Random bullets of November

I’m feeling unimaginative lately, which is why I haven’t posted anything. I’m not even desperately busy; indeed, if I were, I’d probably have more heretical ideas about teaching, or more updating about writing projects, or whines about committee meetings. But we’re just chugging along here. Nonetheless, just to prove I’m still alive in the blogosphere:

  • The Grammarian is a very strange sort of picky eater. He meows piteously for food. I put down a plate with his usual food on it. He stares at it in horrified disbelief and informs me that I am trying to poison him, he can’t eat this slop, he has been miserably betrayed by someone he had trusted to have his best interests at heart, etc. etc. I run my finger through the food, force his mouth open and smear it on his tongue, whereupon he says, “OMG cat fud!!! Why u not SAY so?” and sets to.
  • Why is it so hard to find a financial-advice book that will just answer some simple questions (or at least run through a list of things to think about when considering various situations) without a lot of touchy-feely claptrap? With all due respect to the Grumpy Pair (and that’s quite a lot of respect) and their enjoyment of Your Money or Your Life, I’m quite clear on my values and my risk tolerance, I am very well aware of the costs of my commute, and I don’t want to live in jeans and thrifted clothing making my own bean soup like some damned hippie (grumble grumble), except on maybe one weekend a month, because I do, after all, hail from hippieville and the apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree. Suze Ormond, a recommendation from someone else, also has a lot of “spiritual” blah-blah. I just want to know, hypothetically, how to balance the tax advantages of having a mortgage plus a larger lump sum in the bank against not having a mortgage and having a smaller lump in the bank. Sure, it’s a nice hypothetical problem to have. How do I approach it?
  • In these days of miracle and wonder, the long-distance call and e-mail, it is a complete delight to get a hand-written letter from an old friend. Such a sense of intimacy and connection! It’s enough to make me contemplate sending a few Christmas Solstice cards.
  • One more week of classes. Just three days of actually meeting students. But OMG that means I have to invent a final exam right quick.
  • I am never going to get involved in conference-organizing again. Be it resolved.
  • Writing update: I have now drafted two chapters of the Unexpected Book. Both need work, especially with source material, but the basic argument is in place. I think I am going to use the winter break to try to finish an article (the MMP) that should have been finished a year ago; my library now has a reference work I need, so that should help a bit, except that the library will be closed for a couple of weeks (where are the foreign/broke graduate students supposed to go???). I will need to cannibalize that chapter for a conference paper this spring (and I think I should get at least some of the source material worked into that paper), and I have another conference paper to write, so making this decision makes me a little nervous: I’d rather like to do those things first. OTOH, conference papers don’t have to be as complete or as polished as full articles, and I do have the chapter as a base for the one; so I think I can do those things while teaching, whereas the MMP needs some undiluted thinking time. And it would be so great to get that particular monkey off my back.
  • Now that I mention it, getting the MMP out ASAP is a great idea because if I can get an R&R within six months, I can work on it in the summer while I will have access to the relevant manuscripts. Be it resolved.

Give yourself a holiday

I make papers etc. due after holidays (Thanksgiving, Spring Break), not before. That way I get a break, too. Or at least I can use the time to read and write, rather than grade.

The grading we have always with us, and it can get done while we’re teaching. At the end of term, putting off due dates till after Thanksgiving works even better, because then you don’t have to put detailed comments on anything.

If you really want to game the system, have the “original” due date before the break and then “change” it to after.

I have to grade all afternoon, but after I get this batch done, I’m good for a week. So I’ll be able to write a book review.

More heresy (plus nostalgia)

It seems that for quite a long time (that is, a decade or more) there has been more and more pressure on professors to plan the whole course, day by day, before the semester begins (and put the schedule on Blackboard or similar), so that everybody knows in August that on November 15th we’ll discuss Fitt 3 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and on November 17th a paper is due. Students expect to be able to look up their reading and paper assignments weeks or months in advance; a few super-conscientious and organized people (usually the returning students who are planning their coursework around their kids’ school and sports events) even start work on the papers well in advance.

