Tuesday, March 31, 2009

More Hating Meetings

So, wanna-be administrator read-aloud guy didn't read aloud today, thank dog.

But, as he's talking along, he says something along the lines of "The fort has to approve it."

I looked at the colleague on my left, a super smart person from over in businessland and asked super quietly, "fort?" She shrugged.

I looked at the colleague on my right, librarian to the core, and asked again "fort?" He shrugged.

I looked across at the social sci type who knows the history of NWU better than almost anyone I've ever met, and mouthed "fort?" She shrugged.

Maybe "fort" is what the porch club boys call the main administrative building? It's sort of a fortlike structure, and certainly sometimes the administration seems to be more ready for a seige than for open communication.

A moment for questions opened up, so I asked, "what's fort?"

And administrator wannabe says, "Foundation for Opportunities for Responsive Technology."* And then in the most condescending voice possible, just dripping, told me not to worry because "that's how we learn."

I wonder if the creator(s) of the acronym have thought for even a moment that the name they've given this tiny group might just be pretty darned off-putting and unfriendly. (Guess who created the tiny organization name?)

But if you need educational clicker technology, now you know where to go, eh?

*The name has been changed to protect the stupid, namely, me, from someone on campus accidentally finding this because he does a google for the acronym. But the spirit of the name is very close.

I Hate Meetings: Reading Aloud Edition

I checked the meeting agenda to prepare for my meeting this afternoon. We're being revisited by one of those folks who really likes to hear his own voice. He likes his voice so much that he reads aloud the stuff he brings forward. And he reads aloud badly. (But, lest we forget, he hangs out on the porches of the powerful around here, drinking and bonding with the other men who have power.)

Imagine, if you will, a dramatic reading of a budget report. And not with Patrick Stewart or someone like that doing the reading.

I've heard at least three different versions of this material read aloud in various meetings so far.

Yes, I know he's reading it aloud so that people will pay what he feels is sufficient attention to the immense amount of labor he puts in. Seriously, I recognize that the stuff is important but also boring enough that we don't actually want to spend time reading it. And, he doesn't send it out ahead so that we can prepare it by reading it ourselves so we can just ask questions or whatever.

I'm at the point of thinking:

Crappy Meeting vs. Playing on the Freeway in Hopes of Being Killed, and playing on the freeway is looking not that bad.

Or maybe I should think:

Crappy Meeting vs. Unemployment because I've been fired for being mean to one of the good old boys.

One hour of really crappy meeting looks a little less bad, doesn't it?

I wonder if I can find a way to become incredibly, dangerously, contagiously ill for just about an hour this afternoon? Is it any wonder I turn to sugar?

Weirdly Satisfying

I just spent half an hour doing the planning and forms for special meetings and presentation and responder sign-ups for one of my classes. It's the sort of thing that either a student worker can't do (figure out my schedule to arrange extra times to meet with students) or that it would take longer to explain than it does to do myself, probably.

I find this sort of thing weirdly satisfying. I'm all set for this part of class tomorrow, and that's nice, but I also have little papers to show for my effort.

So much easier than grading!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Great Moments in Literary History, #1

Guess what poem I taught today...

Double points if you can name the poem I taught with it!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Grading Block

You've heard of writer's block, when a writer either just can't get started writing or gets stopped by something and can't go further.

I have lots of ways of helping students get beyond writer's block.

Unfortunately, I have grading block.

Sometimes, I look at this huge stack of papers that I need to grade, and I find it too overwhelming to start. So I put it off, and that's a problem.

The other side is that I'll start grading a stack, but then run into something in the stack that's really bad, really frustrating, or something similar. Then I put the stack down, and I have difficulty getting started again.

I need to find a way to get beyond the blockage because once I get behind in grading, things just get worse. And worse.

Of course, eventually, I force myself to just grade, and do get the work done, but life would be so much better if I just got over the blockage and graded.

I need better strategies. Help?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Meet the Deanling

I have a student who's missed class since about the second week of classes. Stu hasn't turned in much in the way of required work for the class (a couple quizzes from the first week, that sort of thing).

