Thursday, December 30, 2010

What 2010 Taught Me

1) I love to teach; it is as much a part of my identity as any other aspect of my personality or role (mother, wife, sister, daughter, etc). Not being in front of the classroom (or on the pool deck) is like I am missing a part of myself. When I am teaching/coaching, I feel like I have come home, come to the place where I was meant to be.

2) I need to write. My husband, as much as I love him and as encouraging and supportive as he has been, sometimes doesn't get my blogging, especially when I choose to blog over, say, sleep. Don't worry about it, he tells me, it doesn't matter. But it matters to me, insofar as I am a writer as much as I am a teacher. Writing initially was a way to make up for the fact that I wasn't teaching. It's become so much more. I used to write almost daily in journals before going to sleep, during classes when I was supposed to be paying attention (take that, texting haters!), and in long, unsent letters. Now, I write and I have an audience, which leads me to lesson number three...

3) I love social media. And by this, I mean blogging, tweeting, and just basically sharing stuff and being a part of a community even though I live out in the middle of nowhere (which, ironically, is where most people claim there is still a strong sense of community). I have made more friends, learned more things about everything, and felt more welcome and accepted than I have in a very long time. We can debate the merits of "real" friends over "virtual" friends until we're all blue in the face, but my extended community has helped get me through this very challenging year.

4) I am thankful that I was essentially unemployed for most of 2010. If I had been teaching, I wouldn't have tried to start my own business, which lead me to start my own blog and get on Twitter. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and I reinvented myself (at least, my academic self) this year because of the necessity of unemployment, that loss of a large piece of how I understood who I was, who I still am. Unemployment forced me to let go and finally be myself. 

5) I still have a ways to go. I talk a big talk about reinventing and reimagining higher education and how we teach and learn. I want to help change how instructors who are off the tenure-track are treated in higher education. I am continually frustrated by how most professors and administrators have basically given up on positively changing the university for the better and accepted the "new normal" because they have that luxury as their own jobs are protected. But at the end of the day, I struggle with how I can not just talk about change, but actually be the change. I've written extensively about fear and, although not explicitly, about failure, and what that means to my career, to my husband's career, to my family, and to me personally. The University of Venus gave me a new audience to share my views; now I just have to figure out how to use it more proactively, rather than just being one more voice screaming into the wind. 

Happy New Year, everyone. Thank you for reading, thank you for sharing, thank you for commenting, thank you for caring. May 2011 bring you joy, and if not, may you find the strength to emerge from whatever the year throws at you wiser and stronger. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What To Do With All These Books?

We just moved, and as always, the process involved coming face to face with the amount of books I have. They look impressive on the shelves, less so in a never-ending stack of boxes. And in boxes they will remain for the time being because our main bookshelf disintegrated in the move. I'm left wondering, what am I, finally, going to do with all those books?

My husband and I are book "collectors." We both love having books related to our academic interests as well as books we just like (or, admittedly, should like). My PhD in comparative literature contributed a great number of "classics" to our library which we will never part with. My eclectic teaching history has added to the list of books we own and might not have otherwise. And then there are the piles of science-fiction and fantasy books that are left over from our "youth." None of those books will ever be parted with, either. Most of my husband's books are in his office at work.

No, the books I am thinking of parting with are a part of my collection of Canadian literature. A long, long time ago, I was a Canadianist. I taught a year-long intro course in Canadian literature. My dissertation and research interests were in Canadian literature (they still are, but it's not really all that marketable, so now I call it postcolonial). I am also a bit of a completist, and thus when I found affordable (cheap) Can Lit, I gobbled them up. Now, I have shelves and shelves of obscure Canadian literature (and Canadian literary theory/criticism) that I am pretty sure I will never read or use again.

A study was published just this year showing that the more books that are in the home, the more academically successful a child will be. I'm not tremendously concerned that our children won't be exposed to books (the number of boxes of their books we had to move was astounding), but I do wonder: is it the quantity or quality of the books that will make the biggest differences? I don't mean quality in terms of the books being "great" literature or "trash"; growing up, our house was filled with trashy romances read by my mother and pulpy science fiction and horror books read by my father. It was the act of my parents reading them that had the greatest impression on me. I devoured books of my own choosing and felt free to read whatever I wanted to, in part because my parents read what they enjoyed.

And that's the problem. I own all of these books that I probably will never read. They sit on the shelf in near-pristine condition, spines unbroken, pages almost immaculate, out of obligation. When one of the kids comes up to me to ask, "what's this book about?" I won't be able to tell them. There is no connection between myself and the book. We gladly lug all of our old CDs with us, in part because we want our kids to pick them up, look at them, play with them, play them, and ask us about them (this was when I knew I was marrying the right man; when I asked why we weren't just getting rid of them, my husband said exactly that). The music has meaning to us, or at least had meaning to us. Many of my books hold no meaning to me.

So, over the protestations of my husband, who believes that no book deserves to be discarded, I will be purging books from my library. This will (please, please, please) be our last move for a long time, which means that the books will be unpacked and left on the shelf. But that's not what I want for my books. I want books that will be pulled down, read, and hold meaning for the reader. Don't worry; I won't throw them out. I'll donate them to a library somewhere, if there is still a library that cares about Canadian literature out there. Either that, or my rural, southern US state college will become proud and confused owners of a very significant collection of Canadian literature.

If anyone has any other ideas, I'll gladly donate my books to a place where they can do the most good.

Friday, December 24, 2010

What Do We Expect From Freshmen?

I'm not breaking my Christmas vow to focus on engaging with the comments on my blog/writing; this post, in fact, is a long response to my recent University of Venus post, "What is a Course in Higher Ed?" One particularly negative comment focused on how I live in a fairy-land and should never be allowed to teach again. Never mind that the course focused on education and its role in our society, and that the assignment was warmly and enthusiastically received by my students. And while some of my students didn't do as well as I had hoped, when do they ever? 

But that isn't what this blog post is about. No, my fellow University of Venus blogger Mary Churchill dealt quite well with the issue of instructors and professors being openly discouraged from trying (and potentially failing) in the classroom here.

I want to focus on the critique that I expected too much from my Freshmen in the class (never mind that most of my students were, in fact, Sophomores or higher). One of the comments read:
Freshman are not educators; most of them do not even know how to do critical thinking, much less create a course that develops it. Freshmen are supposed to be somewhat self-centered with a limited worldview. Changing that is the purpose of higher ed. While, along the way, imparting skills and knowledge.
True enough, they are not educators, but they have all chosen to attend an institution of higher education, at great cost to themselves and/or their families. But is it also true that they are "supposed to be somewhat self-centered"? This goes back to the central question of my post, what is higher education? Is its purpose to produce well-rounded, critical thinking individuals? And is it the only place where this could and should happen?

In the West, most people still do not attend college, let alone complete a degree (note that I've said college and not community college or technical schools). We are a democracy, and we rely on a population that is capable of making informed decisions when they vote. Why, then, is critical thinking the sole responsibility of colleges and universities? Why has that role been taken away from or fallen away from the high schools? What about the significant numbers of the population who have not gone to college?

