Thursday, January 31, 2013

Job Search - The Job Talk

At most places where I've seen this done, the candidate is asked to present something from hir research or creative activity.  Sometimes, I know search committees ask for something special, a sort of please introduce us to this specific issue or whatever.

From a candidate's perspective, the research/creative activity talk makes so much more sense, especially if you've got a couple of campus visits, because you can basically give the same talk at each of the visits, and you'll have time to focus on it and really polish it.

The other seems like hell, and I'd argue against it were I on the committee.  (It's worth knowing, perhaps, that the committee doesn't always communicate such requests to the department at large before the candidate does the talk.  Alas, we aren't always great communicators.)

I went to a job talk recently, and was at least as interested in watching my colleagues' responses as I was in what the candidate had to say.  Some colleagues were all nods, and afterwards very happy, others were clearly uncomfortable, and afterwards not so happy.  The happy ones are fine.  It's the ones who were uncomfortable that probably say something about what people are looking for, at least in a department such as my own (a regional comprehensive).

Let me use my old standby, underwater basketweaving.  The candidate was talking about the effect of salinity levels on the meanings of deep water basket weave tightness.  The happy, nodding people were in basically a related field, pretty much.  So when the candidate talked about salinity levels, they were thinking  about the methodology of measuring salinity levels and the effects on reed pliability, and how the material affects the meaning and how they teach students to manage weave tightness. 

The uncomfortable people were uncomfortable for a variety of reasons.   And it's worth recognizing that some people are more willing to be uncomfortable, or, as we say in basketweaving circles, out of their depth.  And some really hate it.

J was uncomfortable because J is a deepwater weaver,  and J has very strong opinions about weaving, and doesn't really believe that salinity levels affect meaning at all.

C was uncomfortable because C is in historical basketweaving and wants to hear about the historical changes in salinity levels; modern salinity measurements just don't cut it for C, you know.

Then what's a candidate to do?

As I listened to J and C, and realized that my own interests were sparked by some of the talk, but that I thought C's desire for a greater historical understanding ("Always historicize.") was partly mine, too.

But a candidate can't know that.  And let's face it, the candidate's work is what it is.

But, and I think this is most important, a candidate can make sure that they're talking in a way that won't limit their audience just to people who do exactly what they do.

I think of it like this, I suppose:

When you're first in grad school, you spend a whole lot of time trying to sound smart, adopting the language of your field, trying to understand it fully.  You read Jameson, and then start quoting him as if of course, everyone should just know that.

The height of this comes when you're in the depths of your dissertation.  You think of everything in terms of your dissertation, perhaps, or at least a lot.  You're self-absorbed.  And since most of your grad school cohort is also writing, you have lots of conversations about very theoretical issues, history, critics, sources, and so on.  You speak your own language.  And sometimes you forget that others don't speak that language.  Or maybe they just don't care.

And then you start teaching the stuff you've been working on, and you realize that you need to talk differently to communicate to undergraduates.

And then you keep teaching, and you realize that sometimes the most difficult issues need to be communicated more effectively, that people who do physics want to understand what you do, but they don't have time to read De Certeau because they're working hard on their own stuff.  But they're smart.  And you ask them physics questions, and you learn that they can explain really complicated physics stuff so that you can understand, even if you can't do the calculus in your head.  And then you learn to communicate with the physics folks, and the anthro folks, and your students and your peers at conferences.  Or maybe you never quite get there, but you can see others do it, and know it's worth doing.

Maybe, as one of my colleagues said, you realize that something else is really important to you, and you aim everything at communicating that, and you realize that you care more about speaking to a different audience than to other salinity theorists.

So for the successful job talk, you need to get beyond talking to other dissertators, and get to talking to people who aren't salinity experts, to people who don't speak the exact language of your dissertation, and to help them see why your research work matters and why they should care anyway.

Crowdsource a Problem

We're a week into classes, and just past the add without special permission date.  But our chair was working with a student, and that student needs to get into my class.  So the chair asked me.  And I said yes.  (It's not worth debating my yes, but let's imagine I have good reason both for the student and the chair.)

Here's the problem.  The students on that very day are to turn in a short paper worth 10% of the total grade, and based on a group and classroom experience, reading, and discussion.  (In short, they did a performance project in groups where they all worked with the same short scene and performed it, read about early modern theater in McDonald's Companion, talked about it as a class, and then wrote a short paper about their experiences.)

So now I'm trying to think of something to have this student do that will provide a reasonably parallel experience so that zie doesn't totally lose that 10% of the grade (making it impossible to get an A in the course, and fairly difficult to get a B.

I grade quite leniently on the response paper because I'm more interested in them thinking about their response than in saying something brilliant.  I'm pretty happy if they demonstrate that they've learned.

For those more assessment oriented, I'd say the goals for this assignment include:

Working well in a group to solve complex problems
Getting to know some other folks in class
Grappling with a short scene
Performing in front of the class
Watching other performances and thinking about them
Thinking about space and performance
Thinking about their theater experience and the early modern theater we read about
Beginning to see Shakespeare as a performance text
Writing about their experience, focusing on one or two things

I think the assignment does a lot of "work" in the course, and I'm not sure how to give an individual student a parallel experience.

Ideas, please?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Since You Mentioned It

Have you all seen this utterly and astoundingly brilliant XKCD comic:

(XKCD is so good so often.  If I could do that, then I would be insufferably proud.)

Text(s) of the Day

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Oboe Project!

There's a blogger doing an oboe project that's just cool beyond words.  The idea is to connect oboe students with oboists and reed makers so that they can take lessons, get reeds, and so on, even if they aren't close in the usual spatial way.

