Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Medieval survey revamp, part 3

Christmas and New Year's were both relatively quiet round these parts. Now I have a little time to sort out upcoming classes, which brings me back to my revamped medieval history survey.

I teach both a medieval and an early modern survey (and, in fact, I'm teaching both in the spring). For some reason, the early modern survey has always been easier for me to teach, even though (or because?) the Middle Ages is really my specialty. It has just always seemed easier to find cohesive themes for the early modern course. I've taught the medieval course something like 10 times, half of them at this institution, and I've made significant changes nearly every time.

I discussed earlier stages of my thoughts on this revamp here and here. Ultimately, I decided to keep the reader I've been using, in combination with another primary source reader and two longer primary sources. (One of these will be the Song of Roland, because it's been too long since I've taught it.) We won't be reading all of either reader, but we'll be reading substantial pieces of both. The textbook is going to become an optional purchase, in the full awareness that most students will, therefore, opt not to purchase it. My hope is that, though I will need to lecture more often, that the lectures will allow me to establish my own narrative more clearly

As for written assignments, I'm planning to include some short skill-building assignments along with a couple of longer essays. I used a very minor research assignment in a fall class that I liked--basically, it requires students to look up something from a day's reading assignment in a few other sources (both print and online), and write up a brief version of what they learned along with an evaluation of the sources they used. Other assignments will focus on close reading of primary sources. I also regularly do a map quiz. A lot of American students know very little about modern European geography, let alone where regions like Burgundy are/were. Grades on the quiz are nearly always bimodal: students who studied get A's, students who didn't do very poorly. Hm, it occurs to me that students who did acquire the textbook may have an advantage since it has maps. I'll give the others a list of atlases to check.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Might need some more monks in this syllabus

I have a bit of an academic lull before final papers come in. So I was just doing some planning for spring classes.

I only realize now that I've arranged my workload rather oddly. This fall I've taught a first-year seminar (capped at 15) and two upper-level classes (each with about 12 students each). In the spring I'll be teaching one upper-level class (quite small) and two introductory ones, each of those with 25 students. I think I'm going to be doing a lot more grading in the spring than this fall.

The spring upper-level course is on medieval monasticism. And may be the only time I'll ever teach it, since the enrollment is pretty low. It's such a pleasure to put together a course where I actually have a deep knowledge base. However, I did realize as I put a tentative reading list together that most of the secondary scholarship I included is about nuns. Now, in my course on monasticism, nuns are not going to get just a day or a week on the syllabus, but are going to get integrated into our discussions of every development in monasticism. And most of the primary sources are by and for monks, so men are not going to be neglected. Still, a bit more scholarship on the monks and friars would probably be wise.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Portrait of an institution

This is a response to Historiann's post calling for more detailed discussions of particular higher ed environments. Notorious, Ph.D. has already responded with a wonderful post on what the real problem with higher ed is, and Dr. Crazy has also responded with a great post on failure. Both of those posts are much better than this one, so I'd recommend you go read them.
I' m getting to this a little late, and so I'm trying to figure out what there is for me to say. And what I'd like to do here is talk about what things look like on the ground at my particular college. Institutions like mine don't often feature in the discussion of What's Wrong with Higher Education. The challenge, for me, is figuring out where to start, and how to be both detailed and succinct without giving too much away. (I realize my pseudonymity is pretty thin, but I'd like to hang onto it while I'm still untenured, thanks.)
Let's start with some basics.
I teach at a small private college in the Midwest. We draw our students primarily, but not exclusively, from the Midwest; we also get a certain number of students from all over the country, and a growing number of students from overseas. We have a compact, pretty campus, and a small, generally dedicated body of faculty, staff, and administrators.
Our biggest problem is money. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
Some private colleges have large endowments and lots of resources. We do not. Our endowment is small, and so most of our annual income comes from tuition. We also offer substantial amounts of financial aid to attract the students we want, and there is constant tension surrounding the issues of tuition increases and financial aid. Our limited financial resources affect the campus in all sorts of ways. Compensation and benefits, replacing departed employees, the ability of students to print and photocopy materials, books, lab equipement, building maintenance, and on and on. Most, if not all, of the fat has already been cut from the budget. Many staff members are doing what used to be the jobs of multiple people. Every request to replace a departing faculty member gets closely scrutinized; and in most cases, failing to replace a departing faculty member would mean a mortal wound to the corresponding department and its majors. We have dilapidated dorms, classrooms, and athletic facilities. We have nice, recently-built or renovated buildings as well, but the financial strain shows in the physical appearance of the campus.
More nebulous is the psychological weight. But the knowledge of our financial limitations has its own cost: in morale, in general anxiety, in distrust between faculty and administrators, in a certain cramping of ambitions that we know are not financially realistic.
But within our constraints, we try to give our students the intense, stimulating liberal arts experience that we think they came here for. They have small classes, a fairly traditional curriculum, individual attention from their professors, and opportunities to do advanced work, internships, and various special projects. If they choose to take advantage of them. We have some fabulous students, and many who are, perhaps, a little less fabulous, but who work hard and put in the time and find niches in which they shine.
There are also students, though, who don't take advantage of their opportunities. As part of my college service, I sit on the committee that applies sanctions to students who are struggling academically. And there the comments we get from instructors are remarkably consistent: students who miss class, who don't turn in papers, who don't respond to the professors' attempts to reach them. This is not a large university; these students are not getting lost in the crowd. They are, for some reason, not taking advantage of the attention and support they can get at this small institution. (Maybe they don't want that attention, who knows.)
And here's where things circle back around to money. A question facing my institution now is whether, and how, we can get out of our financial bind. Do we increase our endowment, find some wealthy philanthropists to cultivate? (We'd undoubtedly have to spend money on the effort.) Do we bring in more students, thus bringing in more tuition? (We'd have to spend money to do that, as we'd rapidly need more faculty, more dorms, and more classrooms.) Can we bring in more students without compromising our academic standards? Does it do anyone any good for us to admit students who might be able to pay, but who may not be able to meet their professors' expectations?
So, one view from the trenches. Our problems are not faculty who do research instead of teach, or graduate students that we exploit as teachers, or big time athletics that suck money and energy away from our academic mission. Our problems are lack of resources, dependence on tuition, and worries about how we handle our weaker students.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Medieval survey revamp, part 2

