Thursday, August 28, 2008

Yeah, I'm That Professor

You know, the one who makes the same dumb joke in every class? And pretends that it's spontaneous each time? That's me. I've made my peace with it.

One characteristic of a lot of professors, I've noticed, is the habit of retelling jokes and stories, but always as if they're completely new. Which makes sense: We're required to repeat ourselves a lot. And it's much more interesting to the reader if it sounds off-the-cuff rather than painfully rehearsed, right?

Just one more thing to add to my list of endearing traits! Repetition and the pretense of cleverness!


Today I meet my seniors. Actually, I know all of them but one already, and that one is going to be absent on the first day. Why is this class making me more nervous than the others? When the students are all or mostly relative neophytes, I feel pretty confident and fun. But I go solemn and anxious when faced with a smaller group of more advanced students. I suppose the fact that I haven't had very many advanced classes yet (just one, in fact, and even that one turned out--to my incredulous surprise--to have virtually no prerequisites) might have something to do with this.

OK. Off off off.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

New Year's Resolutions (an unlikely story)

Classes start tomorrow, and I have some goals for this year.

It's going to be a busy semester. I'm teaching 5 classes/4 preps (1 class only meets for 50 minutes a week, though, and it should be a fun one), advising for the first time (that's pretty much over for now, however), running the honors program, and serving on a major committee. The committee doesn't meet very often, but our department is undergoing a sort of review in connection with this committee, and I will therefore need to put together One Big-Ass Binder over the course of the year.

But. I have goals. And these are adamantly not research goals (although I'm submitting abstracts to a couple of conferences and still have that article in revision mode). No, my goals primarily involve not succumbing to a whirlpool of stress and anxiety.

Good luck, right?

Well, here's the plan. I'm trying to break this down into some components:
  1. Think nice thoughts about my students. It's not that I disliked my students before, or anything. In fact, I usually like them pretty well. But I worry far too much about how they see me, or how disengaged I'm sure they are, and how they think that this class/lecture/reading/activity is a complete waste of time, and as a consequence I become very wound up and anxious about my teaching. And then a) I'm a lot less fun in class, because I'm inhibited and nervous; b) I become a complete and utter pushover; and c) the feeling of being under constant scrutiny makes me very unhappy. Now, I'm not going to try some kind of magical thinking about how all my students love me! and my class! and the discipline! and homework! or anything like that. Rather, I'm going to try to see them just as people and myself as a fellow person and we're all just doing our jobs and hopefully enjoying parts of them and getting along okay. (And then I'll indulge in joyful reveries about my most enthusiastic students, of course.)
  2. In comp especially, be aware of where the course is going from the beginning. I have a thing I've made, the Mystic Binder of Organization, which carefully delineates everything (more or less) that will happen in comp all semester. I cannot tell you how much better the Mystic Binder makes me feel. I wish that I could show you the reverent gesture with which all references to the Mystic Binder must be accompanied.
  3. Remember that I know a lot. I don't think I'll have too much trouble with this one; by the spring semester last year, I was feeling a lot more secure in my knowledge (even though I was teaching things I'd never studied).
  4. Don't over-prep. This is the one I'm in the most danger of ignoring, but I need to have some kind of a life outside of teaching this semester, and so I'm not going to prep for four hours for a 75-minute class. (I mean in addition to doing the reading, of course, which could easily take four hours.)
  5. Allow myself to not work sometimes. I didn't work all the time last year, by any means, but I felt like I did--because every minute not working was a minute spent thinking about how I should be working, or just engaging in some really mindless time-wasting activity (like watching Friends on the internet). I want to, maybe, read one small non-work book this semester. I want to have meals with friends. I want to have a few glasses of wine! (Like every day! Ha ha!) One thing that will help, I think, is hanging out with the Minister (whom I'm dating); some ready distraction and frequent interaction with another human being will surely make the year more friendly. And he's a professor at Field, too, so he understands the rhythms of the worklife here--as well as being an excellent person with whom to gossip about students and co-workers.
  6. Exercise. This summer was amazing for the exercise. I swam 2000 meters three times a week (most weeks) and went to the occasional yoga class at Ordinary City, which is only about half an hour away. I know that I can't sustain that during the year, but swimming at least twice a week and getting to some yoga classes--or practicing at home!--will be enough. Doing physical work is the best way I know of to get out of my obsessive anxieties about being judged or inadequate. It's just me and my body, and that's good.
So, um, yeah. Tomorrow. Three classes. Away we go....