It's one of those cool projects that just make you think, hey, the world could be a better place.  Because, indeed, what could make the world a better place than more oboists all playing a bit better?  I thought you'd think that!

Pass the news along if you know an oboist or want-to-be oboist!

Job Search - The Teaching Demo

We tend to ask candidates on campus visits to do either a teaching demo, some sort of research talk, or sometimes both.  Today, I'd like to talk a bit about the teaching demo. 

We're a "teaching institution," so maybe it makes sense to ask candidates to do some sort of teaching demo, but I'm never quite clear on what we're looking for.  Usually only the search committee and the instructor for whatever class the demo is in are at the teaching demo, so it's not like the whole department is watching.

What's the point, then?

I suspect we want to see if the candidate will outright abuse the students or freeze up or something?  I can't really imagine either happening, so I'm not sure what we learn. 

When we do observations of colleagues, we're pretty careful to follow a process of asking the colleague what they're trying to accomplish in the class session, and how they plan to do whatever it is, what potential issues they're having, and so on.  And then we talk after the observation, and give the colleague a chance to say that they changed their plans, thought this worked or that didn't, and so on, and then give them what should be constructive, developmental feedback.

But the teaching demo doesn't have that level of process, and certainly not feedback.

When I interviewed here, I guest taught a Shakespeare class on Macbeth.  If I recall correctly, it was the first day the class was working on the play, so I started at the beginning.  That makes me think that there's some information a candidate should ask for or be given before the demonstration.


What's the course, level, experience, and how long has the course been meeting?  If it's the first day of class, then you're going to expect different things than if it's the middle of the semester; students, for example, are likely to be more at ease speaking with each other later in the semester, but may also have developed relationships, good or bad, that might make things work or not.

How does this day fit in the course calendar and syllabus, and what is the instructor hoping gets done that day.  So, for me, first day of Macbeth, it would also have helped to know how many hours the instructor was planning to spend on the play.  If I'm supposed to do the whole play in an hour, I'll take a very different approach than if I'm planning to spend six hours on the play.  It's a world apart.

Are there specific readings or whatever.  Macbeth is pretty specific, of course, but also the edition might matter, or assigned critical readings, what's been done before, and so on.  I'll teach Macbeth differently in the context of a witchcraft course than in a hit the genres Shakespeare course, and differently again in an intro to literature course.

Size matters.  If the class has 15 students, you can do things you can't do in a class of 60, especially as a visitor.

How long is your teaching supposed to last?  Is it a three hour class and you get the first half hour?  Or is it an hour, and you should take the whole thing?

As I'm thinking about it, I guess as a committee member, I want to see that the candidate has some sense of how to run a classroom, and can engage students.  I want to see that the candidate seems purposeful and aimed at getting somewhere.  And I want the candidate to be able to talk (if we're chatting later) about what they were after.

How about you folks?  Do you do teaching demos?  And what, if anything, do you want to learn about your candidates?

And for candidates, do you have thoughts on teaching demos that you're willing to share?  Are there things your hosts can do to make these work better as a way to show us how good you are?

Sunday, January 27, 2013


Thanks for the kind thoughts, friends.  I'm much better now.

Rest is good, as was great skiing and a really hot, good dinner with some friends.

I've emailed myself some pictures from Canterbury, and will be showing a few.  Thanks for that suggestion.  I've got tons of pictures, so I should be able to come up with something for a variety of days (not all from Canterbury).  But, I've got the cathedral, a bit of wall, some stained glass, and stuff from the Black Prince.  And also the spot marking where Becket was killed.

So, thank you again.

Friday, January 25, 2013


I'm feeling utterly overwhelmed and blue. 

I'm so tired of people scheduling stuff and my having to do it because it's part of the job.  (And yes, I know, my stuff isn't as important as the scheduling stuff, and it's really, really hard to figure out a schedule that will accomodate all these people.  Did I mention I'm blue?)

I'm especially overwhelmed by my Chaucer class.  I think it's a couple of things.  First, it's the second class, back to back, in the morning.  So I don't feel fresh going in, and I really need to prep a long time the day before so that the stuff will all feel fresh again.  The first class is comp, and I'm just not excited to be teaching this course.  It takes more than its share of my mental energy without providing anything like enough sense of reward.

And it's been well over a year since I've taught Chaucer.  And I think I either have to teach it pretty much every year or not.  But I love teaching Chaucer and don't want to give it up.  Except it's got to get better or I won't love it any more.  (This was only the second day of the class, so surely, surely it will get better, right?)

I'm just going to go whine in the corner.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Driving Around

I have a question for folks who've done or are doing searches, and for folks who are searching for jobs, and maybe visiting campuses.

At most campuses I've visited (not a lot, admittedly), there's a thing where someone drives the candidate around the community a bit.

And I want to know, what do we want a candidate to get out of that?

And potential candidates, what do you want to get out of a drive around the community?

Thanks, intertubes!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Being a Jerk

I really try not to.  I do.  But today, I failed a bit.

I didn't go out and beat people up or anything, but still, I could have done better.  But I was too tempted.

We were going over the syllabus, and I'd just talked about a sort of short assignment, multiple repetitions.  So think, a typed journal once a week assignment, but shorter.  Still, you get the idea.

And a student asked, "So we just write it on a piece of paper?"

And dog help me (because I couldn't help myself), I said, "As opposed to, what, turning it in by ESP?"

Which, I still think is funny, sort of, in that desperate English professor way.  But it didn't really treat the student nicely.

(In my defense, I think the student was wanting to hear, yes, just write it on a piece of paper during class and turn it in late, because it's not that important to me.  And I really do not want it written in class while other things are supposed to be happening.)

But still, I shouldn't make it about my defense, right?

