on. Opening speeches set the agenda for the future, usually for the year, but sometimes beyond. The Philosophy Factory has a GREAT post rating the speeches she heard! Check it out.

During my first years as a facutly member, I was so busy trying to figure out what I was doing, trying to manage my teaching, my learning, my advising, that I had difficulty seeing beyond my own nose. I'd sit through the first of the year speeches, wondering why I was listening to this stuff.

Within a year or two, I began to see a bit more, and began to learn how things fit together, especially departmentally, and through various committees. Now, I'm beginning to get a stronger sense of my place in the larger community, and I know why I'm listening to the opening speeches. I get more out of them. I'm beginning to get a sense of the nuances (I'm not especially quick, no doubt), the ways the Top Dog slings certain lingo, the way the Dean raises an eyebrow at certain questions.

At the same time, though, I've come to realize that we're always in crisis mode, either we're in the middle of something horrible, or we're anticipating something doubly horrible. At the least, we're always either worrying about upcoming accredidation or departmental evaluations, or in the process of doing them.

That makes the opening speeches both repetitive and urgent. And sometimes, really irritating. This week, I've listened to the Top Dog explain that he has four goals, the first of which is basically to strategically develop goals. Uh huh.

And I listened to the Dean talk about how often we've listened to deans talk about new strategies or whatever at opening meetings, and then never hear about those strategies or whatever again. This time, he promised, he'd be held accountable, and we'd hear about the new issues again.

I'm convinced that every opening speech talks about student centeredness, new plans, budget problems, and how much more we need to do to stay in the race, though it's not always clear what the race is, competition with other schools or actually educating people, producing new knowledge, and serving out community.

We also introduced and reintroduced new colleagues in various positions, recognized some awards, and so forth. And as I sat there, beginning to get the nuances of the opening speeches, I wondered how my new colleagues were feeling. Overwhelmed? Worried? Getting it? Or not?

I wonder how I'll feel in a few more years listening to basically the same speeches again and again.

The state of the university is hopeful this year, it seems. Maybe the state's coming out of the economic dumps and we'll reverse our budget trends. We have new colleagues who show great promise. And once again, we have a load of new students!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Exceptin' Alice...

Humming the chorus quietly in the background, and thinking about that great line, "I got good and drunk the night before so I would look and feel my very best." That's just what I want to say sometimes.

Say, do you think I'd get in trouble for rabble-rousing if I played it for my Special Programs Class at our first meeting? I could, you know, start a movement! With four part harmony! And feeling!

And with stupid "don't ask, don't tell," it could still be effective.

Sometimes, I hate people. A lot of states have referenda coming up about amending their constitutions to define marriage as between a male and female. Northwoods does.

So, I'm steamed about that in general, but I'm most steamed about the ads AGAINST the referendum.

Why? I should be FOR these ads, supportive, happy! Stop the stupid law!

But here's the problem, at least here in Northwoods, the ads are all about how the law might cause problems for straight people who live together. The approach implies that it's not wrong to discriminate against gay and lesbian people, but that accidentally messing with straights, THAT'S BAD!

I want the ads to say: the proposed law is bad because we need to give all people opportunities to have a legally recognized relationship with the person they love so that they'll enjoy all the legal benefits of that relationship: inheritance, social security, hospital visitation, taxes, everything.

I want the ads to say: Straight marriage doesn't need to be defended from gays and lesbians. If your straight marriage has a problem, it's NOT a gay or lesbian problem.

So much for American Blind justice.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Alien Life Form

That's me. It's clear, completely clear. I do not belong on this planet, or maybe just not on this part of this planet. Whatever.

This morning I got an email from someone I vaguely know at NWU (let's call her A). Someone else I know at NWU has announced her engagement (let's call her B). So, A sent me this email announcing that she and C have decided to have a spa day as a shower for B. The cc list included women faculty members from across NWU.

On one level, that's a great idea because B doesn't really need the traditional shower gifts to start up a household.

But, as I read the invitation, I realized that I didn't find the idea of a spa day with 15+ of my not closest friends even slightly tempting. But I'm sure A and C think this is a great idea, and they must have checked it with B, right? So they all think it's a fun idea.

I read on: the spa's in another city, some 90 minutes each way. And the schedule says the day will run from 10-4, and then we'll have dinner at 5. Minimum, six hours at a spa and three hours driving time, plus two hours for dinner? Yes, my math gives me 11 hours.

I read on: we're supposed to rsvp with the spa services we'd like. There's a price list attached. I clicked the price list, because I was curious.

The list starts with massages. Not just massages, these are therapeutic massages.

The descriptions, to be honest, sound painful, and I'm averse to pain. (I like getting a massage, but these sound more painful than the usual.)

The prices start at $40 for 25 minutes.

Now, back to my basic math: say we get there and fart around for an hour, and then fart around for another hour at the end. That leaves four hours. You can see where I'm going. I'm thinking, massage, and then read a book? No, probably not. So I looked further.

The next things sound even more painful: craniosacral? lymphatic drainage? I'm not even sure what these are, but I hope my lymph system's just fine as is, and my skull's managed to stay in one piece for 46 years, so I'm passing on those.

Acupuncture? I don't know from acupuncture, but putting needles in my skin just for kicks doesn't sound like my idea of fun. I give blood because there's a chance it helps someone, not just for the fun of it.