We spoke at length about education and its role in our society both with my more advanced 200-level writers, about whom I wrote, and with my developmental writers, who were all Freshmen. All of them agree that their college education, in fact, all of education, is motivated by economics. It was very difficult for them to even contemplate or imagine education serving any other purpose. Why then, I asked, was education historically reserved for the wealthy who didn't need any sort of education in order to perpetuate their (mostly inherited) wealth? Why did the emerging merchant class insist that their children receive a classical education when their trade was, well, trade?

I don't think any of us ever came up with a satisfactory answer. Is this a failure on my part as an instructor? Well, I could have told them or lectured them on their self-centered, capitalist worldview, which would have gone in one ear and out the other. Instead, we read, we wrote, and I let them create. And, really, at the end of 15 weeks, is it too much to ask of a student to apply what we have read, discussed, and learned, regardless of what level they are at, Freshmen or Seniors?

I think in our disgust with the level of K-12 education, our increasing course loads/student numbers, our push to standardize courses, and our general disdain for the motivation of our students (or lack thereof), we have severely underestimated their abilities. They don't want to be challenged; they're not ready to be challenged; I'm too busy to challenge them. But it doesn't have to be that way. Most Freshmen, heck most students, will rise to the challenge, if you are willing to go there with them.

Back when I was naive, I taught a developmental writing course in California, at one of the state schools.  The need for remediation was so strong that they created two levels of developmental writing, one that was one 10-week quarter and another that took place over two 10-week quarters. The only requirement was that the students had to study (read, write, and discuss) a non-fiction book, one that makes an argument. I, in my naiveté, chose Manliness by Harvey Mansfield. The students, I thought, would love it. And they did, eventually.

We spent the final 10 weeks on the book. I told them ahead of time that it would be the most challenging book they'd probably ever read, but if they trusted me, worked hard, we would get through it and they could be confident that they could get through anything college threw at them.  It was the hardest 10 weeks of my life and probably the students' (intellectual) lives. But we did get through it and at the end of the semester, I was more proud of the results they produced than I ever have before or since. Why? One reason is because I never had the opportunity to teach the book again. But another reason is exactly because it was so hard for me as their instructor and thus a deterrent to ever teaching something that challenging to Freshmen or developmental writers ever again. Why should I be surprised at their uninspired writing and ideas when I give them (or am required to give them) uninspired things to read and write about?

My idea to have all of my students, regardless of their level read and write about education and education reform has produced the most satisfying results for me as an instructor since I taught Manliness. And, it was my most challenging teaching experience since then, too. Were all the essays stellar examples of critical thinking and college-level writing? No. But, they all showed evidence of at least an attempt at both critical thinking and college-level writing. It didn't earn them an A, but it did reinforce my belief that much of the time we expect too little from our students, Freshmen or otherwise.

For Part II, I ask, what can we expect from Freshmen?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Taking a Break for Conversations

I'm good at blogging; I'm not so good at engaging in conversations with those readers who are kind enough to comment on my blog posts. I'm also moving, and heading back up to the Great White North for the holidays. So, for Christmas vacation, I am going to take a step back from writing blog posts (I have a pile on tap for the New Year and New Semester, so don't worry) and go through the comments I have received here and on Twitter about my posts, and actually engage with them. In other words, respond.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What difference does it make that you get an "A"?

The students are handing in their papers and writing final exams. Once the grades are in (and even before that), it will begin. The grade grubbing. It's my least favorite part of the semester. It has already started; students who have missed a lot of assignments and then have not done well on major papers are at my desk before and after class, asking if there is anything they can do (build a time machine, go back to the beginning of the semester, do better). But the students who really frustrate me are those students who come to me demanding to know:

"Why didn't I get an A" or "How can I get an A"? 

I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that if they work hard, attend class, do the assignments both big and small, take it seriously, and take advantage of the services and support offered to them, then there is no reason why they can't all get A's. But as the semester progresses, it becomes clear that some of the students' only motivation is to get an A. It doesn't matter that becoming a better writer is a valuable life skill, they just want to know what list of changes they need to make in order to make something into an "A" paper. It's one of the reasons why I try to keep from too heavily editing students' papers; the students don't see it as an opportunity to learn, only an opportunity to get an A. 

There has been a lot of debate recently about how we evaluate students and how pressure to do well (get a high GPA) is leading to an erosion of the educational experience. Students increasingly don't see anything wrong with cheating; all that counts is that, in the end, they get their high grade and their degree. I try to work with my students on the process of writing, in order to make the writing the focus, instead of the grade. But it doesn't work. Especially since many of my classes are general education requirements that students think should be easier because they have to take them, in part to make up for lower grades earned in their more demanding classes in their major. 

And so the student who comes to me complaining about a B will be met with one question: why is it so important that your grade be an A? What are your priorities? Why? And then, what didn't you do this semester that kept you from getting an A? Earning a B in my class may be the opportunity a student needs to really take a hard look at why they are in school and how their behavior and choices are undermining their ultimate goals and aspirations. But, it is also a good time to ask, what difference will that A really make? 

I've earned A's and I've earned D's. I've had wild successes and massive failures. If all I did was stop at the letter grade assigned to any project or assignment, where would I be? I was wholly unprepared for a job because there wasn't the finality of a grade one way or the other, and that my bosses we not as ready or willing to reward me with the same accolades my work had previously earned. In school, the grade is final. At work, my writing was constantly being edited, revised, rewritten, and, worst of all for me, heavily critiqued. While I would always forget about a good or bad grade immediately after it had been posted, I didn't really learn anything, or was I ever motivated to improve. Working was a rude awakening to how inadequately I was prepared, despite my stellar (and not so stellar) grades.

What difference is that A really going to make? 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What's the Point of Freshman Writing?

This post is in response to a question asked on the Phi Beta Cons blog.

I am sorry that you don't see the point of courses like Freshman Writing. But you've never met my students. You've never met the students who come to the non-selective institutions of higher education in this country, in other words, the majority of them. And you most definitely have not gone through the K-12 system that currently values standardized test scores over real writing skills. Look at the statistics. The majority of students are not prepared for college work. They need remediation (look at California and New York's numbers). Well then, give them remediation, you say. After one semester, have these students really overcome 12 years of educational deficiency?

And, really, even those who don't need remediation. Are they really that far ahead of their peers in remedial or developmental courses? Are they ready to face the demands of a college degree, the level of writing that will be required of them? Not really, given the tyranny of the standardized test and the standardized essay. They do the five-paragraph essay over and over again. And then they are expected to succeed in a college humanities class?  

These are not students who have parents who have paid for academic coaches, SAT tutors, and admissions councilors. These are often students who are the first in their family to finish high school, let alone attend college. They are not the best and the brightest. They are often not the ambitious and highly motivated. But they are all motivated by the same goal: to build a better life for themselves. And the way to do that, they have been told repeatedly, is to go to college. 