So, I'm a bit cranky at myself because I didn't handle that as well as I could have.  (And no, it's probably not something to beat oneself up about, but I do try to treat students reasonably well.)

On another note, I've now taught the first class for each of my courses this semester, and they all went well enough.

In Chaucer, we spent less time on the syllabus than usual.  I had them do some freewriting (about what it means to make art from violence, and to consume art made from violence, which is something I want the students to think about, especially as we get into some of the tales).  And then we read "Adam Scriveyn" aloud, me first, then them, and talked a little about the final couplet (and how it imagines the violence).

Chaucer and Shakespeare in the same semester.  It's hard to get any better than that for me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Trying Something New

It's the first day of classes, but I start mine tomorrow, so today is a reading day.  (I'm reading the new only to me economic history by Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities.  Gosh, I always have so much to learn!)

Anyway, I'm trying something a little different this semester with my lit classes.  Usually, I start the first day by handing out the syllabus and spend a fair bit of time going over it.

But this time, I've sent the students out the syllabus and calendar (with a promise that I'll also bring them a copy), and asked them to take a look at it.  So I'm hoping to spend less time with that, and then jump right into fun stuff.

For Shakespeare, it's a performance project, which has worked really well for me every time I've used it, and which will benefit from some more class time on the first day.

For Chaucer, though, I'm not sure.  In the past, I've used "Adam Scriveyn" as a warm up (but with less time because of the syllabus stuff).  So I might do that.  Or I might do a quick "what do you know about Chaucer or the middle ages" sort of thing.  (And here, let me admit, I'm feeling a little iffy on all the dates that I might need to come up with...)  

What sounds good? And exciting?  (Because Chaucer is so much fun, and I want them to get that sense of fun.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Now or Then

Over the course of the year, I have four departmental tasks in a certain category.  Each is fairly involved, several hours of work at best, with intermediate steps that must be done with a reasonably good process, and so on.  And each, to some extent, depends on someone else doing part of their task first, or after, or with some coordination.  And each has variable deadlines for different parts.

I've done two of my four tasks.  One of those I finished over break because the person ahead of me on the wheel finished hir part well ahead of hir deadline. 

And just yesterday, I found out that another person ahead of me on another wheel finished hir task ahead of the deadline.  That means I could do my part today and tomorrow (I've already done a big chunk that could be done earlier).  Or I could wait for the semester to actually begin.

If I do it today: then I don't work on my SAA paper, or read for pleasure as much, or whatever.  (I'm totally prepped for classes, so that's done.)

If I don't do it today, then I'll work on something else, and have to fit this other task in during the semester, working closer to the deadline.

This is the sort of task that's weirdly easier for me to work on if I can do it without a looming deadline.  Other things I work to deadlines pretty well, but this one, well, I just seem to like working without a looming deadline.

Now that I think about it, I also like doing a lot of other things without the looming deadline.  My classes, for example, were mostly prepped pretty early, with me doing fine tuning last week and yesterday.  I could, if I were showered, walk into my classes today and start. 

Looming deadline, or no?  I guess I like worrying less about time and doing it at whatever rate seems good?  Like a bike ride?  I don't ride fast, but usually I get where I'm going.  (Of course, as Derrida would have it were I a letter, whereever I get must have been where I was going.)

I think I'm going to go do this task now.

(I get extra points for including a Derrida reference, right?)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Begin Again

I just watched the quick televised "private" swearing in.

Gosh, the Obama's kids are growing up!  Malia, especially, is almost as tall as her mother!   I don't see them in the news a whole lot (which may be the news I see/read), so maybe I was more surprised than I should have been.

After my last post, I did a bunch of housestuff, cleaned out two closets, swept the garage of the top layer of salt grit stuff, and then as a "reward" went to see The Hobbit.  That was my mistake.  First, I ate a soft pretzel.  Then the movie was a disappointment.  It's all jumbled with stuff from The Silmarillion, and at least an hour longer than it should be. 

I guess to me, I think of The Hobbit as having a sort of romance structure, while The LoTR has more of an epic structure.  But the film seems like it's trying to make it a sort of epic.  I think it would have been better to make The Hobbit as that, and then maybe make a couple of Silmarillion films.  Take that with a large helping of salt, of course, since I've never made a film that made buckets of money, and the makers of The Hobbit have.

Oh, and Radagast was totally, totally wrong!

Anyway, within an hour after getting home, the pretzel had taken it's revenge, and I was sick until the early hours of the next morning.   It was pretzel revenge, so far as I could tell, because I recovered so quickly (relatively speaking).

Still, today I awoke to news the Andre Greipel won the first "race" of the season at the Tour down Under (it was a prologue, as I understand it, rather than a regular stage?).  So biking has begun!  Better yet, the reports said that Jens Voigt went out on an early attack, so that makes the year really begin.

So now, begin again: my house looks a bit messy (I have broken down boxes in a stack--does anyone else tell themselves that they'll someday use that Amazon or whatever box, and then realize they have 15 or 20 boxes of varied sizes stuffed in a closet?  Most headed for recycling now!) and an extra bag of garbage which won't fit my can until after the pickup this week.  Still, the closets look really nice now.

I didn't get nearly the work done on my SAA paper done that I'd planned, but I'm ready to restart.

But I'm back getting stuff done again, at least.  And that's a delight!

Did I mention, congratulations President Obama.  Do a good job, sir!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Six Days

I have six days until I walk into my first class of spring semester.  I have a lot to do, but I've also got some spare time.

I've got an appointment on campus with the tech folks tomorrow, so will put in time to finish prepping classes while I'm there.  I have a correction to make on one calendar, and some minor changes.  Other than that it's re-reading, checking the math (do the grade percentages add up to 100?), and then it's down to getting copies made.

