More dream; or, Yr doing it rite

I have finished a batch of items to grade (well, comment on, not grade) more than 48 hours before I need to give them back, and I am looking forward to reading the final projects of which these items will form a part. Wonders will never cease. I always say that I love teaching; it’s the grading they pay me for. It’s so discouraging to get papers that suggest I’ve been talking to myself, in which students repeat the same mistakes I’ve marked and explained before, that are full of vague generalities and logical errors. Anyone who collects written assignments knows what I’m talking about (and I expect people who grade mathematics exams and similar assignments have their own collection of moans).

But! I’m teaching paleography. My grad students are doing projects focusing on manuscripts, most of which are in my own school’s Rare Books room. I did not know we had such fascinating material. I mean, I knew the material was there, but I am amazed and delighted at what members of this class have been finding out about what it is, where it came from, who wrote it, what light it throws on the documents’ historical eras, and how it got to this midwestern regional university. This is so cool that I’m doing the Grading Happy Dance in my chair (I didn’t know there was a Grading Happy Dance except for the one you do when you’re done, but I’m inspired here), and thinking about who around the university should get copies of the final papers, or at least a report on the results of this class. The Rare Books librarian is obvious, but I’m sure there should be some publicity about the findings and the importance of teaching apparently weird and obscure topics like paleography.

It makes a difference to teach a topic I truly love, and it clearly makes a difference to the students to work on “real” problems, to find out things that were not known at all (not just unknown to them) before they started. How I wish I could find a way to do this in all of my classes. It would be possible even at the undergraduate level, even in the courses I normally teach; but, with the number of students I have, it would also take enormous amounts of time and energy on my part to guide everyone through this process.

I really admire Belle, but I believe her when she calls her teaching process “exhausting and draining and exhilarating.” And I’m also with Anastasia on people needing to know some basic stuff before they “get to have thoughts or feelings.” The reason my current grads are doing such great work is that they already know stuff: often, stuff I don’t know and couldn’t have taught them. Again, if I were up for the exhausting and draining part, it would be possible to convince many of the underprepared undergraduate researchers that they need to learn the basic stuff for themselves so they can get on with the cool research part . . . but I have tried that, and it really is a huge amount of heavy lifting before you get to the exhilarating phase. Though I regret not having the energy to do this, I really can’t manage it and stay sane and healthy.

Nonetheless, it’s wonderful to have a semester like this one, where I actually am eager to collect projects and see how all the pieces fit together.

Living the dream

When I decided I wanted to be a professor, I imagined that I would teach at some idealized college or university, where I would live near campus in a big house or a fabulously funky apartment and have parties for my students, as in Charles and Squadro’s comments on Notorious, Ph.D.’s post. I’d have on-going relationships with former students, who would keep in touch, or stay in town.

That’s so not how life worked out, of course. Partly because of my two-body situation, partly because I crave big cities, I live far from campus. Most of my students are perfectly nice people, but every now and then a few turn up whom I not only wouldn’t want in my house, I wouldn’t want them to know my address.

But then there are the sisters with whom I had dinner last night. I met the older one ten years ago, and her sister a couple of years later. They’ve been to my house; I’ve hired them as research assistants; one of them, along with her roommate, cooked for me and another colleague once a week for a year or so; one of them is my concert buddy. I hadn’t seen either of them for awhile, and then last night I attended a performance by one, arranged by the other, at the local public library, and then we went out to dinner to catch up.

Introvert that I am, I am sure I could not sustain a SLAC-level of involvement with students, but with these two, I do see what people are talking about when they go on about the delights of following their students’ progress through four years of college. Ten years . . . these women are becoming pillars of their community. I don’t want to give specifics, but they do stuff, organize things, expand their own and other people’s knowledge and experience in enlivening ways. I want to have them come and talk to all my classes: if you like being an English major, these are the things you can do with your love of reading, of history, of books. Whether or not your job is closely involved with books, you can start and attend book groups, suggest a theme for the one you’re already in, do research in local history, perform as an actor or re-enactor, help out your local library, tutor, make a difference in so many ways.

I don’t think I had much to do with making these two what they are. Good students teach themselves, no matter what their instructors are like. But it is so very nice to know them.

Refusing to rush

Last week, I decided (realized?) that a key component in my “procrastination” is rebellion against feeling rushed. I really hate feeling that I’m behind as soon as I get up, or that I have to stick to a tight schedule of work on this, take a break at this point, work on that, go to the gym, work on the other, fix dinner, realize that I haven’t done enough. And that’s how things have been going lately. It’s April, the spring Exploding Head Month.

I’d like to live a leisurely life. And by that I do NOT mean that I want to sleep late and spend my time playing golf and shopping. I like my job. I like my students. I like my writing. I just want to get up, read the paper, have a look at the garden to see what’s coming up, maybe go get coffee, then write. Or write first, and then get coffee, and then grade. To take a break every 15 minutes if I’m restless, or not get up for two hours if I’ve hit a “flow” state.