Sunday, August 24, 2008

This year will be better, or: The difference between my students and me

On Wednesday I begin my first official year on the tenure track at Field College. I'm in a bit of an odd situation in that last year retroactively counts as tenure-track-itude; I was, of course, VAPping here at Field, and have received a year's credit towards tenure as a result. I'm glad: I had one article come out and another one get accepted last year; I presented at a conference; I served on a search committee. (Truth be told, I think that I've already fulfilled the publication requirement for tenure; all I need to do now is go to the occasional conference to demonstrate "continued engagement in my discipline." I hope to do a wee bit more than that in the coming years, however.)

But nonetheless this is my first year as an official tenure-track Assistant Professor--my first year advising, serving on committees, fulfilling other administrative roles. I am, for example, directing the honors program. Which is weird, given my novice status, but one thing about tiny little colleges is that you can climb through the ranks awfully quickly: everyone is over-worked and happy to hand off such duties. I'll probably regret it at some point, but right now I'm excited about this particular position, as it'll give me the chance to work with some of the brightest students at the college.

My point is, though, that heading into this year feels really different from last year. Last year I was kind of a mess, I think. I was in a long-distance relationship which, while wonderful, also caused a lot of stress (the exhausting weekend trips, the uncertainty about ever being together, the feeling that everything hinged on how I did on the market); I had never before taught a course that I had designed; I hadn't the foggiest clue about what composition classes were supposed to be like; and almost everyone I met here seemed a little crazy. The entire college seemed crazy. There were a couple of reasons I felt this way: 1) I had never really been behind the scenes at a school, so I didn't know how they worked (the assessment jargon, e.g., really threw me, as did the obsessive concern with enrollment numbers and recruiting), and 2) I come from a pretty elite background--fancy private SLAC for undergrad; ivy grad school--which I'd never really thought of as elite/elitist, and I sort of assumed that all colleges and universities ran (or should run) the way that mine did. That is, that they should only accept the very best students; academics absolutely come before athletics (I still think this is true, OK); and--most importantly--all students are motivated primarily by the pure desire for Knowledge.

Yep, I've lost (most of) those illusions.

In a workshop last week, one senior art professor said something that I found really compelling. He pointed out that when he first got to Field, he had been accustomed to teaching and interacting with art students who wanted to be artists, and were therefore striving for a high level of achievement within their fields. Here, however, he discovered that most students were interested in service professions--teaching, primarily--and gradually had to adapt his teaching methods and course aims to match those students' interests--and that this had ultimately been very satisfying.

I think that I still feel that my students ought to be motivated to study literature because literature is Art--it's Culture--its study is valuable for its own sake, and because it makes us more developed human beings. I believe that that's true, of course: my inner life is infinitely richer because of my knowledge of literature, being a skilled critical reader helps me to cast a more critical eye over my world; and the wealth of ideas and experiences that it's given me glimpses of has enabled me to think very differently about my own life and how I choose to live it. I would still like to communicate that to my students. But many of them do not come from backgrounds like mine, where you never really worry about getting a job--of course you'll work, everyone works, but jobs are available and you'll get one and it's really matter of pulling yourself up out of the slough of just getting jobs and into the realm of the Meaningful. Most of my students aren't of that mindset. No, most of them aren't terribly poor (this is a private SLAC, after all, even if it's a pretty cheap private SLAC--only half of what mine cost 14 years ago!). But they want solidly middle-class jobs of the kind that a college education can give you: many of them want to be teachers or have some sort of "business" career (I assume that the business students have some concrete ideas of what they want to be; I have no idea what "business" actually means, so the scare quotes there are indicative only of my own ignorance).

I'm still trying to absorb what this difference means, and what exactly I can contribute to this student population. What I want is to galvanize these students--to shake them up, get them out of thinking about The Job and open the larger world up to them; many of them, for example, have hardly even left this state, and seem to have very little sense of alternative ways of living in the world than those to which they're accustomed. I might be able to do this, in a limited way. My best teaching persona--the one that came out in my most successful courses last year--is lively, self-deprecatingly geeky, wildly (almost goofily) enthusiastic and supportive, and even gets some laughs, and in those classes I had comments on my evaluations like, "I learned that literature is awesome!" and "Who knew I would like [subject of this course] so much?" So I retain my idealism, a bit. But I'm trying to get myself interested in learning from my students, too. It would be good for me, I think, to come to appreciate where they're coming from, as well, and to see the value in what they want to do.

