Wednesday, November 27, 2019

We Made the National News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Thoughts on Renaming Courses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 22, 2019

Changes Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Last Morning in Iceland: Gone Birding

On my last morning in Iceland, I went on a short boat tour to the one of the islands just outside of Reykjavik harbor (The islands are Lundry and Akury, but I'm not sure which island my tour went to).  It was a smallis boat, perhaps 25 feet long, with four passengers, a naturalist/helper, and a captain, and a visiting captain trainee.  The naturalist helped with bird identification and also helped me put together a list of the birds we saw.)  I didn't get pictures of everything, but here's what we saw:  Atlantic Puffin, Northern Gannet, Great Black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Black Guillemot, Common Guillemot, Herring Gull, Eider Duck, Brent Goose, Greylag Goose, Great Cormorant, Arctic Tern, and Northern Fulmar.  As you'd guess, it was fun and exciting, but also way hard to photograph moving birds on a moving boat.  I tried though!  

Above, the first picture is an Eider Duck.  You may have to embiggen... 

And below is a Great Cormorant (aka Cormorant in the UK).

 And here's an Atlantic Puffin! So darned cute!
 And these are Northern Fulmar, at their nests!

 Another male Eider Duck

 Northern Gannets
 This is a Common Guillemot (aka Guillemot, aka Common Murre in the US)
 There's a view of the city; you can see the Hallgrimskirkja on a hill.
 A different picture of the Northern Fulmar.
 And finally, more Atlantic Puffins!  On land, even.
This concludes my catching up on tourism.  Soon to come: big changes in my life.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

More from the Iceland visit: Golden Circle Tour, Part II: Geysir and Stokkur

The last part of the Golden Circle Tour was the Haukadalur Geysir area.  The first big geysir's name is, yes, Geysir.  And then the general term was named after it.  How cool is that?  But Geysir doesn't do its thing much these days, so most people go spend more time at Stokkur.

Me, too.   Walking around the Geysir area, I saw several birds, all of which looked an awful lot like this one.  It's a Redwing, which is a member of the Thrush family, and the same genus as American Robins.  It was acting very (American) Robin-like, foraging on the ground in fairly openish areas.

 Below is a sheep-separating thing.  The shepherds let the sheep do their thing, with flocks mingling, and then when the time's right, they drive the sheep into the center area, and then separate them into the outer fenced yards.

More from Iceland Travels: The Golden Circle Tour

On the only full day I spent in Iceland, I took a tour of the "Golden Circle."  As you'd guess, it was utterly beautiful.

(you can click to embiggen)

We went to Thingvellir National Park, first.  It's an area with gorgeous scenery, historical sites, and visible evidence of the split between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe.  Alas, we didn't get to spend much time there, but did take a little walk.

Here are some pictures!

This is the rift, to the left in the picture above, and centered in the picture below.  They've put in a lovely path for walking, which makes the area pretty accessible.

 I THINK these are Greylag Geese.

 Neat lave formation!
 Maps are so helpful!  As the captioning says, Thingvellir was the site of the old Parliament until the 18th century.

After Thingvellir, we went to the famous waterfalls at Gulfoss.  It's a good bit east of Thingvellir, but worth the drive!

This is a monument to Sigridur Tomasdottir; she's super important in this area because she helped make Gulfoss a tourist attraction and guided lots of people there.

Between Gulfoss and the Haukadalur geothermal area where Geysir and Strokkur are, we stopped at a farm and got to pet a couple of Icelandic ponies.