As I’ve whined on Twitter, my digital humanities class this semester was canceled*, and has been replaced with a section of first-year writing. Since classes begin on the 24th, I need a book order immediately, and a syllabus soon after.
My normal strategy in first-year writing courses, since I normally teach in the first-year experience program, is to make the class be about college. We read a lot about higher ed, from a variety of perspectives. And that works pretty well with first-semester students. In the spring, though, the students have been around for a semester, and I’ve never had good luck with that approach under those circumstances. (And it’s not an FYE section anyway–it’s just a regular section of 110.) I needed a new theme, and thought that comic books would be an interesting way to go.
Here’s the draft booklist for the class:
We’ll also do some webcomics, but I don’t know which ones yet. (Definitely Vision Machine, though, since my 7-yr-old loves Greg Pak, and he secretly makes all my curricular decisions.) If you’ve got thoughts, let me know!
(I’ll acknowledge straightaway that the course is shaped to a certain extent by “stuff I know really well without having to do a dramatic amount of prep for, since ohbytheway I’m still union president, and teaching comp while doing that is going to be hard.” The course isn’t providing an introduction or a proper survey, but just enough to be interesting.)
*The course suffered from a perfect storm: it doesn’t count for *anything* in the major; it meets on MWF in the first semester of a new MW schedule (all classes with Friday sessions took a hit); and I wasn’t around in the fall to hype it, especially in light of the other two reasons.]]>
5.0 — Learned Funny
Humorless people who learn how to be adequately sports-funny in the right situations by mimicking the behavior of others, whether it’s by developing an overboard fake laugh, yelling “Daaaaaaammmmmn!” after someone else makes a joke, repeating funny jokes that other people said first, or making virtual videos of ideas that other people wrote. They can fool you on the right day. Example: Kobe Bryant (for every non-Lakers fan).
This reminds me of a distinction I’ve often talked about with various people–the difference between a professor who’s funny, and one who’s professor-funny. (I know I’ve written about this before, but I can’t find it.) Unfortunately, the former are wildly outnumbered by the latter.
People who are professor-funny are typically only good at two kinds of jokes: wordplay, and mercilessly unpacking the stupidity of others. Their humor always has the same message: “Look at how smart I am.” (A subcategory of ‘professor-funny’ is the panderer–the person who trots out broad comedy simply because “that’s what the kids these days understand.” That’s just the inverse of the professor who mocks the stupidity of others.) And, look, who doesn’t love a pun? And sometimes, well, sometimes people really do stupid stuff, and it’s fun to take it apart. Colleagues who are professor-funny can almost always make laugh. But I find an exclusive diet of this humor sickening. It’s like Drake’s apple pie. I love ’em–but, if I had ’em every meal?
I think students recognize this humor for what it is, and generally aren’t particularly fond it. To put it slightly differently, while they might laugh at a particular joke, it’s always tempered by the possibility that the prof’ll turn on them next.
Professors who are genuinely funny are harder to sum up–after all, many of them also enjoy puns, or occasionally mocking the ignorant. But the most salient characteristic of this group is a willingness to tolerate self-mockery, or having the class occasionally laugh *at* them, rather than just *with* them. It signals humanity, because, as Scott Adams once said, “everybody is an idiot.” I actually believe that at least *some* heirarchy in the classroom is important, but owning your own idiocy shows the truth: that such heirarchy is temporary and local, rather than, like, ontological. You’re not claiming to be a better person, just to know more about topic X.
Lord knows there’s no need to be funny. And if you’re not funny, you shouldn’t try. (There are lots of ways to signal humanity.) And this is, obviously, a touchy subject. But if humor is part of your pedagogical toolkit, I do think that there’s something to be said for occasionally letting the students have a laugh at you. Not all the time, and sometimes the rapport with a particular class just isn’t right–but every now and again.]]>
Graff focuses on the end point, that is, how it comes off to students. They get “curricular mixed messages,” he says, “clashing stories . . . from the faculty.” In the episode above, the student received from Graff and the other teacher contrary assignments, and he was confused. One teacher seemed to “undercut” the other, forcing the student into what may have seemed senseless adjustments from morning to afternoon (“relativists at 10 o’clock and universalists after lunch”).