Stu, as you might have guessed, has a serious medical problem. We've been in touch by email, and I helped him get in touch with the proper campus folks early in the semester.

Yesterday, I got an email from a deanling in that office basically asking us (the collective instructors of this student's classes) to do what we could to help him catch up. So this morning, I emailed back for clarification, giving the deanling the numbers about work completed and work not completed, and suggesting that withdrawing was the best idea for this student.

This afternoon, I was coming out of a meeting in the big shots' building and saw the deanling. He waved me over and asked for a minute to clarify the email. Sounds good.

The deanling, let's call him "F the deanling," said that it wasn't a good idea for Stu to withdraw because he'd lose eligibility for [sport]. I clarified, asking if [sport] was happening this semester. Yes, F the deanling assured me, it is, and Stu has been doing well and is getting a lot of support from the coach.

Then F the deanling suggested that maybe Stu could catch up on the five weeks he's missed, if I could give him more help. I'm sorry, I said, but I just don't have the time to teach an extra five hours a week. F the deanling then suggested that Stu could work with the tutoring center, or the professor involved in directing the tutoring center, to catch up. I asked if F the deanling thought that teaching a class might require more than a tutor, and suggested that the professor directing the center might not have an extra five hours a week, either.

F the deanling then suggested that Stu could take an incomplete, and I could help him make it up over the summer. And here, having tenure, I told F the deanling that I wasn't working unpaid over the summer, and that it was unreasonable to ask. And to F the deanling's credit, he agreed that he shouldn't actually ask that.

Then F the deanling wondered if Stu couldn't just do the work left to do for the class and make up what he could in order to pass. Like pretty much every college class I can think of, this one builds skills so that students need to have practiced and learned the skills in the early assignments in order to succeed at the later assignments. Imagine saying, well, the student missed the first half of German 1, but hey, they'll just finish the rest of the class and that will be fine. So I said I didn't really think that would work. F the deanling frowned.

So I asked how he expected Stu to catch up in all his other classes. If a student has missed five weeks of a full class load, it's pretty nigh impossible to catch up over the rest of the semester. There just aren't that many hours in a week. That's when F the deanling told me that Stu had been going to the other classes, more or less, along with [sport]. (But then, Stu apparently told F the deanling that he had done a fair bit of work for my class, too.)

So, Stu is well enough to play [sport] and attend some classes, but not mine? Yeah, I'm afraid I'm less than fully sympathetic.

F the deanling emphasized how important it is to maintain Stu's eligibility to play the sport; it's one of those cases when being in the sport is all that is keeping Stu focused on college. (Stu must be really good at this sport, to be playing already as a first year, eh?)

I know I'm a bitch, but really if a student is well enough to play [sport], s/he is well enough to fail a class.

I'm really pissed at F the deanling, seriously irritated. It's not that the student was BSing with me; this was a deanling, someone who should actually be focused on helping students get an education not maintain eligibility.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Grading Question

I'm grading essays about the liberal arts and such for my writing class. Several of the students have written that, basically, they're lazy, so that's why we should have requirements. Alas, so far, each of these essays is underdeveloped with minimal thought to why someone should force them to get an education and what requirements they think are important.

It's difficult not to write in my little note that their laziness shows in the essay they've written.

I wonder if they even think about that when they write about how lazy they are?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spoken too Soon

I appears I may have welcomed spring in just a tad too soon.

It snowed yesterday evening; I drove the last hour or so through it, and it was hard driving. But then, I'm a whuss about snow driving.

It wasn't much snow, and it's already melted from the driveway and road near my house (and I suspect other roads in the area). That melting really brings home what I've heard about the ways concrete and asphalt store heat way more than plants and soil do, because the snow's still on the lawn and soil a little (though it is melting).

There's a reason I keep posting pictures of the same crocus. There's only one. Yep. There are other crocus plants starting to come up, but this is the only flower starting so far. Keep your fingers crossed for more!