It might help shake me out of my de facto elitism, at any rate.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pod Professor

Dear small corner of the academic blogosphere:

I regret to inform you that your beloved--or, at any rate, your tolerated, infrequently-posting, usually rather whiny Dr. Mihi has been replaced by an alien instructor from outer space, and that said body-snatcher is, yes, is looking forward to the comp course that she's designed for this semester.

Damn straight y'all. How did this happen?

Classes start a week from Wednesday, and I'm going to hold onto my glorious dream of eager, engaged freshmen right up until it bursts.

The Pod

Friday, August 15, 2008

A (Surprise!) Successful Faculty Retreat

(The promised quasi-academic post, at last!)

The Humanities Division at Field (we're too small a college to have distinct departments, so we operate as divisions) inaugurated what might be a new tradition this summer: the divisional faculty retreat. Next week we have the mandatory two-day all-faculty retreat (it was only one day last year, but apparently we have a lot of work to do this year, yippee), but early this week the Humanities folks all met for about a day and a half with the intentions of a) getting to know the new people and b) thinking deliberately about where we want to go as a division in the coming year.

I was, ostensibly, an organizer of this retreat, although I did very little (the real organizer claims that I came up with the idea, which is patently false, but nice of hir to say). I was therefore kind of nervous coming up to it: if the retreat was a failure, I thought, will my name irrevocably be associated with it? Especially by the many new people in our division? (We have three wholly new people, the Minister and I are starting our second years, and the remaining five Humanities faculty have been around for rather a long time, so the division on the whole is pretty new to the college.) Luckily, however, it went surprisingly well. Nonetheless I disavowed all responsibility for the planning and whatnot; I was involved in coming up with the schedule and planned one of the sessions, but, as at least 40% of the division also played that role, I don't think that I can take any special credit.

So. I thought I'd run through my thoughts about why this retreat was successful, since my impression is that faculty retreats in general can be perceived as kind of a waste of time, and I don't recall being particularly impressed by the one I attended last year. I wrote a post about it at the time, I think, but I'm too lazy to link, so you can look in the August '07 archives if you're desperately interested.

Anyway, here's what we did, broadly speaking: We started with a couple of getting-to-know-you activities (along the lines of what you'd do on the first day of a comp class, for example), then had a long session about what the humanities is/are. In fact, that "is/are" was crucial to the session: "Humanities" means both an accumulation of disciplines (the "are") and a particular approach, or set of approaches, to knowledge. This session, which wound up going over its designated two-and-a-half hours, was broken up into sections where we discussed questions as a group (What is the focus of each of our disciplines? What do our disciplines have in common? What sets us apart from other divisions, e.g. Social Sciences? etc.) and sections in which we met with the faculty from our own disciplines (e.g. English) to discuss how our disciplines contribute towards the mission of the humanities. Now, we didn't come up with any kind of answers to the first set of questions; one thing that I found interesting was how the conversation kept getting derailed into what the humanities aren't. This often involved wild, probably inaccurate generalizations about other divisions (Scientists know exactly what they want to find before they start researching! Social scientists think there's one right answer to every question!), but, despite the regrettable un-scholarliness of such claims, the fact that we had such a hard time defining what it is that we do was pretty thought-provoking. So when we got into our groups by discipline, we had some clearer questions to address: What do we want our students to take away from our majors? Why do we think that what we study is important, and how can we best convey that to our students? And so forth.

Maybe the best thing about this session was that it got us all talking to each other about something other than problems in the classroom, administrative screw-ups, or what we did over the weekend. We were talking about, you know, abstract ideas. And why we value our own work. That's important, and something I don't remember really doing since my campus interview.

Then we had some pragmatic sessions on, say, syllabus construction and dealing with the unexpected situations that can arise during teaching. The latter was my special purview, and I came up with what I hoped was kind of a fun way of addressing it: everyone wrote down on index cards an unexpected/difficult/silly situation that he or she had faced (or feared facing) in the classroom, but wrote it as a "What would you do if..." question; we shuffled the cards, and then everyone took one and had to answer it off the cuff. Then the person to whom the situation had occurred discussed what he/she had done. It was a pretty lighthearted session--the last one before dinner, so I assumed that we would be tired, and was right--but I think that it went okay.