I tend to agree with Graff and Bauerlein that this is a real problem–not because there should be One True Approach to literary/cultural studies, but because conflicts between approaches are too often buried or unacknowledged.
We can probably turn the screw a notch tighter here: Part of the difficulty is that we often claim to be teaching the same skill, when in fact the methods involved are worlds apart.
For example: It absolutely kills me anytime I hear or read people say things like, “well, no matter what, we all value close reading.” That’s either untrue, or what is meant by “close reading” is something so general that it can only mean something like “being prepared for class.” Most of the time this isn’t that big a deal–if you’re sufficiently upfront about how you’re using a term in your assignments, then students will catch on pretty quickly. (I will say that this is one of the reasons I call one of my regular assignments an “explication paper,” rather than a “response paper.”) Sometimes, though, it’s more frustrating: I believe at least some graduate students have had their prospectuses held up partly because of differing assumptions about what “close reading” would mean, or about what it means to apply a theoretical model to a literary text.
This isn’t a point about theory/non-theory approaches. (Remember, although I play a sane person on my blog, I’m secretly a card-carrying [well, button-sporting] Lacanian . . . ! ) I’d say, instead, that it’s simply worth remembering that the fact that “everyone knows” a term or skill doesn’t mean that everyone knows the same thing about it, or deploys it in the same way. Ask any 5 psychoanalysts about the death drive, say, or about the interpretation of dreams, if you want an example from another field.
In lieu of an ending, a couple of disconnected points:
The parent survey is labeled “Holmes Brand Survey,” and, after a demographic question about grade-level, the first two questions are . . . wait for it . . . these:
Holmes School focuses on
- Higher Order Thinking Skills
- Science and technology
- Global Community
Holmes School’s (motto/slogan/tagline) is:
- Raising Readers!
- A formula for success!
- Launching Leaders!
- Scholars at Work!
(The answers, for the curious, are “Science and technology” and “A formula for success,” respectively. And, yes, the fact that the correct answers have lower-case words is reproduced faithfully from the handout, as if it’s a tell.)
After these critical questions come more usual questions about whether the child’s being challenged, etc.
I hear the Connecticut State University system is redesigning and standardizing our student evaluations–I think we should look to the public schools! Start all student evaluations (sorry, student opinion surveys [!]) by asking them to correctly identify the motto of the system and of their particular university.* Because that’s what matters in education: maintaining your brand.
*Every single day it amuses me a little that my school’s slogan/motto/tagline (“Start with a dream. Finish with a future.”) is basically indistinguishable from my father’s community college’s (“From here, go anywhere.”). I’m *very* easily amused.]]>
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to accomplish two things:
What kinds of things would you like to see in the class? What kinds of information would be useful to you in persuading colleagues to adopt / not adopt the iPod Touch? What might you do to make the experiment a helpful one for everyone?
At present, let’s still call this hypothetical, but let’s also call the question a serious one.]]>
Compared to three years ago, faculty members were more likely to believe it is part of their job to “help students develop personal values” (66.1 percent, an increase of 15.3 percentage points over 2004–05), “enhance students’ self-understanding” (71.8 percent, a 13.4 percentage-point increase), “develop moral character” (70.2 percent, a 13.1 percentage-point increase) and “provide for students’ emotional development” (48.1 percent, a 12.9 percentage-point increase).
Some of these sound pretty . . . um . . . squicky. I’m pretty sure that I don’t want anything to do with students’ emotional development, and I’m *certain* that I don’t have much to offer students by way of “develop[ing] moral character.” I also have a hard time understanding how I could help students “develop personal values.” (And, lest you think I’m just another misanthropic jackass . . . I teach in the FYE program. I helped pilot learning communities program at my school. [Ok, “misanthropic jackass” probably still fits, but student success means a lot.]) When people talk about the transformative power of education, they’re supposed to be referring to its self-transformative power. As Adam Phillips once said about psychoanalyis, the illusion that teaching too often leaves in place is the belief in the power of the teacher–which is a problem.