(One of the bonuses to taking out the ugly bushes in my front yard is that I'll be able to put in a bunch more crocuses and other bulbs for early spring hope next year.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Caption Contest

I went to a marsh today to see if I could see some birds. I know what you're thinking. This isn't a bird. It's a muskrat! (At least I think it's a muskrat. I don't know that I could tell a muskrat from a marmot without a better look at the tail.)

Mostly, I was too early for many migratory or nesting birds. I did see a few scattered pairs of Sandhill cranes. I saw my first Bufflehead. I saw a few Common Goldeneye.

I saw lots of Red-winged Blackbirds, LBJs, a couple raptors (Redtail, I think, and a Northern Harrier), and lots of these:

Write a caption, win an imaginary internet kudu!

Endurance Trial - Campus Visit

I wrote this a while back, when searches were on. But now that they're not, it might still be interesting in the future.

It occurs to me that it might be good to talk about what a campus visit for our department is likely to look like.

So here goes.

First, we're not easy to get to, so usually candidates get into town the day before formal stuff begins. Someone is assigned to put together a low key dinner at the hotel restaurant.

5:30-8:30pm - dinner (person in charge makes sure the candidate has a copy of the schedule, phone numbers, etc)

8am - breakfast, pick up at hotel, take to campus, to first meetings

9am - first meeting (dean, perhaps)

10am - second meeting (research support office, perhaps) (someone will guide the candidate, and that may mean waiting at the first meeting space because it's impossible to repark and that means that you have a 10-15 minute walk, and you don't want anyone getting lost without winter clothes! Make sure the candidate can get a snack, water, whatever along the way.)

11am - get to department (again, someone's guiding the candidate), intro around.

11:30 or so - a small group of faculty takes the candidate to lunch (at least one lunch is just "probationary" faculty)

1pm - teaching presentation (because we're a teaching school)

2:30pm - interview with chair, chair drives candidate around town, talks about housing, etc

4pm - candidate back to hotel, down time

6-8:30pm - dinner with small group of faculty

8am - breakfast, someone takes candidate to first meeting

9am - first meeting (provost, perhaps)

10am - second meeting (search committee, perhaps)

11am - down time, maybe campus tour with student

noon - lunch with faculty

1pm - down time

2pm - research presentation (because we also require research, and we can't decide what we're doing)

3pm - campus tour, time with students, whatever

5:30 - 7pm - dinner with faculty group

7:30 - 9pm - reception for candidate, back to hotel

next morning - candidate escapes, vows never to come to our frozen hell.

Typically, our candidates have sit down meetings with the college dean, someone from the provost's office, the head of research support, the chair, and the search committee. The big shot meetings are usually 20-30 minutes. Sometimes candidates do one presentation, sometimes also teach a class. Yes, we don't do that part well because we have a research requirement, and think that's important, but we also know we all teach a lot, and we want candidates to be good teachers from the get go.

Typically, the candidate walks around campus a bit, but... here's the thing, we have a really beautiful campus; it's a selling point. BUT, you don't want to freeze the candidate too much. You also don't want someone feeling lost when it's 5F with a bad wind chill, because that's just miserable. So someone guides the candidate, at least the first day (and yes, every office is spread out among weird buildings). Our typical candidate has been in five campus buildings by the end of the visit.

Typically, the chair takes the candidate around town a bit, talks about housing prices and stuff. Housing is fairly cheap, and that's good. But the cheap houses are generally not all that nice looking, or in charming neighborhoods. (Okay, even our pricy houses are cheap compared to most areas, but so are our salaries.)

The best thing we do, probably, is have the candidate eat with "probationary" faculty. That's the time for folks to talk candidly. You might be surprised that everyone in the department so far as I've seen (from all three angles now) considers that really private. No one asks and no one talks outside their lunch group about the questions or what's said.

We know that the job market sucks for candidates. But we also know that top candidates are likely to have other interviews and other campus visits, so we know we're also competing at this point.

And it's tough competition.

