Archive for March, 2011

Not much happening here

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Dealing with no water or sewer in the apartment building is not one of the things I would consider to be a good time, but honestly we got lucky. There was no gas leak, though right now they are being careful to not let that happen. (It is a concern, I heard, and one of the reasons why things are moving slowly.) The water didn’t fill our apartment, so we still have a place to live. The bad news is that they have to replace piping, so the timeline is getting longer quicker, partially because the ground is still frozen. At least I have friends around who let me use their shower and bring me water.

But this means I’m spending more time away from the apartment, such as at school and downtown. Right now I’m at the library trying to figure out what exactly I want to focus on with Edith Wharton (so far I’m on a ghost and culture kick) and working on my paper for English 759. I came across this awesome book by accident that I know I have heard of somewhere, maybe on the Barnes and Noble newsfeed or something. It is titled In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the 21st century by Daniel R. Schwarz. The premise is to discuss why the act of reading literature is still an important act for higher education and student learning. It came out in 2008, so it is a recent publication. Everything else on this topic that I have managed to find is late ’90s or earlier. NCTE has some good publications as well, but again most of those are also late ’90s. Still, I know there are more recent ones and I have seen them, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on them long enough to read them. That pretty much is a problem for many graduate students, I think. We see a lot. Unfortunately, we don’t always see it long enough to read it because we are already working on at least two other projects along with our teaching. But considering what I see my professors do, that probably will not end any time soon.

So it goes, as Vonnegut said. He also once mentioned how when things got bad the “shit hit the ceiling fan and spread around the room.” This, I have learned recently, is also a possibility.

But I’m mostly Viking and all Midwestern, so really I can handle anything, right? I believe so. And in most cases I don’t have a choice anyway. It is the same thing with this “Spring” or extended winter or whatever this is. Sure, it is warmer in the sense it isn’t below zero right now, but we still have a fair amount of snow, may still receive more, and the place is like the ice rinks of Mankato, MN. We even had a southern MN inspired thundersnow recently. I just miss the color green. Just a little green and all will be well with the world. Or just about. There is still that problem of humans defining themselves through what they have, students pretending they aren’t really students and so, as teachers, we should all care and take it upon ourselves they have two jobs because that is also the teacher’s fault somehow, and the whole gender inequality thing. All of these things, though, are long stories.


Reflection is a strength in disguise

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

The thing about being the quiet kid is that I spend most of my time in reflection. I even occasionally have trouble falling asleep sometimes because I can’t stop thinking and reflecting. This is not all reflection about myself, though that happens too, but reflection about recent work, situations, how things could be made better, etc. As an introvert, I reflect on everything that happens to me. Thus, I am learning something every day. (With all this time in reflection, it isn’t surprising that Freud mislabeled introverts as “narcissistic” and “self-obsessed.” But most of us aren’t, mind you.)

Yesterday, for instance, I learned about when the job market is strong for candidates for literature faculty positions and when it is strong for positions in comp/rhet. This made me consider ok, what do I want to do (teaching writing, but teaching a literature class every semester would be cool, too) and at what kind of university would I want to work (at this point, I think I’d like the 4/4. I’m good at time management and I enjoy teaching and interacting with students in the classroom and individually). So these things I was told yesterday are still whirling around in my head and making me think about the steps forward I will be making within these upcoming years.

Though reflection gets exhausting because sometimes I would rather just not realize certain things, I still recognize that it is a helpful tool and one that I often encourage in my own students. Not just in teaching them how to make something better (in terms of revision, for instance), but in encouraging them to see themselves as writers. After all, a person cannot really write if they don’t see themselves as a writer in some aspect or another. An example would be that a teacher writes assignment sheets, lesson plans, syllabi, letters of recommendation, emails, etc. We spent the start of this semester talking about what genres they will be writing in their future jobs. We’ll work on job letters, cover letters, and resumes later this semester. But they need to understand how they are writers and really reflect on that idea. And though thinking is not doing, thinking is not a waste of time. Reflection often gears us up for committing to an action. For example, I possibly cannot get a task done if I have not thought about how to do it.

So there is value in reflection. It is important to reflect on your learning just like it is important to reflect on teaching. As a teacher, when I create a lesson plan, I leave a lot of white space so that I can make margin notes and notes at the end about how each activity went. At the top, I often write down how each class period went overall. This helps me see what activities went well and what activities didn’t work as well as they could have. Granted, the next time I teach that topic it may not work as well, but it is still nice to note, at least for me. Of course, I could just be obsessed with taking notes. (Taking notes has always helped me pay attention in class, for instance. Eye contact gets overwhelming for me. I kind of hate getting too much attention.)

