Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category


At the risk of belaboring the point, beating a dead horse, and continuing ad nauseam, I have to say again that my students are a pretty decent bunch.  As I said in an earlier post, they were almost as excited and relieved as I was to hear that I had received tenure.  In the months we all waited to get the news, the students decided that they would storm the Bastille, or, in this case, the admin building, if I did not get tenure, so they were happy that such extreme action was not called for.

On Monday night, I posted my tenure news on Facebook, and students started commenting right away.  One student immediately decided that the American lit class needed to take me out to dinner in celebration, so I agreed to give up Thursday’s class time so they could do that.  The sacrifices I make…  After some discussion, the class agreed that a pizza place in Bridgeport would work well, so we carpooled down when we were supposed to be discussing mid-20th-century American lit.

We had a good time.  Perhaps it should be a little strange and awkward to to out with a group of friends and one professor, especially when I learned to my chagrin that I am the same age as some of their parents (!!), but it was very fun and relaxed.  The students seemed to be perfectly at ease with me, and I never felt like some old geezer hanging out with the youngsters.

There seems to be some sort of message in this about the teaching relationship, but I’m not sure yet what it is.  Perhaps we have as a culture become so afraid of the mere hint of impropriety that we move too far in the opposite direction and forget that our students are also our fellow humans.  Teaching has always seemed to me to be a very strangely intimate business: students bare their minds and their souls in a class, and I must do the same in order to bring them into the conversation.  I believe that we may not allow ourselves to become intellectually intimate because we fail to recognize the nuances of intimacy.

I’m sure there is an article or something hidden here somewhere, but I’m not quite sure how to find it.

Read Full Post »


Thank you to everyone who left the kind comments on yeterday’s post!  I have been so worried about the tenure decision coming down that I feel completely wrung out now that the stress has been pulled away.  It seems almost as if the stress were the only thing keeping me upright.

The reaction to my news on campus has been very gratifying.  My chair was very happy to hear the news, and one of the other profs in the department gave me the old high five.  The sweetest reaction, though, has been from the students.  I posted my news on Facebook, so many of them knew last night that the good news had come through.

When I walked into my American lit class tonight, everyone turned to me with huge smiles, so I raised my hands in the cyclist’s victory salute.  They all started clapping and cheering.  A couple of students who like to cook had made chocolate goodies, so we passed around fudge and chocolate butterscotch cookies and munched contentedly while discussing the day’s reading assignment.  They have insisted that they need to take me out for dinner, so on Thurday, we’re going to get pizza somewhere near campus.

I’m very glad to have students like this.  It makes tenure even more appealing.

Read Full Post »

Some Good News

As I was driving home today, my cell phone rang, and I, being a very bad Connecticut driver, answered.  It was Dorothy, telling me that Tony had called and left a message.  Because I had answered without turning down the radio first, and because I apparently am losing my hearing in my old age, I heard “The county called.”  Why the hell would the county call? I wondered.  Did I violate some obscure county rule when I tore the pool down?  Did Muttboy commit some mischief requiring intervention of our elected officials?  Soon, though, I realized my mistake.  Tony called.  Tony is the president of my university.

According to the never-to-be-doubted myth structure of the university, Tony calls with good news while poor Tom is given the task of conveying bad news.  So Tony calling is a good thing.  His message just said he was trying to reach me, so I should call him back.

My hands were shaking as I dialed the phone.  Jody, his secretary, answered, and I told her who I was.  I could hear the smile in her voice as she said, “Oh, yes, one moment.”  That “oh, yes” carried the weight of many more words.  They meant, “Oh, yes, he definitely wants to talk to you, and you are going to be so happy to hear from him!”

So the news was, of course, the best news, the news I have been waiting for since September 15, the news that would finally let me stop agonizing.  The Board of Trustees had accepted Tony’s recommendation that I be given tenure, effective one year from now, and promotion to Associate Professor, effective in September.

There just are not enough exclamation points to say how happy and relieved I am, so this one will have to do!

Read Full Post »

Fatigue Is a Sneaky Bastard

Ordinarily, when I am under a lot of stress, I suffer even more from insomnia than I usually do.  Lately, though, I have been falling asleep almost as soon as I go to bed around 9:30 or 10.  I do wake up very early, but that is at least partly Muttboy’s fault, who seems to think I somehow need to be awakened at 5:15.  I apparently do not need to get up then, because he goes back to sleep, but he does feel the need to let me know he’s there, it’s morning, and at some point in the next hour or so I should think about getting up.

With all of the stress of the March Massacre, the ensuing bloody battles among senior faculty (which I am mercifully spared, since I am not (yet(knock wood)) senior faculty), and the usual anxieties about grading and the start of the racing season, I have been feeling fairly energetic.  I surprised myself with my relatively healthy response to the stress–see what I said above about sleeping, for example.  The slings and arrows of working in a madhouse coupled with the whips and scorns of an imploding economic system have left me feeling, on the surface at least, if not tranquil, then tranquil-esque.  Tranquil-onic.

