Two cents on "learning objectives"

This is related to the discussion running around the blogosphere today about outcomes assessment; but distantly.

I’m applying for a workshop at a Famous Library, one focused on teaching rather than on research. I showed my writing group my letter of application, which includes information about the courses I want to enhance by taking this workshop, and what I want the students to get out of this enhancement.

All I want for the undergraduates is that they understand—because they have seen—the work that goes into making an edition of a medieval or early modern text: that someone has to read words written in old, probably crappy handwriting, perhaps in multiple versions, and somehow get from that to a single legible comprehensible printed text in the book they’re using in class. I do have some assignments that involve editing a few lines, but I am not trying to turn undergrads into textual editors. “Understand” is my goal, my key word here.

And the person in the group who deals with learning objectives (etc.) suggests adding learning objectives, which have to be quantifiable, to the application.

Sure, I could add an assignment or a quiz question that makes students write out what editors do, based on what they learned from what we’ll do in class, and then I would have proof that they “understood” something.

But that really isn’t the point. I’m hoping to create that elusive “aha!” moment, the sense of “oh, so this is what a manuscript is,” and “ugh, how do people read this?” and “wow, I can read this!” and “gosh, I never realized what went into creating our textbooks.” I believe that an untested, that is, unquantified experience, without any anxiety about “what will be on the quiz?” or “what do you want in the paper?” will do a better job of creating the “aha!” than a serious “learning objective” ever could.

So I’m sticking to my version of my goals for the workshop and the classes. Understanding may not be quantifiable, and sometimes that’s what we want.

Placeholder of a post

Today started well. I had ideas for posts, one of which I planned to write as soon as I finished my planned work for the day. My phone had alarms set every hour from 8 to 3, with notes about what I was supposed to be doing. The first three hours went very well.

And then the Shakespearean Heroine got on the couch next to me, smelling funny. Not funny ha-ha.

She did not want to be cleaned up.

The couch did not object to being cleaned up; neither did the basement floor. The basement rug didn’t exactly object, but did put up a certain amount of resistance to being hauled outside in order to be hosed down. (And that reminds me . . . I should retrieve it now.)

Then I came back inside to find the Shakespearean Heroine panting. Cats don’t pant, and she is an elderly and not altogether healthy cat. I called the vet. The vet said, “Can you bring her in now?”

Large sums of money later, all appeared to be well, and we came home. I have now finished the morning’s work. The afternoon’s work is not going to happen today. I have forgotten my notions about interesting posts. My gym session will be much curtailed, but it is going to happen. So is cooking dinner, because I have to have leftovers, because tomorrow after teaching for two hours before noon I go straight into a meeting that is scheduled for another two hours after noon.

And Basement Cat has not had enough time to run around today, because the Shakespearean Heroine is isolated from the others, for now, and I’ve been in watching her breathe instead of out supervising B.C.’s interactions with the rest of the tenured faculty.

I can’t remember how the “tenured faculty” thing came up. I think Sir John suggested, in jest, getting rid of a cat, and I said no, the cats have tenure. Then he wanted to know how Basement Cat got tenure, since none of the other tenured faculty approve of him.

I said that Basement Cat knows the Provost.

But I probably should have said that personality wasn’t in the tenure requirements. B.C. is very good at many feline tasks, and today I particularly appreciate his stellar litter box usage. When he exits the box, you can tell only by the pawprints that he was even in there.

More on that One Art

I didn’t mean to be gone for so long. I went away, physically, to visit my father. It was a short but good visit. He’s doing well, active mentally and physically. He does complain of having trouble getting through paperwork, and not being able to take time to work on projects he really wants to work on, and getting tired. Well, he’s in his 80s; you might expect some of this.

But I’m nearly 40 years younger than he is, and I have similar complaints. I have more trouble than usual managing my time, and deadlines just don’t seem urgent, and though I have interesting projects, it’s hard to get down to work on them.

