Monday, April 30, 2007

The Year of the Overserviced Junior Professor

Right between the year of the rat and the year of the dog...

OK, so those years aren't even near one another, and the academic year doesn't correspond with the Chinese year, so whatever, but...

It's my second year here and I'm already doing waaayyy too much service:
  • The T&P committee,
  • A search committee,
  • The PhD qualifying exam committee,
  • The College scholarship committee (which just had me holed up in a windowless room for 12 hours in the last 2 weeks, the same ones with 30 student conferences),
  • A focus group on childcare at the university,
  • The department faculty research prize committee
  • PLUS a bunch of piddling little "being around the department" stuff that some colleagues think fulfills their obligation to service.
And I said no to one or two things, including advising the grad student association and serving on an undergrad curriculum task force, both of which I would've liked to be a part of very much.

I know I'm being whiny here, since I know many of my readers are also contributing more than their share to their department cultures. The thing is, I believe in the culture of the department, of supporting the work we do as a body of faculty. And so I will very very likely continue to do too much service, which, as long as my research productivity is solid and my teaching is sound, will earn lots of thanks you's and a few cursory "you're doing too much" nods.
So the question is: When I really really want to say yes, to be on that committee, to help shape and support the life of the department or the college, when do we say "no?" and how?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Just checking...

Wouldn't you think that in a course that covers two centuries of material, and the assignment contains the statement, "Choose 2 texts, at least one from the twentieth century" that the other text should probably also be from the class in question?

And if you wanted to choose a text not from the course (or even written within 200 years of the earliest text), wouldn't you likely clear it with the professor first?

'Cause I would. But not everyone does, I guess.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Moby Dave

I'm guessing that comparative minority of my readers also read Brookings fellow and football fan Gregg Easterbrook's column on ESPN, "Tuesday Morning Quarterback." And while, yes, most of it is snarky, superior second guessing (hence the name), the column also moves fairly far afield of the gridiron, usually into some other arena where Easterbrook can exercise his trademark know-it-all bluster.

Really, I love reading this column, because alongside ridicule of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, and really quite sincere praise of polite sportsmanlike behavior, you get items like this:

In 1995, yours truly published a book on environmental policy called "A Moment on the Earth." Sen. John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry have just published a book on environmental policy called "This Moment on Earth." OK, titles cannot be copyrighted; anyone is free to sell a book called "Gone With the Wind." (The 2001 legal controversy regarding the book "The Wind Done Gone" concerned not the title but similarities of plot and characters; under some circumstances, plot and characters can be copyrighted.) Seriously, can Sen. Kerry claim never to have heard of my book "A Moment on the Earth"? It was, after all, a New York Times and American Library Association "Notable Book of the Year" in the same topic he's writing about. Anyway, let's assume this was an honest mistake by a United States senator and a rich woman whose names are often attached to material they have barely glanced at. Here are other works of literature being written by John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry:

"The Reasonably Good Gatsby"
"For Whom the Bell Rings"
"To Kill a Magpie"
"Much Ado About Relatively Little"
"The Bridge Over the River Kennebec"
"The DiMaggio Code"
"War and Pizza"

Also, John and Teresa will record a jazz track titled "Take Six" and a rock-and-roll song titled, "(I Can't Get Nothing) Satisfactory."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Today was the department's annual awards luncheon, for which I was told I should be present to be recognized for the summer fellowship I was awarded a couple of weeks ago. So hey, free lunch right?

The final award of the day is the Sigma Tau Delta Outstanding Teacher Award, which is always a surprise: it's the only award not printed in the program beforehand. So imagine my shock when it was me!

Apparently, according to a faculty member at another table, my students believe I could "make a brick 8:30 in the morning."

While I've been teaching now for almost 9 years, this is only my second year here at this institution, and so as you might imagine, I am completely floored. I've been smiling ear-to-ear for 45 minutes straight.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

(Academic) Freedom and (Campus) Security

Circulating now in the miasma of the Blacksburg massacres is the writing of the student gunman, writing that was flagged by a creative writing professor as a potential warning sign. There are now a number of interviews with Lucinda Roy, head of the Creative Writing program at Tech, and now, The New York Times has a link to the text of two of the plays the gunman submitted to a workshop.