Work gets done this way. It really does. And it gets done with a lot less stress and anguish.

How many of us, in the current craze for “accountability,” are rushing to prove we work hard and are worth keeping around? How many of us would be more effective with a more leisured approach to work? There’s a reason (more than one, actually) that I didn’t go into the business world. I like to work at home, set my own hours, have a lot of autonomy, and yet not be running my own business with all the responsibility and hassles of a small business owner. Academia suits me very, very well. I recognize that I am very lucky to have the job I have, with tenure. I don’t think that that means I have to work in a way that doesn’t suit my personality and that makes me less effective.

I mean, what if the whole point to life is just to be happy? Try that on for a radical thought. What would you do differently if you were maximizing your happiness points? I bet most of my readers (all five or whatever) would not quit their jobs. But I also bet a lot of you don’t like to feel pressured.

Caring more than they do

I’m grading. Most of the papers aren’t too bad. Students had a choice of three different passages to analyze. Two of the passages account for 95% of the papers. The third, which I thought was the most interesting, and so was really looking forward to reading papers on it, was deeply misunderstood by the 5% of students who addressed it. Deeply. We’re dealing with another work entirely, but the misunderstandings are along the lines of thinking that John is the guy who misdirects a kiss in the MT, and that he did so in hopes of pleasing his young wife, and succeeded.

Te-hee. Not.

Extra credit: write that version of the MT.

Teaching philosophies

I wasn’t going to do this one; I don’t even like memes that much. But when my comment got to two paragraphs, I decided I’d better move it over here.

First, remember that the teaching philosophy statement isn’t just something you have to put in your job applications. You’ll also need one for your tenure file, and if your school does comprehensive third-year reviews, for that file. At least that one can be tailored to a school and colleagues you actually know, and even someone who had little or no teaching experience when going on the market will, by tenure time, have lots of experience and specifics to put in. You meet the students where they are? You’ll probably have a great narrative about how your figured out (the hard way) where they actually are, and how you re-shaped your expectations to get them from there to somewhere closer to where you want them to be. Student-centered teaching? You can talk about the actual activities you’ve used successfully. Teaching courses that actually require a lot of lecture and content-based knowledge? That’s cool, too, especially if you can discuss how you make your lectures dynamic and sensitive to students’ questions and relate them to real-life learning situations.

The main role of the teaching statement, as I know it (and this is my opinion and belongs to me; in no way should I be taken as speaking for my or any other institution), is to check that the writer is not (a) crazy or (b) completely out to lunch about what good teaching requires (I mean, crazy). Are you aware of your audience and the place where you actually teach (or want to teach)? Do you sound like you actually care about teaching and students? If the answer to both is “yes,” it doesn’t matter very much if your statement is a bit wooden, or whether or not you hit the appropriate buzzwords for this year.

I’ve never read a brilliant statement of teaching philosophy, but I have read statements that made me think, “oooh, very bad fit” or “dude, look, we’re not Haahvaahd” or “we can’t afford that kind of technology and no, actually, lots of our students are not so technologically savvy as you’re assuming” or “you know, many of our students are not single white 18-22 year-olds from relatively affluent families, so what are you going to do about the returning students, the veterans, and the single parents?” This sort of failure to consider your audience is a red flag, but doesn’t automatically rule you out of consideration for a job if you still sound like you enjoy teaching and are flexible enough to roll with the classroom punches once they start landing. But if your third-year statement prompts such responses, you may have trouble. Once you’re in a job, you have to find a way to work with what you’ve got.

Now we all snark from time to time. Students are people. Professors are people. Sometimes people are annoying, or clueless, or unprepared. It happens. If you annoy your students, or if you find them clueless, these are things that can be addressed in a statement of teaching philosophy: how did you find out that you were annoying, and how did you fix your [assignments] [grading] [voice] [sarcasm] [expensive texts] (pick one)? What measures did you put in place to ensure that students will prepare for your course? You can get around bad teaching evaluations by showing what you’ve done to address the complaints.

But you have to address them. You have to show that you care about doing a good job, and that you want to improve. That’s the main thing your audience is looking for. You don’t have to be perfect. But don’t sound like you look down on your students, or on teaching.


I’ve forgotten how I got here. I was wandering around the Internet one night, and some link to someone I don’t usually read got me to a mention of this book, which I loved as a child and had completely forgotten about. At least, it may have crossed my mind from time to time, but in shreds utterly devoid of useful information like author or title, as so often happens with books I read in my youth, although if you put me back in my grade school library (as it was then, not as it is now) I could go straight to them. I sort information spatially, and remember how to get to things even if I can’t tell anyone else how to do it.