I think we’re both still processing being without my mother, and I hope we may both start to feel more on top of things in a few months.

After I came back, I learned that a friend had suffered a family tragedy, a far worse one. Parents dying is in the order of things; but other losses seem horribly unnatural and wrong. And I realized a lot of my friends have lost friends or family members in the past year. In this case, misery does not love company. I keep thinking that as I get older, there will just be more and more of this. My grandmother outlived all her friends.


August seems to be my season for clearing up and throwing away. Last year, it was my index cards; this year, it’s a lot more stuff.

Yesterday I went to campus and revised my office. I have long wished that “Changing Rooms” would come and give my office a makeover. I can see when something is badly designed, but not what to do about it. I don’t like the placement of my office door, or maybe it’s just the position of the door relative to where the computer has to be because of outlets and connections. One problem was too much furniture. When I moved in, there were two desks, seven half-height bookcases, and a tier of attached-to-the-wall shelves. Then I acquired an ergonomic computer table, and at some point a large table moved in. I hadn’t requested it; it just appeared. So things piled up on it, as they do.

I evicted one of the desks and a wobbly chair yesterday, and I’m wondering about that table. I moved it, anyway, and I may live with it in the new spot for a few weeks before deciding on whether it should go, too. Since I could see the bottom shelves of one of the bookcases (six of the seven are now stacked up, that is, in three groups of two), I started editing. A shelf of old PMLAs went into the recycling, as did a batch of LRU faculty bulletins I didn’t know I had. (Sir John said, “Think of the historians of 20th-century American academia five hundred years from now!” They’ll have to find someone else’s copies.) I left a lot of books I haven’t cracked in years on the “Free Books” table outside the TA offices. Then I could consolidate the other shelves. It was exceedingly therapeutic. I still need to have another go at the file cabinet (I did a little with it last fall), but the room is much improved.

Today it was the turn of my study at home, and this time I started with the file cabinet. I don’t like filing cabinets anyway; either I don’t put stuff in, or I never take it out. It’s something about drawers, and depth, and loose papers. I do a little better with household records than with academic papers. I thought I’d try putting the academic things in binders, in hopes that I’d respond better to codices.

Out of a full drawer, I retained two folders and put the rest of what I wanted to save into a single 1-1/2 inch binder; all the rest went into the recycling bin. Handouts from Kalamazoos past, reading notes taken a decade ago, rejected drafts of papers, gone, gone, gone. It was interesting to see past bits of my life go by. I kept notes on Pearl from a graduate class, but tossed old student presentations on same. I decided to keep the fairly positive comments from a noted scholar on one of my dissertation chapters, when I sought feedback about how to turn it into an article. Though I doubt I will return to it now, it seems like bad karma to throw out encouragement. There’s a gap in my career, because of having been not very well after I got tenure; I had a lot of conference papers and partially-developed things that got put aside, and then stayed in those folders in those drawers, with the printouts of bibliography, and the comments and additions in different colored inks. I tossed them all. If I were to go back to any of those projects, I’d have to start fresh. My working methods have changed, the bibliographies are out of date (and far more easily assembled now), my critical allegiances have shifted. In short, I’ve moved on.

So now I have a drawer into which I can put some of the paper that has been filling boxes in my study. What’s more, after tossing the PMLAs yesterday, it dawned on me that with J-STOR, there is no reason to keep more than the most recent five years of Speculum. So the recycling bin here is filled with old Specula (I wonder what the garbage men will think), and the study bookshelves are reconfigured (always dangerous; I hope I will still be able to find books).

I’m generally very bad at getting rid of stuff, but this felt great. It was hard to get started, in both rooms, and early stages required a lot of breaks; but at a certain point, momentum takes over. I especially liked getting rid of things I don’t think I’ll ever work on again. I begin to have some dim idea of what it feels like to leave academia for a new career. I can’t imagine doing so myself, and yet I can imagine a sense of euphoria rising as you walk away from the shelves and cabinets, ready to start over in a mental if not physical somewhere-else.