It is the end of the semester, and I am saddened by the number of students who have written to me that I am the first teacher they have had who has given a crap about them, their writing, and their education. I am the first teacher who has tried to explain to them how to properly use a comma or what a sentence fragment is. That they learned more in my 15-week class than four years of high school. That they never believed that they could write until they came into my class. I have taught at three different public universities in three different states. I received the same kinds of comments from the majority of my students at all three.

As for the class refer to at UNC, I think you need to take any student's description of a class with a grain of salt. It actually sounds like the instructor tried to engage with the students in a way that was relevant to where the future of humanities is going (whether we like it or not): the digital humanities. Also, instead of droning on and on and on in a boring lecture format, the instructor invited the students to step outside the classroom and explore educational events on campus. Freshmen especially need to know what resources are available to them on campus, whether they think they are going to be interested or not. To then ask students to work together and shape their own learning experience? The nerve, forcing the students to be active, independent learners. I hope she didn't trip over her sense of superiority while she overlooked an opportunity to engage in some creative and critical thinking, something that is no longer valued in high school.

I am not absolving the instructor for not giving the course as advertised and failing to provide more guidance to the student in question (did she even ask, however?). But notice how I avoid talking about the instructor as a professor; that is because it was made clear that the instructor of the course was a PhD student. This is one of the biggest problems with how Freshman Writing is taught in many institutions, both selective and non-selective. Professors are too busy with their research, graduate students, and upper-level courses to teach Freshman Writing, so instead it is passed off to underprepared graduate students or over-worked adjuncts (often, but not always, they are one and the same). If professors aren't willing to take the courses seriously enough to teach them (even though it was they who demanded that the courses be offered because, presumably, they noticed that students couldn't write well enough), then how seriously will a graduate student take them, when their sole goal is to emulate their professors? 

Perhaps Freshman Writing is a waste of some students' time, but for the majority, it is a necessity to make up for years of standardized testing and sub-standard teaching. As for poor teachers of Freshman Writing or poor course/assignment design, blame a system that doesn't prioritize teaching. There are many, many of us out there who do try to teach it well, and most of us are off the tenure-track. Reading your post and the student's post remind me of how thankless and disrespected a task I chose to take on. Reading many of my students' thanks, I am reminded of why I love what I do.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The "Meaning" of Teacher Evals

There are a lot of things going on at this time of the year. Students are freaking out about their grades entirely too late for it to make any difference. Professors and Instructors are inundated with essays and final exams to correct. But, it is also time for students in colleges and universities to evaluate their teachers; our final exam on a semester's worth of work.

Of course, teaching evaluations aren't the only way we are evaluated as teachers: class average, the ease at which your courses "make," and peer observations are often also used to gage a professor's effectiveness in the classroom. I remember when I was just starting off as a PhD student, I was given a stern talking-to by my department chair for having too-high a class average. My husband, on the other hand, has been taken to task for not being able to attract a higher number of students to register for his classes. In both cases, one wonders if it is the teaching or other factors that influence the criteria being used.

Which brings us back to the teaching evaluations we give to our students, asking them to judge how well we've performed over the semester. In a way, it's fair, especially at the university level. One hopes that students in universities have a more active interest in their learning and thus will accurately and fairly judge their professors on whether or not they have learned anything. But unfortunately, much of the time, the teaching evaluations come down to a) how high the class average is and thus, b) how much they student "liked" the professor.

I also wonder how accurately students can answer some of the questions asked on the evaluations form. Was the instructor readily available outside of class? Considering I can count on one hand how many students actually came to see my during my office hours, how will the majority of my students answer? How can they answer, seeing as how they never sought my help outside of the classroom? Did they find what I taught in the class valuable? Seeing as how I teach a course whose curriculum is, in part, imposed on me, how is that a fair evaluation of my teaching? And do students even have the perspective to know if what I am teaching is valuable? It might seem irrelevant today, but what about in the "real world?"

But I keep coming back to the likability factor. I have never once had all positive teaching evaluations. There are always one or two students who seem to intensely dislike me, how I teach, and what I teach. I'll often come across their comments immediately after reading a very positive comment about the exact same aspect of my class. The instructor was very clear and took her time to make sure we understood all of the materials; followed by, the instructor was overly repetitive and went over the same thing over and over like we were stupid. I'm clear and I'm too loud. I'm friendly and open and I reveal too much about myself. I am at once too tough and too easy on my students. I am both fair and unfair in my grading practices. How am I all of these contradictory things at once?

When I posted on the teachers who have influenced me, someone I went to elementary school with raked me over the coals for my description of my beloved 3rd and 5th grade teacher; for him, the same teacher and class was an absolute nightmare. And when I recounted my (negative) experience in 10th grade English, a fellow classmate and friend had the exact opposite reaction to the same treatment (and let me know about it). My students, when asked to reflect on their best teachers in high school, chose those teachers who pushed them and had high expectations of them. While in high school, they admitted that they hated those teachers and much preferred those teachers who didn't demand so much. So I am all too aware of the variances in personal experience with the exact same teacher. And if that is true, can we rely on student evaluations to give us an accurate picture of how "good" a teacher is?

Putting aside the idea as well that student evaluations have turned into a costumer satisfaction survey, and if the customer (student) wasn't right, they let the professor have it, the evaluations don't really help the professor become a better teacher. When faced with conflicting comments, what is a professor supposed to do to increase "customer satisfaction"? Major corporations have the size and resources to at least appear to be all things to all people, but I am alone in front of 30+ students for a limited amount of time, and all of the students have a different idea of how and what I should be teaching. 

Which brings up the uncomfortable notion that universities are just going through the motions of evaluating teaching. We pass out forms, they get fed into the computer, the scores come back, high and low scores are duly noted, but at the end of the day, it won't be teaching that denies or gains a faculty member tenure. In the same way, stellar teaching evaluations in no way protect contingent faculty members from being summarily dismissed for budgetary, personal, or political reasons. There is little incentive for faculty members both on and off the tenure-track to innovate, experiment, and re-imagine their courses and teaching methods. It is seen as either taking too much time away from research and service (tenure-track) or over-stepping the accepted boundaries (contingent). 

I know that there are lots of universities that truly value teaching, and thus also value meaningfully evaluating the teacher. But for so many of us, those schools exist as some sort of academic legend, existing on the fringes of reality. We hear about them, and we know someone who knows someone who works there, but it remains unknowable, a place that only exists in our fantasies. The reality is that I have to try to get my students to like me (so maybe I'll just give them all A's) to do well on my evaluations.

And then, it won't matter anyway.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

End-of-Semester Advice for Writers

The semester is coming to an end. My developmental writers are getting ready to hand in their last essays. Most have shown great improvement and proven that they can write at a level that will mean success at the college level. They are more confident writers who are no longer intimidated by having to write "formal" essays for class. They are more critical and active readers who are more adapt at approaching their work, more aware of the need to adapt their skills depending on the task at hand. 

