Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Nine kinds of wrong

Near the beginning of my career in academia, I used to worry about administrators who seemed out of touch with the classroom. Every fall, the faculty here at HHCC would file into the auditorium to listen the then-President's "State of the College" speech, in which he would outline the exciting changes happening or about to happen on our campus. One of my most common complaints about these speeches was that they rarely mentioned classroom instruction at all. The President would talk about construction plans, retention strategies, and reorganizational schemes, but he never really talked about teaching. What we needed, I would claim, was a President who was directly engaged with what goes on in classes, with the real work of the college.

Oh, to be that young and naive again.

I have since realized the truth that the faculty at the University of Toledo is living through at the moment: administrators with opinions about teaching are a faculty's worst nightmare. I have to say, though, that the claptrap coming out of the head and mouth of UT President Lloyd Jacobs surprised even me.

Look. I'm a fan of student-centered learning. I can buy into the concept of Distance Learning. I even said, at the interview for the position I've held for the past ten years, that failure to embrace instructional technology was "unconscionable"(remember, I was very young then). But when a college President starts throwing around phrases like "extreme student-centeredness" (remember when "extreme" meant going too far?) and "mass customization" (to be honest, I still can't make this phrase make sense), somebody needs to pull the plug.

If you haven't heard yet, you can help pull this particular plug by signing an online petition created by those interested in saving the idea of the Liberal Arts (the initials of which should always be capitalized, like the names of other religions) at the University of Toledo. Signing the petition is a statement that you oppose the Burger King approach to education ("have it your way"), the diminution of the Liberal Arts, the continued fetishization of assessment as panacea for all of academia's ills, and, most importantly, phrases like "mass customization." Still can't get my mind around that one.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I have arrived

I feel like an honest-to-goodness grown-up blogger today. The reason: this morning I received my first spam comment!!! I feel a bit like Sally Field accepting her Oscar: they like me; they really like me! Or at least they see my tiny corner of the blogosphere as a worthwhile place to try to sell paper shredders. In Portuguese.

The comment, which I haven't deleted (and which I bet a few of you have seen before) reads as follows:

Hello. This post is likeable, and your blog is very interesting, congratulations :-). I will add in my blogroll =). If possible gives a last there on my blog, it is about the Fragmentadora de Papel, I hope you enjoy. The address is A hug.

There are many points here worth exploring, it seems to me. There's the obviously fractured English, not surprising given the Portguese origin. There's the unusual ending, in which a complete stranger with an apparent fixation on paper shredders offers me a hug. There's the slightly offensive suggestion that I should be congratulated on being interesting; perhaps I'm immodest, but I like to think that I'm interesting on a fairly regular basis and that being so is hardly reason for congratulations.

But what I really find fascinating is the fact that, for just a second anyway, I thought the comment was genuine. My Portuguese is pretty weak, sure, but I have to admit that I originally guessed that the "Fragmentadora de Papel" was some kind of early Medieval Spanish manuscript fragment. Maybe about...the Pope? I was actually kinda excited to read the blog. Imagine my disappointment.

Be honest, now: this episode marks me irrevocably as a Medieval Geek, doesn't it?

Oh, and I almost forgot.

A hug.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How much medieval is too much?

Gosh, has it really been two full weeks since my last post? Guess grading jail lasted longer than I thought. And, of course, I'm not really out yet. In fact, I just picked up an additional class. Yes, three weeks before the semester ends. A colleague of mine is unable to finish out the semester due to illness, so I have to teach one of his classes for the next three weeks. And grade all the resulting papers. On the positive side, the college is compensating me. I think I'll receive almost two hundred bucks for what will almost certainly be in the neighborhood of forty hours work. Almost minimum wage! And people say that the administration doesn't really care about the faculty...

I've been teaching for about fifteen years now, so I've become pretty proficient at finding ways to avoid grading. One of my favorites involves planning for future classes. At the planning phase, a class is all potential; it can still be perfect. Once you add actual students into the mix (and once I enter the room for the first time), that potential has largely been sapped. I always enjoy teaching, mind you, but it's not nearly as fun as planning the class.

I remember when I was in graduate school, a good friend and I used to prep for the job interviews we hoped to get when we finished our Ph.D.s by answering the "dream class" question. You know the one. If you could design a class without worrying about how it fits into a larger curriculum, what would it look like? I remember dreaming about classes devoted to medieval expressions of time or to ridiculously specific timeframes (Old English Prose: 975-1008). Teaching at a community college consigns such dreams firmly to the realm of fantasy, of course, but I still enjoy planning new courses or finding ways to significantly overhaul old ones.

Which brings me to a question I deal with almost every year. One of the classes I teach is a standard British Lit survey. I actually teach both halves of this sequence, but I spend a lot more time thinking about the first semester (Medieval through 18th Century) than the second (1800 to the present). [NOTE: someday I'll post a rant about the way this sequence is broken up. Let's see, there's approximately 1400 years of British literary history. Obviously we should spend one semester on the first 1200 and the second semester on the last 200. Seriously, WTF?] What I struggle with each time I plan this class is how much time to spend on medieval literature. On the one hand, I think that survey classes should be designed to meet the students' needs, not the instructor's. If the point of the class is to survey British literature from its earliest days to the end of the 18th century, then the texts chosen should not focus unduly on one period but should...well, survey the overall range of periods. Sure, I especially like medieval literature, but that shouldn't be the guiding principle for the course. On the other hand, I have a certain amount of expertise in medieval lit, expertise that I don't have in the other periods studied in the class. Okay, so I work at a community college, and everyone is generalist at a CC, but surely the students could benefit more from my knowledge of things medieval than from my relative ignorance concerning Restoration Drama. Right?