I know things will pile up again. There will be print-outs, more books, more drafts, more bits of paperwork that I keep because I can’t decide whether or not I need them or intend to act on them. I’m not making any grand resolutions about turning over a new leaf. But it’s nice to have a little more space.

Putting down roots

I like the vegetal aspect of the metaphor, because what I miss (what I think I miss) most about Where I’m From is vegetation. The plants depend on the climate, of course, so climate also matters to me, as do hills and water, preferably salt water. But my real focus is trees and flowers. When I get off the plane there, the shapes of the trees look right to me, as do the varieties of flowers that grow . . . and the size they’ll grow to. In the Midwest, geraniums are annuals, either little round balls edging gardens or leggy ones spilling from window boxes. On my high school campus, dark red geraniums grew into hedges five feet tall.

So what does it take to put down roots in a new place? And if you’re a tropical plant, can you ever really take root in a climate zone with snow? Do you have to live in a pot, put out on the deck in the summer, sheltered in a conservatory or sunny window in winter?

A lot of things contribute to rootedness: meaningful work, friends, a partner, children, being recognized in the places you normally go (bank, restaurant, movie theater, grocery store . . .); getting involved in the community in whatever way suits you (tutoring, religious institution, political activism); living in the sort of place that suits you, whether that’s city, small town, suburb, or whatever. I’m sure a lot of people would argue for connectedness: knowing your neighbors, going to church or synagogue, getting to know your children’s friends’ parents, the things that give you multiple ways of running into the same people.

I had most of those kinds of connections where I grew up, but I didn’t experience them as connection. I felt trapped. I wanted very badly to go somewhere else, almost anywhere else, where no one knew me and I could start over.

Again, the common wisdom is that you can’t escape yourself, and you’re supposed to stay and face whatever it is you’re trying to avoid. I don’t buy it. Anyone who reinvented her- or himself as a college freshman knows what I mean. The pushover speaks out on the first day, and no one knows to expect doormat behavior. The sharp-tongued one turns kind, and no one says suspiciously, “Are you being sarcastic?” Freed of longstanding expectations, a person can adopt new behaviors. Someone who was messy as an act of rebellion can keep things orderly; someone whose room was military-neat to avoid parental cleaning and snooping can relax. It’s the other people, the connections, who often hold us to old patterns. It’s not impossible to change in place, but I think it is harder than to move and start fresh.

I have meaningful work, friends, a partner; I have some degree of recognition in places I go often (the gym is the best for that). My community involvement is minimal, partly because I divide my life between two communities, campus and home, with a long commute between. But I don’t hanker after more human connection. What I want is to grow things in my garden that would not be happy here, like plumbago, jasmine, and bougainvillea. I could have them in pots, in the summer, but I don’t want to watch them die when frosts come, and we don’t have a suitable indoor space for them in winter. I enjoy the garden I have, and I make the most of plants that need a cold winter, like bulbs, to be at their best. They’re exotic to me, a welcome burst of brightness in a chilly spring (always late, by my standards, no matter how early to locals).

But before I left the land of plumbago and oleander, I had no idea how attached I was to the landscape. It didn’t really register on me; I didn’t garden, I didn’t take photographs, I didn’t keep a bird list or do anything else that required deliberate effort to connect to the outdoors. It was just there, as much a part of my life as the air I breathed. And even now, I wonder how I would feel if I could move back. Would I be haunted by the ghosts of my past, both my own younger selves and the people I wanted to get away from? I would surely have a lot more money worries; would they overpower my delight in the shapes of the trees? Would I miss the bulb flowers and the relative lack of spiders in my midwestern clime?

Parts of Australia have a similar climate and plant life to the place I grew up. I’ve never been there. If I went, would I get off the plane, smell eucalyptus, and feel instantly that my roots had found soil in which they could be happy? Or would I then find that despite my belief that “home” means the right vegetation, “home” truly inheres in something else, something I haven’t yet recognized?

