Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Extra! Extra! Recent light blogging gives way to future light blogging!

I'm too busy for even this post, but I want to blog about so many things:

  • The amazing class I had before thanksgiving break on Sarah Kane's brutal play, Blasted
  • The batch of papers in my drama class, which are fun, funky, and funny, not always intentionally
  • Some stuff about conferences and being depressed about career trajectories
  • A promised post about how different publication venues are valued differently
  • Some posts on being on a job search committee, including the timing problem and the problem of a humane rejection letter
  • How I'm working hard not to gain back weight, but not hard enough
  • College football mania
  • All I want for Christmas.
Perhaps you can write these posts for me, email me these posts, and I will post them as my own! Buwahahahaha!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Conference Post-Mortem: (mostly just the high points)

As I mentioned a day or two ago, this was the first time I had attended this conference, and my anxiety about circulating around the outside of the conference were in part justified. I had a hard time finding my way into this conference. I spent a fair amount of time lurking on the edges of congregations, looking for a friendly face, and since most of the faces were of complete strangers, that was difficult. And because I’m not fantastic about simply introducing myself to people, that remained true for much of the weekend.

There were high points, though.

  • I ran into and shared one lovely friend from grad school who is doing very well for herself. She is, unlike me, astonishingly good at just getting in there and meeting people. I want to take her example more in the ways that I continue to position myself as an emerging scholar in this field, and that means A) coming back to this and perhaps one or two other conferences on a highly regular basis in order to become more of a known quantity, and B) being bolder about making connections at these things when I am here.
  • On Friday evening, Grad School Friend and I went to a reception for emerging scholars, where I was approached by a long-time reader of this blog (Hi Jenny!) who knew me from my older space where I used my real name. So she actually sought me out to say hello, which was so nice, and really made my day. We had a great conversation, in part about her fun and exciting work. I hope we’ll be able to meet back up when I visit her city for a conference in May.
  • Based largely on the model of my grad school friend, at the awards luncheon, I made what I think was a good decision: faced with the likelihood that I wouldn’t get to sit with anyone I knew, I located someone I wanted to know (fairly prominent in the field, and working on and teaching in one of my core areas), and she was great. She gave me her card and I’ve already followed up. I’m optimistic that this might be a productive connection for us both in the future.
  • While the actual seminar I participated in tended to go in a different direction than my smaller break-out group went, the discussion in the break out group was extraordinary. It completely helped me crystallize a major issue I had been having in this paper. And then the one question asked of me directly in the session helped me crystallize another.
  • In fact, these two moments, followed by a brief but very encouraging conversation with the seminar convener sent me back to the computer: I wrote until 1 am, producing 8 pages of new notes and prose toward an article length version of this paper. I am quite excited about it, and hope I’ll be able to finish off a draft over winter break (I'll give you a hint: it has to do with this shocking news).

So five high points over basically two conference days. While it was hardly the best conference experience ever, it was productive, and there were signs that it might be more productive with frequent returns.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Assessing the Humanities

With the increasing cost of running a university, and public funding streams increasingly drying up, the drive for efficiency and entrepeneurship is accelerating at rates that I find alarming. Universities are more and more getting into bed with corporations (though the myth of a university separate from the capitalist marketplace is only ever a myth), such that academic production is inextricably linked to the military-industrial complex, and is often explicitly part of that complex.

Whatever we may say about academia as a haven for liberals, systemically it is no less part of the systems of global capital than Chase Corp or Northrop Grumman. So let's be clear about the realities of academia: it’s hardly the ivory tower of pure intellectual discourse that we sometimes romanticize it to be.

So with all that Military Industrial Machine business swirling about our hallowed halls, it is no wonder that we daily observe, and as frequently lament the corporatization of the university, an institution that feels like it shouldn’t be corporatized.

All that said, my (and perhaps your) experience of a humanities education has given me the very tools I might use to locate such systems of discourse of capital, power, and hegemony. My humanities education sometimes seems like the last hope I have personally of feeling like nothing more than a cog in an economic machine (with a shout out to Sisyphus, who at least acknowledges her status as an Academic Cog).

And so, it seems like protecting the humanities is like protecting what is for me, the only available ground from which to build resistance, which sounds a lot more militaristic than I wish it did, and yet sometimes those seem to be the only metaphors available (thanks Lakoff!).

And so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the discourse of efficiency, of high performance, even technological performance, saturates the messier and (it seems to me) more humane discourses of the arts and the humanities, particularly in the space of the classroom.

And lately, this has shown up in administrative drives for assessment. Administrators, donors, corporate sponsors, government funding agencies, they all want data that says we’re doing a good job. The Bush Administration like to call it accountability, and we know where that has gotten us in primary and secondary education. But the drive to assess academic endeavors is essentially a drive to hold academic accountable.