In the early days after such events, I hesitate to jump too quickly to crass questions of the "But how will this affect ME" variety. However, in the midst of and following the grieving process, I am worried about the kinds of classroom policing that this will engender. After Columbine came the scrutiny of shock rock, violent films, and first-person-shooter video games; it's not difficult, then, to imagine a scenario when "disturbing" student writing comes under the same scrutiny.

Particularly, I am concerned that student work (or indeed any artistic work) that seeks to represent violence and to explore human depravity is going to become first and foremost a signifier of pathology, and that we as readers of student writing will be asked to serve as student surveillance. Soon it will be harder and harder to say "This work comments on a sick world" and not, "This student is a sicko."

I recognize that there are any number of fine lines that will be drawn and redrawn in this discussion, but I imagine that we will need to be vigilant early and for a long time about the roles that we are asked to play in "ensuring security."

For the moment, I am trying hard to concentrate on supporting those who mourn. But I cannot help but think about the battles--about academic freedom, about secure campuses, about student creativity--whose lines are already being drawn.

In Sympathy

In moments like this, the massacre not so far away, it is difficult not to translate the madness into our own terms: I wonder what this will mean to me?

I want to resist that impulse, and grieve in small ways for those who feel the grief most acutely, and for those who can no longer feel grief.

Our institution is not far from VT, and is similar in many way, and many of my students chose this university instead of tech, and I'm guessing a fair number of VT students thought about this place, too. One of my colleagues did his MA there, and his father is still faculty there. I've talked about it in my classes, where my students know people in Blacksburg, where they silently (or not) wonder whether such a thing could happen here.

The answer of course, is yes.

But in moments when I don't have to attend to the immediate anxieties of my students, and when I can put my own aside, I try, silently, to mourn on terms that aren't my own: for the poor student whose pain caused so much more, for those whose lives he took, for their families, for their friends, for the circles and circles that ripple outward until they reach my shores.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Public Radio After Party

For Willow's birthday last evening, I took her to the recording of a fairly widely distributed public radio show that is sometimes recorded here. The headlining artist was one we both like, and the tickets were affordable.

The show started at 7:30, but it took us a bit to get out the door, so we arrived midway through one of the last few artists' sets, and settled in. The show was nice (though nothing earth-shattering), and over (as befitting a taping of a public radio program) soon after 10 pm, so we decided to go have a drink.

Now, in our town, there are generally limited bar choices: college bars predominate, and those that aren't dollar-pitcher places are themselves often over-crowded with anxious local grown-ups. So, often we find ourselves retiring to the bar at the one nice local hotel.

When we got there, the bartender asked us if we had our program tickets, and I thought he meant our actual tickets. We soon found out that this was the location of the after-party for the show.

While the headliner didn't show up, many of the smaller, more local acts did, as did the host, some crew, and some folks obviously connected to the host. It was about as raucous as you'd expect for an after-party for a public radio program. I never once had to raise my voice for Willow to hear me. It was, in fact, one of the few times I've ended up in such a scenario when I didn't feel the urge to chat up the talent. I don't know if it's a sign that I'm no longer starstruck, or that the wattage was fairly dim.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Traveling with Students

In the flurry (fury?) of activity following my return from London, I’ve not been able to post nearly as many of my promised posts as I’d hoped, and yet they’re all still in the back of my mind. The one post that I really did want to get up here, though, was one on the general dynamics of traveling with students.

I’ve not processed my entire thinking about the trip by any means, and I imagine that I may be working on this post over a few days, so forgive me if my thoughts ramble.

On an earlier post, TR commented that I was "a complete hero" to take on something like this, and while I secretly (or not-so-secretly) adore the fact that some of these students think of me as more than just a regular professor, I can’t deny that this trip, with these students, was incredibly rewarding for me. Some of the reasons why.

Learning from my students: In my statement of teaching philosophy (which I need to revisit before long), I insist that the classroom must be a space in which all parties are open to learning, student and professor alike. But let’s be honest, finding ways in which we learn from our students, especially in lower level courses or courses in our areas of specialty, is often grasping at straws. Sure, a student will occasionally ask an intriguing question sometimes, but usually the subject matter is bound by the course description, limited time, and the professor’s expertise.