So how much medieval literature should be included in a Brit Lit survey class taught by a medievalist? All the mainstream anthologies divide the big period into three (Medieval, Early Modern, 18th Century), though in terms of page count the medieval period gets short shrift, probably about 20% of the total book. Chronologically, of course, the medieval period (which I'm defining as approximately 700-1500) represents about 75% of the overall time period covered by the class. In the past, I've devoted as much as 50% and as little as 30% of the course to medieval stuff. Then there's the related question of what to cover in the medieval period. I'm an Anglo-Saxonist, but even I have difficulty justifying very much beyond Beowulf and a handful of other poems ("Caedmon's Hymn," "The Wanderer," "The Wife's Lament," etc.) in a class like this. Still, I don't want to fall into the normal pattern of teaching just Beowulf and Chaucer and saying that I've covered the medieval period.

I'm putting this question out to what Richard Scott Nokes has recently called the "blog-o-web-net-sphere-thingy." Those of you who teach British Lit surveys: how much medieval literature do you cover in the class? And, if you don't mind sharing, what works do you normally include?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Trying to escape the inevitable

What I had not foreseen
Was the gradual day
Weakening the will
Leaking the brightness away

-Stephen Spender, "What I Expected"

So it appears that I'm getting old. Inevitable, I know, but still somewhat surprising when you realize it. In general, I don't mind getting older. I have no plans to buy a sportscar anytime soon, and my hair remains free of gray at present, so I'm good for now. But I do have to admit that my body is beginning to show signs of, well, decay. What I didn't really expect, for example, was the dramatic change in metabolism that tends to show up in the late thirties. Before I was thirty, I often had trouble putting weight on. At one point in grad school, I weighed 119 pounds (on a 5'7" frame). And even though my father had been somewhat overweight throughout my childhood, I kinda assumed that I had dodged that particular bullet.

But apparently not. Fifteen years, two kids, and fifty pounds later, I find myself in what I sometimes refer to as "medievalist shape." It's not just that I'm growing somewhat thick around the middle; I'm also sedentary to a fault. I get winded taking out the trash (mind you, they're big bags). I can feel my body slowly falling apart. And though I do sometimes fall into the academic trap of, as Sir Ken Robinson has put it, considering my body as little more than an elaborate system of transportation for my head, I would like the bus to keep rolling, if you know what I mean.

So it was in a contrite spirit that I headed to the YMCA last night. Okay, so I wasn't really that contrite. But I went anyway, if only because Older Monkey was scheduled for a KidFit class. Since I was there, however, I decided I might as well get in some exercise. I don't enjoy exercise very much, but I do like walking and running, so I ran/walked around the track above the gym where OM was playing a strange form of baseball with the other kids. By my tenth lap, an old idea had reoccurred to me. It's an idea that I never thought was very realistic and which seems even less realistic to me now. But it still has significant appeal to me, so I've begun to entertain it. It's the kind of idea that I'm very reluctant to share with others, lest I have to face them when (in about a week or so, I would predict) I give up on the idea entirely and admit that I am a person of no substance, at least in the world of physical exertion. But I realized that, thanks to the shield of pseudonymity, I can talk about it here with very little risk. So here goes:

I want to run a marathon.

Don't laugh, Dr. Virago. I am fully aware that the mile-and-a-half I completed on the track last night represents only about 6% of a marathon. I am also fully aware that the last time I so much as walked briskly around the block (before last night) was before Christmas. In fact, I had to wear really heavy hiking-type athletic shoes last night because my normal running-type shoes (i.e., the closest I have to real running shoes) were left at another athletic club where I sometimes play squash with a friend. That sounds at least a little impressive, but the last time we played was well over a month ago. So let's just say that I've got a long way to go, in more ways than one.

But what's weird--and why I considered this space particularly appropriate for my secret pronouncement--is that I somehow feel more qualified to take on this task since completing my dissertation a few years ago. I remember the feeling of impossibility, the recognition of the vastness of the task at the beginning. I remember thinking that I was a fool to think that I could ever complete such a project. And I remember how I did complete it: one page, one paragraph, one sentence at a time. Now I'm considering a book project (more on this later, and props to Michelle of Heavenfield for the idea and encouragement), and it doesn't seem impossible at all.

So who knows? I'm not treating this as some kind of official life goal yet, but I am thinking about it, and, while part of me laughs at my naivete for even suggesting such a thing, another part of me thinks maybe it's possible after all. Tonight I'm going to run a little bit farther. If I never mention running again on this space, you may safely assume that I've retreated happily into advancing age and physical decrepitude.

At least you won't be able to watch it happen, though, right?