If I had a camera, I'd take a picture of my desk. It is covered in a pile of Penguin Classics, source collections, and other stuff. I pulled off the shelf just about every book that seemed possibly appropriate for a 100-level medieval history survey. Following the suggestion of Dr. Notorious, I made a list of themes, and jotted down both short and long sources that I'd like to teach related to those themes. One thing that became clear as I did this is how strongly this list deviates from what I've been teaching in this course. It is definitely time to freshen up the reading list (and probably the assignments). Of course, I've made a list of possible readings that is longer than I think the students can actually manage, so it'll need a bit of winnowing down.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Revamping the medieval survey

A couple of weeks into the new school year, I seem to have adjusted. For the first week or so, I felt keyed up all the time and wasn't sleeping that well. Now I seem to be back into the rhythm.

I have a class full of first-year students who are charmingly fresh and eager. I'm trying out some new assignments, although I'm already finding that some of them work better than others. The information literacy exercise I've asked them to do seems to work well, for example.

Because the bookstore is bugging me for book orders, I'm thinking again about my medieval survey course. I've now taught it three times here, and I've never been quite satisfied with it. I feel bored by the textbook and overly constrained by the reader. I find myself thinking about the equivalent course I took as an undergrad.

My undergrad medieval history professor (later my advisor) had a signature approach. He didn't use a regular textbook, per se, and didn't lecture. (Somehow I learned the dates of things anyway, but I don't quite remember when and how.) Our reading included some long primary sources, and packets of shorter sources put together by him. He organized the class around a series of polarizing questions, and forced us into arguing with each other. (His favorite rhetorical tactic in class was this: "So, John, [sums up what student just said], is that right? So you're saying that what Jane said earlier was wrong. Jane, do you have a response to that?") The essay prompts were, similarly, questions with yes-or-no answers that forced students to pick a side and state a thesis.

I've never quite been able to emulate his "pit them against each other" style of discussion leadership. But I do find myself seriously considering moving away from the books I've been using, ditching my usual reader, and trying to come up with a set of readings I (and, I hope, my students) will find more inspiring.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Time to face the music

Ugh. It's August, and what's more it's August 16, so I can't even pretend it's "the beginning of August" any more. It's time to prepare classes and get some things accomplished before class starts. I am clearly not the only one feeling this way.
I've gotten remarkably little done this summer. I've worked, desultorily, on a planned article, and it's being a pain to write. There needs to be a certain amount of narrative, as there is no reason whatsoever any potential reader should be familiar with these events... but working in analysis and actual arguments with the narrative is something of a problem.
I'm generating a bunch of ideas for classes and syllabi, and am slowly starting to pull them together into real, coherent class plans.
The rest of the summer to-do list has barely been touched.
So things are; I am trying to avoid the classic academic's spiral of guilt that I have not read enough-written enough-revised enough-anything enough and get on with the business of actually doing something.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summer to-do list

I am at home and done with major travel for the summer, after taking some time for conference and social time. There are a couple more trips on the horizon, but only short ones. My cats should be grateful.

So the time has come to figure out what needs to be done this summer. Here's the list I've come up with, in no particular priority order:

Writing Stuff

  • Look over book manuscript and helpful people's comments

  • Figure out how to revise / whether to keep it as book or slice into articles

  • Revise recent conference paper

  • Work on article idea (pulled together from two different conference papers and recent research stuff)

  • Correspond with various people regarding another project

Teaching Stuff

  • Think about tweaking survey classes, especially assignments (fall one a priority)

  • Think about tweaking upper-level course that's a repeat

  • Make a plan for upper-level course that's new

  • Order books for fall classes (should happen real soon now)

That's all leaving aside stuff to be done around the house and yard, of course, as well as anything else I do to stay sane this summer. It seems like more than enough to keep me off the streets and out of trouble.