In London, there was a lot of time to spare, and a lot less stricture on appropriate topics, so several students at different times felt free to talk about the things they know about, which in some ways was not unexpected, but in some ways was incredibly surprising. I spent a great deal of time with the one male student on the trip, Nick, who is has an activist’s sensibility on a pretty politically apathetic campus. We discussed his interest in Marxism, his reading of Chomsky and of radical historian Howard Zinn, with whose work I am only passingly familiar, and his thoughts on the usefulness of counter-culture in a hyper-corporate age. (I might note that Zinn himself, recounting his involvement in the Civil Rights movement while a professor a Spelman, called them “the most interesting, exciting, most educational years for me. I learned more from my students than my students learned from me." Right on.) As interested as I am in resistant politics, my reading in those areas is only cursory, and Nick, as a sophomore, is already reading deeply and thoughtfully on them. I was thrilled to watch him engage in open thoughtful political discussion (not diatribe) with anyone who wanted—me, fellow students, even our surprisingly game tour guide).

But I learned more than just this. I learned about how a college student deals with the death of a parent, I learned about antiquing, I learned about how open-minded students can be towards things they don’t understand (despite our usual inklings to the contrary). I learned a great deal about the town I’ve been living in for less than two years. I learned a little about music (both technique and trends), about the milieu of the university beyond my department, about what students think of me and my colleagues (more on that below).

Constant teaching: So my nightmares about this trip involved New Scotland Yard, hospitals, and frantic phone calls, none of which came true. My less intense anxieties were about students taking too much advantage of the night life of a big city, and similarly, this wasn’t an issue at all. In fact, if anything, my students stuck closer to me than I thought they would, and sometimes closer than I would’ve liked.

That said, while I would’ve liked for my first trip to London to be with Willow—we are well-matched as travel partners—traveling with only students was a nice second choice. As much as I badly missed my family, and am considering trying to bring them on a future such trip, I never felt that I was compromising one party for the other, that my time with Willow or the kids was suffering because of my obligations to my students, or that my ability to be a fantastic teacher on this trip was diluted by the allure of time with the family.

No, here I was teaching almost constantly, in some way or another. Of course there were the obvious ways—talking about the plays we were seeing, explaining (and re-explaining) the paper assignment on tourism, cultural capital and the culture industry, or giving background information on Virginia Woolf while we walked through Bloomsbury, or the writers buried in Poet’s Corner.

But there were other ways too—talking with Nick was really a two way street, and as we walked out of the National Portrait Gallery, I went on a ramble about the strange and contradictory, self-congratulatory cultural work being done there (you know, the standard monarchy worship, a tribute to the fashion industry, an exhibit on the faces of abolitionism and civil rights, a collections of visitors to London from around the globe, etc.). And while Nick has as sharp a critical mind as any 20-year-old I know, he said something like “That’s why I wanted to come here with you—I never would’ve put all of that together myself.” Now first of all, that’s just nice to hear, but it’s also important to hear, to be reminded how much stock students put in my words…no they’re not blank slates, but they soak stuff up like sponges before they start to digest, and accept or reject ideas.

The discussions I had following the production of Attempts on her Life were particularly fascinating. The play itself is something of a fragmentary, sometimes ironic, sometimes deadly serious, wide-ranging critique of what John Kenneth Galbraith has termed “The Culture of Contentment.” Every one of our group was a target of satire in the play, as tourists, as Americans, as middle-class consumers, as aspiring intellectuals. The play was really hard to find accessible for most of the students, but I left the theatre literally giddy—I have mentioned before and will repeat that this was an incredibly exciting theatre experience for me. So I talked through with them what I thought the play was doing, I talked through what I thought the value was of theatre that was baffling to much of its audience. Importantly, I was reminded over and over again what I’ve lost as a professional student of the theatre, which is an ability take in with an open mind material whose ideas I find troubling, or whose form I find unappealing (or more likely, uninspiring)—again, talk of teaching returns to what I learned.