The Art of Losing

I don’t think I’ve mastered it, but I’ve practiced a lot in the past twelve months.

I started with trivial things, like a toenail, and days badly spent.

Losing farther, losing faster—this included my ability to run, and to do other forms of weight-bearing exercise without pain; also chunks of my memory and will.

Though I haven’t lost any places, I lost a person.

There were losses I haven’t blogged about, as well, some relatively trivial, like losing money because, with all the distractions, I didn’t file a travel voucher on time.

Another was more serious: a research project went down the drain because of a paleographical controversy. That one was too depressing to write about, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there was a way to revive the project. A key part of the argument rested on a date that can be questioned. While the more interpretive parts of the study would still work, I don’t want them to be discounted because another part is incorrect. So the project has had to be very thoroughly re-thought. Sort of like a science-fiction transplant of soul into new body: some of the ideas are there, but it looks and sounds very different from the old thing.

Some friends have said, “Don’t worry about it! Run the original idea up the flagpole and see who salutes.” But this is not something I can do, not for a large project. I don’t have time to work on things I don’t completely believe in, just to see if other people will take the bait. In thinking about this project, some of Profacero’s posts have been helpful—like this one, and some others I can’t find right now. Re-thinking a project is not necessarily procrastination; if it is perfectionism, it may be a legitimate drive to do good, correct, reliable work, rather than churn out arguments that may advance a career but will not stand the test of time. Ultimately, it’s the researcher’s job to figure out what the work requires, and if necessary to resist bad advice about forcing things. As I get older, I am more resistant to wasting time in certain ways, and, paradoxically, that means accepting a slower work pace. For me, it’s faster to get something right the first time than to have to re-do a lot of work.

I like and believe in the project as re-formulated. Still I regret the loss of the original version.

So, thinking about the year ahead, it would be nice to have a great year. But I would readily settle for one that just isn’t a disaster.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp

A friend of mine just invited me to go to the Ladies’ Rock Camp with her.

I wish I were the sort of person who would enjoy it. It sounds like the sort of thing that ought to be fun, where the participants would be interesting, creative, weird-in-the-right-sort-of-way people I’d like to get to know. But, actually, I think I’d be a total wet blanket and not have a good time. Too noisy, too many people I don’t know, too much having to be a team with people I don’t know, too likely to involve late nights, and did I mention too noisy?

Maybe some of the interesting, creative, weird-in-the-right-sort-of-way people I’d like to get to know would enjoy a library trip with me? The day would start with yoga at sunrise, then we’d into the library as soon as it opens to stare at 600-year-old pages apparently written by a robin or a sparrow that walked through an ink puddle, and in mid-afternoon (when going cross-eyed) we’d give up and go have a glass of wine in some quiet little cafe, preferably one with a garden.

I’m wildly flattered to have been asked, though. Someone thinks I’m a wild and crazy kind of gal who should go to Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp! How cool is that?

Don’t let the appearance of a new post keep you from commenting on your experiences with writing groups . . .

Writing groups and their uses

Early in the summer, I went to a workshop at school about writing more and publishing faster. About twenty people attended. Participants had the opportunity to sign up for a writing group, facilitated by someone in Faculty Development. Five of us did.

The last time I was in a writing group was in graduate school. Several people in the same field got together regularly to exchange and read chapter drafts, and sometimes conference paper drafts. Our topics ran the gamut from Anglo-Saxon religious literature to Gower’s Confessio Amantis. In other words, we had a fairly good idea of what everyone else was on about, having taken most of the same classes not too long before. We read full chapters, 20-40 pages; we engaged with argument, method, theoretical underpinnings, mistranslations, secondary literature, topic sentences, bibliographical format, and style. We worked each other over good, as Warren Zevon might have said. It was pretty scary, actually, and I was not too sad when the group ceased to meet before my dissertation was finished.