We're not a research I school, and it shows. It shows in the teaching schedules posted on doors, shows in the library, shows in the hallways of classroom areas, which are narrower than in R1s. Most candidates want the lower teaching load and high value research opportunities at an R1, and we can't offer those. In the English department, we all teach comp. Period. I know we don't get applications from lots of folks who don't want to do that. (And far better that they not apply, really, because it's a fact of life here.)

We're far from easy access or many city conveniences. Most people coming here have to take at least one connecting flight and a long shuttle drive. Same for leaving. We don't have some city amenities, even the ones you might not think twice about: Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Ikea, etc. Nope. Art museums, more than local history museums, museums of technology, science, etc. Nope. (We do have a children's museum celebrating the same mythic figure as every other small town in the upper midwest.) Other colleges/universities where spouses might teach? Nope. If you get slightly sick, we have decent health care, but if you get really sick, you go to another state. We have meth houses, areas of deep poverty, homeless folks, hungry folks.

Winter. It's effing cold, and lots of people don't want to live far from family in the cold.

We have budget problems. Those show in our salaries and in our infrastructure, not only on campus, but across town, when we negotiate ever-growing potholes on the main streets.

The area is pretty conservative. People have weaponry, not only in their cars but in their basements and gun lockers. Blaze orange is not just a fashion statement.

On the other hand, we have some positives.

First, we offer a low salary, but decent benefits.

We have a pretty good department. Yeah, I complain about the sexism, but I've been in far worse places, and I have friends in far worse places. If you get sick here, people will bring you hot soup and make sure your classes are covered.

We have pretty good students. Yeah, they're often first generation college students and don't "know the rules" the way more elite students do. But they don't pull some of the stunts and excuses I read about other students on the web. They're mostly pretty decent people who are scared about how they'll make a living and such. And mostly, they want to get an education. They're more likely to miss a day of class for a band tour or family hunting day than for a trip to the Bahamas.

And while our infrastructure sucks, when you look up, even in the middle of campus, you'll see trees, and you may see a bald eagle flying by. And we'll tell you about the trails (biking, walking, running, skiing). And just the beauty. Winter has it's own beauty, but when you see our campus in spring, summer, or fall, it really can take your breath away.

Our housing is cheap, and traffic jams are more likely to be momentarily caused by wild turkeys crossing the road than by too many cars.

The difficulty is in giving candidates a balanced view, making sure they realize we're not someplace where they'll teach six hours a week, have TAs to do the grading, and a research assistant, but that we are a place where people try to be humane and do a good job educating our students.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hope and Despair

Spring really is coming. My crocus says so!

News about budget stuff just gets worse and worse. In a nearby state, there's talk about having state employees pay more towards their health insurance benefit. We're looking likely to do furloughs here. One of my colleagues says they should just admit they're making pay cuts. I'm wondering if calling it a pay cut means it never comes back, while calling it a furlough means we go back to the regular pay eventually?

I have a contract letter that says how much I'm supposed to be paid for the year. Can they force me to take a furlough and earn less? How does that work as a contract?

NWU has been doing a big budget study project; the project is supposed to help the administrators decide in a reasonable, informed way, what goes, because some things are going to go. I have no idea what those will be, however.

All the departments and such did comparison studies with data about campuses similar to ours, and by and large we found that we get paid less and teach more students AND produce more research than those schools. In my department, that means we teach way more students in comp classes than our similar campuses do. It doesn't mean we do as good a job teaching as they do, however.

So, with the budget crisis, we're looking at adding more students to each class. Add a couple students to each comp class over the semester, and drop a whole comp section (one taught by an adjuct, of course) and save money on that adjunct's salary. That sucks for the adjunct in major ways, and for instructors across the board, and for our students.

There's the rock.

Educational assessment is always aimed at saying that we're doing a good job; there's never any benefit to saying we aren't. So, we assess writing and say that yes, students are improving, though not as much as we'd like. We have no way to compare how well we're teaching with comparable campuses.

And that's the hard place.