I have some stuff to do for advising: a welcome to the semester letter to write, files to check, and so on.

I have an SAA paper to work on, and significant work to do on it. 

I'd like to clean out a closet, or reorganize it a bit, or something.

And I have cards to write. 

But still, I'm feeling like I have some time to do something really fun, maybe take the weekend and drive somewhere.  But I don't know where.  We don't have great snow, so maybe driving north I'd find snow and a good place to cross country ski?  (I can't quite believe I just wrote that, to be honest.)

Still, I feel good, ready for the semester, pretty much, ready for spring stuff around the BardiacShack and gardens. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Job Search - The Wait

I've been posting a bit about academic job searching, and some of these I've even remembered to label!

We're in the waiting place now, but other folks are already doing on campus interviews. 

We'll invite our candidates to come when classes are in session, but I know some departments have had candidates come before classes start.  That seems weird, because as a candidate, I'd want to see students, or at least feel like the place had students.  But as a faculty member, it means putting in time over break to help with interviews, meals, going to research presentations, and so on.

I guess the next thing to think about from my point of view is what do candidate visits look like, and what part do I play?

Our candidate visits typically take a day and a half or two days.  The important thing for the candidates to know is that at this point, we're courting you, too.  We haven't chosen you to come visit campus unless we think you're likely to be a really good fit; we've already determined (as a committee, at least) that you're qualified.

So who's got a stake in campus visits from this end?

Your potential colleagues, especially in the department
Your students, though I've never been in a department where students had much voice in hiring
The college Administration: Dean(s), provost, president, headmaster, chancellor, whatever.

You're likely to have in interview with the department or program chair.  This is a big one.  The chair often has veto power over a committee choice, or at least a great deal of influence.  And it's likely this is going to be the first time you talk to the chair.  Chair's care about sanity, money (class size, for example), qualifications, and fit.  Chairs, remember, are the university's first line of defense when a faculty member decides to leave in the middle of the fifth week of classes, or when a student complains of sexual harassment, or when the department needs someone to help cover for an ill colleague.  Chairs want people who are well qualified, and reasonably sane, and who will be more help than hindrance.  A smart chair also wants people who are critical thinkers, and not just yes men.   

If you have a campus visit, you're likely to visit with colleagues a lot, and have an opportunity to impress them with your brilliance, and more than one opportunity to impress them with your collegiality.  We tend to have candidates do some sort of teaching or research demonstration, sometimes actually teaching a given class, other times teaching faculty something.

The search committee is likely to want to talk to you and see you in action.

You're likely to visit with a dean or dean's representative, and maybe with a provost or provost's representative.  I had a meeting with a school president at one interview.  I'm guessing a lot of that depends on the size of the school: at smaller schools, you're likely to meet with bigger fish.

What does a dean want from an interview with a candidate?

Good question.  I'm guessing, only guessing, that they want a sense that you're well-qualified, a good, legal fit, and somewhat sane.  They want to know the department isn't doing something stupid, and that the new faculty members will fit in with whatever new initiative s/he has coming down the line.  Here's where reading up on AAC&U stuff or on the university's website can be helpful.  Does the university imagine itself as the premier engineering school in the state, and how are you going to teach English to engineers?  Will you be happy teaching English to engineers?  Do you have a clue about what you're getting yourself into?

Some departments have candidates meet with students, at least informally.  The students seem to want to know that you'll teach interesting classes.  And you will.

So what about all those other appointments?

I'm sure every school is a little different, and I hope people from other places will contribute, but here's how it looks at NWU.  And mostly, the good news is that these other appointments are more about courting you than you as a candidate.

Research Support: this is the office that's there to tell you about whatever research support the school has.  This is where you learn about class releases, maybe, or opportunities for travel, whatever.

Real Estate: I think some departments at NWU do this as a ride around by the chair or someone on the committee, while others ask a local real estate agent to show you around.  My caveat here is that my sense from several tours is that the people doing the tours underestimate how much it actually costs to live in the neighborhood they want to show you.  (A real Real Estate agent should know, but might show you higher end than you'll really be able to afford.)

(Gosh, this makes me think that it would be potentially useful to do a post at some point about planning realistically for your paycheck?  What do you think?)

Human Resources: these are the folks who will tell you about benefits.  You should look for health benefits, of course.  You'll also want to know about retirement (non-profits often use something called a 403B plan, which is roughly like a 401K in the for-profit world; some may have a pension plan in addition or as the whole thing).  It might be worth while thinking about what sorts of questions you should ask about benefits and such.

I'd ask about partner benefits.  Yes, even straight people should care that their co-workers are treated as fairly as possible.  For some of us, being able to insure partners is vitally important.

I'd also ask about vesting in retirement plans.  I know someone who left a job after three years, and lost all the retirement money the school had "put away" for hir because zie wasn't vested.  I left a job after 3 years, but because the plan vested me upon employment, I was able to keep that small pot of money as a retirement starter.  For folks coming out of grad school, and likely starting retirement saving in their mid-30s, a pension plan that doesn't expect you to stay employed for 40 years is really important.

For departments, campus visits are vitally important.  They're also exhausting.  Yes, the candidate is more exhausted, probably, during any one visit.  But it's worth remembering that the folks who are hosting you and probably going to your talk, watching you teach are also probably teaching a full load, dealing with beginning of the semester advising disasters, juggling all the usual things.  We often do a home reception, where we all gather at someone's house, and that adds.

What I'm trying to get at here is that even the most dedicated and caring future colleagues may not be able to make your talk or your reception.  They may be teaching at that same time.