But it turns out that the same center at UCLA releases another study, “The American Freshman.” (Study; InsideHigherEd.com report.) And there’s a question in this other survey that arguably speaks to the shifting faculty interest:
The survey also contains questions about students’ personal goals, often depicted in the report as a struggle between “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” and “being well off financially.” During the counterculture years of the ’60s and ’70s, students often emphasized the importance of having a meaningful life philosophy, an interest that receded over the next two decades as financial concerns surged. In the last three years, students increasingly have said that both areas are important, a change that analysts attributed mainly to women’s rising interest in financial success.
Slightly more than half (51.4%) of current freshmen said it was important to develop a life philosophy and more than three-fourths (76.8%) said it was very important or essential to do well financially.
It would be interesting to introduce a question about helping students develop a life philosophy into the faculty survey. I tend to read the answers quoted above as proxies for “life philosophy,” which makes sense: It’s not that faculty really want to build students’ moral character *directly*, which would be weird; rather, we know that an education in the liberal arts can help students embark on a program of self-transformation.
(I think Mark Bauerlein’s critics run past this point too often: That students today seem much less interested in self-transformation or self-improvement as a goal, at least according to all of these longitudinal measures. I don’t think it’s Twitter’s fault, but he has a point.)
My chair (yes, that’s right–my chair blogs!) was on this story a while ago, which isn’t surprising since the two of us argued just this point in the local paper three years ago. Faculty might be more interested in helping students change than they’ve ever been, but that can be understood as a defense of relatively traditional educational values against an increasingly pre-professional reduction of the undergraduate curriculum.]]>
One of the things I have tried to be mindful of over the past couple of years is university staff outside of departments. They used to terrify me, and they still scare me a bit. They promulgate rules designed to cover contingencies I can’t imagine, and they deal with faculty, students, and state auditors–three audiences with very different interests. Plus, they often like to use the phone to accomplish work-related tasks, and I hate the phone. (My current voice mail quite literally begs people to hang up the phone and send me an e-mail.)
But as I’ve worked on a couple of committees that are populated by faculty and staff, and as I’ve worked on events that have occasionally required massive contributions and favors from administrators and staff, I have generally come to think that it’s important to know these people and to understand their jobs. And not just because you may one day need a favor.
What’s interesting–aside from the normal interest one might take in people and their jobs–about the administrative side of the house is that it is, in many ways, an embodied history of the university and its decisions. Policy X is housed in this department rather than that one because of historical contingency Z. Policy exception Y, touted as exceptional customer service by one department, ends up interfering with another’s mission-critical task. Rule 42, which seems intuitively stupid to any right-thinking faculty member, is *also* hated by the staff, but they have to do it anyway. Rule 43 emerged because faculty members a, b, c, d, e, and f over many years refused to address circumstance foo. And so forth.
I was at a meeting of such a committee a couple of weeks ago, and one of the participants said that the most amusing thing about the meeting was watching my face as I processed all the sausage-making that goes into making certain kinds of decisions, given the resource constraints that we operate under. That experience is incredibly useful.
Don’t take me the wrong way: I don’t know much about how things work, and I have precisely no power on my campus. I know that there is *always* going to be conflict between faculty who tend to improvise and a state-regulated bureaucracy that needs to have paper trails. And I lean *way* too much on a handful of people who–out of kindness and out of a shared desire to make awesome things for students–are able to fix things when I just start beating my head against the desk. And I don’t want you to get the idea that if you just walk across campus in someone else’s sensible shoes that all of your campus’s problems will vanish. That can’t happen, especially in times of budgetary crisis and recission.