We can't get at how much better we might do if we taught smaller classes, nor is there money to pay for instructors enough to teach smaller classes. Instead, we'll get more students, and then that new number will become the new standard, and that will never go down. Even if I could prove that teaching 16 students instead of 28 meant that each student learned 20% more, it wouldn't matter because no one with real power really cares about our students enough to vote to pay for it.

The dean and chairs are talking about ways to mitigate the added load of additional students in our classes. In some classes, profs will start using bubble tests, but it's hard to imagine how to teach writing without actually having to grade writing, and that goes not only for composition classes specifically, but for philosophy classes, history classes, and so forth, all of which are writing intensive fields.

I'm looking at the rest of my career and figuring things will never get better.

I used to think it might, but the more I hear people complain about paying taxes, the more certain I am that things won't change for the better in public education.

So as I look at the rest of my career, another 15-20 years, I'm wondering if it's worth it? Or what the alternatives are.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


I woke up yesterday grumpy, and I woke up again this morning even grumpier. I'm not usually a grumpy person, either. Not that I'm the most cheery in the world, but I'm more on the cheery than the grumpy side, mostly.

Is it: hungry (need protein?), thirsty, hormones, nasty wind, carryover from worrying about budget stuff (personally and professionally), worrying about grading I still have to do, winter blues?

I took care of some stuff today, and then, because it was nasty windy, in that gusty ucky way, not quite the Santa Anas (because not dry), but still, too windy to make riding fun, I decided to garden. Mostly this involved cleaning away dead stuff from last year, trimming some things, and filling in where rabbits have been digging (at least, I think it's rabbits).

Look what I found under one area of dead stuff! Irises! These are some split offs from the German Iris plants I bought when I moved into my first house here, and some friends came to help me get my garden going. In June, they get a deep dark purply-blue flower for about ten days. And that's that. But the foliage is nice for several months, too. And the rabbits don't seem interested, so WIN!

I detest whomever put river rock "mulch" throughout the front yard. It's a pain to weed around (and no, the plastic sheeting underneath doesn't keep the weeds out for very long) and worse to try to plant through.

And here's another shot of the crocuses, growing a little bigger each day.

I feel a lot better after gardening for a couple hours, a lot less grumpy.

I got a ceramic wren house from a local potter yesterday, when I went out galavanting with a friend for a couple house. I'm trying to think where to hang it. The trees I planted when I moved in aren't strong enough for it yet, I don't think, but I want it on the south side of the house (because there's a bird house on the north side, and a house, feeder, bat house and suet feeder in various places in back (the west). I'm wondering if I can hang it from the gutter without causing problems?

Monday, March 16, 2009



I saw the first crocuses coming up today in my front yard, so I thought I'd share with you. Look closely; they're not very big yet, but there they are!

In the past couple days, I've also seen my first Robins of the season and the first Juncos of the season.

I even went without long johns today, for probably the first time since December.

My bike ride was short, slow, and glorious!

I love spring!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Classes before break

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I'm going to complain about how few students showed up for classes today.

Yeah, there were a few missing.

But the poetry students, most of whom were there (and turned in their papers) were just great today. Before class, we were waiting in the hall while the previous class finished a midterm, and some of my students were teasing me about letting them go early so that I'd have more time to start grading.

But when we got to work, talking about Hero and Leander, they were really good; lots of people contributed to small group discussions, and a good number reported back well to the class.

I think the absolute brilliance of the poem may have had something to do with it, but maybe I just got lucky! And yes, this is an afternoon class.

Mileage Memory

3385 miles on the odometer at the beginning of the year.

The goal is 2000 miles this year.

14 miles today; slow, but it felt SO good!

Just so I can look it up easily!