Well, moving on: there's the body polish. I polish my car on occasion, but my body?

Bikini wax? Again with my aversion to pain. And, seriously, if you're going near there, we'd better be intimate or you'd better have a nursing or medical degree.

Then there's the selection of facials, manicures, and pedicures. So, let's not talk about the face. My hands? They're gardening, bike riding, dog-playing hands. My feet? Probably my best physical feature; people admire them on occasion when I wear sandals (which I do as often as possible). And while a foot massage rocks, I don't want polish on my toes. Nor do I want a stranger rubbing them, really.

Okay, so I'm cheap, obviously. I don't think anything of dropping $200 on books. But on a spa day?

And I'd be uncomfortable being in a state of semi-dress with faculty women I don't really know well. Yeah, I have a middle-aged body, average at best, and a pretty average self-image about my body. I don't run screaming when I see myself in the mirror after a shower, but I don't imagine that any young Hollywood types would feel threatened in the least, unless they thought I'd sit on them.

For some reason, facing my discomfort at the thought of the spa day made me feel uncomfortable, alien. I wonder if I'm the only recipient of this email who doesn't look forward to the day with anticipation? Am I the only one who's going to decline?

And am I declining because I'm just that uncomfortable with the whole spa idea, or my body, or the cost, or?

So I took myself out for a bike ride, and saw some ground birds I couldn't quite identify; I was thinking quail, but I'll have to look them up. I saw a small group of Cedar Wax Wings; they always catch me by surprise. The day was strangely perfect for a midday ride, cool and overcast, with almost no one on the trail. I felt really good, relaxed.

I derailed at one point, so I got my hands all chained. A perfect nightmare for a manicurist, no doubt.

But after 25 miles, the "soothing legs" spa treatment seemed more tempting than before!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Torn by alcohol awareness

As I've mentioned before, NWU has a special first year program (as do a good many other schools). In our case, we sign up for (usually) one of our classes, in English, almost always the first year writing class, to be a Special Programs Class (SPC).

When we participate, we basically agree to try to foster the goals of the SPC program, which are basically:

introduce students to the idea of a liberal arts education
enhance students' academic skills
enhance students' connection to the university
participate in meaningful academic and non-academic out-of-class activities
encourage students to take responsibility for their education

All of these are goals I can easily get behind, seriously. While some are probably obvious (doesn't every class seek to enhance students' academic skills?), the out-of-class activities one might not be. In my classes, this means students have to attend and write about the campus art gallery, a live performance, a lecture or academic talk, and at least two meetings of campus organizations. They have choices for all these activities, so they can work them in over the semester, do what interests them, and so forth. Few of my students have ever been to an art gallery, live theater, or a lecture, so they get a bit of a taste of some of the things that make a college community really wonderful.

Anyway, today I got the usual beginning of the acadmic year information about the SPC workshop we're supposed to attend. Does the workshop try to help us address the goals we're all supposed to be working towards in common? Do we talk about activities or assignments that might help us accomplish our goals? That would make sense, wouldn't it? It would help me a lot!

But no, in my experience, mostly these workshops try to convince the faculty that we're responsible for educating our students about alcohol awareness.

Yes, alcohol abuse is a serious problem, for students and everyone else in this state (seriously, the statistics are dismal). But...

First, my class isn't the place for anti-alcohol education. I'm not qualified to teach people not to drink. I'm qualified to teach English lit and writing. And it's hard enough to teach writing in the time we have in this class. What should I give up to teach alcohol awareness? And who's going to really teach me about alcoholism and such, because if I'm supposed to do another PhD in counseling to do this, it's going to be a cold day in hell.

Second, every student on our campus is aware of alcohol. They've been told every year since they were very young that smoking and drinking alcohol are bad. BAD. B. A. D. They've also been told that all drugs will make you instantly addicted. And yet, the whole state has a drinking problem, so something about this educational message isn't getting through. People also smoke, use recreational chemicals, and have unsafe sex.

At any rate, I doubt that hearing me tell them not to drink would have much effect.

Our more senior students have little good to say about the alcohol awareness campaign that's been going on for years now. They don't respect it, though they do express respect for the SPC program and the class they took through it. Yet by and large, our more senior students drink less than our first and second year students. So things do change (population? practices? some combination?)

And third, those goals above, see how none of them says anything about alcohol awareness? You know, every so often all the assessment driven focus on goals and meeting objectives really does serve a purpose!

And yet, I do know that alcohol abuse is a problem on our campus, that most rapes involving our students involve alcohol (though too often that fact gets cast as the victim's fault, because she was drinking so someone could take advantage of her).

What would effective alcohol abuse prevention look like?

Where would it happen?

Who'd teach it?

I don't have the answers to those questions; if I did, I'd make millions very fast off the college anti-alcohol industry!

What works on your campus? Who's responsible?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Ms Magazine and the I had an abortion petition

The G Bitch Spot wrote about the Ms Magazine petition. The idea is that in the 1972 inaugural issue of Ms, 53 well-known women in the US said that they'd had abortions (that is, before they were legal in most states), and that they supported women's rights to have access to abortions.

The new petition is asking people to say that they, too, have had abortions (if they have) and that they support choice. And those who haven't had abortions can sign in support.