Such planning can also be useful for professors, who get notably more harried as the semester wears on (Thanksgiving? you mean it’s the end of November already? it was Labor Day about an hour ago). October, we all know, is Exploding Head Month; I don’t know if there’s a name for November (except NaNoWriMo), but you have to figure that the month post-head-explosion can only be messy.

But in Olden Times, whatever long-term advance-planning professors might have done, I sure didn’t know about it. When I was an undergrad, a syllabus listed contact information, required texts, number (and sometimes due dates) of papers and/or exams, and maybe some general goals for the course or a note that it was a pre-requisite for something else. Schedules and assignments might be given as separate hand-outs, later, or maybe just announced in class.

And so, not knowing any better, I wrote syllabi like that when I started teaching, as a grad student. I taught in a writing-across-the-curriculum program that gave grad T.A.’s a great deal of autonomy (excellent training for being a professor). I made up more detailed schedules and assignments that covered 3-5 weeks at a time, and as we got to the end of one such segment, I’d make up a new one. Of course I had a general sense that students would write so many pages during the term and that we’d spend weeks 7-10 (or whatever) on Sir Gawain. But if in the event it turned out that three pages turned into a revision instead of a new paper, and if SGGK got weeks 8-11 so we’d have to read less Malory at the end, well, fine. Who (but me) would know how my plans had changed?

The great thing about that way of teaching, which I continued into my early years on the tenure track, was the ability it gave me to be flexible and responsive. If I found that a large chunk of the class needed work on thesis statements, then we’d work on thesis statements; if they were great with thesis statements but had no idea how to argue against possible objections to their ideas without feeling they were undermining their position, then we’d work on that kind of argumentation. And so on. I liked that. I wasn’t forced by the syllabus into spending time on topics that were unnecessary and boring for most of the class, and if interesting ideas came up in discussion, I could alter our trajectory so that we focused on, say, medieval castle construction instead of clothing, and create paper assignments accordingly.

Many things are much easier with fewer students, of course. Even though classes were bigger at LRU than they were at my graduate institution, I benefited from a reduced load in my first three years, 2-2 instead of 3-2, and so I had fewer students overall than I do now, and could manage this model effectively. Once I added the third course (and there were some years when I taught 3-3, to make the release available to hires who came after me), it got much harder to take stock of where each individual class or section was, three or four times a semester, and change course accordingly. It actually came as something of a revelation to me that I could plan the whole semester in advance and just stick to the plan. If this is Tuesday, it must be Madrid Marie de France.

Students like knowing what will be due when, of course, and I think it makes them feel secure (or something) to know that the professor is organized, has a plan, and will stick to it. But I think better teaching may happen when the plan gets thrown out, or is vague to start with, and the professor can respond to what interests the students and get the whole class to hare off in some unforeseen direction.

This doesn’t seem to fit with my other heretical ideas about more lecturing. But I think what both posts have in common is wanting to be truly student-centered: if what the class wants and needs is more lecture (that is, a stronger framework), then I’m willing to provide that; and if what they need is more short papers with outlining and revision stages, then I’d like to be able to do that; and if I find that they can manage the five-paragraph essay handily but have no idea how to construct a more complex, somewhat longer paper, I’d like to be able to teach that, without feeling locked into a particular structure.

As I write, I notice that I’m emphasizing teaching writing, which was not at all the idea I thought I was starting with. Perhaps I’m still, really, thinking about content vs. skills. It does seem like what students really want in a detailed syllabus is information about written requirements: how many papers, how long, due when, what the papers should do (the “what do you want?” question). I’m reasonably sure that the students are happy to let me decide most if not all of the content issues. But somehow I need to assess what they’re learning, and in an English class I am not willing to give multiple-choice exams to see what facts they can regurgitate about SGGK, and yet if I want papers that don’t make me want to cut my own head off I wind up needing to teach writing skills.

So. I was going to say, heretically, that I want to give up on the detailed syllabus and respond to what my classes need and/or find interesting; that I’d like to have an end goal in mind but not plan the route in detail; that the class should, ideally, be a quest. And I was going to lament that having lots of students, and the kinds of students that we have at LRU (complicated lives, can’t meet outside of class, need to plan library time and writing time well in advance) makes this quest-model rather difficult to put into practice. But if my real topic is still “what sort of writing assignments should I give” or “how to blend content and skills-based teaching,” then I have to start this essay over.