Thus I was surprised the other day when it hit me that I am really, truly, utterly exhausted by everything.  I was reading a student paper, or trying to, and when I arrived at the end of the paper, I could not tell what it was about.  If you had held a gun to my head and asked me what the student said, you would have had no choice but to pull the trigger.  For the past two mornings I have skipped bike rides, and I blithely used the cold weather as an excuse.  Cold weather?  I have gone for rides in much colder weather than this!  But I caved in and stayed in my warm house, next to my warm dog.  Where I proceded to stare, slack-jawed, at the computer like some mindless, drooling idiot.  I watched the video of Bizkit the sleepwalking dog at least five times, and I almost clicked on that Britney Spears video up on the Onion AV Club site.  Almost, I said–I haven’t lost all dignity, by god!

So I have come to the not startling conclusion that I am fatigued.  I know that once the tenure decision comes down, I will feel better, but for the moment, all of my psychic energy is spent.

Read Full Post »

March Massacre

I’m not sure how much detail I want to reveal here, but I’ll try to tell my story without compromising anyone’s privacy.  The economic hard times have hit my university fairly hard, though probably not as hard as some other institutions.  We have a small endowment that lost something like 25% in the last year, but we are still afloat financially.

The reality hit my department this week, though, with four positions getting cut.  Three of the positions were term contract, but one of the was a tenure-track position.  That’s right: we lost a TT position.

Everyone in the department is wandering around in a sort of a daze.  Some of the afflicted are depressed, some are angry as hell, and some seem to be doing their best to show nothing and act as if everything is normal.

Luckily for me, I still have a job.  I received my renewal letter last week, so I know I am gainfully employed for at least another year.  If I get the good news in a couple of weeks when the tenure decisions are announced, I’ll be relatively safe, or at least as safe as anyone is these days.  If I get bad news from the tenure gods, at least I have a job until 2010.  I also received a sort of promotion, where I’ve been placed in charge of one of our major programs; one of my responsibilities will be to manage our large pool of adjuncts.

Among the many bad effects of this news is the spread of paranoia.  One of my less sane colleagues–oh, what the hell; she’s totally drooling batshit crazy– is convinced that the employment bloodbath and my promotion is all some elaborate plot against her because of some things she has done or said.  She even went so far as to urge me not to take the promotion because it would mean I was getting in bed with the devil.  I just nodded noncommitally, the way you do when the crazy people in the subway start telling you about how Stephen King and Richard Nixon plotted to kill John Lennon.

Interesting times.

Read Full Post »

This Is Just to Say

Tonight in my American lit class we spent more than twenty minutes discussing William Carlos Williams’s poem “This is jus to Say.”  It’s an interesting little poem, a mere 33 words (counting the title).  This long discussion, which ranged from the image that the poet constructed to the way some thought the tone of the poem sounded more like a note a woman would write than anything a man would come up with, came right after we spent almost forty minutes tearing into Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”  We focused a lot of time on the famous line “Let be be the finale of seem,” and pointed out that the key words in this line–“be” and “seems”–are also keys to two of the more important lines in Hamlet.  There is, of course, Hamlet’s famous speech (perhaps the best known lines in the English language), but I also spent some time considering my favorite lines from the play.  Right after Gertrude gently prods Hamlet about his nighted garments and questions why he seems so sad, the prince replies, “Seems, madame?  Nay, I know not seems.”  The tricky line in the American poem, then, essentially states that we are going to be forced to set aside appearances for reality.

It was a good class.  We had some fun with the poems and played around with the ideas I threw at them and the ideas they generated themselves.  Out of the 17 people in the class, 15 had something to say, including the almost pathologically shy girl who, when she raises her hand, looks as if it is taking all of her courage to do so.  In our Tuesday meeting, we got gloomy and depressed with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which is a great poem for middle-aged angst, but it also works well for angsty late adolescents.  In our discussion of what it means to count out your days in coffee spoons and whether or not one dares to disturb the universe, someone made the connection to Melville’s Bartleby, that great disturber of the universe.  Both Bartleby and Prufrock feel crushed by a sense of the futility of exitence, but Bartleby protests this, however ineffectually it turns out.

Maybe this is not terribly brilliant.  We are not using any deep-thinking literary critics to help us unpack the language of the poetry or explicate the symbols and metaphors.  The class is designed to give English majors a broad grounding in the “canon,” so I focus on the big hitters and leave the more complex analysis for the upper-division classes.  However, I do think our wide-ranging, almost anarchic discussions demonstrate that something valuable is happening.

Yesterday, my department had a meeting in which we were to discuss “academic rigor,” which is, apparently, edu-speak for “bitch about how stupid your students are.”  One of my colleagues complained that his students refused to engage the material, that class discussion was impossible, and that his students retained nothing from his lectures.  Another reiterated that her students simply do not do the reading, and furthermore, our students NEVER do the reading, and finally, our students are all lazy and stupid.  Yet another asserted that his students are utterly incapable of looking beyond simple plot in their readings of poetry, and they find deeper analysis impossible.