Also, you're probably one of several candidates a department might be interviewing on campus, so there may be a lot of demands on peoples' time.  (I was hired in a group of four new faculty in my department here, all in the same fall.  Assuming everything went ideally with all the interviews, that means my department was hosting at least six campus visits that spring, all in a two or three week period.  That's a lot of hosting.)

Monday, January 14, 2013

In Which I Express Frustration

I went to a meeting about advising today.  It's a preparatory meeting to help people be better advisers.  You can decide for yourselves if I'm being sent for remediation or advanced training.  There are more meetings tomorrow and the next day, and we're to be paid.  (Now you can decide if I'm doing this for remediation, advanced training, or my budget.)

We spent time going over how things work out from students coming in with AP or test scores or classes from other schools.  Much time was spent on how we should look at these scores to know where our students should be.

The thing is, by the time an advisee gets to me, those things have mostly already been set, or once in a while, there's a problem.  So I asked, what do I do to solve the problem if there's one?  And the answer is, you can't, but you should send the student to the official office of solving problems with AP, test scores, or transfer classes.

So why, I wonder (but did not ask aloud), are we spending an hour on this?  My best guess is because it looms large in the mind of the deanling in charge, so he thinks it should loom large for all of us.

It shouldn't.

He droned on.

We have this computer system that's supposed to help students check their courses and requirements.  Let's call it a requirement check, or RC.  As advisers, we can pull up the RC (and so can students), and look at it to help students decide what they need to take when.

But, the deanling warned us, it does this and that wrong, and it can't do this.  And we can't make it do that or correct it.

Why, I asked (stupidly).

Because the computer programmers can't do it.

And stupidly, I said, "I don't buy it.  We pay the programmers to solve problems."

And I was told I was wrong.

So here's the thing.  No one, but no one would ever accept me saying "no, I just can't teach this course I was hired to teach."  No one would accept me saying, "no, I can't teach this student."

And that seems reasonable to me.  My job is to stay qualified to teach the intellectual area(s) I was hired to teach, and to teach the students in my classes.  If I couldn't do that, I would rightly be fired, yes, even with tenure.

But the programmers (who are all paid at least double my salary, I'm sure) get to say, "no, I can't solve this programming problem"?  I call bullshit.

We are all too often here told to make curricular decisions based on what the programmers say they just can't do.  And I think that's a bad practice.  And the deanling smiles and smiles and bullshits along.

Fire the lot of them.  Let's hire programmers who can solve the problems we need solved, and deanlings who can communicate the need to solve problems (and which problems in a reasonable order).

We met in a science room.  Did you know that F stands for Flourine?  And Au for Aurium?  And gold is from the Old German?  Shiny!

My personal favorite is plumbum, from which we get Pb, or lead, and from which we get people who used to deal with lead pipes, or plumbers.  Etymology is fun, my friends!  And the word "plumbum" is just fun to say. 

This post brought to you by the letters F and Y.  (That's Flourine and Yttrium!  What were you thinking?)

Saturday, January 12, 2013


I don't think I get the flipping thing.  Or maybe I get it in the sense of imagining how it would work in the sorts of science lectures I had at times as an undergrad?

Here's what I understand. 

According to the flip folks, the traditional learning structure works like this:

In class: teachers introduce and lecture on content.

Out of class: students work on homework sets. 

Let's imagine math:  the teacher introduces and talks about some math topic, and then the students go home and work on math problems.

And according to the flip folks, a flipped classroom structure works like this:

Out of class: students listen to or watch lectures via computers.

In class: students work on homework sets with teachers there to help them.

So, I can sort of see that in a math class.  But here are some questions I have:

1.  Reading.  In neither model is the student putting in time reading.  Yet a lot of what I did as a science undergrad was read text books.  And as a lit student, I spent a lot of time reading lit.

Where is the reading in the imagination of the flip folks?  Is there none?

In my experience, I spent time reading at home, mostly.  I'm a fairly fast reader (I was ALWAYS in trouble in grammar school for reading ahead during reading group and then not knowing where I was supposed to start when it was my turn to read aloud.  Always.  Misery.).  But people read at different speeds for a lot of reasons.  So asking students to read at home where they take whatever time they need makes sense.  (And here, teachers need to assign reading with a sense of their readers, of course.  Nothing new there.)  If you flip the reading part so that students are reading in class, that seems unhelpful except when students need help just getting through vocabulary and such.

I find that I learn differently when I read vs when I listen, and that I'm pretty good at getting a lot out of a combination.  I know I'm not everyone, but I am someone who's tried to teach myself through reading, and found that a combination is often more effective, especially for new stuff. 

2.  Class Size.  This seems only viable for classes up to say, 30 or so.  The 400 person classes I took in college (which are now MUCH bigger) couldn't work that way.  Instead, they were usually structured so that there was a discussion period with a TA to ask questions, work through problems, and discuss stuff.  One could, I suppose, move to a structure where everything was run in small classes, but the economics are at odds with reality at my school and at, I'm guessing, most bigger/public schools.

In high school science classes, we'd read, get lectures, and also do lab stuff.  In many of my college science classes, we'd read, get lectures, have discussion and lab sections in small groups.   (I did have college science classes with no labs or discussion groups, too.)

3.  High School.  So here's my memory of high school structure.  My school started at 8am, and went (with a lunch break) until 3:30.  And then I went home and was supposed to do homework, but I wasn't the best student.  So here's my question:  I usually had some math homework, and chem homework, and reading for English or social science, practiced my instrument (not as often or as much as I should have), and foreign language homework, but not all on a given afternoon.  I imagine not counting band, most kids don't do more than an hour or so of homework a night. 

Now let's imagine they have five classes: English, math, science, social science, and foreign language.  And each has a half hour video.  So that's two and a half hours of watching videos.  That doesn't include reading, so let's switch the English from video to reading, but still figure half an hour?