I've never had an abortion, thanks to ready access to birth control (and the education to know how to use it), cooperative partners, and just plain luck. But if I'd gotten pregnant, I would have gotten an abortion if I could have. I signed in support. Especially, I signed in support of the many friends who've had abortions, and whom I love and for whom I'm glad they had access.

Go read the G Bitch Spot's post, because it's important.

Here's the petition on-line.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Teaching History?

I'm teaching a class on early modern drama and politics this semester at the MA level. Most of our MA students are bright and good at working with modern texts, but have relatively little experience with early modern texts, and pretty much no sense of early modern history.

So, I want them to get enough of a sense of early modern history to work well with the plays, but I don't want to have to focus much of my own energies on teaching history per se.

What I'm looking for are suggestions for helping students learn and teach each other history.

One thing I'm thinking of is working on a class timeline, starting with a couple that are out there, and then having them expand and develop it. I'm thinking of giving students in groups a year and asking them to look up on EEBO and find what they can about laws, especially regarding theater and such, or political theory. That might get overwhelming, though, since there's a lot of stuff published in any given year.

Or I might ask them to work in groups to talk about the plays performed professionally in a given year or two.

One of the very best assignments I've ever heard of asked students in a late 19th/early 20th century Brit course to read a full year of one or another specific magazines, and then to work up a short presentation. Students weren't only looking at articles, but advertizing and such, and it was so cool!

But in my period, no one had thought of publishing magazines quite yet. They did have some rocking broadsides and ballads, though!

What helps you learn to put together historical contexts?

What have you found works to help your students put together historical contexts?

Thanks in advance for the help!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Alternative career options

I spent about 3 hours today washing dishes.

I still smell like braised chicken with a tomato-based sauce. And I will never again find braised chicken with a tomato-based sauce even remotely appetizing. (For reasons having to do with my undergraduate science background, I went through a long period where I really couldn't bear eating chicken except in chicken salad form, and I may be heading back. Unintended consequences.)

Still, if the Shakespeare and ed biz take a total dive... Dishes weren't nearly as fun.

And in other news, I finished listening to Riding in Cars with Boys last night, with much pleasure. What a fun, interesting, well-written book!

Random mini-rant: one of my advisees did a project spring semester for which she was supposed to write me an essay and come in to talk to me about her progress. She finally sent me the essay at the end of July. And yesterday, she sent me an email wondering why I haven't done the paperwork to show that she's finished the project. I need to get WAY more rigid about the ways I handle advising for such projects in the future. Period.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Middle class guilt

I had a car oil and lube appointment today (not metaphorically, literally) at the local dealership. I tend to just wait there, in the little waiting area, reading; today I took Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed with me so that I could work on prepping for class and such.

The last time I got oiled and lubed was in New Mexico, and they told me my car was due for some mileage triggered maintenance, which I put off until I got back so the local dealership could do it. When I told the garage manager, he checked and found that indeed, my car was due for a tune-up, too, but warned me that the work would take about two hours. He asked if I preferred to have to work done today, or would it be better for me to come back another day.

And it hit, my awareness of the utter freedom of my current flexibility. I've been reading about Ehrenreich's looking for jobs, having to sit and wait for application interviews, drug tests. She talks at one point about realizing that she doesn't have food for the weekend, and calling a help line, getting passed along to various folks, finally ending up with a food voucher at a local store for a limited variety of foods. She talks about the time and phone money it took, and figures it as between 2 and 3 bucks an hour.

I asked the garage guy which would work better for him, and he said they could do it today or not, with a smile. So I said today would be great (because then all the work will be done and I won't have to worry about it next week!), and headed for the waiting room. But he stopped me to point out what I knew but hadn't thought of, that there's a very nice coffee place across the highway with food and such. He correctly read my social class (not necessarily from my clothes today, but more from my car and probably the ease with which I contemplated the tune-up bill), and made the suggestion.

So I walked over and had a very tasty scone and cup of named coffee, and read comfortably in the sun-lit warmth of a window in a little cafe area. Except there's a point at which it's uncomfortable to read Ehrenreich in middle-class comfort.

I finished the sections on waiting tables and housecleaning, making notes of words I need to look up (why, oh why, do I remember looking up "soteriological" when reading Deb Shuger's Political Theologies [page 115, thanks for asking] but couldn't remember the definition well? And how weird is it to run across "soteriological" twice in one summer, for the first time?).

The housekeeping section discomfits me. Yeah. A couple of years ago, I moved into a larger house, larger than I really need, but perfect for me in many ways, and great for entertaining small or large groups and overnight guests. And I hired a housecleaning company to send someone every other week to vaccuum, dust, clean the bathrooms and kitchen.

I tried to be ethical about it, hired a local company started with help from a local small business start-up grass-roots type organization a friend of mine worked for. She assured me they pay a living wage and treat their employees decently. They pay social security and obey labor laws. The owners (a couple) still participate in cleanings and such.

But still, I feel out of place. My mother would have never hired someone to clean for her, even raising kids and all. And one of my grandmothers was a maid of sorts for a short while, I recall.

I try to be decent in a no-doubt guilty way, leaving fresh fruit out with a note to please take it when I have extra, making sure the cleaners know there's cold water in the fridge and soft drinks and to please have some if they're thirsty. I try not to be a disgusting slob, and I've consciously put most of the gift tchotkes I have away where they don't need dusting. (Okay, that's just an excuse so that I don't have to look at them.)

The benefit to having someone else do that hard work is that before she comes every other week, I clean up the clutter, put things away, and that makes my house much more comfortable, especially for when I want to have friends just drop over. I used to have a feeling that I had to clean my house if someone was going to drop over, but now I know it's always at a fairly reasonable level of clean, and so I'm way happier to have folks over just 'cus. That's a great bonus.

Still, I felt guilty reading Ehrenreich in the comfort of the cafe. I live well. I have great job flexibility except for the hours I'm actually in class or meetings. I have work that's satisfying on many levels, gives me lots of social interaction, challenges my brain, garners me a decent paycheck and the ease of social respectability.

I could try to cover and say I worked hard for it all, and I did, but a lot of people in this world work way harder and never have the benefits I've had or enjoy the success.

For a period of my life, I sort of slipped out of the middle class. Party, though, I hadn't because even when as a grad student from the middle class I made little money, I always knew some family member would help me out if things got really tough, and indeed, my parents did in some huge ways. So I was never without the ease of knowing there was a safety net around. (Though, I do understand that on some level the netting is illusory, it still helps reduce stress to have the illusion.)

I'm getting more and more sense that teaching Ehrenreich to our students is going to be a real challenge. Many of our students are comfortably middle class, some delusionally so. But we have substantial numbers of students who have more experience with homelessness, low paid work, family tragedy and health problems, and constant financial worry than I've ever had.

More work ahead!


Having finished my last fun novel of the summer the other night, I buckled down to start re-reading for classes this semester. I'm stupidly teaching two new classes, one in early modern drama (yay!) and one on the Body in Literature. And many of my departmental colleagues (including myself) decided last fall to teach a common book in our first year writing classes, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. I'd listened to the book a couple of years ago, and thought it was interesting and stimulating, but hadn't actually put my eyes to it.

For me, reading and listening are very different activities. I enjoy listening when I'm driving or trying to fall asleep at night, but I don't much enjoy listening to hard stuff, certainly not stuff in my field (though I really should try out some of the newer Shakespeare CDs!). (Okay, who wouldn't like to give The Faerie Queene or Arcadia a try listening? With a really good reader, of course! And on a long drive, by a dark woods, say, with a storm brewing.)

When I read, I pretty much read pencil in hand, and do a lot of recursive going over things, and make notes in margins (I look up words and write down definitions and stuff). If I'm planning to teach the text (rather than reading for research or to keep up with stuff), I tend to do much more signposting with my notes, so that I'll be able to go through the text later and remember what I'd like to talk to students about. In either case, I usually have a notepad by my side.

And that's what my obsession's about. I simply must have a perfect pencil in hand to read and take notes.

It's not a new obsession: when I took the SAT and ACH exams way back in the stone age, I went in with a box of newly, terminally, nay, fatally sharpened pencils, and used every single one during each exam because they'd go dull on me fast and I didn't want to get up to sharpen between filling in the stupid bubbles.

In college, I got in the habit of using non-water-soluble ink, special technical pens that you could take field notes with, and then they wouldn't run when they got rained on and such. That habit lasted through my Peace Corps years and beyond, into my first years back into school (though not exclusively). My second Chaucer text (Everyman was my first, then the Riverside for a second class on Troilus) has a layer of tiny scrawled notes in that very obvious ink.

When I started doing a lot of grading, though, I needed to move to pencils because I needed to be able to erase my more impatient comments. (I got reprimanded by a professor for whom I was a TA once for writing "huh?" in the margin of a paper that described some plot point from MSND which had nothing to do with the play, and revealed only that the student had no clue. I should have asked the professor what he would have written.)

And when I began doing archival research, my pencil habit was reinforced, because no archive I've ever met allows anyone to have pens in the area of old texts. More than one librarian has done a close walk by to make sure that my mechanical pencil was a pencil and not a stealthily stowed-away pen.

So I started using mechanical pencils to grade because I dull regular old number 2s too fast, and my writing's hard enough to read even with a sharp tip. Happily, mechanical pencils are sharp again with just a click. Since then, my life has been a search for good, reliable mechanical pencils.

At first, I liked pencils with really narrow leads, but I had to adjust when I could no longer find thinner pencils OR leads within a ten mile radius of my town. Ideally, I'd have a fairly soft thin lead that would write reasonably darkly.

To complicate things, just when I find a pencil type that fits my hand well, it always seems to get discontinued by the manufacturer. The last time I found one I liked, I bought three packages of three, just to know that I'd have extras for a while. My pencil of the moment is a green Staedtler with a black rubber grip piece that I've rather grown to like. (It's sort of like this, but not. I have a sad feeling that they don't make mine anymore!) It's so worn that you can't see any trademarking on it, but it works well. AND, I found two of them still in a pack in my office moving box today!

I also have a thing for fountain pens. (Yes, that's the kind I use. Now you know.)

Levenger is my favorite porn browsing shop. (Hmmm, I wonder how many bizarre hits THAT will get me?)

Once, a friend of mine and I decided to try to cut ourselves some goose quill pens. We went to a local golf course and picked up goose quills, and then went to the microfilm collection at the local university and made a copy of a 16th century penmanship book's section on cutting pens. It took several tries, but we finally got one that sort of worked. But let me say, before I click my pencil lead out and get back to my reading, that I'm really glad people invented pencils, ball points, and so forth. Thank you, inventors!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Reading pleasures - *Atonement*

I just finished the latest book on the summer list, Atonement by Ian McEwan, and I have to say, it was incredible. It's really thoughtful and interesting plotwise, and even more so thinking about narrative strategy. I was pretty much caught up in the plot from early on, but then totally taken by surprise by the final section, which takes place in the present.

Basically, the book covers three periods: a couple of days in 1935 at the home of a wealthy family outside of London, then a short period in 1940, as one of the characters in the British Expeditionary Force tries to get to Dunkirk to evacuate, and a longer period during which another character trains as a student nurse, and finally a family reunion in 1999.

At first it's sort of hard to tell who the main character is, because the novel plays with points of view and moves around, so that there's sort of a balance between three main characters. That section feels very Virginia Woolf-ish to me, in the best possible way. It took me a while to figure out the timing, because the opening had a sort of broad feel to me, as if it could have been any time from the 19th or early 20th century, but I may just be less sensitive to some time stuff, or have been distracted or something.

The final section is absolutely stunning, and made me think back to the first and second sections, both to question my reading of the narrative, and wonderfully, to open up the narrative itself. It did a great job of getting across the level of fantasy in something that might be purported to be factual, without ever really getting at factuality. There's this great little section where the narrator at that point is talking about a letter she got pointing out factual details about WWII military nomenclature and such, and about how important such details are to creating a narrative, even though the whole of the narrative might not be factual at all, but just supposition.

Summer reading reminds me of why I wanted to study English in the first place; I never intended when I started back to school to be an early modernist, much less to study Shakespeare. Nope. I was going to do 20th century American and British novels. Things changed, though, when I started taking classes, not because I didn't like novels, but because I had incredible Shakespeare and Chaucer profs.

It's odd to think back, how illogical on some level my choice was, happy, but illogical. If I'd had the luck to have a couple of profs for my first novels courses who were feminist, or even just not really masculinist, who taught books by women (well--one tried, though), or were a bit more interesting to me in their approaches, who knows, maybe I'd be Woolfian or something instead of Bardiac?

I got an email from my Mom today, with a couple lines from a Shakespearean sonnet, asking about one of the words. So I answered, and then started talking about the sonnet, which really is one of those stunners he turned out so often. And even though I was just trying to suggest some points that might be interesting in the sonnet, it was pure pleasure to play with, read, and think about. I enjoy novels a lot, but for pure intensity of pleasure, drama and verse get me in the gut.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Crash and random

Thanks especially for the comments about my Didion post, folks.

I haven't been on for a couple days because the hard drive crashed on my home computer. Having read Didion so recently, I at least had the perspective to recognize that a computer crash doesn't quite constitute disaster, and after a quick conversation with Dell, a new hard drive was on its way, and arrived in record time. I've spent much of the afternoon installing stuff. But at least the basic drive is marvelously clean, right?

But I did lose some files, including some work stuff, which would be a pain to be without. (Usually when I work from home, I email myself the files, so mostly I don't lose stuff.)

And I lost my "favorites" list for the web. I'd been sort of meaning to clean it up, to try to spend a little less time reading blogs and such, but I really didn't want to lose that list!

I'm going to look for a company to try to salvage some of the info off the drive at least.

And I'm getting lots of dog therapy from a friend's dog who's visiting the BardiacShack for a week or so. I love dogs, and this one's minimal hassle, very friendly, easy to get along with. Poor guy, though! I don't mind a dog sleeping on my bed, but I squirm and turn without thinking about where they are. My old dog was a Lab, and could hold his own with whatever squirming I did, but my guest is small and tends to launch off the futon pretty much. OOPS!

He's fun, too. My neighbor has two large dogs, which my guest can sometimes see from my deck, and he's constantly offering to come over and beat them up. They haven't taken him up on the offer, YET!

Mostly he's very fun, even though he doesn't have the satisfying Lab obsession with retrieving toys for an hour into the local river.

Monday, August 07, 2006

"Reading" Didion cross country

I did some driving this past weekend, and as is my wont, I listened to a book on CD from the local public library. (I have a feeling that the librarians there think I'm illiterate because I've never borrowed an actual book from them, but only books on tape and CD.)

For most of the trip, I listened to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. The book frustrated me on several fronts. Here's a problem, though. At one point, Didion basically says that if you've never lost a spouse, you shouldn't criticize someone who has about their grieving or mourning or whatever. I want to specify that my criticism isn't about her grieving process, but about the book she's written. Inasmuch as the book seems part and parcel of her process, I may seem to be criticizing that, but when she chose to publish the book, she pushed it beyond grieving process and into being another text.

And, perhaps she's right; having never lost a spouse, I may completely lack the understanding she now claims. I may be a heartless and uncaring Bardiac. But in some ways it feels like the old Freudian repression game: if I say, "no, I don't feel X," a Freudian can say, you're just repressing. But what if I really don't feel X? There's no way to demonstrate it convincingly to the person who insists I'm only repressing.