Not right now, though. I shall mull for awhile, and see what further thoughts, orthodox or heretical, occur to me.

Was it something I said?

I am really disturbed by the number of papers that imply that the Wife of Bath is responsible for Jankyn’s violence, that she deserves to be hit, and that she shouldn’t “allow” him to treat her this way. I’m now examining my teaching-conscience, wondering if something I said or the way I presented the Wife’s Prologue prompted such attitudes, or if the students really believe this.

Students should feel free to disagree with me; I don’t want to get pious papers that just parrot my own words or pay lip-service to politically correct notions. The papers I’m complaining about show flaws in logic and insufficient attention to the text. The fact that my skin is crawling over some of the statements (most, though not all, from female students) has nothing to do with the grades they’re getting. I just need to vent, before I go into the classroom and calmly, thoughtfully, make students think about the likely effects of a twenty-something man hitting a forty-something woman over the head.

Grading whine

The only thing worse than papers about the Wife of Bath that treat her as a representative medieval woman who, like all medieval women, is sadly oppressed by her husbands, yet somehow comes up with some modern feminist principles in order to redress the balance: papers that suggest that the domestic violence she endures is all her fault and that she has no business complaining about husband #5 hitting her on the head so hard “that in the floor I lay as I were deed.”

Teaching, heresy, and logic

I’m sure you’ve read, somewhere, a rant against Boring Old University Farts Lecturing In A Monotone and thus Preventing Active Learning.

I must say, even though I took six years to collect an undergraduate degree, and heard a number of lectures while I was doing it (as well as experiencing various other types of classroom activities), I never heard anyone lecture in a monotone. In fact, my only experience with this was very recent. At a conference this fall, I heard someone read from a paper held close to the face, in a monotone, and I thought, “Wow, maybe this is the source of all those rants.” The speaker was quite animated in private conversation; I think the problem was poor eyesight and a laser focus on just getting the paper delivered, without any frills like eye contact or performative speech.

But I digress, as is my wont.

Anyway, according to this pedagogical theory, we university teachers are not supposed to lecture. We must engage our students in active learning, discussion, projects, teaching one another, all learning together. According to this model, the students learn more this way than they could from lecture. Also according to this model, students are independent thinkers, responsible for their own education, able to adjust their approach to their projects in accordance with their own learning styles.

It is not, at the moment, my purpose to critique this theory, though if you want to do so in the comments, or give links to people who have already done so, please do. I just want to note that the theory gives considerable agency to students.

OK. Now you have probably also seen the reports on how professional actors lecturing from a script get better teaching evaluations than the professor with the real expertise in the subject area. Well, of course we all like to be entertained; but doesn’t that experiment show that lectures can be both entertaining and informative? And further: students also report that they prefer lectures from professors—people whose expertise they recognize—rather than working with their peers, who don’t know as much as their professors. Students feel they are paying to learn from experts, not to try to teach each other.

Now, if we grant students agency, if we say that we trust them to know how they learn best and what they need, should we not then take their desire for lively, informative lectures seriously? A good lecture provides a framework for reading and writing (or projects and homework) done outside of class; it’s a starting point, raising questions for students to consider and try to find answers to, or a finishing point, rounding up answers and synthesizing the work that has (one hopes) happened outside of the classroom. Oh, but students don’t really know what’s good for them; we should force them to do the active learning projects etc. because that’s how they’ll learn more . . . . But if they don’t know what’s good for them, why must we then treat them as if they did?

Actually, I have spent my career thus far teaching almost entirely via discussion, with relatively little lecture, or at least, little that’s formally planned. My students have discovered that what they think is a simple question can easily wind me up for a 10-20 minute lecture. I can often predict at what point in the semester someone will ask the question that triggers the lecture on the Black Death, or on medieval demography, or various other topics that I can cover apparently extemporaneously. That is, I want to get those lectures into the class somewhere, but the particular day doesn’t matter; the questions are going to come up, and then I will let my tape unspool.