Is the idea that having students do something school related for two and a half hours is better than having them do an hour?  I can imagine that could work, eh?  I know if I worked out for two and a half hours every day, I'd be in better shape than if I did way less.  So is this a way to get students to do something for "homework" that's slightly more than minimal? 

[I have the barest idea of how much time high school students spend on homework, mostly from what they tell me as college students.  I'm pretty sure this isn't entirely reliable across any board at all.]

I guess from my point of view, the flip folks are over-simplifying traditional structures, or maybe the structures I experienced as a science undergrad aren't traditional?  It seems like they've set up a straw man traditional system where there's a person droning on at the front of a classroom.

And yet in my many years of college, all at public schools, two big R1s, one big regional, and one small community college, I don't remember much droning.  (Again, that may be me as a learner being more or less interested?)

Lit Classes
I do lecture in lit classes, but not much, and not in really structured ways.  Maybe I should think about it more?

Anyway, here's what I typically ask of students in day to day work:

Out of class: they read the text.  They may also write short assignments asking them to think about a short passage or a word, or for critical stuff, finding the thesis and such.

In class: I may give a little background, but usually I start by working closely with one or several passages. 

I may set up, say, three passages, all of approximately the same length, and ask students to work on one of the three in groups.  Or I may have someone read a passage aloud, and then ask students to work on it in the whole class. 

When I say "work" on it, I may ask them to stop and draw the imagery, or I may ask them to write about an image, or to discuss something in the passage.  I may ask leading questions.  (In an ideal world, students ask good questions which lead us where I want to go or, occasionally, somewhere even better.)

I try to use a set of passages to draw out the issues in the text I think are important, which I'll then try to help the students move from "here's this cool issue we talked about in our group about this passage" to "here are some things we're seeing in different passages" to "this cool stuff we're seeing makes a theme or important issue overall in the text or culture."

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I have a pretty good idea where I want to get during a class (and there may be three concepts I want to get to), and I choose passages that have some connection to one or another of the concepts, and order them so that they go together in the student experience (even if they aren't closely connected in the chronology of the play).  And most important, I try to teach students the skills to get from what they see in the passages to some interesting concept.

And that's where I lecture, usually a very short bit with some key words on the board naming concepts, bringing in theory or cultural history.  If I'm lucky, the lecture comes "naturally" as an answer to a good student question.  If I'm really lucky, the class feels like the students are moving it forward from the passages I've chosen and the reading they've done outside of class, and they put things together and have some wonderful moments of realizing the connections themselves.

So I don't know how I'd flip it.  But I don't think I'm an unusual lit teacher given the material structures of my classes (size and student preparation, especially).

The Cross Country Ski Stuff Post!

Shane in Utah was kind enough to ask me about the difference between skate ski and classic ski stuff, so I thought I'd take some pictures and show you.  A caveat:  I'm a beginner, and have newer equipment, but beginner level equipment.

We'll start off looking at the skis themselves.  First the bottoms.  Newer classic skis have these sort of ridgy, patterned bottoms (except, I gather that real classic skiers use non-ridged skis and special wax to do the grippy thing to kick off).  The ridgy stuff is in the middle third (or so) of the ski.  Skate skis just have the one groove.  (I THINK older classic skis just had the groove, too.)  Newer classic skis can be "waxless"; you don't have to do the melted wax into the bottom thing.  (But, again, real classic skiers do a special wax thing where they wax the kick area with a grippy wax, and the glide area with a slippery wax.  You can guess why I went with the more basic beginner set up.)  You are supposed to put this liquid stuff on, but I haven't used these much lately (since I started skate skiing), so I haven't.  And now I can't find mine, so I need to go get some.  That's why my classic skis look so dry.

Here's a shot of my classic skis, one upside down, so you can see the full extent of the ridgy area.

As far as I understand it, when your weight is on the ski (which is when it's just under you to when you're pushing off), the ridgy things sort of grip at the snow and help you push off more.  Since you're using the bottoms of the skis to push off, basically mostly in a straight push, the ridges help.  And you're doing that mostly from your toes, so that's why--I think--the ridgy part is more in front than in back of the binding.  But somehow the ridgy things don't keep you from gliding too badly.

What's hard to see here is the the skate skis (on the right) have a tiny edge to them, and when I say tiny, I mean tiny.  You can feel it, but it's not sharp.

And now the tops of the skis.

This picture was taken with the rear ends of the skis even.  You can see that the skate skis are a little narrower, and a slight bit shorter.  They also aren't quite as curved up at the end.  I think they have a bit more bow to them.  I don't know what the groove is for, but I would GUESS it's one of those i-beam things, which would give the ski more lateral strength?  (You're supposed to push off to the sides with skate skis, like an ice skater, sort of.  Thus the name.)

One last bit on the skis.  In both cases, the skis are bowed so that if there's no weight on them, the middles stand up, as you can see in the picture below.  My skate skis are more strongly bowed than my classic skis.

So, let's look at the uppers of the boots.

As you can see from both of these photos, the skate ski boots are bigger, and there's a lot more support around the ankles.  I'm told you need that support because of the way you push off in skate skiing.  They're sort of in between classic boots and downhill boots (which are HUGE and way more solid).

That and, as you can tell, my skate stuff is yellow and orange, so it goes WAY faster.  /nod

Finally, let's look at the poles.

My skate pole is on the right here, and as you can see, it's a bit longer than the classic pole.

Let's look closely at the straps.

The skate straps wrap around more fully, so that you don't really need to hold on, sort of, to push.  And they're like gloves in that the right and left are different (which I don't think the classic poles are).