Now, I've only listened to the book once, and only listened, so I may have missed things, or certain aspects of the book might have been more irritating than they would have been had I been physically reading and turning the pages. I have a habit of rereading or skimming when I read, and I don't do that sort of thing while I'm driving and listening to a CD. At any rate, I can't say what page things are on or even what chapter, because I also wasn't taking notes.

While I'm mostly critical of the book, I want to acknowledge that it's got some really good points. When she talks about specifics such as needing to reread the nurses' and autopsy reports or about the research she did on grieving, she has great insights and gets her points across really well.

The most astute part of her book comes in her limited critique of the ways our culture handles grieving: we mostly don't want to hear about it, don't want mourners to cry in public, don't want to hold someone's hand when they're sad or just sit there to share the pain. We're selfish so-and-sos. We hide death away, and then find ourselves (as a culture) surprised at our own grief and mourning. The problem is, Didion seems to think she's making a unique discovery here; if she'd read Dorcasina or Badger, or even cared about the widows and widowers she's undoubtedly known along the years, she'd be more aware of how really nasty our culture is on some fronts. It's unfair to criticize her for omissions, perhaps, but I really wish Didion had been more introspective about her own habits and understandings before her husband's death.

My most serious criticism of the book is that it's too long, and too repetitive. Individual sentences (and short passages) get repeated more than is effective; two or three repetitions would be more effective than the many repetitions are. She could get across the stream of consciousness kinds of effects with fewer examples; each of those examples would stand out better than they do now. In short, she needed an editor who'd cut her text shorter, perhaps half the length, or maybe even to a longish essay.

The book, for those who haven't read it, focuses on her reaction to her husband's death over the course of a year; her experience is complicated by her daughter's illnesses. For me, the information about her daughter's illnesses seemed invasive and weirdly self-centered. It was as if Didion's reactions to her daughter's experience were that it was all about Didion. I have no sense of Didion's intimacy with her daughter, because nothing of that comes across. She doesn't give the reader a sense of her daughter as a person, really, but more as an extension of Didion herself, if that makes sense.

And that made the information about her daughter's illness seem invasive and out of place. I have no idea if the daughter (Quintana) gave Didion permission to write publicly about her illness because I didn't hear her say so (such a permission could have been reported in a note not read, or I could have missed it while negotiating the confusing road constructions I passed). So it felt to me that Didion was using her daughter somehow. (And since Didion's a professional author and makes a living writing, that felt unethical, as though she's making money off her daughter's illness.)

My third critique is that Didion seems so unaware of her privilege in so many ways. I'm so much a Hobbesian in some ways: the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Leviathan). If someone hasn't had a large share of pain and grief, then they've been lucky. (I've been very lucky.) Didion's evidently been very lucky.

Partly, especially in the US, death isn't familiar to us the way it has been historically or still is in most parts of the world. I've never washed a body to prepare it for burial, but it's hard for me to believe that a woman could have reached my age (46) in early modern England without having done so, probably more than a few times.

I want her to realize that people die all the time, and that she's been basically living a fantasy if she hadn't realized that. She hints at one point that she sort of recognizes that, but never seems to fully engage in analyzing or seeking to understand the fantasy in any sort of critical way.

For example, when Didion talks about Hiroshima or the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, she doesn't seem to recognize that people died, much less that people grieved. She seems incapable of recognizing the grieving of people unlike herself. Similarly, when she talks about traveling, she doesn't seem to realize that her experiences hanging about at embassy functions or the like are almost surreal.

Part of the expression of privilege comes interestingly when she talks about the friends she has who can call on ambassadors, famous doctors, politicians and so on to get special favors. It sounds as if she thinks that's normal, or even right.

And she drops names like they're going out of style. She has dinner with this famous person or that, blah blah. Most of the time, the details of names seem unimportant to understanding or analyzing her grieving process, and I'm left feeling she just drops them to satisfy some feeling of importance.

So, overall, then, I think The Year of Magical Thinking could have been an outstanding book with tighter editing and more self-critical awareness and analysis, and more of a sense of respect for other people's experiences. It's still worth a good listen if you find it at your public library.

And yes, apparently I am a heartless Bardiac. Did I mention I'll be teaching Titus this semester? I'm totally jazzed!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Show

I went to see the student production of The Tempest last night, and I was pleased and proud. They pulled the show together, and it worked. Mostly it worked really well.

Seriously, for any company to go from having parts and a script to putting on performances in two weeks is fast; and these students not only performed, but did costuming, and built their set and props. Their hard work showed in all sorts of ways.

The four Ariels were far more effective than I would have imagined possible, and the harpy bit which had me worried earlier in the week was way cool. The young woman who'd had the most trouble sounded like she understood what she was saying and got the meaning across convincingly. The other young woman who'd had trouble getting out one phrase nailed it! I was so happy for them.

Playing Prospero as a woman worked well enough; the production didn't play much with her motherliness or femaleness, but the actor who played the part was clearly very strong and did a great job in the role.

When I see theater and such, I realize how strong my preferences are, and how equally strong, or even stronger my dislikes are. Basically, I've come to accept that I'm a plot person. If something doesn't advance the plot, I want it to be short at least. That goes especially for ballet-ish dance bits. (I think they were in the show because the director makes sure that everyone who tries out gets to participate, and some of them have taken dance classes and such. I love that everyone gets to participate!)