The fact that these conversation took places in cabs, in museums, on the underground (another subject which I found myself teaching intensely: subway etiquette and survival), over a drink, at lunch, and not in a classroom, somehow made this all the more rewarding. These students were engaging this material on their own terms, as they wanted to—they were asking me questions on the fly, rather than shuffling in morosely at 8:30 every Tuesday, and there was no pressure to fill space with this stuff, when talk of Harrod’s or Fortum’s or Hamley’s or our hotel, or whatever was equally available.

Now, I know I like the sound of my own voice, and oftentimes my tactic was to assume an absurdly false arrogance to hide how much this attention was actually inflating my ego. But the amount and nature of the constant casual pedagogy was exciting and rewarding enough to me to last me a long long time.

Being a human in front of the students: One of the plays we saw, Alan Bennet’s The History Boys (a terrible play which has received a great deal of praise), featured a quote that went something like this: “One of the hardest things for students is to learn that their teachers are human, and one of the hardest thing for teachers is not to show them.” Bullshit.

OK, so in my most self-critical moments, I believe I have issues with professor student boundaries. No I’ve never done anything that amounts to unethical—never crossed that all important physical line, stayed generally out of the way of their personal lives, etc. But I do have this persistent, low-level desire to be their friend. Now again, I’ve never done anything that crosses boundaries, and I’m pretty clear to them that being a friendly teacher doesn’t mean I give all A’s (a knowing nod to TR’s provocative recent post on the subject is due).

But in London, I regularly crossed lines I don’t usually cross at home. I cursed casually. I discussed politics without real regard for the touchy issue of respecting the differences of the classroom—which is to say I disagreed openly when I heard a political position I didn’t like, and agreed openly when I heard those I did like. I occasionally shared a drink or two with students. I talked about my personal life, and while I didn’t reveal anything deep or dark, I talked about bad break-ups and good relationships as I would with friends.

The weirdest part, and one I’m still not sure about, was the degree to which the students wanted to talk about my colleagues in front of me. I heard who they loved, who they hated, why they found people intimidating, why they found people easy. It was like eavesdropping on a really undiluted RateMyProfessors conversation. Whenever possible, I tried to defend those I knew to be fine faculty members, or say, “I don’t know that person very well.” I didn’t however, do a very good job of saying, “I really shouldn’t be here for this conversation,” or “This makes me a biiiit uncomfortable.” Judge me if you will.

The point is, I spent a lot of my time functioning with my students as a human, not as a professor, and they seemed to spend a lot of time functioning around me as regular people, and not students. Not surprisingly, I found I really liked most of them, and didn’t dislike any of them. And I think most of them liked me, as a person.

Still all of this adds up to the following acknowledgment: I didn’t act very professional on this trip, and I’m not sure that’s a terrible thing. I acted like a person, and for the most part, I think it meant that I had a great trip in London while my students had a great trip in London. I doubt I will duplicate the same kind of all-hang-out mentality with future groups, and I really don’t think I damaged anyone or my rapport with anyone. But that nagging doubt remains.

(Cue sweeping violin music.)

That nagging doubt, of course, is overshadowed by the overall sense that this was a fantastic trip, and if I am in any way a hero to these students, they are kinda heroes to me too.

Friday, April 13, 2007


I've heard tell that a major university today appointed a new president. Not the candidate endorsed by a 90% vote from the faculty senate. The one whose name is actually an anagram for "Scholar Migraine."

Also today one of the younger faculty members of that institution came home to realize that the weekend of his wife's birthday may in fact be consumed by tending one (and one hopes not two) three-year-old, who seems to have recently invented the term "sick-up."

It's just a story, though, about Friday the 13th. Cruellest month and all.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Raining, Pouring

It's no longer freezing cold, but the April showers have set in, and so its pouring outside.

And when it rains it pours, not just in terms of the erratic weather, but in terms of my workload:
Two batches of paper last Thursday, Two batches of exams today, one batch of papers on Tuesday, and then a break before three batches of long papers in the week of finals. Fun!

Plus, though a unch of my service obligations seem to have wound up for the school year, a few more linger, popping up at precisely the worst moment, so I've got around 80 scholarship applications to review in the next 10 days (note paper grading obligations above), and a qualifying exam to review.