 (Again, I'm guessing that if I'd started as a skate skier, I'd use the same poles and the same boots, because the greater structure wouldn't be a big problem for classic skiing--though maybe pole length would--but you need it more for skating, supposedly.)

And there's my tour of classic and skate skis.  We had RAIN yesterday, which means our snow is now not great, and we need more so that I can go out and play on my skis.  The cool thing about doing this post, though, is that I've now figured out that I could use my boots on either ski, but that the bit that keeps you from going too far forward wouldn't work as well.  I don't know if that's really important, but I'm going to guess that I need all the help I can get at my ability and skill level, and so long as I have skis and bindings that go together, I'll use them.

Who else feels like going skiing now!


Now I've been looking at real ski sites, and learned that my bindings are different more because I got skate bindings to work with the used boots I'd already bought, rather than that the bindings for the two different sorts of skis are different.  Anyway, here's what I said earlier about the bindings, and pictures.

Let's take a look at the bottoms of the boots, because that will help us make sense of the bindings.

The toes are down in this picture. The classic boot is on the left, the skate on the right. First, you can see that the classic boot is smaller than the skate boot even though they both fit my feet well. More on that in a bit. For now, notice that on the classic boot there are two little metal bars, let's call them the toe bar (on the bottom) and the arch bar (up an inch or two). On the skate boot, there's just the toe bar.

The next thing to notice is that on both, there's a wide recessed area in the center, and on either side, a sort of raised area. That fits with the ski bindings so that when you're standing on the skis, you don't slip laterally. (The toe thing keeps the boot attached.)

Let's look more closely at the bindings on the skis.

If you look at the left, classic binding, from the top of the picture (the front toe part), you can see the pale grey area, and just behind that (towards the bottom of the picture, a slot. That's the toe bar slot. Then there's a black piece, which has a little hook to it. That's where the arch bar fits. That black thing pivots up and down and slides forward and back so that you can be on your toes basically, and stay attached, still. (I have no idea why that seems important, but there you go. I have a friend who uses her skate boots on her classic skis, so it may not actually be necessary?)

Here's a shot from the side of the classic binding.

And here's a picture of my boot in the binding, showing that pivot bit. As I look at it, I think the pivot hook thing probably keeps you from tilting forward too easily, perhaps. When we look at the skate binding, there's another bit that seems to do that, too.

On the skate ski, there's the toe bar slot, and just in front of that, a black plastic piece. You have to push that down to close the toe bar slot so it holds the bar in (and the boot on). You lift it to let the boot loose. In contrast, on the classic skis, the toe bar slot clicks closed when you toe your weight in there, and then to let it loose, you push on the recessed area of the light grey part with your ski pole.

Here are side pictures of the skate binding and then of the binding with a shoe in.

In the upper picture, the toe slot is open. In the lower one, with the boot in, it's closed. And you can see that the red rubber thing sort of acts as a spring to keep the skier from tilting too far forward (or at least to provide some resistance). I'm GUESSING that the space where the arch bar is on the skate ski means that you could have an arch bar on the boot but it wouldn't get used?

As I look, I'm guessing that you could probably get classic skis with the different way of stopping you from tilting forward, but I'm not sure why one of mine works one way and the other works the other. (I bought the basic beginner stuff for classic, so got the basic package. But when I got my skate skis, I was able to find used boots at a swap, and they fit, and then bought the skis to fit the boots, if that makes sense. So MAYBE if I'd bought skate stuff first, I could have gotten the same binding for classic skis and used the same boots?

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Chaucer Help, Please!

I'm teaching a Canterbury Tales class this semester, and am changing things up.  For the final project, I want to have them do an exploratory essay in which they tease out the critical conversation about some issue relevant to the Tales or one of the Tales or even a couple of the Tales

These students are all new to Middle English (and we're reading in Middle English), and this is likely their only early British lit class, so asking them to do try to make an original argument about something would be rough.  But I want them to practice thinking about the tales and reading critical essays, so I think this is a reasonable assignment. 

The thing is, I don't think they'll be ready, mostly, to come up with good research questions/topics by the time they'll need to start reading for the assignment (if I can convince them to do stuff early).  So I want to give them some possible questions/topics (and also let someone choose their own should they wish to, with my approval). 

And that's where I'm asking for help.  I have some ideas, but I'd love to hear from real medievalists (or fake medievalists, even) about what questions or topics might lead students to read some really interesting critical conversations.

Thoughts, please?

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Plays Well with Others

Break is being restful.

Yesterday, I got a call from a friend inviting me to come out to a ski area and either ski myself, or join her in helping out the local cross country group's little kid evening classes.  She said if I wanted to help to bring classic skis, since that's what they start the little kids on.  So I bundled up my skis (both pairs) and my boots (both pairs), and went, and decided to help with the little kids.

We went up this little slope to a level area, which is where we were going to be with the little kids, and there were a bunch of adult helpers and about 40 kids between say 4 and 7 or so.  And we helped the teacher (who has helped me with my skiing, too, and who is an incredibly good teacher!) keep the little kids attention, and keep them moving, and such.  She started with stretches and jumping and "pizza" (snow plow), and then choo chooing with the arms, and shuffling, and then we went back and forth across the table, no poles, but moving arms and legs.  And we practiced falling and getting up.

There was one kid who always seemed to get his one ski backwards when he fell, and it was so hard to get him to see that he needed to get them parallel to get up more easily.  So of course I had to fall on purpose and show him, and then help him get his feet parallel.  And then he could get up.  Until he fell again, and we went through the same thing, because he didn't seem to get it.  I'm sure he will with some practice.  In the meanwhile, he ate a lot of snow, as one of my friends says.