Which I know they will promptly forget how to do the moment they leave my class. Or they will become over-confident in their abilities. Or, they will let college life get the better of them, with teachers who (rightfully) don't build in a lot of time for revision and feedback for assignments. 

One of my biggest pet-peeves is when a professor from another department learns that I teach developmental writing and tells me that we'd better start doing a better job because their students in nursing/engineering/history/whatever can't write. My answer is now that they could write when they left my classroom. Whether or not they choose to write well in other classes is another issue all together.

My advice to students who are moving on from their developmental writing class or even the more traditional Freshman Writing course is to allow yourselves the opportunity to succeed. Don't hand in your "first draft" that you wrote the morning before class. Proofread. Adjust your tone. Make sure you're following directions. Don't write the same paper for every class. Practice writing any and every chance you get. And remember that a professor can't evaluate your ideas if they can't understand them through your writing. 

I've taught my students methods and strategies to be successful college writers. We've practiced them and they have seen that they work. Keep using them in every class. Please. Your college success depends on them. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Teaching Writing and Editing Writers

My students' blog assignment has put in a strange position, caught somewhere between their teacher and their editor. My original "training" was as a professional writer, and part of that training was learning how to edit. I edited our program's newspaper. I've worked as an editor before. I've edited a book. I can't say I ever enjoyed that work, nor that I was any good at it. So it wasn't with much heartbreak that I gave up heavily editing my students' work when I became a teacher. 

But now that I am the administrator for the blog my students are contributing to, I have an old, familiar urge to edit. The missing (or extra) comma. The sentence fragment. The misused word. All of it. I just want to go in a fix it. Or, going further, fiddling with a sentence here or there to improve it. Or cut a word or sentence that doesn't work or fit. I know better, and I have promised myself and my students that, outside of formatting, I wouldn't change their work.

Before you get upset about my impulse to "improve" the students' writings, know that that is the role of the editor. When I worked as a paid intern for an online newspaper, I was shocked and devastated when I got my first writing assignment back from the editor completely marked up and changed. This was the first time I had really had my writing critiqued in this way. I dutifully made the changes, recognized that the writing was better (but at that point, I also thought what I had written was fine, too), and tried to grow some thicker skin. 

The editor is a thankless job, because the byline always goes to the author. But what I try to make my students realize is that most works of writing they read are the result of a long process that often involves a lot of people. While we do peer review and revise drafts of our essays, I can't get the students to really edit their own or even their peers' work. Part of it has to do with the idea of plagiarism; these kids have been taught to only submit their own, original work, lest they face some very severe consequences. But why can't or won't they collaborate in order to make their writing better? Is it because I haven't provided a model for them to follow?

And, what is my role in the collaboration? Where is the balance between coaching my students to improve and actually getting in there doing the dirty work of revising and improving a students' writing. And would I be doing it for them or with them? This blogging assignment has forced me to think about how much work I still have to do in figuring out how to best help my students become better writers.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My fifty-foot paperclip made of foam rubber

My advanced-level writing students had one final assignment to do after their education reform blog posts; I asked them to design (or redesign) their own university-level course. The bulk of the assignment would be spent justifying their choices (How will it be taught? By whom? Where? How will students be evaluated? What assignments/work will students do? What are the learner outcomes?), but this assignment was an opportunity for the students to re-imagine the university course as they know it.

When we first started talking about education reform in class, I showed them Sir Ken Robinson's animated video about changing the education paradigm. In it, he talks about divergent thinking and asks how many different uses we can think of for a paper clip. The idea is that if you can imagine the paper clip to be "fifty feet tall and made of foam rubber," among other ways, then you are pretty good at divergent thinking (and thus are more likely to be creative). I told my students, this assignment is your opportunity to try imagine your own fifty-foot paper clip made of foam rubber and what could be done with it.

Like this class was for me.

Look, I know that for a lot of people, assigning students a blog post instead of an essay and having them read up on and write about current events isn't groundbreaking. In fact, more often than not, my class resembled any other typical university writing class. Part of the reason is because the class is considered a general education course, and thus has to meet a whole list of university-imposed guidelines, standards, and learning outcomes. And, being a new, non-tenure-track instructor, there is only so much boat-rocking I am willing to do, just in case.

But, creating this class was still a challenge and an adventure for me. It was unlike any writing course I had taught before. I experiemented, and it seems to have paid off. Next semester, who knows what the course will look like? I'm learning as I go, and expanding what I am willing (and able) to do. I'm also hoping that my students will offer some ideas in their assignments.

Their ideas for courses sound great so far. One student thinks it would be a good idea to offer a cooking class for Freshmen. Another wants there to be a general education course in debating, to teach students how to argue and listen effectively and not just yell at each other. And yet another wants to bring students out into the field to do local sociological studies. I am eager to see how they imagine delivering the course; will it be the same-old lecture-essay-test format that so many of the class they have taken use, or will they try to move beyond that?

I told my students that I was going to miss them and this class when the semester ends next week. The course wouldn't have been nearly as successful if they hadn't been willing to come along with me for the ride. I had two sections, forty students, who have worked really hard and have been fantastically receptive to my crazy ideas. Part of my goal in this class was to show them what their education could be. I think that another small goal was to show myself, too.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Seconds Thoughts about Blogging, Part II

My students have handed in "final" drafts of their blog posts. I put the final in quotation marks because the post isn't final until it goes online. But even then, because the student can go in and modify it as much as they want (as can I, but I'm going to restrain myself, intruding only to fix broken links and other formatting issues), it is never really "final." More about writing and publishing on the Internet that I need to get used to. Publishing anything online is permanent in that it is almost impossible to get rid of, but never concrete in that it can be edited, modified, and reshaped. So much to think about, teach, and learn.

But I digress. I have now read and assigned preliminary grades to my students' blog posts on education reform. Most of them are pretty good. Some are better than others, both in terms of their ideas and their style. Lots of bitterness about standardized tests and poor teacher quality (keep in mind, these students are mostly the product of rural schools). Some didn't follow directions, and others let their emotions get the best of them. A few, however, have made me once again re-evaluate the idea of putting these posts online, theoretically, for the world to see.

One of my students argued that we can solve the problems of urban education by creating public boarding schools. Another compared the cultures of different races to show that we don't need education reform but we instead need to reform cultures. Yet another accused all teachers of being lazy alcoholics who have serious mental issues. 


Interestingly enough, we had spoken (albeit briefly) about the idea of residential schools when we watched the trailer for the documentary Schooling the World.  Is our only understanding of what it means to be educated sending our kids to school? But we also talked about the challenges that schools and teachers face in overcoming the issues and challenges that students face outside of school. Taking the kids away from their families, though?

I promised the students that I wasn't going to be evaluating their actual suggestions but instead how well they argue the reform they propose. But it was hard to stomach a proposal that looked to recreate one of North America's darkest chapters, the residential schools. When I was a PhD student, I taught a man who had been a product of the residential school system in Canada. He told me stories about his experience there, and I couldn't help but think of him as I read about my student's grad plan for reforming urban schools (get rid of them and send them all to the country). 

