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.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Summer at last

Ahhhh... (that was a big sigh of relief)... I am finally done with this academic year. Commencement was last Saturday, and I only finished up with grading yesterday (due partially to IT problems that were not under my control--the less said about those, the better).

Now I need to figure out what to do with myself.

I feel as though I've been running at top speed since about mid-March, and certainly some of the things I need to do now are slow down, catch my breath, and catch up with all the various non-work-related things I have shoved to the side in the last two months.

In the short term, "what to do with myself" is pretty straightforward: I'll be leaving home toward the end of this week and go on a road trip. It is mostly vacation, but will also include a trip to the Berks conference, where I will give a paper that I'm trying to convince myself is not shoddy and slapdash.

After that, then what? There seem to be quite a few things I should be working on this summer, and I need to start just by sorting out what they are. I have thought about joining this writing group, but at the moment I feel very reluctant to commit to a particular one of the several things I could be / should be working on. Plus, I'll be out of town for the first couple weeks of this group. I'll see if I can sort something out in the next few days, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

More on adjuncting and "inside candidates"

Wow. It's been so long since I posted here that I'd almost forgotten I had a blog.

But a friend asked me for my opinions on this post, and when I sent an email response, encouraged me to post the response here.

I've already discussed my experience of adjunct teaching here (just about a year ago!). Short version: I spent six years in contingent faculty positions, exactly the same amount of time I spent in graduate school. I've now spent not quite two years on the tenure track.

So one thing I noticed about the responses to Tenured Radical's post was that a lot of people reacted very strongly to the advice about moving. She did say that you should move for a full-time position, and I'd tend to agree. I moved hundreds of miles for my first, one-year visiting appointment, and then hundreds of miles again when that job ended. And you know what? It wasn't that bad. Moving itself was a hassle, but I experienced a different part of the country, I made some new friends, and I got some valuable professional experience. For me, it was also very useful to get out of Grad School City, where I'd gotten fed up with the frustrations of grad school and had gotten into kind of a social rut. I kept in touch with friends through email and phone calls, as I do now.

However, I'd never advise anyone to uproot themselves for a part-time, poorly-paid, "teach one or two courses a semester" kind of job.

The part of the advice I really want to agree with is the part about not assuming that you will be ideally positioned when a tenure-track line opens up in that department. Indeed, don't put much faith in senior colleagues who tell you that, and try not to convince yourself of it, either. It's easy to do. When I got that first visiting job, I knew that they planned to make a t-t hire in my area the next year. I tried so hard to show that I fit in; I tried to act as if I were on a year-long interview process. I worked my tail off teaching my own classes for the first time, going to conferences, and meeting with students. And then they hired somebody else.

So I packed my bags and moved back across the country to the next job, and a few years later I was in the same position, having a temporary job at a department that was hiring in my area. I had good teaching evaluations; I wasn't a research star, but I had some publications; and once again they hired someone else.

I looked in on the job wiki a couple of times at the height of hiring season, and I still see job candidates convinced that the person on the one- or two-year hire has the inside track. In my experience, that's really, really not the case. Things have worked out okay for me in the end; I think the job I have is a better fit for me than either of the ones I didn't get, but it was really difficult for a while there.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Accomplishments of the last few weeks

I have graded so many papers that I lost count.

I have evaluated and ranked students for various award opportunities.

I recommended that my independent study student read Judith Bennett's History Matters, and was delighted to find that she loved it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

An Interdisciplinary Major

Although my college is small, it does have a major in medieval and Renaissance studies. As I'm getting settled in here in my second year, students are increasingly coming to ask me about the major, so I've had to get familiar with its requirements.

And its requirements are a little odd. That may have to do with the program's history--it seems to have been somebody's pet program, years and years ago, before being taken over by a committee. One of the oddities is that students have to jump a bunch of hurdles. They can't simply declare the major, but have to write a proposal explaining their course selections and outlining their capstone project, even though as sophomores they're 12 to 18 months away from doing that capstone project.

The major is also explicitly designed to be interdisciplinary. They have to take medieval-ish courses from at least four disciplines, and can't have too many from any one department. The problem is, we're so small that some of those courses aren't taught very often. It is easy for students to get courses in English and history; the courses in religion and music and art history and philosophy are harder to fit into their schedules.

On the one hand, because prospective majors have to go through some hassles and plan carefully, they tend to be good, organized, and highly motivated. Thumbs up! On the other hand, the difficulty of setting up the major certainly discourages some people, and places a burden on even highly motivated students. There's one student who's taken a slew of courses in history and English lit and a couple in art history. However, s/he still needs a course from a fourth discipline, and fitting it into his/her schedule is being harder than it ought to be. Just how interdisciplinary does this major have to be, anyway? Might it be time to think about revising the major requirements?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Curriculum angst

I started and abandoned several posts in the last month. I hope to post a little more often this year, but we shall see.

I am teaching an advanced topics course next year and have not yet decided the topic. Now I'm down to the wire, to the point where the registrar is calling me at my office to tell me to get them the description. I have gone round and round about this course and overthought it just about every way I could overthink it.

I have had a lot of ideas for courses I could teach. A lot of them, although interesting subjects, are ones that I don't have the clearest idea how I'd teach. That is, I don't have a great sense of what questions or problems I'd organize the course around, and in most cases that would require me to do quite a bit of work to get up to speed on the scholarship in the area before I'd feel confident that I could do a good job teaching the course. If I felt a great and burning passion to teach a particular subject, I'd go for that, but I don't. Since I've already had opportunities to develop and teach advanced topical courses here, I've "used up" the ideas I once felt most intense about.

So in picking a subject, I'm trying to balance my interest in a topic against how much work it would take to prepare. I'm also worried about student interest. My courses have, by and large, drawn a lot of students, but this worry pushes me a bit toward "sexier" sounding courses. Unfortunately, those are often not the ones I feel best prepared to teach.

Finally, thinking about next year's courses forces me to think about my longer-term teaching plans. I teach 6 courses a year; half of those are bread-and-butter survey classes. So I have 3 upper-level courses a year to play around with. I want to have courses I repeat regularly, but I also want to have the freedom to introduce new topics as they interest me, and balancing the two gets tricky very quickly.

After spending weeks toying with one course idea after another, sketching out a five-year plan, feeling disgruntled with the five-year plan, worrying about how to balance my teaching among introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses, I throw up my hands. I think I'll propose a course on monasticism in the Middle Ages. It's... wait for it... actually my area of expertise, unlike 90% of the ideas I've come up with, and I already have a fairly strong idea of what sort of readings I'd assign. I do worry about how to sell it to students--but on the other hand, religious studies courses at my school are pretty well attended, so that might not be as difficult as I fear.

If you actually read through all that, thanks. If you're faculty, how do you decide what courses to teach? How much freedom do you have to make that decision? Have I missed some ways I could have agonized about and overthought this decision?