The kids were good.  The adults were careful to keep them moving and they were mostly pretty well wrapped up.  And they were pretty much happy to be there.  I didn't hear any whining, not even from the ones who fell fairly often.

The cool thing is that there are kids just a little bit older who are whizzing around skate skiing.  I'm guessing that the kids who do this little class and then start skiing regularly with their families get pretty good once they hit 8 or 9 and are a bit more coordinated, and then they ski like it's totally natural for them.  So very cool!

I hadn't been on my classic skis since maybe the second time after I skate skied.  I've pretty much just used the skate skis.  So my memory of being on the classic skis was that it was hard to do anything: hard to stand, to move, to anything.  And yesterday, it wasn't.  I'm not saying I was adept, or anything, but that I was much easier on the skis.  They felt less alien than I remembered them.

A couple of days ago, I took a new colleague out snow shoing near my house.  And then we had hot cocoa and chatted.  It was good, and I hope the new colleague enjoyed it.  I think it's hugely helpful to be able to get out and do something in the snow and cold, something that makes you not too cold.  It makes winter more tolerable.  And snowshoing is great because it's basically walking (at least it is when I do it).  It doesn't matter that I go fast, and it's fine that I'm not trying to make an escape from Donner Pass.  I just go and get some exercise, and feel way better after.

I've pretty much prepped one class's opening day materials, and I'm getting ready to start the next class.  And I've done some reading and am getting ready to start writing on my SAA paper.  So it's not all fun and play, but there's a lot of fun and play, too.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Road Trip

I went out for a drive the other day, to bird, and to just get out.   I didn't see many birds, but I did see a few eagles on the big river.

And even took a few pictures.

But I took a couple of side roads, just to see, and here's what I saw:

I don't know what these are.  I think they're either a tree or some sort of skeletal structure with ice formed when someone has sprayed them with water repeatedly.  Weirdness.

In other news, Lance Armstrong is supposedly considering fessing up in hopes of getting a suspension rather than a ban from competing in Olympic sports (which are sanctioned by the Olympic Committee, WADA and such, I guess) and making a deal to avoid perjury charges.  I meanly hope they don't make a deal with him.  He's banned now, and being sued by some folks.  I don't much care about the competition part, but I don't think people should be able to just get away with perjury, I guess.  I don't really see a benefit for any sporting or cycling orgnization or whatever, unless one of the peole who put themselves on the line thinks that a confession will prove that they were right.   (Here's a link that sets out the issues, from Velonation.)

Friday, January 04, 2013


I can't seem to upload pictures from my computer onto blogger.

Has anyone else run into this?

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The E-Text in Chaucer/Shakespeare Question

I'm guessing I'm not the only one who carefully chooses editions for my classes, and then has students show up with e-texts that aren't the same edition, and that are usually 19th century editions with no editorial apparatus at all, n page numbers, line numbers, nada.  Or, when they're a bit more textually savvy, students ask if they can use this e-text they found for free.

I finally wrote a note to my students this semester explaining that while they can choose other texts, I choose the editions I choose based on balancing cost, editorial and textual quality (glossing, notes, textual information, margin space for notes, etc.).

I somehow doubt this is actually going to resolve the issue because what students really want to hear is that yes, the free e-text they found is an excellent alternative.  But so far, in my experience, it's not.

How do you folks who deal with older texts deal with the question?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Tricks of the Trade

I've noticed that there are some great resources out there, especially for teaching, but that learning about them is hit or miss for me.  So I'll share a couple, and hope some others will share and teach me new ones.

For lit folks:  the MLA Approaches to Teaching series.  Basically, an editor puts together a group of essays by different people about how to teach some specific text or group of texts.  These are especially helpful to me when I'm teaching a text for the first time.  The best part is that there are usually some overview type essays and essays specifically aimed at teaching texts at different levels, from high school to graduate school.

For Shakespeare: Russ McDonald's Bedford Companion to Shakespeare.  I have my Shakespeare students and and early modern lit students read it for background about the period, social and theatrical practices, and so on.  It's very readable, with interesting documents from the period that you can use in a variety of ways.

For Chaucer: Helen Cooper's Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales.  She's organized the text through the tales, primarily, which means I use it to review as I reread the tale and think about what I'm doing with it in class.  (I think I have the second edition, but I'd adore a new one.)

For composition: Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's They Say / I Say.  I use it in my comp classes, and it does a really fine job helping students understand how to use other people's words and ideas respectfully and well to make their own arguments.

What I'd love: some really good suggestions for introductory theory texts and history background stuff.  And Shakespeare, Chaucer, and comp resources that are really helpful.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year!

First bird of the year: a downy woodpecker.  I love downy woodpeckers, so I'll take this as a good thing.

Question of the day: where will Joaquim Rodriguez go?   His bike team, Katusha, lost it's place in the World Tour list that guarantees a team a start in the big tours.  Rodriguez was second at the Giro and Vuelta this past year, so he's a contender for the big stage races.  And according to the biking sites, his contract allows him to go elsewhere if his team doesn't get a world tour spot.  The question is where?  Me, I'd love to see Garmin pick him up; Hesjerdal (sp?) could go for a repeat at the Giro, and Purito could go for the Tour.  I really like watching Purito ride; he's amazing and fun, and a hard rider.  (Maybe Radioshack could pick him up and give them a one-two?)  Anyway, I hope he lands with a good team that can support him well on one of the big tours.

Good news of the day: in all my paper shredding, I hadn't been able to find my 2011 envelop.  (I keep a big envelop with all the financial necessities for a year.  It starts out with receipts, and ends up with everything.)   I found it buried under a bunch of other paper junk in my office this morning.  And now, I'm just about done with the financial organization and paper shredding.  And my office is looking usable again for a change.