And I cringe at what kind of reception an idea like that will receive when it goes live online, both for me and the student. Part of me thinks that I have obviously failed at teaching some of these students the critical thinking skills, or knowledge acquisition skills, they need. Will people reading the blog think these reforms are all ones that I advocated for in class (disclaimer, they aren't)? Will my student be equipped to deal with the possible mean and vicious backlash that the post will inspire?

But part of me is also proud that I created a classroom environment where students feel like they can take intellectual chances and possibly "fail." There was something refreshing about reading a few essay that weren't about how terrible standardized tests are or how awful their teachers were in high school. As misguided as I think their ideas are, some students genuinely tried to think outside of the box for this assignment. For that, I am proud.

But, I'll let you, dear readers, be the ultimate judge. Visit My ego can take it. But go easy on the students. I know the road to hell is paved with good intentions, my students really do mean well. There will be posts appearing throughout the week. Keep visiting or follow me on Twitter (@readywriting) for up-to-the-minute updates. 

Deadlines: Nice or Not?

It's that time of the semester. The time when students who have been mysteriously absent all semester start showing up, wondering what it is they can do in order to pass my class. My immediate response: "Build a time machine, go back to the beginning of the semester, attend class, and do the work you were supposed to have done up until now." I hold my tongue, but the kids have mostly been trained to expect bonus work, or credit recovery, in order to salvage their semester. Didn't do anything all semester? Here's a small assignment that if you complete it, you'll not only pass, you may earn an A! 

Not in my class. But I have developed a type of compromise: you have until the day before I hand in my grades to submit any and all major writing assignments from the semester. Now, I don't go advertising this policy on my syllabus or in class. But nor do I advertise any penalty for late work. In my writing class especially, the deadlines are built into the syllabus, but the deadlines are preceded by in-class exercises and homework that guides them through a process for writing their papers. If you attended class and did all of the in-class and homework, your paper will be ready by the deadline (not to mention be a much more polished piece of writing).

But my students always seem to have excuses. Some are valid (freshmen especially seem to end up in the hospital due to the fact that they have taken really poor care of themselves during the semester). Some are suspect (your friend was in the hospital, computer virus, had to go home to babysit). Other are outright ridiculous (I didn't know we had a paper due, I didn't understand it, I swear I emailed it to you because I don't have any money left to print it). I'm tired of trying to figure out who is lying, who is trying to take advantage of me, and who really needs the extra time because of circumstances beyond their control. So, while it's better for my students to hand things in according to the schedule, at the end of the day, as long as they get it in to me before my grades are due, that's fine.

I have this policy in part because of karma; I was a terrible student as an undergraduate, and I rarely handed in assignments on time. I used every excuse in the book and sometimes didn't even bother offering one at all. But all of my professors allowed me to hand in my work and gave me full credit, however grudgingly. I can't help but smile inside when my undergrads come in, begging to be able to hand in their papers just a little late. Take your time, don't make yourself sick with stress and worry, and just hand it in to me when you have it done.

Is this an accurate reflection of real life? Probably not. Real life has hard and fast deadlines that need to be respected or else there will be some very real and potentially serious consequences. Don't ever miss an application deadline, and if your boss asks you for something by a certain day or time, you'd better make sure you do it. But in real life, there are always backup plans that can be put in place in oder to be able to mitigate the negative consequences of unforeseen events: work assignments can be handed off, divided up, or reassigned if you really cannot complete the work. There is also something to be said about the ability to say no, knowing when you have enough (or too much) work already, and thus telling your boss that if s/he wants it done well, they should assign it to someone else or give more time. But school doesn't allow for such flexibility. You are assigned work in each class, almost without regard to what else is being asked of you, and expected to get it done.

I know that students need to learn time management as well as the ability to take responsibility for their (often stupid) choices.  But this is the beauty of my system: the students who really want to do well (and typically have a legitimate reason for missing the deadlines) will take the extra time, come and see me to talk about what they missed, and turn in their work in a reasonable timeframe, not falling so far behind that they now owe two or more major pieces of writing. Everyone else will keep putting off their work, scrambling at the end of the semester to hand something, anything, in to me to grade. And the work that they do hand in is rarely, if ever, good enough to earn a passing grade. Because they missed the process, the work is sloppy, and often doesn't even meet the assignment requirements. The students work harder than they have all semester in a desperate attempt to pass a class they put off, only to (usually) fail anyway.

And those students who do manage to hand in work that's good enough to pass the class? Good for them. When they become a professor later on in life (like I did), hopefully they'll pay it forward as well. But I also know that, one day, what they have done in the past won't work anymore. I also know that it is only then that they will learn the lesson. And those students who participated in the process? They are rewarded with a relatively stress-free semester (at least for my class) and a good grade. 

I've always tell my students: I've got carrots and I've got sticks. Pick the one that works best for your motivation. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What Have I Been Up To?

After a flurry of posts, I've been really silent for the past two weeks or so. The end of the semester is near, and I have been attempting to figure out what the end of semester is going to look like for my students. I've sort-of gone off syllabus. I've been applying for conferences, publishing opportunities, and research grants. I've been doing mountains of paperwork because we're buying a house. My kids have been sick, husband away, and Europeans visiting. And, you know, Thanksgiving.

It's been a crazy two weeks.

But, I have also been blogging for a new education reform website, I've written about the seeming voicelessness of rural education, why my students think high school sucks, and asked, given all of the negative rhetoric recently, who will be our future professors? I invite you to visit the site and check out the talented and passionate writers who are contributing to the site. 

More posts here to come. Until then, enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part III)

Opening for Ben Folds on his current tour is the group Lady Danville (I'm pretty sure the "New Song" video was taken at the Chicago show I attended). They are, to me, amazing. Three young dudes making great music? Yes, please. I went up front to buy their CD and there was one of the members of the band, selling their stuff. Even though I'm pretty sure I have at least ten years on him, I gushed like a school girl: You guys were awesome. So great (giggle, blush - ugh). Funny thing was, he was as excited and giddy as I was: You really liked it? Thanks! That's so great! Thanks! 

Art and academia are often seen as being very isolated and isolating professions. For many artists, you spend hours or days or years locked up in a room somewhere, by yourself, creating. Academics spend the same amount of time, apparently, in libraries, archives, offices, labs, out in the field, again, by themselves. But of course, that's completely false. At one point or another, the artist emerges and shares their art. So, too, with the academic. 

But that art is often rarely created in complete isolation. That's we have schools, movements, collectives, troupes, and other ways that artists support and work with each other. While in Chicago, I also met a young woman who had left her small town in rural West Virginia to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. She was working with a bunch of artists whom she had met in art school and they were working and supporting each other in order to create art and make a living. She was living her dream and loving it. 

I come home and I read about how reference letters in academia for women that talk about collaboration are held against the candidate. “We found that being communal is not valued in academia,” it read. When I told my husband about the findings, he was completely unsurprised. Communal, he said, isn't as important as being independent and self-motivated. My fellow University of Venus bloggers (ok, she's one of the founders), Mary Churchill, tweeted "grad training is currently creating insecurity, arrogance, and depression rather than collaboration." Why are we recreating the worst stereotypes of the solitary, tortured artist, when the artists themselves long ago rejected that model?