What was that about research? Oh yes. That'll have to wait a bit.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What would The Byrds Say?

Or King Solomon, or anyone who has ever thought that there is a season for compassion and a season for strictness.

A purely hypothetical situation:

A student is clearly having some issues--attendance has gone from perfect most of the semester to spotty, even dreadful since break. When said student does appear, s/he looks dreadful--not poorly kempt, just beaten down.

The problem is, the student has been dishonest--you know, in the fiddling with margins and fonts kind of way that's totally transparent, and the "dog ate my homework/email is broken" sort of way that's harder to prove but no less visible to the naked eye.

The student had tried to schedule an appointment with me today, but we crossed paths--the purported topic of the meeting was a need for a pep talk. In an email, the existence (though not specifics) of tragic events are confessed, the imminence of graduation is referenced, the possibility of a sobfest is forewarned.

What the student doesn't know: the big margin/big font paper failed, and I've found multiple pieces of evidence of the mendacity of the broken email excuse. With the current average, and without a penalty for the mendacious excuse, the student will not successfully pass the class (though it would be close). Because the student did not know this information, I am not reading the earlier email as manipulative.

There's a third exam tomorrow, and big final paper due in three weeks.

Though I know, and can more or less prove that the student has been lying to get a long extension, I think I'm going to grade the work that was (eventually) turned in. But I want a confession, partially because I don't like being lied to, and partially because I don't want the student to believe the ruse worked.

I also believe that the possibility of passing this class relies on getting some extra help from me, which I fear may, in terms of the amount of effort I'm willing to expend, may be partially contingent on the student coming clean.

I fear all sorts of things about this purely hypothetical situation--that I'm being an ass, that I'm being a pushover, that I'm being selfish, that I'm being compassionate, that I'm being vindictive, that I'm being manipulated, that I'm not being even-handed, that I'm being generous. All of these things are available, but few of them align for me in a clear course of action. Especially after the lingering embarrassment of a couple of days ago.

Perspective anyone?

The Cruellest Month

is still somehow less cruel because I repeatedly get to say the word "Starnbergersee" without sounding nuts.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


This has only happened once before, and I recognized the truth much earlier, so as to be much less exposed.

Today, I all but accused a student of plagiarism who I am now convinced did not plagiarize.

It was as fishy as a koi pond, to be sure...because I am experimenting with not maintaining an attendance policy, the student had not attended a class except to take an exam since early February. He had access to decent notes from a friend, and so did well on them, but had only gotten the assignment two days before the paper was due, then chose to write on the longest text we had yet studied, for which he was entirely absent.

The paper I received wasn't, but the kicker--it had the wrong course number in the header, a course number not offered at this university. A little googling revealed a university course at another institution for which this assignment would've been entirely appropriate and I thought I had him.

I have confronted many many plagiarists in my time, and even the most hardened liars have a pretty clear tell when they've been caught. This guys was either cool as ice, or clueless--he legitimately thought that this was the course number for the class--I know, because I asked him, and he looked at me as if I were crazy and gave the same wrong answer as on his paper. I then asked him to forward me a copy of the paper, which the MS Word properties clearly indicated had been started at 7pm the night before it was due, and printed 6 1/2 hours later.

And if the student was smart enough to fix the properties of the document, he'd be smart enough to catch the course number.

The other piece of evidence I was relying upon? He labeled it "Final paper," which it wasn't. It was only paper #1. As I pulled out the assignment sheet to show him, there it was, on the top of the page, my own handout: "Final Paper Assignment."

Mud in my eye.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Early Returns

So yes, I pulled papers that I though might be problematic on first glance, and moved them to the top of the pile, but after 6 papers from this first batch, I have 2 Fs, 2 Ds, a C-minus, and a plagiarized paper.

Here's hoping I pulled all of the problem papers!

ETA: After 4 more papers, add another D, another F, and two B range papers (finally!) Sadly, I don't think I'm done with the D/F papers...