Break Planning

Here's the plan; let's see how much I actually accomplish:

1) Grading
--peer editing for all three classes (yeah, the timing is especially stupid)
--essay for writing class
--revisions for writing class
--poetry essay thing for poetry class
--midterms for poetry and drama classes
--quiz for writing class

2) Garden
--chop down overgrown, nasty bush BEFORE birds start nesting there again.
--clean out one nesting box (another is already clean)
--repair third nesting box.
--fantasize about how many bulbs I can put in where the overgrown bushes that I'm chopping down were, and about putting in a couple small trees (serviceberry, maybe)

3) Fun
--visit marsh
--visit river to see buffleheads that are supposed to be there
--visit crane or eagle place
--visit local history museum (I know what you're thinking, but we have a pretty darned good local museum, and they have a new exhibit!)
--read a book a friend lent me
--have lunch with a pal

4) Class Prep
--prep for library visit for writing class; meet with librarian, maybe?
--order book for next year's common text
--reread plays for the rest of the semester, at least two of them
--prep a week or two of poetry class

5) House
--hunt down and kill the nasty beetles that AREN'T ladybugs!
--call the repair place about getting my drier fixed (it's been a couple months, but who has time to take a day to wait around for a repairperson to get the drier fixed?)

6) Exercise
--bike! BIKE!!!! It's supposed to get above 40 this coming week!
--clean ski stuff out of the car and wax the skis. Figure out where they live during the summer (laundry room, I'm thinking)

7) Other
--feed and medicate friend's cats

Egad, I'm exhausted just looking at this!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I hate being female.

When I was, what, 12? I thought I was bleeding to death for a couple minutes when I first got my period. Then the realization kicked in, sort of. What I didn't quite realize was that the crappy way I felt--the feeling that my gut was being twisted to shreds with a pair of pliers--would last far into my adulthood without any real relief (though I did develop a taste for bourbon, which was way more effective than an aspirin). Yes, it's true, I was not one of the brighter or more sophisticated adolescents ever. In spite of having watched a couple years worth of film strips about the wonders of womanhood, I was mentally unprepared.

And now middle age.

I think I'm getting hot flashes. I'm not really sure, but then, I'm not a much more bright or sophisticated adult than I was an adolescent. Still, it's super cold here, and I'm all tucked in warm in my bed sleeping last night, and suddenly, I'm either dying of a fever or having a hot flash. So I throw off the covers, wait, and then I'm freezing. I couldn't find a reasonably comfortable medium for what seemed like forever (because even three seconds freezing is too long). In reality, it was long enough to really wake me up so I couldn't get back to sleep easily. And since I didn't die of whatever (though that seemed like a fine alternative at the time), I'm guessing hot flash. I'm still mentally unprepared.

What I want to know, why can't I get a hot flash when I'm walking across campus and it's minus 8 wind chill? Then it would be delightful. My face wouldn't hurt! I hate being cold!

Seriously, I figure one thing out and get on with my life, and blam, my body comes up with some other misery.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Off Stride

It's seventh week now, and I feel like I haven't found my rhythm for the semester. First there were multiple searches, complete with campus visits (I've participated in about 7 campus visits this semester, some for merely a meeting, some for hours at a time). Then there's the budget disaster, which our campus officials are increasingly characterizing as "calamaty" and "catastrophe."

And endless meetings. We're talking about ways to save money, including furloughs. While I'm grateful to have my job, I'm not looking forward to unpaid furloughs. Word is that the administrators are thinking about basically a half month unpaid. So I'm wondering if, since I'm paid on a 9 month contract, that means I will lose 1/18th of my pay rather than the 1/24th that someone on a full year contract would lose. That's a chunk out of my income that I'm a bit worried about. And yet, I also recognize that there's a level of pettiness to my worry. But that doesn't stop me from worrying.

The amount of money we could save by furloughing the whole campus for a half a month is substantial, but not compared to the budget cut the state is imposing. Basically, across the system, I'm told, the budget cut to the system could be balanced by completely cutting two NWU campuses the size of this one. That's a heck of a big budget cut, and our share is overwhelmingly large.