But I think that in addition to working on committees with faculty (which I’ve written about before), it’s worthwhile to find ways to connect with staff. Maybe that’s through clubs. Maybe it’s through the union, if you’re on a unionized campus. (Or, if you’re on a campus with multiple unions, through inter-union collaboration.) Maybe it’s through big, honking committees. Learning about how your university works, not from gossip (which privileges scandal and vitriol), and not through the one time you need a particular office to process something, is a remarkable experience. Because the staff serve the faculty and students as a whole, rather than just a department, they are the living memory of the institution.]]>
On the one hand, intellectually I know perfectly well that this isn’t necessarily helpful. On the other hand, when I was a student I felt very strongly that comments = professorial love and engagement, so it’s hard for me to let that go. Beyond that, the biggest problem with a lot of student writing is that it seems to have been produced with no thought of a reader. It’s as if churning out material of a certain length is good enough, and so the plethora of comments is supposed to say, “Oi! Live reader here!)”
The track changes feature in Word actually makes matters worse in one way: If you change a formatting aspect of the paper (say, the margins), then it produces a comment about that for every single paragraph in a paper, so it looks like you’ve commented a lot. But then it looks like all you’ve done is look at formatting, so I always make extra comments to convey that I read the paper carefully.
I also don’t think of comments as negative; often, I’ll use comments simply to suggest alternate lines of thought or stylistic possibilities. (How else are the students going to get them?)
This really isn’t sustainable, however.
The other day, I re-discovered this word: satisfice, or to be happy with a good-enough solution, rather than one that is maximally optimal. It reminded me that my current grading practice is a mostly failing attempt at maximizing the amount of possible feedback on any given assignment, which leads to two different counterproductive effects: it takes too long for me to grade, and students may well feel overwhelmed. (Although very good students usually point to this overcommenting as the thing they like best about my teaching.)
What I need to do, then, is to develop a satisficing strategy: knowing where I’ve said enough to suggest opportunities for revision (and, to be candid, to justify the grade), but in such a way that it’s acceptably fast, light, and flexible. Students who want more comments can always come in and talk to me anyway, right?
How do you know when enough’s enough?
(There’s always Ross’s solution . . . .)]]>
Here’s a sample question:
According to Keats, a poet is:
- A man speaking to men
- A chai-drinking beret-wearer
- An unacknowledged legislator of the world
- The most unpoetical thing in existence
- An eolian harp
People who’ve read their Keats letters recently will recognize the answer as #4, though 1, 3, and 5 are definitions offered by other romantic poets we’d read earlier in the semester.
15/51 students who took this quiz (out of 59 enrolled), or ~29%, missed it. Of these, 10 picked Wordsworth’s “a man speaking to men,” and 5 chose “an unacknowledged legislator of the world.” The rest got it right, which isn’t surprising because the question uses verbatim language from the assigned reading.
Here are the gains:
Here are the losses:
Apparently people in other disciplines have quiz questions that they can simply download from the publisher and plug into their course management system. If a similar solution exists for a literature anthology, I’ve yet to see it. (I use Broadview, and they offer multiple choice questions for students to review, but they’re in PDF format, and they give the answers. Similarly, Norton offers a quiz students can actually take, but it’s pegged to a period as a whole, not individual authors.)
And there’s no bank of questions, at least not that I’m aware of, for all the myriad texts one might teach. (E.g., all of Trollope, or Kathy Acker, or whatever.)
Someone who developed such a bank–or, that is, someone who coordinated such a bank of questions, able to be plugged in to Vista, Moodle, & Sakai–would be a hero. It could just be a site where people upload questions from their various courses, and other faculty could download them and manipulate them as they see fit.]]>
Online grading doesn’t save me any time, although that’s probably because I do it badly. The main benefits I get from grading this way are two: Students can read my comments, and I get sick less frequently during the semester.
Some crucial points:
So, to recap. If you would do online grading successfully, do it as differently from me as possible:
Here’s an annotated list of links with more information about various approaches. If anyone has shortcuts or tips, I’d be glad to hear them!
Update the next morning: I woke up with the same thought Tom had (in comments): monitors matter. I’m a *lot* more efficient on campus, with my dual 24″ monitors, than at home, on my MacBook.]]>