ETA, again: Halfway through the batch and the average grade is still only a high D. Uggh. Fortunately, I think the next paper on the stack'll be an A

Hung Like a Horse

When it came out in the early 70s, Equus was pretty cool. Though it was hardly the most avant-garde piece of theatre available, it brought a lot of very interesting avant-garde theatre tactics to the mainstream, taking huge risks, drawing on several different sorts of Japanese theatre, working with masks, creating a sense of ritual, exhibiting a (comparative) freedom with staging sexual bodies, etc. It was a sort of middle-browed avant-garde, but to my mind, a fairly compelling version, borne out of the cultural moment of its production.

However, the playwright, Peter Shaffer, made an interesting choice in the way he chose to publish his play. Instead of keeping his text to a minimum, and preserving the same sort of openness that the first director was able to bring to that exciting theatrical moment, Shaffer scripted in virtually all of the design and directing choices of that first production, which has meant, effectively, that most subsequent productions have been little more than mere mimicry, an homage to a very alive theatrical moment that is now over thirty years past.

In some ways, this scenario is the perfect one for young Daniel Radcliffe's stage debut, a scenario whose theatricality is almost a repetitive as film, whose actorly risk is tempered by three decades of success, and where the primary theatrical excitement is a sort of celebritized spectacle crafted for a big, ornate West End performance space.

Don't get me wrong, Radcliffe is actually pretty good, especially if you can get past his "petulant face" which he exhibits in every Harry Potter film. You know the one, body stiff, leaning slightly forward, arms ramrod straight down his sides, ending in balled up fists, a hard little anger on his face. It's how he started the performance I saw, but it was better than Richard Griffiths' slow start (for such a seasoned stage vet, I was surprised to see that it took the entire first act for Griffiths to develop enough pacing on his lines to sound like he wasn't still learning them).

But most in the audience weren't there for the acting, or the theatricality, or the spectacle of technically slick theatre. Most were there for what my students lovingly called "Harry Potter's junk." To illustrate. The class I went with included ten young ladies and one young man, all hetero to my knowledge. My ticket was several seats away from theirs, and I sat between, on one side, a teenage girl and her doting parents, and on the other, two college age American women. Over 50% in attendance were probably women between the ages of 15 and 30. In the first act, when Alan Strang (you know, the character played by Radcliffe) first acts out the events that form the crisis of the play, he narrates taking his clothes off, and does indeed take off his shirt. The psychiatrists ask, "You took off all of your clothes?" and everyone in that damn theatre held their breath and leaned forward. Oh I was no exception, except that I noticed it as it happened, and then remembered quickly that the full frontal is not until the second act.

That second act was better theatre all around--Radcliffe had fewer opportunities for Petulant Face, and Griffiths hits his stride. Joanna Christie, who plays Jill Mason, Strang's love interest, was a compelling presence as well, and she has more stage time. And of course, the climactic scene, with Strang and Mason trying to consummate their relationship, sustained real dramatic tension, which was almost certainly heightened by the stifled glee of hundreds of young ladies checking out that seventeen-year-old body.

To give the goods: One of my students who brought opera glasses says that the tackle in question is perfectly acceptable, but that the bottom is the main draw. For 17, he is in great physical shape. I was personally surprised that any hetero seventeen-year-old (no matter how professional and/or jaded), naked and in that close proximity to an attractive naked woman (part of the scene involves the couple at the threshhold of genital intercourse) could stifle an erection, but good for him, I guess.

Here's the thing. I had hoped that the theatrical excitement of the original production would have held some force here in this hyped production thirty years later, but all I could think of as I watched that young actor working so hard on stage, completely in the buff was, "He's got to be cold." Because for all its roots in a collaborative, commmunal kind of theatrical event, this production of Equus, with its dry-ice effects, its cavernous proscenium space, its fancy lighting gimmicks, and its careerist celebrity star felt, well, cold.

I'm thinking about an article about middle-browing the avant garde with this play (both the original and this most recent productions), and so I've got a more thinking to do about it, but for now, my take on it was that it was a highly, even surprisingly, competent theatrical piece, a slicked up, somewhat dehumanized and rote version of a play that once stood for the best in mainstream theatrical creativity.

Monday, April 02, 2007

London Pics

So here is a quick preview of the pics of London, available on my personal Flickr site...If you want to know the address, leave a comment or drop me an email, and I'll send you to the site (which reveals my super-secret identity!)