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Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

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.

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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.

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Link Time

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

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T-Minus

I received this letter in the mail yesterday:

According to our records, you are eligible for tenure consideration during the 2008-2009 Academic Year.  If you wish to be considered for tenure, please submit a letter of intent to the Chairperson of the 2008-2009 Committee on Rank and Tenure…

You know what I will be doing this summer.  I of course knew this was coming and have known for five years, but the official notification still makes me nervous.

In somewhat related news, I was nominated for a major teaching award by the student life division.  It means a lot to me to be nominated because it comes from the students, and this nomination seems to show me that I am doing something right when I stand up in front of the classroom.  I don’t know how much influence this might have with the R&T committee, but I am sure it can’t hurt.

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Going South

Tomorrow night I leave for El Salvador for my spring break adventure.  I am a little nervous about this, since I’ve never gone on such a trip before, but I’m also looking forward to it.  There will be four faculty members and fifteen students making the journey.

A delegation goes every year at spring break, and the students who have gone before have passionately explained how it is a life-changing experience.  One of the things that makes me happily anticipate the trip is the enthusiasm and joy that the students are expressing.  One girl going said that she made the decision to take the trip because she will turn 21 during spring break.  At first I thought that sounded like a rather strange thing, since El Salvador is not really a typical college spring break party destination.  But she explained that she wanted to do something different and memorable for her birthday, something where she could come away with a meaningful experience.

Most of the students have similarly earnest desires.  One guy is going partly because of his father, who visited the country during the civil war of the 1980s.  His father, a peace activist and social justice theologian, runs a peace center in Massachusetts.  Another girl wants to be an English teacher (so I’ll be her prof next year when she’s a sophomore) and work in underprivileged areas.  She has dreams of maybe teaching through the Peace Corps or Americorps.  In short, it is a good group of kids who exemplify the best of their age and tear down the stereotypical image of the drunken, solipsistic college student.

I don’t know if I could express my reasons for going that clearly.  Part of it is a desire to have some sort of adventure that I did not have while I was in college.  Part of it is the idea that I should never, ever turn down the chance to see and do new things, even if doing these new things makes me feel nervous or anxious.  Part of it is the shameful knowledge that I, a comfortable middle-class American, do not come anywhere close to giving back to the global society the things I owe it.

Whatever my ideas are now, I am sure that the week I spend in a dusty little Salvadoran town will help clarify things for me.  I’ll have a lot to say, I imagine, when I get back, and I’ll probably post a picture or two as well.  In the meantime, adios.

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Reading and Relating: A Rant

“I just can’t relate to the story,” several students complained.  “The characters’ problems just aren’t real to me.”  I tried.  I worked harder in front of a class than I have in years.  I dug into the story.  I pulled in historical context.  I explained the political situation.  I outlined the social constraints.  I agreed that this novel is a difficult and problematic text, but said that we just needed to probe a little more carefully to get it.  Still.  “I can’t relate.”

What does this mean?  Why do students sometimes shut down when they can’t “relate” to the story?  Reading is about making an effort, about trying to reach out and touch someone who is not you, who is different from you, and find understanding.  Not relating simply means you were not willing to approach the story on its terms.  Not liking a story is one thing; giving up on it because you can’t “relate” is simply lazy thinking.  There are a lot of books I don’t like, books that don’t work for me on any number of aesthetic and intellectual levels, and I am not saying that we have to like everything we read.  I am saying, though, that we do tend to blame the failure on the book far too often.

My area of scholarship is 19th century American women writers–the domestic and sentimental stories.  There is no way that I, a white male born in the late 20th century, could “relate” on a superficial level to the characters in these stories.  I am not an orphaned nine-year-old girl who is taught to deny herself for Jesus.  I am not a young mother transplanted to the wild woods of Michigan.  Yet I can understand and appreciate their stories because I took the effort to understand these characters and their conditions.  In other words, I found a way to relate to them.

The all too common “I couldn’t relate to the story” complaint is sloppy, lazy, and arrogant thinking.  It demands that the characters be like you or you won’t make the effort to meet them on their own ground.  It demands that the stories accommodate you instead of the other way around.  It insists that reading is a passive instead of an active skill.  Reading is not TV.  Reading is not American Idol, where your vote counts!!!  You need to get up off your lazy ass, and get in the author’s face.  When something confuses you, you are supposed to scream at the author, “What the hell is going on here?”

Because when you do that, you will get an answer, and you will find yourself relating.

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More Whining

My writing is gasping.  My teaching is imploding.  My cycling is flatting.  My reading is lacking in adventure.  Essentially, nothing has gone at all well for the last three months.

Deep breath.  I took everyone’s advice and did what I knew needed to be done.  I gave up, perhaps temporarily, on book #2 and started book #3, which I guess means that book #2 is no longer book #2 because book #3 is book #2.  I hate this, but it is probably the right thing to do.  Book #3/2 terrifies me.  I know that I will either finish it or it will kill me in the process.  Never before, not even writing my dissertation, did I ever feel so much anxiety about writing something while simultaneously feeling such a compulsion to write.  So I started the next book today, and I don’t know if it will work, since it is such a deep, close subject and the thought of messing it up nearly paralyzes me.

Teaching.  One student has boundary issues.  Needs a filter.  Tonight she shouted, “No, you’re wrong!” when I was trying to explain a point about how Poe creates his characters’ psychological states.  When I try to stop her long look-at-me answers to my questions, she ignores me and keeps talking, even if I have gone on to the next point.  Talking to her after class has not helped, so thank you anyway for the suggestion.

Cycling.  One ride in two weeks.  Legs:  flat.  Lungs:  not interested.  Heart: not in it.  Bike: noisy.  Roads: squirrel-infested.  I nearly crashed twice because of suicidal rodents darting in front of my bike.

Reading.  BO-ring.  I can’t get into anything new, so I’m back to re-reading old King novels that I have already read ten or more times.  The thought of going to a bookstore makes me cringe.

What happened to me?  I don’t recognize this person writing right now, and I can’t find the real me anywhere.

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