There's a point in budget discussions, here and nationally, that my brain just gets overwhelmed and befuddled, and I'm at that point pretty much all the time. I don't know how to solve the economic problems; I don't know how to even begin to address them. I only know that even doing all the things I was supposed to be doing (living within a budget, saving for emergencies, saving for retirement, getting a realistically affordable mortgage, minimizing credit card debt/use), I'm still scared. And I'm lucky to be only scared so far.


I was walking to a campus visit thing last week, and passed by a group of trees on campus with a bunch of Cedar Waxwings! I usually see Cedar Waxwings in the trees outside my office window (I know, you may be jealous on so many fronts: office, window, trees visible!) a bit later in spring, so I was surprised to see them already. I'm guessing the spring migration is ON!

We've got spring break from classes next week. There's a big marsh a couple hours south of us which is known as a great place for migration birding. So I'm thinking of taking a day out of the break and going to visit the marsh.

Yep, that's me: an exciting spring trip to southern parts in search of wild birds. Who knows, there may be feathering involved for some of the birds!

I've got my fingers crossed for an early spring, even though we're expecting snow this afternoon and tonight.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Advertising Snarl

Has anyone else noticed that if you click through to a different place using someone's blogrolling list, you get this redirect thing that adds in advertising (a bar across the top with moving stuffs) that slows my loading the heck down.


Go away, blogrolling ads!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Thoughts on Composition Teaching and the Job Market

My department had several searches this fall, though most of them have now been cut, alas. Although this year's a mess, and things aren't going to get better fast, I imagine that we'll be searching for English department literature positions at some point in the future.

Every time we do a lit faculty search, we put up front in our ad that composition is about 50% of our load. And when I am (and my colleagues are) reading 100+ applications for a lit position, we look for evidence that the job applicant can teach comp. Maybe that evidence comes through in the letter, or in the CV, or in the letters of recommendation, but in order to get past my first cut, an application has to give me a sense that the person can teach composition.

So I have this to say to job applicants:

1) If you can't bear the idea of teaching about 50% comp, please don't apply for our job.

2) If you want to be a strong candidate here, know how to teach comp well, and make sure that comes through in your letter, CV, and maybe even letters of recommendation.

3) If you sound enthusiastic about teaching comp and working with our students, that will make your application stronger. If you sound insane, we won't believe you anyway.

Now, the paragraph on teaching comp that will help get you past my first cut isn't going to help you getting an R1 job. Depending on the R1, being able to teach writing well may or may not be helpful at getting you to the next step. (It may be helpful if you get hired.)

I'm willing to bet that most English lit faculty at other regional comprehensives, at SLACs, technical universities, and community colleges teach a fair bit of composition. So if you're willing to apply for those jobs, it makes sense to prepare yourself to teach composition well.

That means, if you're applying to grad schools, you should think about what sorts of training and opportunities they offer in composition teaching. If they provide neither, then that's something to think about. Maybe you'd rather leave academics than teach composition, and so you're making a good choice.

If you're already in grad school, and your institution doesn't offer good training and opportunities, then you need to think about what you want. And then you either need to decide you don't care because you're going to teach at an R1, or you need to find a way to get some training and some experience. Maybe that means taking a class or two at another school. Maybe that means working for a tutoring center or trying to find other teaching opportunities.

If you're already in grad school and your institution does offer some training and opportunities, then I'd strongly recommend you take real advantage of them. Put aside the comments from folks who think teaching composition is a waste of time, and make connections with the people who do it well, whether they're other grad students or professionals who teach comp/rhet. Yes, I know that's a lot to learn, but you don't have to learn to do research in comp/rhet; you have to learn to read research and to take advantage of research in order to teach well.

Yes, it's a different field, but learning to teach writing well will help you teach writing in lit courses, too. And it will also probably help your own writing.

What if you're already finished with your phud and don't feel qualified to teach composition?

1) When your grad school/department does the alumni interviews for assessment, make sure you tell them they screwed up.

2) If you can't stand teaching comp, find something else that makes you happy.

3) Put the skills you learned in earning your phud--research and analysis skills, especially--to work and learn about teaching composition.