If anything, academics should be learning from artists who look to collaborate and share their work with the widest possible audience. We should be open and honest about how challenging the life of the mind can be, but also how rewarding it can be, much like choosing to become an actor, musician, or painter. There are still academics out there who want to share with their students and colleagues. (For two examples, check out here and here). After reading these tributes to being a teacher and academic, can you imagine either of the two writers doing anything other than what they currently do? I can't, and I can't imagine it for myself, either.

We cannot give up hope in higher education, in some form or another. And to survive, we're going to have to start working, and I mean really working, together. Things are going to have to change. 

Let's go. Who is with me? 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part II)

As I said in my previous post, Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies; another would be The Muppet Movie. I grew up with Jim Henson. Sesame Street was my favorite show. The Muppet Show used to reduce me to hysterical laughing. Fraggle Rock was a Sunday night ritual (it aired on Sunday evenings in Canada on CBC). I was completely mystified and fascinated by The Storyteller. I still remember where I was where I heard that Jim Henson had died (in my friends' ecology classroom in grade seven during lunch period; they were working on projects and their teacher had the radio on). When asked the questions, who would have lunch with, dead or alive, I always answer Jim Henson. 

When I found out that a special exhibit of Jim Henson's works was going to be in Chicago at the same time I was there for a conference, I knew I had to go. The morning before my panels, I was on the bus heading out to the museum. Once again, tears welled up in my eyes the moment I saw Kermit sitting there to greet me. I was further overwhelmed with emotion as I watched parents and children, generations really, enjoy and interact with the exhibit, which included pieces and clips from as far back as Henson's commercials produced for the Washington, D.C. market. 

I was struck by a number of things in the exhibit. One was how determined Jim Henson was to get into television. He would do whatever it took, including taking up puppetry. Contrary to popular belief, puppetry was not Henson's first passion; it was one that he picked up out of necessity and then fell madly in love with. He was open; art, puppets, commercials, late-night tv, children's shows, whatever it took. And once he had made it, he pushed himself and those around him to new creative heights. 

That is the other element that really struck me; how much collaboration took place within the Henson family. Henson was someone who had a very unique perspective, could be difficult to work with (what creative person isn't?) but ultimately he inspired and helped everyone around him become more than they perhaps ever thought they could be. Without Jim Henson, Sesame Street may have only been an interesting footnote in the history of television. Instead, it has gone on to educate and entertain generations of children. 

I picked up the book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street while at the museum. The book opens at Jim Henson's funeral and it shows the impact that his life (and death) on the group of people who worked in their way to create Sesame Street. Time and time again, the people who were involved in the show had little to no interest in children's television.  But, there they ended up, working together to create television history. For Jim Henson, it wasn't just about being creative and innovative, it was about helping as many people as possible achieve their dreams, too.

I'm also reading Kermit Culture, an academic collection of essays that deal with The Muppet Show. In the first essay, Ben Underwood discusses how Henson manages to turn the viewer into a Muppet when they watch the show, bringing them in on the joke, in on the collective experience that was The Muppet Show. Television is a blend of a collective and solitary experience. When Henson was growing up, television was rare and so the entire neighborhood would gather in the living room of the one house that owned one, turned viewing into an experience similar to live theater or performance. Today, with hundreds of channels and multiple TVs per household, this is not a very common experience. But the performers and audience have always been cut off from each other. Jim Henson managed to bridge that gap. 

Jim Henson changed the face of TV with a bunch of puppets. His legacy isn't just the people who worked most directly with him, but the millions of us whom he welcomed into his world, changing us into Muppets. The best dreams, Kermit once said, are the ones we share. Shouldn't we, in higher education, be aspiring to the same things? 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part 1)

This weekend, I went to Chicago for a conference, but also to get away and recharge my intellectual batteries. One of the things I did while there was to attend a Ben Folds concert. I love live music shows. My mom used to take me to concerts when I was little: Raffi; Sharon, Lois, and Bram; Sesame Street Live. Our house was always filled with music. The record player was one of the first pieces of technology I knew how to use. But there was always something very special to me about going to see a live show. My musical idols were right there on stage. And I was able to sing and dance along with hundreds of other kids who loved the music as much as I did.

My first "real" concert was when I was 12 and I went to see New Kids on the Block. Yes, I was one of those girls, screaming uncontrollably at the five fresh-faced boys from Boston. I was in line at 6:30 in the morning, waiting for tickets. It was my first "rock" concert, filled with cigarette and pot smoke, screaming girls, lighters aloft during ballads, and everyone screaming and singing along. From then on, I was really hooked.

I think I have seen over one hundred concerts, both large and small, in my short life. I'm not a music snob, so my concert-going experiences are pretty straight forward and read like a 20-year history of pop music, with a Canadian twist: Barenaked Ladies, Tragically Hip, Our Lady Peace, Planet Smashers, Moist, Tea Party, Blue Rodeo, Sarah McLaclan, Jean Leloup, Moxy Fruvous, along with U2, Green Day, Coldplay, The Cranberries, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, Weezer, and countless little local bands who played the local bar I frequented when I was an undergraduate.

I first saw Ben Folds when I was working as a music critic for my college newspaper. I had given his band, Ben Folds Five, debut album a favorable review. They were opening up for another band at a small, but well-regarded, concert space/bar in Montreal. I got to interview him for more than an hour after the show. The resulting article ran over two pages in the next edition of the paper. It was my first, and only, brush with fame and the music industry. I was, to put it mildly, too much of a fan. For me, I liked what I liked, and what I liked was the live music experience, shared with tens, hundreds, or thousands of other people. Musicians facinated me because they did something I could not: play music and write songs. But the mystery of how they did it would forever remain unknowable.

That is why when the movie Almost Famous came out, I was hooked. It bombed at the box office, but I dragged every single one of my friends and family to see it. It is one of those movies that I watch and re-watch constantly. I loved everything about it: the naive kid who is obsessed with rock and roll and gets to go on tour with the band and write for Rolling Stone. The Band-Aid who loves the band and the music and will do anything to stay close to it. And the rock star for whom making music and being famous are in constant battle. For me, the movie perfectally encapsulated how I felt and how I thought about music. You had the two opposing forces thinking and writing about music: Lester Bangs who is always alone in his experience with the music and William Miller (Cameron Crowe, the filmmaker's, alter-ego) who gets to experience the music over and over again with a crowd of adoring fans and a smaller family of music lovers. When they all break into song, singing along to Tiny Dancer on the tour bus, my heart melts every time.

I had taken piano lessons as a kid, sang in the school choir, played clarinet in the school band, and even sang in my friends' basement band. But music was never really in the cards for me, anymore than drawing (my 3-year-old gets mad at me because my drawings are so bad), dancing, or acting. I love and appreciate all of these forms, but cannot perform them at an even reasonably amateur level. But the collective experience of enjoying, appreciating, and interacting with art with others is irreplacable. When the house lights go down, the crowd cheers, and the first notes of the song start to play, I start to cry.