(Though I manage to enjoy absolutely silly dance stuff in old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. Still, I could have done without many of the more ballet-ish sequences in An American in Paris, for example. I recognize the skill and artistry involved to some extent, but I want to get on with the plot more.)

My other huge dislike is having American actors do bad fake British accents because they're playing SHAKESPEARE!!!!! Seriously, it sounds just stupid, and yet so many students seem to think that's the way to play Shakespeare.

On the very first day I met with our students, I rather strongly suggested that using their natural accents would sound more, you know, natural. Basically, I told the several actors who were trying to do British accents to drop them, and they pretty much did. Except one of the roles was played by an actor who'd been absent for the first week (when I was doing my thing), and yes, he played the role with a bad imitation of a modern British accent. And yes, he sounded all wrong and out of place amongst the Northwoods accents of the rest of the cast. Worse, I think he influenced another actor to veer back into using a fake accent, too (since she'd dropped it while I saw/heard in the first week, but had it again last night).

I talked to most of the cast after the performance, and they sounded pleased and tired. And most of them mentioned that they were looking forward to doing more Shakespeare next year. This is only the second year doing Shakespeare, and I have a feeling if the program continues, we're going to end up in a couple years with some local high school students who have a real feel for reading and acting Shakespeare.

The director told me that one of the students who'd participated last summer had another Shakespeare experience during the school year when he was required to read Romeo and Juliet. He'd told the director that he'd really noticed that he understood the play lots more easily than his classmates, and thought doing the summer program had helped him with reading more than he'd realized before. Beyond the great fun and experience of working with a group of people to accomplish something positive, learning something rocks!

I suggested the play to a number of friends, so we'd gone out for dinner ahead of time, and then to the play. I was happy to see that they all seemed to enjoy it.

Now I'm heading out of town for a couple of days!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Act 5 plus poetry blogging!

This past week, the students doing The Tempest have been working more on making costumes, sets, and props, and doing lots of rehearsals.

I stopped by earlier in the week, and spent an hour or two with the three playing a combined Ariel part working on the Harpy scene. One of the students just couldn't quite get the relative clause after Destiny and how it works. It's not the easiest clause, and does tend to interrupt the main thrust of the sentence, but I tried to explain. She'd look at me for a moment as if she understood, but then would ask about the same line again a few minutes later.

Ariel's talking to Alonso and the court gang:

You are three men of sin, whom Destiny,
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in't, the never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you, and on this island,
Where man doth not inhabit--you 'mongst men
Being most unfit to live. I have made you mad;
And even with such-like valor men hang and drown
Their proper selves. (3.3.53-60, Oxford World Classics edition)

She also had problems understanding the never-surfeited sea and "belch[ing] up you." I love that bit: it's bad enough to think of oneself being belched up by the sea! I'm not sure if the order of "up you" (rather than "you up" that I would use) is a more early modern order or special emphasis.

Another of the students also had real difficulty with "Thee of thy son, Alonso, / They [the powers] have bereft." For some reason, she just couldn't get the lines out.

I've had little experience acting (okay, none!), but have talked to some actors about learning lines and such, and the one thing I really learned is that it helps them learn if they walk around and get a rhythm going. So we tried that, and after about 10 tries, they started getting a rhythm together so that the lines spoken by three actors sounded as if they belonged to one character, very cool.

I went by again yesterday and watched part of a dress rehearsal. It's utterly amazing how far these students have progressed with the play. Partly the costumes and set make it work, but mostly they were really saying their lines with meaning!

So, in the spirit of fun and playing, here's Friday Poetry Blogging, courtesy of Shakespeare's Tempest and the character Stephano:

I shall no more to sea, to sea,
Here shall I die ashore--
The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I,
The gunner, and his mate,
Loved Moll, Meg, and Marian, and Margery,
But none of us cared for Kate;
For she had a tongue with a tang,
Would cry to a sailor, "Go hang!"
She loved not the savor of tar nor of pitch,
Yet a tailor might scratch her where'er she did itch.
Then to sea, boys, and let her go hang! (2.2.41-54)

(Now, for fun, imagine me trying to get the woman playing Stephano to understand and communicate to the audience about that song. I'm getting old!)

I'm going to see the show for real tonight, with a bunch of friends. Gosh, I hope it's good!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Welcome to the Faculty

As I read around the blogosphere, I see that lots of people are moving into tenure track positions, either straight from grad school or from adjunct or visiting positions.

First, let me wish everyone well as we move into the new academic year. If you've moved to a new job, I hope it meets your dreams. If you're going on the market, best of luck for the perfect job fit for you. And if you're like me, happily staying at the same job, well, gosh, have a great year.

It occurs to me as I read other blogs that there's a lot to learn as a new faculty member, but it's not going to necessarily be obvious what's important. So I thought I'd try to put together a few ideas. I'm bound to forget something totally obvious and important, so please help me out with suggestions!

I'm counting on you to know your research and such in your field, so I'm not going there at all. Rather, I'm going to focus on some common issues I think academics broadly share.

First, your job and survival, and second, teaching and advising.

Your job and survival

I'm pretty sure every university and department has a faculty handbook of some sort. Get hold of yours and familiarize yourself with it. Your handbook should give you a sense of your obligations and the expectations your colleagues will have of you. Knowing this information, and keeping it in mind should help you prepare well for evaluations and eventually tenure. If you've got a union, learn the basics of your relationship with the union and the union's relationship with your school.