Anyway! My uni library has a great section of juvenile books, because it took over some elementary/junior high libraries at some point, and keeps adding to them. So I went and checked out Jade after I left my office yesterday, started reading it at dinner, and stayed up past midnight to finish it. It was even better than I remembered it. In brief, a girl in 1719 Virginia refuses to be groomed as a belle, is sent away to live with relatives, releases a cargo of slaves from the ship she’s on and is flogged for it, then rescued by pirate queen Anne Bonney. It ends hopefully if not wholly happily (clearly Jade is going to come to a bad if glorious end sooner rather than later, but she’ll go down fighting slavers; Anne Bonney marries a nice doctor and seems to succumb to pregnancy hormones . . . maybe she’ll get feisty again once the children are in school).

I checked out only the one book, because I . . . really . . . must . . . grade . . . must . . . but I am looking forward to reading not only the other Watson books I remember but also ones my elementary school library didn’t have. Highly recommend, people! If you don’t have to grade, or you need fun procrastination material, check out Sally Watson.

Another one bites the dust

Women of a certain age (and other scholars) have been leaving us right and left lately: Liz Taylor, Geraldine Ferraro, and now Sara Ruddick. I am not a philosopher; in fact, if phrenology were a science, there would be a large hole in my head wherever the bump for philosophy ought to be. The only work of Ruddick’s I ever read was the essay collection Working it Out. But that book was so important to me that it is still on my shelves, though I can’t remember the last time I handled it. It’s at the office, not at home, so I am working from memory today.

I acquired a copy while I was still in college in the 1980s. Not for a class; it must have come from a used book store, of which there were many in town. The essays by women, many of them academics, who had struggled to claim lives that included work and the rest of what they wanted, whether or not that included children, travel, a partner of either sex, inspired me as I was trying to work out what I wanted in my life and how to get it. That book said to me, There are options. It said, You can do things if you figure out how. It said, Yes, there will be challenges because you are a woman, but your sex doesn’t define your relationship to work.

Without having the book to hand, I can’t remember many specifics about its contents. I think I recall a scientist’s essay about her lab work, and I know I had the sensation, reading it, that I could try on various lives: what would it be like to be a writer, an artist, a scientist, a mother who was devoted to something other than child-rearing, Girl Scouts, and the PTA? At the beginning of each essay was a picture of its writer, usually in some characteristic place or pose, and I remember poring over those for clues to what the adult life I wanted might look like. Reading it was the same sort of pleasure that reading blogs is, now: the chance to discover other possibilities, and that others face similar obstacles, and can advise on how to overcome them.

The essay that over many years meant the most to me, the one that I do remember by author, is by Virginia Valian, about solving a work problem, that is, getting oneself to start working (writing) when one has not been working. The author lived with a man who suggested starting by working for three hours. Three hours! The very thought triggered an anxiety attack. Two hours! The very thought . . . . But she could cope with 15 minutes, so she set a timer for 15 minutes, and when she was comfortable with that, added another 15-minute session, and so on. (I found that there is a PDF of this article available, at…/1977workingItOut.pdf; there’s also a table of contents, so now I’m thinking, “Wow, how did I forget that Alice Walker was in here? And Tillie Olsen?” But anyway . . . )

Now we’re all familiar with such techniques, but this (in the 1980s, remember) was the first time I had seen anybody address both the specifics of what you needed to do and the larger context of anxiety and expectations that make it so difficult to tackle some projects. What do you do when you know you “have it in you” but can’t figure out where to start? Valian had always thought of herself as someone who would become Someone, but getting down to brass tacks was harder. She wanted to get away from the fantasies of what could happen, and focus on the enjoyability of work for its own sake.

I’m going to re-read the essay now that I’ve found it, but I treasure my memories of it, as well, however vague or imprecise they may be. It was useful in college, in grad school, pre-tenure. The whole book was a treasure, at least to my college self, and I want to pay tribute to the woman who co-edited it and thereby showed a lot of women what might be.


One of my forthcoming pieces is about a set of verses I have spent five years tracking through various manuscript collections, including some very tattered assemblages of loose sheets with odd notations. Among them I discovered some tantalizing stanzas. Though I have not found anything quite like them elsewhere, I am tempted to try my hand at finishing the ballad they appear to belong to:

The dame called her scriveyn near,
and said the gome vntil,
“Use yr best yr fairest hand
to write my lord this bille.”

He wroot it with the quill of goose,
he wroot with quill of swanne;
ever the lady shook her head
& said sche wd haue nane.

He wroot it in the light of moon,
he wroot in light of sunne;
ever the lady shook her head
& said again he mun.

He took in hand a quill of doue,
and wroot in lettres fine;
again the lady shook her head
& [indecipherable] line.

At last he laid his ink aside,
& dropped his weary head.
& then there came a little man
dressed in green and red.

“What will ye gie me, Thomas True,
what will ye gie for mine,
if I write this bille for you
in letters true and fine?”