Such teacher-training as I had emphasized discussion, in part because we were dealing with small (17 or fewer students) classes, where it was easy to make sure everyone was participating, and in a student population where it was easy to devise good discussion questions and ways to get students to prep so that really informative, significant discussion would happen. And there’s nothing so much fun as going in and having a really good talk with smart, interested people about topics that interest all of us. That model worked quite well for me for a long time, even at my current job, where the classes are twice the size and the students are a very different population.

Times change, though, and people change, and students change. I’ve alluded here and in comments on other people’s posts to some of the changes I’ve been noticing this fall. In short: my students are smart, and certainly engaged in their own education (most of them), but definitely lacking in the kind of preparation, and the kind of doing-college skills, that I could expect nearer the beginning of my career. They seem to profit enormously, disproportionately, from lectures that give them a framework for their readings, and they are (many, not all) nearly helpless to even begin constructing such a framework for themselves, as I was expected to do in much of my undergraduate work.

And I remember (digressing again) wishing someone would provide such a framework: even though I was able to build one up for myself, I did, at that stage of my life, feel it might be a waste of my time to do so when I could have got one from a professor and used it as a springboard to get me further into the material. Am I glad I did the frame-building myself, was it useful after all? I don’t know. It’s what happened. It was my formation. I am the thinker, the scholar, the professor I am because of it; but I don’t think it was the best or only way that my education could have proceeded. It’s useful to build your own frames, but it can also be useful to start with a nice sturdy frame someone else has constructed and focus on adding the wallboard and the wiring. I guess it depends on what you think you’re teaching: how to frame a house, or how to finish it?

At any rate, while I think there are places for discussion, and for the kinds of projects that require students to frame and solve problems on their own, I also think that (a) there is a place for lecture, (b) lectures are not in and of themselves boring, (c) if we’re considering students as independent adult thinkers then we should pay attention to what they say they want and value, (d) they say they want and value lecture from their professors, and so (e) I should lecture more.

Besides, I seem to be good at lecturing.



Yesterday I had a conversation with a distinguished senior scholar. When I mentioned one of the projects I’m working on, he said about the area of study it falls into, “It’s hard.” He said this a couple more times about this field, once explaining why there are few people currently working in it, and once more along the lines of lamenting that more people aren’t being trained to go into it.

Every time, I thought, “No, it’s not. It’s easy.”

Finally, when he began to explain what it takes to do this well, the “hard” comments began to make sense to me. As graduate education is normally comprised, this area is interdisciplinary, and so people trained in one department don’t usually have any significant acquaintance with the other one necessary to do this work; and furthermore, the general attitude of scholars in at least one of the disciplines is dismissive about this area.

But I had a checkered undergradate past, and an interdisciplinary graduate education, and so I am in fact very well trained to do this work, besides having a native talent for the underlying skills. So it is easy for me. So easy that it doesn’t really occur to me that not everyone finds it easy and fun, and that really I ought to be focusing my energies here and making a name for myself in this area.

I’m putting it on the list. Once I work through all the various current and sidelined projects, I will turn to this thing that is easy for me.

And because Profacero has sensitized me to the question of whom it serves to say that writing (or anything else) is hard, I am going to try to use this experience to adjust my own way of speaking. Rather than saying “X is hard,” I will prefer “If you have good basic skills in Y and Z, and a talent for Q, then X is easy. And if you haven’t got those basic skills in Y and Z, then you must work at acquiring them.”

Some people will still find this discouraging, but the statement specifies what you need, and so even for those who lack the prerequisites, it may lead to the question “How do I get those skills?” rather than to the thought “oh, it’s hard, I won’t be able to.”

Chaucer syllabus review

Every fall, I have 70 students in Chaucer, and no help with grading. Teaching Chaucer, for me, is not an occasional treat with a small group of enthusiasts, but a constant hard slog of Middle English boot camp with a bunch of draftees, who every year appear to be in worse shape when they start out than the last batch of maggots.

So tonight I have about a dozen web pages and three more PDFs open to different undergraduate Chaucer syllabuses. It’s interesting to see the range of requirements. At Harvard, for example, no papers are required. The grads are supposed to write a paper, and the undergrads may do so, if they want to make up for a skipped exam. But the planned undergrad assessments are exams.

I suppose at Harvard, you can assume that your students already know how to write papers.

There’s a whole group of courses structured around a term paper. For some, it’s really the only significant assessment, though there may be some quizzes along the way, an annotated bibliography here, a rough draft there. Some make a concerted effort to break down the parts of the research paper and teach students how to do it. Others may do this in class, but it doesn’t show up on the syllabus.

A significant minority seem to rely heavily on team/group work, often involving creating webpages or some other sort of visual presentation, alongside more traditional papers and exams.

Another chunk of courses do the little-bit-of-everything approach: some translations, some quizzes, one or two or three shortish papers, or maybe collections of discussion questions, a short annotated bibliography, a longer paper, maybe a final exam. This is what my syllabus used to look like, but it’s a model I want to move away from. It’s confusing. My aim is to simplify.

I’m never really happy with my Chaucer course. There are too many things I want to do, or feel I must do, and it’s hard to set priorities and work out how to teach all the necessary skills alongside teaching the real essential skill, how to read Middle English. Unlike Harvard students, many of mine still have to be taught how to write essays for literature classes. Possibly they knew before they were confronted with Middle English, and what I’m seeing is a reversion of one skillset while they’re in the process of acquiring a new one. But whatever: I’m not so much interested in why I have to be very clear about instructions, model processes in class, give sample papers, and so on, as I am in the fact of having to do it, and how that changes what I can do in class.

A lot of my students also face significant time pressures, because they work (often full-time), have children, or both. I know I’m looking at a school very different from mine when a syllabus says that if a class is cancelled due to weather, they’ll find a time to make it up. That, to me, says “traditional-age undergraduates living on-campus in residence halls.” Chez moi, if we lose a day, it stays lost. Similarly, trying to get people to work in groups outside of class is much, much worse than herding cats. I could herd a troupe of Basement Cat’s demonic little friends more easily than get my students together outside of regularly scheduled class time. Anyway, that’s another thing to take into account when I’m thinking about what I’m going to require, and how much scaffolding it will take.

My students really seem to want, and do better at, lots of short, low-stakes assignments: translations, worksheets, short papers. I’ve seen this in the past (right after sabbatical, when I was feeling fired with idealism, I had my classes do some sort of short paper every week: it was great for them, but nearly killed me), and I’m seeing it now, when I’ve made some mid-course alterations to grant student desires for this sort of thing. After two weeks of students handing in a translation at every course meeting (we go over them in class; I just check them off later), I’m seeing significant improvement in reading comprehension.

Maybe it’s a matter of my own bottom-up way of building research topics, but I don’t think I can teach how to do the research paper on Chaucer. I’d have to break the process down into teensy steps and collect work every week or two, grade it, and then re-grade the whole thing when it came back as a paper at the end of the course. And I believe in “reading around” for awhile before coming up with a topic; I don’t want to assign topics at the beginning of the semester (“bird imagery in tales told by women” or whatever). So I’m not going the research paper route, though I worry a bit about that art dying out: I now have to teach the grad students how to write a term paper, so clearly not everyone is learning that in undergrad any longer.

My primary goal is to get students reading Middle English comfortably. I’d be thrilled if they get through this class and then go read some Chaucer on their own. Not necessarily for fun, but say they take Shakespeare and want to look into Troilus and Criseyde as a source for Troilus and Cressida, and feel okay about reading TC on their own: that would be grand. On top of that, if I can teach (or reinforce) some basic literary analysis skills, that’s good, too.

Thus I’m thinking, in future, lots of translation, some worksheets, and some short papers that focus on the skill of close reading. Oh, and I think I want to go back to memorizing some lines, which I let drop awhile back due to popular demand. But I think it’s important and should come back. Part of my justification for the type of written work is that learning Middle English now seems to be much harder than it was 15 years ago (I blame poor vocabulary, whatever is causing that); part is that close (nay, myopic, the way I work) reading is a useful skill not only for literary scholars but for readers in general, and yet students rarely seem to get much of this in their other classes. There are other things I consider desirable, and I’d like to work out a way to let my top students stretch more than this model would allow, without killing myself grading. But these are the essentials.