This had a much larger point, which was a self-assessment I had to write about my strengths and weaknesses as a group member. The memo I wrote about this was, I think, thoughtful and made me realize how my ability to reflect and keep quiet isn’t a weakness, but a strength, and a strength in disguise. For instance, I think before I speak. I’m also good at going over the potentials in my head and finding solutions to problems. And if I’m asked a difficult question by a professor, I will make an attempt to answer it seriously and not deflect from the question. Finally, I’m a damn good listener and I always apply and learn from whatever valuable information I am told. I have the patience and willingness to listen and I think these are all valuable qualities for any leader.

Group work, introvert style

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Group work as someone who desires time around people and yet quickly tires of that time around them can be challenging. You are dealing with different personalities, and in my most recent case the difference was very striking. In the most recent foray into group work, we all had very different educational and personal backgrounds as well and I really did see how that split us off from each other as much as it also strengthened our final project.

But that really isn’t my point, at least not completely. Yet, I think it does play into how I interacted with the group. When people get challenging for me is when I am most likely to shut down, unless it is a high stakes situation (and this was as we are being graded, quite significantly, on the final product). Another example has happened recently as I was applying for a new apartment. The management there is good, but I can also see where they are challenging. If it wasn’t for the fact I need a place to live and I really liked the apartment, I would have just maybe shut down or not have been as aggressive with them as I have been.

The point is when people get difficult, I either end up a. feeling resentment or bitterness over them/the situation or b. drop out completely. And yet as someone who is pursuing a PhD, I realize I will encounter situations like these a lot. I see it in some of my students, albeit very few (and thankfully so). I see it in people who oversee my work, not only as a teacher, but as a student. And it is always hard for me to keep going. And there are times where i do kind of drift off into the background. For instance, I can vividly recall a recent grant writing meeting where I sat on my laptop and pretended to look busy. (I was working on my part of the presentation, but I really could have done that at another point.) I just needed to get away.

The problem is when I don’t get away, I get sullen and irritated and everyone knows it. Sometimes I don’t even fully realize I am doing it, or at least that is what I think because I have been accused of being “crabby” without realizing it. So when I go away for a moment, it is just so I don’t turn into irritated me. I am saving you all and you should feel happy I knew it was coming, really.

But, of course, people can’t read this stuff well at all. Other people are not mind readers. Then the problem is well, how can I avoid this situation and get them to see the reason why? I could communicate it, but to me it just sounds whiney. “Sorry, guys, I am a little people tired, so I just need to sit here and pretend I am alone for a few minutes.” The better option would be for me just to get up and simply say, “I’ll be back in five.”

And really, that is like the introverts best bet. Just get up and excuse yourself. People will still be there when you get back and perhaps they still haven’t came to any new conclusions. In closing, no one has missed anything. And lots of times, they aren’t even talking about the task at hand anymore. Extroverts are great for small talk and getting to know others and just being great conversationalists. Introverts can be good at this too. Problem is we lack the energy and don’t care that much. Sorry.

Perhaps that sounds harsh, but it isn’t meant to. It is just that in my experience people who are great talkers tend to take longer at completing projects in a group because they want to talk the whole time and that frustrates me. I am one of these people who can sit down and get a fair amount accomplished in a short period of time. I surprised my composition theory professor Dr. Fremo in class a few times because of how quickly I could synthesize information in a meaningful way and create a large amount of text in a short amount of time. (Not stellar work, but it fit what was required of me at that time.) And I think a lot of people at my level of education can do this. For me, I think this happens because of my personality, not necessarily because of my intellect. I’m very focused and I can get a lot done in short order. Other things don’t distract me easily and I don’t want to carry on conversations that aren’t necessary. I have no desire to sit there and talk to you about your day and I’m not really sorry for that.

In short, let’s just get it done and move on.

But I do like people. I do genuinely want to get to know them. I just don’t want to spend too much time with them. And I certainly don’t want to live with them. (Hence why I doubt I will ever get married or have kids. I love my alone time. I can’t live without it. I would stark raving mad if a family was required of me. I’d be the crazy angel in the house.)

This whole entry turned into something a bit different, but it is something I’ve probably been needing to say.

At least it is spring break and I have time to write again.

Reflection on teaching a new class (so far)

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

I have been busy lately and though I’ve had ideas for what to write here, I’ve been a little too busy to do much about it. Along with that, I’ve been trying to be a good girl and keep up with 750 words. (I signed up for the April challenge. Woo.) Anyway,

After mainly teaching first year composition with some variance in teaching online, I’ve recently started teaching upper division classes, which in some ways has been a baptism by fire (but that is ok. I’m stubborn, but I apply life lessons well). Though I miss the excitement/newness many freshmen feel for being in college and learning (yes, you heard that), I genuinely like my 358ers. Sure, some are ready to graduate and get a job (well, I don’t know how ready they really are to get a job, though they say they are. Sometimes I do wonder how that adjustment will be for them where they *have* to be at work or they *don’t* get paid. It will be a whole new scenario there.) But all of the students are knowledgable in their chosen fields and are great and fun critical and creative thinkers.

