Friday, August 22, 2008

And we have a winner!

Well, kind of.

As of 8:00 this morning, I had received five comments on my previous post. Two commenters wanted me to finish the "teaching post," two voted for the "research post," and one expressed a preference for the "meditations on the profession" post. Since there was a tie, I decided to finish both the teaching and research posts and to start with the teaching post, since it was closer to being finished.

Before I could get it posted this afternoon, however, I received an additional comment from Carrie K, who voted for the research post. I considered throwing out her vote on procedural grounds (a la the 2000 Supreme Court decision), but in the end I relented. So the official winner of the contest is the reasearch-oriented post, which I will finish in the next couple of days. Until then, you can read the runner-up below.

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I've worked here in Hawtch-Hawtch for almost ten years now. I grew up about 25 miles away, and I've lived in the state for all of my life, excepting seven years in grad school. In other words, I know this place. I don't agree with most attitudes I encounter 'round these parts, but I'm rarely surprised by them. At times, however, my students (most of whom grew up approximately 25 miles in the other direction from the college) say things that I have trouble even processing. It's not that I can't believe they think this way; I just can't believe that they say it out loud.

When I walked into class a few weeks ago, I was greeted with a question. "Why did you make us read those articles?" a particularly burly student asked before I had gotten all the way through the door. I asked if he had a problem with the articles. "I sure had a problem with the second one," he responded. I looked at him innocently, though I was pretty sure I knew what he was talking about. The first article I had assigned to my composition class for the day discussed the challenges faced by families in which the wife works while the husband stays home with the children. The second article discussed the similar challenges faced by homosexual parents.

Again, I know where I work, and I know that homosexuality is still something of a novelty to these students. A critical reading assignment I often use in my comp classes, for example, asks students to question whether the word "couple" has to refer to a man and a woman; my students usually greet this question with giggles. Actual giggles. So, yeah, I know what I'm getting into when I ask them to read an article that treats homosexuals as...well, normal. But I decided to play along. "What kind of problem did you have with the article?" I asked.

Looking back, I probably shouldn't have asked that.

"Gay people are disgusting," my burly student said in a loud and matter-of-fact tone.

Well. Okay.

"Are you sure that you want to start class with a pronouncement like that?" I asked him.

"What do you mean?" he replied, looking genuinely confused.

"Well," I started, "you don't know everybody in this class, do you?"

He just looked more confused.

"What I mean is," I continued, "do you really want to start class by making this kind of blanket statement about a group of people, when you don't know whether some people in the class might belong to that group?"

But he knew he had me beat on that score. While it was certainly possible that some people in the class might be homosexual, he knew, as I did, that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be stupid enough to admit it. Especially now.

Earlier this week, I attended an information session administered by our Institutional Research department. The subject was our campus results of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, a national instrument designed to measure student attitudes and experiences at the CC level. One particular result jumped out at me. When asked how often they had engaged in conversations with people of different race, ethnicity, or economic status while on campus, almost half of our students said "Never." Not "Rarely." Never.

On my good days, I see a statistic like that as an opportunity. I start thinking about ways of increasing diversity, or at least awareness of diversity, in my classes. And it often works. I had a pretty good conversation with the burly homophobic during the break in our class that day. He admitted that his attitudes are a product of his environment, that his father would "beat the crap" out of him if he ever let his future wife work for a living while he stayed home with children (I didn't ask what his father would do if this kid announced he was gay). By the end of the class, I think he was at least thinking about why he has such strong feelings on this subject.

Which is all I want, of course. I firmly believe that it's not my job to change these kids' values, or even to "broaden their horizons." Mostly, my job is to make them better writers. To achieve that goal, all I ask is that they try to understand why they believe what they believe.

Oh, and if they believe something really nuts, like that gay people are disgusting, I also ask that they keep it to themselves.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Are you ready to play our game?

I know what you've been thinking. No, the tarantula did not eat me alive. Summer school almost did, though. Teaching two classes while working on an article and a proposal for Kalamazoo, beginning a Latin translation group with a colleague, and deciding whether my oldest child would be starting Kindergarten next week left with very little time for blogging over the past month. I know, I know, there's always time for the things you put first, right? But as much as I enjoy the blog, it often comes in very low on my list of priorities.

I haven't been absent from the blogosphere, however. I've been reading all of my favorite blogs regularly, almost all of which have had interesting things to say. I've been following the In The Muddle controversy (though I admit I came to it rather late and was only tipped off to the now-defunct blog's existence by a mention of it on Unlocked Wordhoard). I don't really have anything to say about it that hasn't already been said, by Larry Swain among others. I will say that, though I've publicly admitted that I'm not much of theory person and that I often have difficulty following the more esoteric posts at In The Middle, I have found the bloggers there, particularly Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, to be exceedingly generous and welcoming. I have little respect for those who pick on nice people (especially when those nice people are doing good work).

And it's not really true to say that I haven't written anything here in the past month. In fact, I've written quite a bit, though none of it has made it into a publishable post. I've started three different posts, only to be interrupted by work, children, or sleep. As a result, I have three fairly substantial but unfinished posts sitting in my Drafts folder. I had planned on just ditching all of them--returning to a piece of writing after a long absence is always difficult for me--but Miss Goddess had a better idea (as she often does).

Instead of letting these poor, orphaned pieces of prose pass into oblivion, I'll give those few remaining of my readers a chance to save one. I'm posting below the first paragraph of each of the three posts in question. If you would like to see one of those posts finished, please say so in the comments. Whichever potential post gets the most votes will be finished and posted in its entirety later this week. Here goes:

Contestant 1 (the teaching post):
I've worked here in Hawtch-Hawtch for almost ten years now. I grew up about 25 miles away, and I've lived in the state for all of my life, excepting seven years in grad school. In other words, I know this place. I don't agree with most attitudes I encounter 'round these parts, but I'm rarely surprised by them. At times, however, my students (most of whom grew up approximately 25 miles in the other direction from the college) say things that I have trouble even processing. It's not that I can't believe they think this way; I just can't believe that they say it out loud...

Contestant 2 (the research post):
One of the great joys and frustrations of being a medievalist involves having to face head-on the pervasive misconceptions held by the general public about the Middle Ages. Mary Kate Hurley recently asked medievalists about times when they have found themselves using their knowledge of the period in unexpected settings, but surely the most common, almost clich├ęd, scenario begins with the question "Did they really...?" Did they really burn witches? Did they really believe in magic? Did they really eat dirt? And so on. It is our privilege, nay, our duty to correct these misconceptions, no?...

Contestant 3 (the meditations on the profession post):
I've been thinking a lot recently about my approach to scholarship: why I do it, what I get out of it, etc.. As I've mentioned before in this space, I feel like I'm something of a special case here. Because I teach at a community college, my scholarly output has absolutely no bearing on my job security. In a way, I suppose, I'm a bit like an independent scholar, though I've never thought of myself in those terms. Because I went to grad school at a big-name R1 program, I've always conducted my research and writing as if I were on the tenure track, in that I plan to write one or two conference papers each year, and I then try to turn those papers into articles to be submitted to journals (though I admit that I often abandon those projects once they get to the article-writing stage)...

It's now up to you, faithful readers. If I get no comments, all three of these posts will die a painful death and never be heard from again. But if you're the type who tears up watching Extreme Makeover, who can't pass by a kitten without smiling, you'll reach out to save one of these paragraphs. The clock is ticking...