From the comments I've been reading, I get the sense that there are a number of folks out there teaching comp in programs where control of composition is pretty tightly held by administrators (or someone).

I'm of two minds about that. The first is that if you're not already confident and well-trained in teaching comp, having an imposed structure might actually help, even though it feels awful (and I'm sure it does). But if you're already confident and well-trained, then it probably just feels awful. I'm sorry.

I've never taught anywhere post-phud like that (and that's three jobs). I can only imagine how utterly frustrating such a program is. My experience has usually been that everyone was WAY too busy to try to control my work in the classroom (except to collect syllabus information, do observations and responses, check evaluations, and provide critical feedback).

I don't know how I'd manage within such a program. I like to think that I'd be able to find a way to teach well, but who knows?

And now, I'm off to grade, because grading truly is endless, even when it's not comp.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Thinking about Teaching Comp

Some of the responses to my last post got me thinking, especially one that asked for a book recommendation.

I understand the impulse, the desire to get one book with the answers, or at least a solid background. The thing is, composition studies is a huge field, and there's no book that's going to do that, any more than there's one book that will teach someone what they need to teach Shakespeare at the college level. And really, comp studies is a wider field than Shakespeare studies. I'm not even a comp specialist, just someone who tries to do my job, which includes about 50% comp teaching. (I did a certificate in teaching composition, way back when, which included 1 undergrad and 3 grad courses.)

But even if you asked a really great comp specialist, s/he'd have to know where you were starting.

Do you know about process research, for example? What do you know about brainstorming techniques, or responding effectively, or writing assignments, or any number of other things, because comp is just so huge.

That said, I do have a suggestion.

First, make yourself a list of things you think are important for teaching comp.

My list would include (with no attempt at parallel structures or anything, just brainstorming!):

What do I mean when I say "Writing well." What makes good writing?
What do my colleagues think counts as "good writing"?
Making effective assignments. (What do I mean by "effective" here?)
Making assignments that don't make me want to rip out my eyes.
Teaching writing processes for different learning styles.
Responding and grading effectively.
Organizing the flow of an assignment (readings, pre-writing, etc) over a period of time.
Organizing the flow of the course over the semester.
Helping students read effectively.
Helping students use outside information, ideas, materials ethically and effectively.
Making plagiarism so painfully difficult that students won't likely do it.
Figuring how much (if any) grammar stuff I need to teach my students (passive voice, dangling verbals, punctuating appositives, whatever)
How to help my students proofread.
Using short/informal writing effectively.
Figuring out how to use a textbook, if any, and choosing one (if I want).
Helping students read critically (especially other people's work).
Helping students revise.
Getting students to take revision seriously.

Second, use that list to make up a list of questions. For example, I might want to ask what the relationship is between reading students do in college and writing improvement.

Or maybe I want to ask how to organize a revision process into my syllabus.

Maybe I'm in a really practical mood and I want to learn how to respond more efficiently to student writing.

Once I have a good list, I'd prioritize. Figure out which answers are likely to help you most in your teaching.

Then, find someone on your campus, or from your old grad program, or at the R1 three hours drive away. On my campus, we have a writing person (well, there's a whole big fancy title) who's the only actual comp/rhet phud on campus, and she's friendly, so I chose her. At my former school, which was very tiny, I would have got together with a couple of the adjuncts who were friendly and great teachers. Now, I can also email a former student who's studying for a phud in comp/rhet. You should be able to find someone with more expertise than you have.

Then tell that person that you're working on teaching comp better, and that you'd really like to learn what's what about this question. What do they think? Can they recommend a resource (a book, an article or two, whatever) to help you learn more.

I've never had a comp person react negatively to my asking for help like this, or asking if what some specific thing I'd learned in my comp program was out of date now. BUT, I know that at some R1s, comp directors get abused a lot by TAs and others; they're treated really poorly. So, if you're at a place like that, make sure you approach the question with respect. On the other hand, if you're at a place like that, there are probably comp grad students, or grad students trying to teach comp, who are also trying to put things together, and you could try approaching them.