It's something I try, however small, to recreate in my classroom. There is something to be said about the collective experience of learning and discovering something new, be it music, a great piece of literature, a scientific discovery, or new knowledge. Participating with my students in the journey of creating their blog posts, no matter how nerve-wracking, is probably the closest I'll ever get to creating art. As Kermit says at the end of The Muppet Movie, the best dreams are the ones you share with other people.

But more on that in Part II.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Getting Nervous about using a Blog Assignment

In my writing class, both advanced and developmental, we are talking about education reform and going to be crafting an argument essay/blog post on what each student thinks is the most important reform that needs to take place (or, as I put it to them, one thing that will make high school suck less). My more advanced writers are coming in with their first drafts next week, while my developmental writers will spend the final three weeks of the semester working on it. We were talking today about the assignment and what the students should include/do/say in their blog posts in order for them to be effective, etc.

The reaction of the students thus far to the assignment has been mixed; on the one hand, a blog post is much shorter than a traditional essay, and so they are very excited about that. On the other hand, it's going to be out there, in public, for everyone to see. A few of the students are actually more worried about not getting any comments than what people will say. More than a few are excited about the possibility of making their views (based on some very negative academic experiences) public. But some are, justifiably, intimidated by the mixture of new technology, a new approach to their writing, and a real, rather than theoretical, audience.

I was honest with them; I am nervous, too. This is the first time I have used blogs or, more appropriately, a blogging assignment, with my students. This resulting blog posts are as much a reflection of me as it is of them. One of my students came up to me after class and asked me, what if they are all bad? Well, I said, we'll see. Would I scrap the idea? No. It will be fine, I reassured him (and myself). 

But what if it isn't fine? What if other professors (you know, people with tenure) decide that this idea is too radical and, suddenly, I find that my contract isn't renewed for next year? What if there are some administrators who don't like the education reform suggestions that my students are offering?  What if this project is interpreted as a political (and not educational) tool that I am using to indoctrinating my students? Education reform suggestions are a dime-a-dozen these days; what if I am setting my students (and myself) up for a rude backlash? 

What if they are terrible? 

I have to be an optimist, and, judging by the ideas about education reform that my students have been coming up with in class discussions/debates, I am less worried about the quality of the ideas in the posts. I am also not too worried about the reaction of my peers; unless I heavily promote it within the institution, no one will probably notice. But I am still surprised by my own level of apprehension now that the day is here and these blog posts, for a long time just a item on a syllabus, are a reality. 

My blog is a reflection of my thoughts, my teaching philosophy, and personal interests. My students' blogs, on the other hand, will be a reflection of my ability to put these elements into practice. What goes on inside the classroom is usually pretty private; especially in higher education, a professor's classroom is their proverbial kingdom, to run and rule as we see fit. Now, I am opening up my closed kingdom to the wider world. The result of my rule? What my students put out there.

It is exciting for all of us, but very, very scary at the same time. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Conferences? Yes, Please!

This weekend, I was in Chicago for the Midwest Modern Languages' annual convention.  I organized and chaired the section on Canadian Literature (my original academic love).  We had two panels of three presenters each. Four of the six were graduate students, another a recent PhD, and one final panelist from the U.K.

It was, in theory, everything that is wrong with the academic conference. There was only one other person in the room to hear our presentations, other than those presenting. Everyone read from their papers. Chicago is an expensive city and most of us were paying for the conference out of pocket (I, thankfully, had some departmental support). 

It was fantastic. 

For an academic like me, a conference like this is a professional lifesaver. I don't work with or really know anyone close by who is interested in Canadian Literature. And because I am so far removed from people doing work in the field, as well as starting to work in a different area (Caribbean literature), it is hard for me to keep on top of the latest developments. It was wonderful to talk about Canadian literature with others who are as passionate and knowledgeable as I am, if not more so. These scholars are doing really great, even groundbreaking, work that will broaden our understanding of parts of Canadian literature. 

It was also great to meet members of the next generation of scholars. It is really easy to get jaded given how tight the job market is and how unforgiving being on the tenure-track. Who wants to be a professor, who wants to get a PhD? People like the ones I met with in Chicago; passionate, brilliant, motivated, and  each one with important things to contribute to the field of Canadian literature. 

And I don't want to just interact with these academics online; call me old-school, but nothing beats the energy of a face-to-face encounter and exchange. It was a really great graduate seminar. We discussed our papers, what's going on in Canadian literature and universities, as well as our general ideas about academia and the direction of universities more generally. We represented the Anglo university systems: Canada, US, and U.K. I got to hear about the impact of the recent government cuts from a person directly affected by them (she was told not to hold her breath). One of the presenters called out how we view and form knowledge, questioning the silos education still force us into (she made her department create a new comprehensive exam: North-American literature). We talked about digital humanities and open-source journals (they are all creating and editing new open-sourced journals, funding by the Canadian government). 

But outside of the conference, I was refreshed intellectually as well. Chicago is a wonderful city, full of cultural and arts events. I was able to leave all of my work (and family) behind for three days and just think. I didn't even bring my laptop. I bought a book, for fun, and spent one night reading. It happens less than you'd expect. I tried Alligator hot-dogs and enjoyed all-you-can-eat sushi. I met a young woman from a small town not too far from here who is now in Chicago trying to make it as an artist and start a web comic. I saw a concert and a Jim Henson exhibit, both which inspired me, and I will be blogging about it later this week. 

It never would have happened had I stayed at home. I might only go to one conference a year (probably this one again), but it's worth every penny out of my pocket. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

It's All in *How* You Say it: Thinking About Tone

Today, I talked to my developmental students about making sure that the "tone" of their essays is appropriate. We've already talked how they can look like we're wearing sweatpants to a job interview when they don't adapt their writing according to purpose and audience, but the students needed reminding, especially since this was their first "formal" essay (the first essay was a narrative). I've read drafts and, while their writing has dramatically improved, they are still writing like they talk. 

I talked to them about not using contractions, avoiding using slang or txt language, not swearing. I mention that they really don't need to use the first person when they write essay most of the time; what sounds stronger: "I think this is true" or "This is true and here's why?" Not to mention that it's redundant for them to say "the book that I read"; if it's not in quotation marks, properly referenced, I assume that you have thought it, read it, observed it, etc. It's your name at the top of the paper, isn't it?

I warn against trying to hard to sound "formal" in their writing by using big words, complex sentence structures, or trying to give their essay an over-inflated sense of importance/significance. The worst mistake a student can make it to use a word incorrectly, write sentences that don't make any sense structurally, or make ridiculous statements (real example: "For over 100 years, women have been battling with how they are portrayed on television). Simple, I tell my students, does not equal simplistic. Clarity is  their best friend. 