Since I’m halfway into the semester (upcoming spring break signals that halfway mark, I suppose), I’ve been thinking about how to change this class to make it better. There are some things I do need to change, even for my summer teaching.

  • Cut down the response assignments from four to 3 or 2. Most students do very well in this, but it makes a lot of extra grading, responding, and reading for me. I’m not being lazy, here. With all the other work I have them do, the reading, the writing, the in class work, it gets to be a lot of extra for a graduate instructor. If I didn’t have my own classes, though, I could make it make sense for me. Plus, students aren’t generally thrilled about these, either. Plus, we do in class writing and discussion on the readings as well and these in class exercises go pretty well. It is fun to have discussions with people who actually discuss.
  • Cut The Stranger by Albert Camus and do more with Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Why? Lots of fun genre work can be done here, as Doc Mara smartly pointed out. I had touched on some of this entirely by chance in class lecture and discussion, but had not actually thought it out as well as I should have. I completely see this now.
  • Get a better writing handbook. The best one I’ve seen is Writing Analytically and I think I will order that one for summer and Fall. (and summer book orders are due this week, I think. On Friday, if I’m not mistaken. I’ll get it done.)

I also am thinking of assigning Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and bringing in the film as well for the end of the semester when I teach this again. I do want to teach a novel in this class and I want it to be something the students will like to read. Most didn’t mind Camus, but I don’t think they truly liked it, even though many said they did. I really didn’t believe them. I know that sounds awful, but it is true.

Each semester I think I grow a little as a teacher. I get a little better at it. The hardest part for me is being that hardass in the classroom. I also notice that students like to tell me what I term “human interest stories” a lot because they think I’ll care, since I’m female and supposedly “nurturing” and “emotional.” They learn pretty fast that I’m not that way. On the first day of class I always tell them “I’m the least nurturing female you ever met.” I’ll admit to being encouraging, sometimes to a fault, but that isn’t the same thing as nurturing. They don’t really seem to understand that concept though until later on. But I admire their skill in trying, I really do. (I never tell them that, though. There are certain things you can just never tell them.)

Now I just got to make it through the rest of this week before spring break. Good news is that I feel like a lot of the “big work” is done and now it is just reading and prepping. But of course I am working during spring break. As mom would say, I’m a trooper. Either that or I’m insane.

Not everything should be considered a text

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Last week someone talked about how much she dislikes the word “text” to refer to literature, especially since we call everything else—even a coffee cup—a text where a text is basically anything cultural that can be analyzed. I thought what she said made an important point about our culture and English studies.

While I have no issues with someone spending a whole essay discussing the cultural relevance of a coffee cup (it is your life, not mine), I do wonder if we should be looking at literature and calling any work of imagination a text. Sure, literature is at its simplest form “words on a page,” which can easily designate the text definition. But if the coffee cup is a text and the poem by Robert Hayden is also a text, are we then devaluing literature? Are we telling Robert Hayden he just wrote a bunch of texts and yes, good work, sir? Possibly.

I think this is an important question to ask, especially at this time where literature programs and jobs are not exactly what people are lining up for. (Though I certainly would.) Perhaps we are devaluing literature by defining it as a text one moment, then turning around to discuss how the stop sign at the street corner is also a text. What would other audiences think of that? What kind of message are we sending by doing that?

It is confusing, for sure, and while I have no real answers, I am doing my best not to call literature a text anymore. This is a habit that is hard to change, though, especially after my MA in literature where every professor referred to a work of literature as a text. After a while, you call it that, too. I think back to how my world literature students were confused when I told them to analyze a “text.” They asked me, “you mean a story or poem we read for the class, right?” I said yes and everything was cleared up after that. I’ve had no more questions regarding this once I changed “text” to “any story or poem from this class.” Now, you could also argue I had not defined the word text for them and it was probably vaguely inserted, but in my mind I thought it made perfect sense, just like how it probably does in your mind.

In the end, literature can certainly exist as a text, considering how we define what makes up a text. But I cannot help but be a little concerned about defining the works of authors I greatly admire as simple texts. Literature has taught me how to be a good reader and a good writer. Literature has also helped me experience things I would not have experienced. Defining it as nothing more than a text really does seem to devalue it, at least for me.