The group I’m in now comprises a disparate batch of people, and there are rules of engagement. What happens in writing group is supposed to stay in writing group, so I will change everyone else’s department; but to give you an idea of the range, let’s say we have an art historian, a psychologist, an economist, and a Sanskrit specialist, as well as myself. The pieces we turn in are to run no more than 10 pages, double-spaced. Each should include a cover letter explaining what we’re trying to do: identification of the piece (introduction to a journal article, a section of a conference paper, general description of a project for a grant proposal), the intended audience, the stage of writing (early, with big-picture concerns; late, focusing on polish), and the questions we have for our group readers.

When we meet, we go around the table and everyone says something they liked about the piece of writing. Then there is a clarification round, where participants ask questions about things they didn’t understand. After that, they try to address the specific questions the writer asked the group to think about. Finally, they give the writer the print-outs they marked up.

This is much less scary than the graduate school group, and useful in very different ways. It’s all very meta. Group meetings impose deadlines, so I have to make visible progress on something when it’s my turn to submit. Getting praise up front makes writing seem like more fun, lower-stakes, something pleasant to continue with. Hearing myself explain elements of a project to sympathetic, intelligent listeners who know very little about my field is very helpful indeed. When I say, “No, that doesn’t matter, here’s the important thing,” I think, “Oh, right, that’s the important thing, lead with it. The rest of that is support, maybe even footnote.” Finally, the marked-up drafts are not (so far) in themselves useful. I’m writing for experts; my ideal audience for the current project includes scholars like Julia Boffey and Ralph Hanna, not people to whom I need to explain the conventions of referring to shelfmarks. What is useful is getting a marked-up page and saying to myself, “Okay, so that didn’t make sense to these people, but would it to another medievalist? Yes, fine then, move on, don’t waste time here.” I wonder if this will change my attitude to the comments that come back from editors. Perhaps it will foster detachment, such that I can look at what Reviewer #1 said, and say to myself, “Okay, clarify that, cite this sooner, and that’s completely irrelevant so don’t get upset about it.”

Practice meeting deadlines, lowering the stakes and making writing an activity I get praised for, talking through an argument, developing a thicker skin: all quite helpful. But this also makes me crave conversation with my peers. I’m still staring at my tables of information about a pair of manuscripts, and I have a writing group deadline in a couple of weeks (though it’s a toss-up whether they’ll get this current project or an application for a Famous-Library Workshop); but I feel like I’m soon going to want some people who know one end of a shelfmark from the other to take a look. Indeed, I have intimations that before too long, I’m actually going to look forward to what Reviewer #1 has to say. And that may be another of the unstated meta-goals of the faculty development people.

I’m curious about other people’s experiences with writing groups. Comments?

Fiendish quizzes

So I recently read The Mysterious Benedict Society, which was good fun, and I’d recommend it if you like kid lit. In it there is an exam whose structure I admired.

It begins, of course, with the instruction to read all the questions before you answer any. It’s multiple choice, fairly long, and opens with complex questions involving arcane knowledge. When you reach question 21, however, some of the arcane terms sound familiar . . . and if you look back at question 1, that question provides the information you need to answer 21, and vice versa.

Sadistically brilliant, I thought; or maybe brilliantly sadistic. I supposed it would not be fair to use such a structure (even reduced in length) for anything but a course on children’s literature in which The Mysterious Benedict Society was required reading. But I was tempted.

Tempted or not, I think my students are safe. I wanted to post some sample questions of inspired sadism, and after an hour of trying to invent a suitable pair, I’m giving up. I think the trick is to have fairly long questions, more along the line of reading comprehension passages than simple multiple-choice questions, and likewise, fairly long answers, so that information can hide in them. Feel free to try your hand at this.

Considering all the complaints I’ve had about quizzes, ambiguous questions, being unreasonable about expecting people to retain obscure details, and so on, I’m rather relieved about my inability to devise a good set of inside-out (so to speak) questions and answers. I may be given to ambiguity, but I’m not naturally sadistic.