Anyway! This was an overnight retreat at the guest house on campus--even though most of us live within a half-mile of campus. Well. The overnighting gave us the opportunity for a postprandial talent show (preceded by rather a shocking quantity of wine). I was not alone, I believe, in having some misgivings about the talent show, but it was surprisingly nice. There was music, a Tai Chi demonstration, poetry reading, the display of a crocheted afghan. I, incapable of baring myself to my colleagues, read an excerpt from the romance novel my friends and I wrote in high school; there was also a display of bad academic verse.

The next day we resumed with more pragmatic sessions: advising, required vs. recommended events, the current climate on campus and issues that new people should be aware of. We wrapped up with quite a nice lunch and some more WINE.

So, what made this successful? First, I think, was the simple fact that there were so few of us. Also, as members of the same division, we were able to discuss some very concrete things that we'd like to do together and even to take some steps towards getting them going--like setting up a web page for the division (that would include detailed course descriptions, my hobbyhorse), emphasizing environmental sustainability and social justice in our classes, and sharing syllabi. The abundance of wine probably helped, too. But also, my immediate colleagues are by and large a great bunch of people whom I like very much. They certainly have their...idiosyncrasies, but after all, that's part of the charm of the professoriate. So it was a good couple of days. I feel decidedly less reluctant to start up the semester--although I'd still rather skip the next two-day retreat, as I don't expect it to be quite so pleasant.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


The computer is now up and running. At last. I bought it on Saturday, spent the weekend making recovery disks and tinkering around, and then on Monday morning it wouldn't start.

A long conversation with a tech guy last night (couldn't call earlier--was at a departmental retreat, about which more later) established that the problem was a set of Windows updates that weren't compatible with--hey!--Windows. Mac people? You may have a point. Anyway, we did that thing where you recover an earlier incarnation of the computer, and all is well again.



I do have an actual, substantive, academics-related post brewing, by the way. Just so you know that I haven't become a simple whining machine.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

In which it appears that my computer is dead.

Indeed, dead.


I went to Big Box Store of Noisy Equipment today to scope out the possibilities, however, and am pleased to see that many of the possibilities are priced in the $700-800 range (rather than the $1200 I was fearing). I am sad, though, because the shiniest, prettiest laptops are all Vaios, and as my last (somewhat ill-built) machine was a Vaio, I have sworn them off. I've toyed with the idea of a mac, yes--despite my reservations about the gloating in which my mac-owning friends and family members would surely engage (seriously, okay? Owning a mac does not make you a revolutionary. I mean, they're nice computers, and I am decidedly tempted by them. But their image is the product of deliberate marketing strategies, and PC-owners are not actually all simple tools of the establishment.) (Sorry--I seem to have lapsed into an argument with my mother for a minute there. Excuse me. Other, sensible mac-owners: You are not the target of my italicized fuming)--but they're so dreadfully expensive. Seriously! The cheapest I've found is $1100, and that's not even with a better warranty than the $800-models (and less RAM, HD space, etc).

So, um...this is a pretty boring post. But I just spent hours on C-Net, which I hate doing, because it gives me a terrible headache and I don't know what all the words mean, but there you have it. I hate not having a computer, too. Perhaps I'll just return to Big Box Zaniness tomorrow and shell out the Big Bucks. Then at least I can catch up on my blog reading, and I won't have to sit in my very boring, all too quiet office to get any work done.

Oh! And other crazy things happened this week. Like a tree fell on my house on Tuesday morning, really early. And the power was then out for 30 hours or so. And then when they fixed the power, a fuse had blown, and I had to get the guy from the gas company (who was there fixing a gas leak) to help me figure that one out. Then the internet was out--which didn't matter, because the computer was broken--and I had to spend half an hour on the phone with Internet Provider of Aggravation last night, but then the internet-fixing-guy showed up early as hell this morning and fixed the internet, which is still useless to me, but at least is fixed. So there have been a great many Guys showing up at my house with Vans and Fixing Things all week. But everything is repaired, and somebody mysteriously removed the tree from my roof/yard while I was in a neighboring town on Tuesday, and everything is very nearly well.

I also have the first ripe tomatoes from my garden. I photographed them, but can't upload the images yet for obvious reasons.... Never fear, I will subject all readers to exciting gardening photographs soon enough!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Oh Computer!!

It might just be a monitor problem, but it's getting really bad. Blogging and blogreading will consequently be light.