I am perhaps parodying and overstating their complaints, but this is in spirit close to their oft-repeated claims.  I should, however, point out that the students in question are exactly the same students who made the observations about Eliot, Stevens, Williams, and Moore in my class.

There are two possibilities that immediately occur to me:

1) I am both incredibly stupid and laughably naive to think that my students are at all engaged in the literature.

2) I am a spectacularly awesome professor.

Native modesty makes possibility #2 deeply uncomfortable for me to contemplate.  Native pride makes #1 equally distasteful.  So let’s skip this for a little while and move on.

Yes, students are frequently lazy, ill prepared, duplicitous, venal, distracted, and even stupid.  But, as an undergraduate, I was all of the above and more.  Students often do not do the reading.  I got a B in a European Novel class where I read five of the ten assigned books.  Students often don’t pay attention in class.  I still have notebooks from 1986 with more doodles than substantive notes.  Students often just don’t get it.  I remember with deep embarrassment a paper I wrote making some incomprehensibly dense argument that displayed my complete misunderstanding of The Odyssey.

My point is really fairly simple.  Students do lack skills and knowledge.  If they did not lack these things, I would be out of a job.  I would be superfluous.  The corollary to this is perhaps up for more debate.  Students generally do want to learn something.  They just want to know that their teachers are willing to teach them and take them seriously.  I know of a professor who is notorious for telling students they are too stupid to be in college.  That sounds to me like a way to guarantee your students will not learn and not want to learn.  Kurt Vonnegut once said that people would be happier in marriage if they said, “Please, a little less love and a little more common decency.”  (I might be misquoting here.)  Perhaps something similar could be said of higher education:  A little more common decency, a little more mutual respect.

Read Full Post »


My grading, that is. I had a huge load of papers, as I usually do, made even bigger by the take-home final exams from my American lit classes. I started the grading process last week, I think, but when I really try to think about last week and the grading I did, I see this fog shrouding everything. What, exactly, did I do last week? I must have done some grading or I wouldn’t be finished by now.

I do know this: there were a lot of papers. I spent all weekend reading papers and finals. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, I finished reading 45 papers with an average length of 1000 words each and the same number of finals with an average length of 600 words. That adds up to a short novel. Even though I don’t put many comments on the last papers, I still take the time to say something on each one. It is very, very difficult to keep coming up with new ways to say “You have some interesting ideas in this paper, but you do not develop your points with enough specific details.” I should make a macro that says this so I can hit one key to print out my criticism (I grade on the computer, thus saving paper).

Grading is very stressful for me. I worry about grading too harshly. I worry about being too lenient. When a student fails the class (I had three failures this semester), I always feel a little sad about it. But it is over until the first week of May, when I get to do it all over again.

Read Full Post »

A Shout Out to the Puritans

Note to Sarah Palin and her handlers:  Ronald Reagan did not make up that line about the shining city on the hill.  John Winthrop said it first in “A Model of Christian Charity” in 1630.

Just sayin’.

Poor John gets no love.

Read Full Post »

End of the Year

It is the end of the academic year, or almost. I have classes tomorrow and my final class on Monday. We have finals for almost two weeks and then graduation on the 18th. It has been a strange year, with some very deep and dark lows and some strange highs. I’ve gone from a sense of despair as I received another rejection for one of my articles and I became convinced I would never have a chance at getting tenure; this despair faded when I unexpectedly found another article a home.

Nevertheless, the tenure game is fraught with uncertainty, and a good sign immediately seems to be undermined by some half-heard, half-perceived slight. I was invited to serve on several high-profile committees, but every academic knows that committee work is a fool’s game, with the same dozen suckers serving on all of them, while those who can sneak away laugh at you for saying “yes” to one more meeting.

On Monday I submitted my letter of intent to apply for promotion and tenure, which means this summer I will assemble my packet by gathering all of my documentation and writing up a full report laying out my case. The whole process is terrifying, and I still have moments when I think there is certainly a chance that any one of the entities viewing my application could reject it.

On the other hand, tonight, our campus hosted a huge awards ceremony put on by the campus life people. I had been nominated for the outstanding faculty award by some students. Although I was nervous about going to the ceremony, where we nominees had to sit through an hour of other awards before they got to the faculty and administrator awards, I was, as the saying goes, very happy just to be nominated. Since the students do the nominating and run the whole selection process, it feels particularly touching; after all, I decided to start teaching because I like the students.

Well, I won.

When the presenter, a retired English prof after whom the award is named, started her introduction of the winner, she was careful to be deliberately vague at first. But then she had to start giving away some identifying details, mentioning that the winner taught Gothic lit classes and poetry. I almost fell out of my chair.

It’s good to win.

Read Full Post »

Link Time

Check out this other blog.  I know the author, if you know what I mean.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »