Not Hill Town

Now that the visit to grad school town is over, I’m on the opposite coast.  It’s beautiful here.  As I said to Sir John when we were talking about the last trip, people are always going to irritate me, so the physical environment really matters to me.  Here we have bougainvillea, oleander, eucalyptus, and jacaranda, so I am very happy.  We also have foofy drinks and good food.

You know how some people wake up at cock-crow, and some at sparrow-fart?  I’m conditioned to get up at Glendower-chirp.  (Yes, he’s a cat, but he chirps.  Maybe it’s a prrrp, but I call it chirping.)  So even without Glendower, I was awake at dawn this morning, and since Queen Joan and Lady Maud are not so extreme in their habits, I applied myself to writing and staring at photographs of a manuscript for three hours.  This is supposed to be my vacation, but what I really want is just not to work on service or teaching.  Writing is grand.

I’m still processing the visit to Hill Town, though.  It was good to see people, but I was very glad to leave, and that surprised me, because I loved being there for graduate school.  But graduate school has a time limit built in; you know you won’t be there forever, and you can feel nostalgic for the place before you even leave, just knowing that it is temporary.

I like hills, but I like being able to see long distances, too.  California hills tend to provide a big view: a bay, the ocean, the Central Valley.  Climbing the hills of Hill Town just reveals . . . more ranges of hills.  Better the flat midwest, where I can feel the space opening around me.

Also, I love cities.  There are lots of people living there who seem to feel that when you are tired of Hill Town, you are tired of life.  Those people are hard for me to take.  When I say “city,” I mean a minimum of 750,000.  I am so glad I got a job that lets me live on the fringes of a really big city, even at the price of my commute.

And these are just the fairly superficial things that trip pointed out to me.  I’ll do another post soon about job-related thoughts.

Teaching grads, 4: distant past, recent past, future?

It’s a truism that we learn to teach from our teachers; but since I now teach a different subject from my undergraduate major, my own education didn’t help much when it came to teaching undergrads. I learned to teach at that level by trial and error, watching and asking colleagues, reading other people’s syllabi, going to conferences, and, of course, from books.

I relied much more on my graduate education to teach me how to teach graduate students (and I will reiterate here that I’m talking about teaching courses, and especially intro/MA level courses, not so much advanced seminars, and definitely not about advising dissertators, which is another whole ball of wax). When I first started teaching, either because Things Were Different In the Old Days, or by luck of the draw, this worked pretty well. Particularly in my first few years of teaching, it happened that a large number of my students were older women, often teachers themselves, who were highly motivated, organized, and professional in their approach to classwork. They took notes in class, did all the assigned reading and the recommended readings, and came prepared to talk. Their years in high school or community college classrooms meant, among other things, that it didn’t occur to them to be afraid to speak in front of a group; that they were accustomed to analyzing literature not only for themselves but also so as to make it comprehensible to others; and that they grasped the necessity of starting research projects fairly early in the semester. Whenever I had a class with a core of students like this, they set the bar for the others, who mostly stepped up to the plate. Oh, of course there were some screw-ups, and in my second year teaching I had a really woefully underprepared and hostile class that I still remember with a shudder (and no doubt the same goes for them), but by and large, I felt that I didn’t have to do a lot of teaching in my grad classes. I prepared for them as I would have prepared as a grad student, by doing all the reading and being ready to talk. We all knew what a term paper was; most of us understood what was meant by “a presentation.”

So much for ancient history. Over time, the graduate student population has changed. I get fewer and fewer of these older students (some of whom had three or four years of Latin in high school) who have a lot of life experience, including experience teaching, and more and more students in their twenties, who are coming straight from a BA or with no more than a couple years in the work force, generally spent in retail or in low-level office jobs they hated. They like to read, and think this means graduate school is a good idea.

Well, certainly you shouldn’t go to grad school in English if you don’t like to read . . . but “like” is a bit mild. If you’re obsessed with reading, with reading criticism and history and theory as well as primary texts, then graduate school may be a good idea.

At any rate, this means I have to do a lot more teaching: how to read in the way expected of graduate students, how to organize your reading, how to skim, how to write a two-page “position paper” or “response paper,” how to write a summary of a critical article or book, how to write an annotated bibliography, what goes into a good presentation on a critical article or book, how to do a close reading, what I mean by “term paper,” the difference between between term paper and conference paper, how to write an abstract. All this on top of teaching Middle English and the necessary literary and historical content and context.

You might think that a lot of this should have happened in undergraduate education. Well, fine, maybe it should have; but the situation on the ground is that either it didn’t, or it didn’t stick. And this is why I feel that I need to re-think my approach to teaching graduate students, at least the ones that I’m getting these days. Somehow I need to meet them where they are, while nonetheless making clear where the bar is, and what they have to do to clear it. If I don’t question my assumptions and expectations, my default position is still that students will know what I mean by “a 15-20 page term paper,” etc., and that I can get on with teaching them how to read Middle English, how to understand Chaucer’s poetry in its literary and historical context, and how to assess the range of critical responses to Chaucer’s poetry and prose. That’s what I want to do; that’s what I think I really ought to be doing. But I can’t do that job if too many people are unprepared to learn at that level.

For several years, I’ve tried making some assignments clearly, definitely relevant to my students’ current or future professional lives. For example, I assign the preparation of a lesson plan for a unit on Chaucer, at the level of their choice (high school, in a lower-division survey course, whatever). What will they need to convey? How much behind-the-scenes reading will they need to do to prepare? This works well for people with teaching experience, not so well for those without it. I have also explicitly taught the conference paper, from abstract to delivery. We have a mini-conference at the end of the semester (spread over two meetings), and students deliver 15-minute papers. I grade both the written work and the presentation. A lot of students have told me they appreciate this training. Here again, though, I think it’s better to learn how to do the conference paper after you have already learned to write the 15-20 page research paper.

So when Dr Virago writes about the importance of research papers for undergraduates (see also here), I have to applaud. But I still haven’t adopted that model for my own classes. And I worry that that means I’m part of the problem. I hope that my colleagues—who aren’t teaching in what is for many students essentially a foreign language—are assigning research papers. But what if they aren’t? Then I have to pick up that task in MA courses, apparently.

This is what I want to have happen in graduate courses: vigorous discussion, applying critical insights to literature, thinking about literature in historical context, paying attention to word choice and patterns in the text itself, students talking to each other, as much or more than to me. I want informal presentations that stay on topic and help generate discussion (5 minutes on why you found a critical article important/ useful; a close reading of a passage either assigned or chosen from the text). I want students to learn to recognize and develop good questions: here’s a topic that cannot easily be answered, has a lot of possible approaches, would be good as a paper topic. I hope they will apply work from other classes: how does something you read or did in another class help to make sense of something we’re doing here? And vice versa: what are you doing here that illuminates something else you’re studying?

But the question is how to get there from where we seem to be starting, these days.

Teaching grads, 3: Explanations

I was hoping for more comments on the last post, but if y’all aren’t going to discuss, that’s okay; I can lecture.

When I was a student, my cohort and I were good at reading subtexts. Many of my students are not. And yet, if I’m very direct about certain kinds of instruction, this can be read as bossy, bitchy, rude. I suppose a lot has to do with tone of voice and body language. And I think being direct is usually better than indirect direction. But sometimes I would prefer to put a page of translations and explanations in the syllabus, something like this:

If I say, “Of course you know,” or “Let me remind you,” I mean I expect you don’t know, but you should, and I am going to fill in some information so we can all pretend you knew this all along. Listen carefully, so you can keep up your end of the pretense.

If I say, “You might want to look at [Source],” this means “Go to the library and look up [Source].” Similarly, “You really should look at [Source]” indicates that I’m surprised you haven’t done this already and you had better find [Source] ASAP.

Just because I have a sense of humor doesn’t mean I’m an easy grader. Just because we find the same things funny doesn’t mean I will cut you any slack on your research.

I don’t always know things you ask me in class. I will go and look them up, and answer your question next time. I will not put imprecise information on handouts or other formal documents (like things I’m trying to publish). Similarly, you should look up information you don’t know, and and avoid imprecision and generalizations in formal documents (like your written work for class).

Comments on “translations” you would use or need? Class?

Teaching grads, 2: for students, before you start

There are certain things I expect graduate students to know, and abilities I expect them to have, before they take a course on a medieval topic. Often I identify these expectations by my shock at the absence of this knowledge in some students.

Basic historical knowledge: that the Middle Ages are “middle” because they come after the Classical period and before the Renaissance. That the Renaissance refers to more than a change in artistic styles (and that it encompasses that artistic change, as well). That the Protestant Reformation occurred in the sixteenth century, so Chaucer and his friends wrote well before it. That the printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, so, as above. That England was (and remains) a monarchy, but not an absolute one: see Magna Carta. That there was a Norman Invasion, and that Chaucer (and Shakespeare) did not write in Old English. (I’m willing to explain that, at length, to undergraduates; but in grad school, you should know better.)

Basic ability to read and discuss poetry: the vocabulary of meter, stress, rhyme, enjambment, metaphor, metonymy, simile, imagery, and so on; the ability to follow complex syntax.

Bibliography and research: it really would be best to take our intro course on these topics before you get to my class. You should not rely solely on either on-line or hard copy sources. You should realize that there’s something wrong with a bibliography all of whose items pre-date 1980 or post-date 1998 (unless of course your project is something like “The Manciple’s Tale in criticism from 1920-1965″—and even then, you had better be prepared to explain your date limitations with reference to what happened before and after that period). Figure out how to order material from inter-library loan; don’t ignore good sources just because they’re not in LRU’s library. Bibliographies should be complete: not just everything on very narrow topic, but read around that topic as well (i.e., if you’re looking at nightingales in Chaucer, you should consider also birds or even animals in Chaucer, and nightingales in other medieval literature).

Writing ability: You should be able to write coherent, grammatical English. You should know the difference between “lay” and “lie.” (I have given up on this in conversational contexts, but at least in writing I want the distinction upheld.) Proofread, proofread, proofread. Turn off that damned auto-correct feature and actually pay attention to what you are writing. When you’re done, read what you have written. Aloud, if necessary. Does it make sense? Is it tolerably concise and free of repetition?

Intellectual curiosity: if you’re even considering going to graduate school in the humanities, you should like to learn for the sake of learning. It’s not as if a degree in English is a path to riches. I expect a certain joy in getting things right, in pursuing truth, in tracking down references, in being thorough. I have little patience with the slapdash, lick-and-a-promise approach. (See above about bibliography.)

I’m sure there are other expectations lurking in my mind. I may not be aware of them until the next time they’re violated. So in an effort to ferret out some more of them, I ask you, gentle readers: what do you / would you expect of graduate students?

To be continued.

Teaching grads, 1: defining the problems

Inspired partly by recent posts by Notorious and Bardiac, I plan a series of posts (not sure how many) about teaching graduate students. This is based, of course, on my own experience at a Large Regional University in the United States; if you are at any other kind of institution, your mileage may vary.

A bit more about the LRU program: we grant both MA and PhD. Some students plan to do a terminal MA; some plan to use the MA as a springboard into a PhD program at LRU or elsewhere; some are accepted straight into the PhD program from undergrad; others have done an MA elsewhere. Our MA program allows students a lot of flexibility. The PhD program requires courses in all the usual periods and areas. The rationale is that MA students are more likely to want the degree for personal enrichment or to move up the pay scale in high school teaching, whereas the PhD is likely to get hired (if at all) at a small college where s/he will have to be a generalist.

We also get non-degree students, usually people who are considering enrolling for a degree but are trying to decide if they really want to. Sometimes they are people who have one or more degrees in more or less distant fields from English who are trying to figure out if they can or want to switch fields. The department’s admission standards do not apply to these students. They pay their money to the university and can take a certain number of courses before they have to enroll in a program.

In the past three years, I have taught three graduate courses. Most often I get one per semester, but I was on leave all of 2008-09, and the year before that the undergraduate program claimed greater needs. So it is possible that nostalgia for the classes d’antan is affecting me; or that since I was off-campus for a year, the student grapevine forgot to warn people about me. Either way, my more recent experiences with teaching MA level classes have caused me some dismay. As Warren Zevon might have put it, “the shit that used to work, well, it don’t work now.”

One of the biggest problems, for me, is the range of backgrounds and abilities in these classes, from advanced PhD students to students straight out of undergrad to students who haven’t taken a class in several years. Some are medieval buffs; others are scared of the weird language. Some are bright but scattered: they are interested and curious but don’t know how to do research. Others are perfectly competent researchers, but are taking the class to satisfy a requirement, and do not demonstrate any particular curiosity about medieval literature. Some are delighted to be back in the classroom. Others find that they are woefully underprepared. Some write well (or at least competently); others are not performing at the graduate level.

So I need to think anew about what I expect of my students: what I expect when they come into my classroom, what I expect them to learn while there, what I expect them to do on papers, in the library, and in the classroom. I also need to think about what I expect of myself: what do I owe my students? How much remedial work can or should I do, at the graduate level? To what extent does “upholding standards” mean teaching as if to specialists? To what extent does it mean providing advanced instruction to people whose main interests lie well outside the Middle Ages? It’s not just a matter of being a gate-keeper and stopping those who are unprepared. There’s also the problem of making the classroom experience worthwhile for more advanced students, when a significant number of their fellow-students are at a different level. These are similar questions to those I regularly consider in undergrad classes. But I see a wider range of abilities in the grad classes than in the undergrad classes, and I think the stakes are higher in the grad classes.

To be continued.

More fun with recommendation letters

I mentioned awhile ago that a couple of students e-mailed me to ask about letters and failed to respond to my questions about their intentions. Well, one got a promotion at work (congratulations!) and was very busy for awhile, but finally did give me a lot of useful information . . . which led to another round of questions from me. In some ways, it would be easier to have these conversations in my office, in real time, but the former student is working some distance away, it’s summer now, and last spring I was on leave, so e-mail keeps us both from having to make a long trek to campus. But it certainly leads to delays in gathering the information I’ll need to write the eventual letter.

Still, this ex-student (well, not ex, just pining for the fiords) at least started the process well in advance, so everything should work out fine.

Then there’s the e-mail I got from our graduate school yesterday, saying that Ashley Brooke Carruthers has put my name down as a recommender for ABC on an application for graduate school, and would I upload or mail my letter.

Mmm, no. The name Ashley Brooke Carruthers rings no bells at all, under any permutation or likely nickname. Perhaps the e-mail was sent in error. The graduate school meant to write to Eliazar Hill, not Eleanor Hull; or ABC chose me from a pull-down menu and made the same mistake.

Perhaps I have forgotten teaching this student: at ~125 students per year, in the past five years (seems unlikely someone from further back would be asking for a letter) I’ve taught 625 people, give or take a few. I expect there are people who are good at names and faces who can remember every individual out of 600, but I’m not one of them.

I’m sure this online submission business makes things easier for many people. Paperless office and all that. And if a professor has agreed to write a letter and delays doing so, it’s easier for the grad school to automate e-mail requests that the prof get on the stick than for the poor neglected student to have to keep checking with the grad school and then contacting the professor, worrying all the while that this will irritate the prof and the letter will reflect this. (NB: I’m pretty prompt about letters, partly because I often get asked at the last minute; and if the professor really has stalled then you are within your rights to ask that the letter get done so your application will be in on time; and if the professor thinks well enough of you to agree to write the letter, not only will the letter not reflect irritation, guilt may make it even more positive.)

But since I’ve heard from colleagues about similar e-mails from the grad school regarding students they do remember–but who have not talked to them about plans for graduate school–I’m wondering if these online submissions send the wrong message to students. Do they suggest that you can avoid the anxiety-ridden visit to a professor by simply appointing someone to write letters for you?

A letter of recommendation doesn’t just report on your grades, which of course I can find if I know what course you took with me, in what semester of what year. The forms also ask for my assessment of such characteristics as “intellectual maturity,” “emotional maturity,” “facility with oral expression,” “potential as a teacher,” and other elements that are difficult to gauge from written work. See, if you’re going to graduate school in English, you’re very likely to be planning on teaching; this means dealing with other people, not just with books and papers. And I sympathize with shy people who love books and papers, I really do. But graduate admissions committees want to know if you are able to speak up and address a group of people; they want to know if you can play well with others; also they’re interested in how motivated you are, whether you do all the recommended reading as well as the assigned reading. Can you handle the grad school work load?

So it helps if you come and talk to me . . . preferably while you’re still in my class. It gives me a better sense of who you are. If it’s too late for that, come talk to me now. Remind me of who you were when you took the class, tell me if there were circumstances that kept you from doing your best or participating fully, demonstrate that you are mature, curious, and motivated. The group work you hated? Maybe now you realize that it taught you about getting things done with a group of people only some of whom were fully on board with a project. The oral reports you feared? Yes, well, if you’re teaching you’ll have to do one every day (unless you assign group work, or show a movie). What has made it possible for you to talk to a group of people, now?

When I write a letter of recommendation, I’m not just recommending a transcript or giving details of what you learned in my class. I’m recommending a person. People change a lot during and immediately after their undergraduate years. If you weren’t the best student, if you had some sort of problem that kept you from doing your best work, if you’ve only recently figured out what you really want to do, that doesn’t mean I won’t write you a letter. Sometimes the problems and the process of self-discovery make people better candidates.

So I need to know who you are.