Don't panic. Your department hired you because they want you, and if they have even half a collective brain, they want you to succeed. So don't be paranoid, and give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt as you get started. (If you were hired by one of those schools notorious for not tenuring anyone, then you know that you need to focus on making yourself even more marketable through research and whatever teaching and service seems necessary. It's still no cause for paranoia.)

Save stuff for your portfolio. If you go give a talk to group X, ask them for a short thank you note, and save it for your file. Put a piece of paper in your file and make notes when you do something you want to include in your evaluation. You can always decide not to include it later. That also goes for copies of conference papers or publications, copies of your syllabi (or, if you're into Classical Greek, syllabuses) and so forth.

Get to know your administrative and other staff members. These folks make a department and school a good place or not, often. Value and cherish them to the greatest extent possible. Be respectful and decent to adjuncts and students.

As a junior faculty member, you may sometimes feel like you're on the bottom of the heap. You're not. Just by being a faculty member, you've pretty much started near the top. But just as an army marches on its stomach (or so said Napolean?), a university succeeds because people clean bathrooms, shelve books, and make sure the computer network works. Value these folks for the contributions they make and be grateful for their efforts.

When you want to complain about your office or something, remember that the adjunct standing in line behind you would likely be grateful for your position and your office.

Learn to say "no." Committees take a lot of time, and they offer tremendous educational opportunites. But if you're typical, you'll have a lot of requests for your time from colleagues, administrators, and students. You don't always have to say "yes." One strategy is to ask if you can think about it over night, then think about it, talk with a mentor, and get back to the person the next day with a response. Actually say "no" when you mean it. A "yes" that's not backed up with necessary work is worse than a "no."

If you're paid on a nine month schedule, budget for summer. Put away one THIRD of your monthly income for the summer. Figure out what's best for you, and start paying off loans and putting money into retirement savings; if you're a typical faculty member, then you're starting ten years later than most of your cohort, and you probably have more debt, and (in the humanities) not great earning potential. Ask your colleagues for suggestions about retirement planners, read motleyfool dot com or whatever.

Teaching and Advising

You may not be officially advising right away, or ever, but you will undoubtedly informally advise students, so this information should be helpful, I hope.

Save your school's catalogs, and if you can get hold of catalogs from a couple years previous, hang onto them, too. Students generally have the right to hold a school to the requirements and practices outlined in the catalog for the year they entered the university, so having a catalog for the year your sixth year student entered can be incredibly helpful when you're looking at requirements and such. When you advise, make sure to note which catalog applies to your student.

Get to know the majors and minors in your department and related departments. Try to get a sense of the big picture your department has in mind for the major, and try to understand why people designed the major as they did. (Some majors may look totally loony. Maybe someone loony designed it, or maybe a group of people with conflicting interests did, or maybe the college put some strange constraints on it. You need to know which before you start suggesting changes.)

Every school has (I think) some kind of plagiarism statement/definition and policy. Find yours, put it on your syllabus (and, of course, cite it correctly!!), and get to know the policy. Take time to explain what plagiarism is and why you care about it to your students.

While you're at it, make sure you're familiar with your school's mission statement and goals. Think about how your courses contribute to the mission and goals. Make sure you can articulate how the assignments and activities you plan for your students contribute to their learning.

Most schools these days have some sort of program that faculty can use as an on-line component for your class. It may be Blackboard, WebCT, or whatever. Get to know yours, and think about how it might help you with some aspect of your teaching. I have students turn in essays in computer files, for example, which makes it easy to check for plagiarism if I have suspicions. I can also put up questions or whatever. At the least, you can post your syllabus and such there, so you won't have students asking for a new copy in the middle of the semester.

When you walk into class the first day of the term, remember that in all likelihood, your students are more nervous than you are. Of course, some of them will drive you nuts. But others will be quietly working away, and you may never realize how much they admire you or are grateful to you. Teach for them.

Good luck!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The appearance of impropriety

Recently, I was sounding off about how people in power have to avoid even the appearance of favoritism and such. Or at least they have to have earned enough trust and respect from the rest of us that we know the appearance is only an appearance, and not a real impropriety.

When I was in grad school, one of the professors seemed to have a special relationship with a specific graduate student. I don't know if they had a sexual relationship, but the student repeatedly got positions that were supposed to be one time opportunities: at a state supported activity, teaching abroad, and so forth. And suddenly, when the student got a TT job, those one time opportunities opened up again for people still in the program.

(I started when the student was already at the dissertation stage, and I finished a year earlier than this student, so maybe all the benefits weren't actually so beneficial?)

The student was smart, decent, helpful. The student was also resented by some (yeah, me for one). Despite my resentment at missing potential opportunities, I couldn't help liking this student.

I don't think that's at all unique, and I bet a lot of grad students and PhuDs could tell similar stories.

That sort of thing just tees me off.

So, in the middle of a rant about appearances of impropriety and favoritism the other day, I realized that I recently did something that just smacks of an improper appearance of favoritism and worse. OOPS! Nothing improper happened, nor any favoritism. But I'd hate to have to explain the appearance in front of the college president or something.

Sometimes I just am an idiot.