Finally, I talk to my students about eliminating what I call "punctuation words"; those words that we use when we speak that act like punctuation. Starting sentences with "So," "So then," "Well," "You know," or "I mean." Using "like" or "um" or "uh" as commas (don't laugh, I've seen it in papers). Or ending sentences with "right?"or, once again, "you know?" This is particularly revealing to the students, and the discussion always makes me incredibly uncomfortable because I am now hyperaware of how I use all of these formulations when I lecture. I mean, who of us doesn't, right? 

I try to wait until my developmental students have a good chunk of their papers written before hitting them with this lesson (and requirement to revise). This way, students are not frozen early in the process, focusing more on tone than they are on content. It's rewarding to watch students scrambling through the drafts of their essays as we talk, crossing out words and trying to reformulate sentences as we talk about these issues. It also helps them to see how easy it is to fix later, as well as how big of a difference just ten minutes of relatively minor editing can make.

I wonder a lot about how good we are as academics at adapting our tone. Or how accepting academia is at our attempts at changes in tone. I've written about my own process of adapting my tone and style (scroll down about halfway) and how higher education often frowns upon anything non-academic. People are quick to blame academics, especially in the humanities, for writing in a style that is essentially incomprehensible to a general reader, and thus adding to our increased marginalization (see the recent cuts in language departments and humanities funding in the U.K. as examples). Our audience, as academics, is primarily other academics. Not necessarily because we want it to be, at least not exclusively, but because it has to be in order to get tenure. As academics, we learn quickly what tone we are expected to maintain in our writing. Why are conferences so bad? Because we don't adapt our writing for a spoken presentation. Why bother? The line still appears on your C.V., and it's easier to polish it up for publication, which is what really matters.

If we have our own challenges in adapting our writing, why are we trusted with helping students do the same?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Blasts from the Past

As I gather a stronger following, I want to share with readers some of the posts I am most proud of from the "early" days of my blog (before I was posting at University of Venus, before Blogger began keeping stats for me).

"If Not the University, Where?" A very early post where I am still trying to figure out where I belong, if not teaching at a university. There has been much talk (most recently a hysterical video) about how students shouldn't even bother getting a PhD in English/Humanities. I may have chosen my path naively, but looking back, even on the worst days, I can't imagine doing anything else.

"A Women's Work in Higher Ed" and "Higher Ed's Missing Women" Where I examine the effects of an entire generation of women who are off the tenure-track and thus excluded from the ranks of leaders in higher education, essentially silencing their voices in the quest to shape the university in the 21st Century.

"Loyalty or Desperation?" When we are off the tenure-track, at what point does our loyalty to an institution become a form of desperation? One of my first University of Venus posts.

"Who Will be our Future Teachers?" With the continued vilification of teachers in the media and much of the education reform debate (most recently with New York publishing the value-added scores of teachers), I wonder who is going to become the next generation(s) of K-12 teachers? I think one can start asking, too, who will be our future university professors, as well.

"The Resilency of Trees" Possibly the post I am most proud of, if only because the image has stuck with me throughout the past eight months. For any of us who are going out on a limb for what we believe in, this is for you.

Thanks everyone for your support, your feedback, and thanks for reading.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Good Web Week for Me!

I've been featured over on in their Higher Education section. To quote my brief introduction (that I had no hand in writing):

It isn’t very often that you stumble upon an academic writer whose style captivates wildly and whose content informs greatly.  Such is the case with Lee Skallerup of collegereadywriting.

I'm very flattered, obviously. My recent post over on The University of Venus, "The Tenure-Track Position: No Longer the Brass Ring," has generated quite a lot of interest. Paired with "How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless," I seem to have become a sort of role model, at least according to Jo Van Every, a career coach who works with people in higher education.* My career trajectory seems to prove her point that doing what you are passionate about pays off

You can bet I'm going to be blogging about that one.

I teach, I write, I blog, I learn. And I am humbled. Thanks everyone for your continuing support.

*At the request of Sean Cook, founder of, I have changed the wording of Jo Van Every's job description. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Personal Is Political - Please Vote

We are well into the political season, gearing up to vote in a short number of days. By now, we are exhausted and probably disgusted by the negative ads and vacuous campaign rhetoric. No matter the collective cynicism we hold now for politics and politicians, please remember to vote. I can’t, and each election cycle that passes me by reminds me of how much I value the opportunity.

My first opportunity to vote was in the 1995 Quebec Referendum. I had just turned 18 that summer. Obviously, I was on the “No” side, the side that was not in favor of Quebec separating. I say obviously for a few reasons. The most important was that my mother’s family is from the same small Quebec town as the then-Prime Minister, Jean Chretien. My great-grandmother taught him English. My grandfather employed some of his younger sibling in his store. He was a hometown hero for our family, and thus there was never any question as to which way I would vote when the time came.

I was at the Unity Rally in downtown Montreal with tens of thousands of other Canadians who had come to show Quebec that they were loved. Three days later, on October 30, we voted. We watched all night as the numbers fluctuated between “Yes” and “No” being in the lead. In the end, Quebec remained a part of Canada by the slimmest of margins, a couple of thousand votes. Voter turnout was over 90%. Our votes, my vote, had clearly made a difference.

I was naïve then. The Unity Rally was a huge point of contention, with major corporations basically giving plane, train, and bus tickets away so people would attend. A large number of ballots in certain ridings were deemed spoiled, ridings where the “No” side was in the lead. Jean Chretien was implicated in what became known as the Sponsorship Scandal, directing huge amounts of Federal money to his supporters and inner-circle members, in the name of unity. Some in the rest of Canada were fed up with Quebec monopolizing federal politics and opposition parties from the Western provinces began to gain real strength; in 1997, the Reform Party became the Official Opposition in Parliament.

The real eye-opening experience for me, however, came a year later when I left to attend a French university in Quebec. Most of my classmates were “sovereignists,” or in favor of Quebec’s independence from Canada. Politics is as much about vilifying the opposing side, and while we were all burnt out from the previous year’s battle and avoided politics as much as possible, it was important that we met, became friends, and earned each other’s respect.  I’ll admit that I had never met and gotten to know a “real” separatist, while many of them told me that I was the first English person they had ever really known. Gradually, the certainty of my “No” vote wasn’t as easy as it had once been.

None of this shook my belief in democracy. Nor did living in California whose state government has lurched to a standstill, unable to pass a budget. I had the privilege of working at an HBCU when President Obama was elected and saw the same feeling of pride and wonder on these young students’ faces, many of whom had voted for the first time. I saw a little of myself in them. It broke my heart to hear so many of them discouraged and disillusioned less than a year after the historic event.

The cynicism and “dirty” politics we witness today is not a reason to give up on democracy and voting, but a reason to invest more fully in the process. I wish I had known more than the simple rhetoric of separatist politics, or been able to see the larger implications of the debate. As a professor, I believe it is part of my job to teach critical thinking, civility, and tolerance to my students, to try and inoculate them against a debilitating feeling of futility. My idealism was shattered; in its place, I rebuilt something much more meaningful and valuable.

I just can’t do anything about it.  Go out and vote.

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