Now, I’m not against being accountable in theory. I believe I do good work in the classroom and in my writing, and I want my colleagues across the university and across the profession to serve their students well, too. But the questions of assessment and accountability necessarily invoke the questions of what is being assessed, how it is being measured, to whom we are accountable, and to what ends that accountability serves.

I’m sure you, in your department, have been doing some assessment—and if not, you likely will soon. I’m now on my second committee at my second position where assessment has been part of a major discussion. And I’m in my second discussion about what purpose assessment serves.

In theory, I think assessment should be formative; that is, at its best, when we study ourselves closely, when we assess our work for ourselves, we should use it to improve what we do (a drive for better performance nonetheless; but that’s hard to argue against in practice). And so I always find myself wanting to do the kinds of assessment that are messy, that yield results that are complex and multifaceted, results that try to get at the complexities of the classroom and at the complexities of the kind of thinking we ask our students to do.

I often feel my colleagues (to greater and lesser extents) groan at this suggestion, for they know, as I do, that this is Not A Good Idea, and Will Not Fly With Administration. Because administration doesn’t really want us to tackle the complex vectors of teaching critical thinking or the nuanced space of the classroom.

They want numbers that make us look good. They want to report high performance, since in this regime, money follows high performance, and low performance (even with no actual transgression) is met with cuts to program funding, and eventually elimination of whole departments, disciplines, modes of thought: Just look at the state of Classics, once the core of a humanities education, now an endangered species.

And so our conversations inevitably turn to What We Can Assess, or rather, what measurements we can make of our activities that will look good enough to administrators that they will reward us with our new budget.

This is where it gets dangerous, because the kind of rhetorical summative assessment usually ends up assessing What Can Be Assessed: grades, concrete goals, objectives with observable results, things that can be quantified on a uniform scale.

Do you see the problems? Independent thinking, while sure, technically measurable, I guess, is not really a Thing That Can Be Assessed. Critical Analysis? Questioning Assumptions? Creativity? Contribution to a discourse community? Not so much the assessable. Hardly even measurable.

And so, because we can’t easily assess those goals, the things that for many of us, actually mark good thinking from our students. We may continue to push for them in the way we set up our lessons plans, in the way we reward students with higher grades, and the way we respond to their writing. But these are contingent responses, merely temporary and individual ways that we re-affirm our actual commitment to the humane work of the humanities. And the contingent, the humane, and the individual rarely if ever make into assessment rubrics.

What does make it into assessment rubrics? I am not an expert on the whole range of tactics that have been used in humanities assessment, but my sense is that even the most sensitive of them end up using quantitative scales that enshrine either actual grades on student work or on whole semesters, or else some numerical scale that looks at individual skills and makes judgments based on numerical evaluations.

The things that get assessed then are either so broad as to be meaningless (grade distributions on required classes), completely circular (the same: we assess ourselves based on our assessments), so local as to lose the big picture (One assessment activity I saw proposed actually wanted to measure students’ writing performance based on numbers of surface grammatical mistakes), or so uniform as to completely elide individuality.

But what, might you ask, is the harm in measuring, say, individual skills, or broad swaths of grade breakdowns? Especially if it’s being used solely for rhetorical purposes to distribute to donors and other purse-string holders?

Because it’s never used for just that: Because when we say we’re going to assess something, we often adjust our pedagogy to emphasize that element. Sometimes we write it into the goals and objectives statements for the course or for the entire department. (Really: we had an argument over whether we should say our objective for students was “apply a range of interpretive strategies to texts” vs. simply “apply interpretive strategies to texts” because no single assessment could track “range”). We revisit those assessments in department meetings, and via emails that report our assessment results. We end up, ultimately, dwelling more on the assessable and less on the humane (I’m using this word overly broadly, but I’ll let it remain a placeholder).

Let’s say that we as a department decide that we want to measure students’ knowledge of key literary terms. The knowledge of these terms is if not crucial, then at least beneficial to excellent literary study, we say, and we want our students to know them. OK. Fine.

How do we assess it? Well, let’s build in a unit in the gateway course. Fine. Let’s assess it by giving a uniform exam in all sections of the gateway. Great. Then we’ll know how much students have learned about key literary terms.

Already, the knowledge of literary terms has been taken out of the slow accretion of a student’s lexicon over semesters: she may learn “interstitial” in one class, “epistemology” in another, “Synecdoche” in a third. Now, though, she’s cramming them into three weeks of her freshman year, memorizing them on notecards, divorces from their application in actual texts. And then, some faculty whose students do less well on the vocabulary test start giving that unit four weeks, at the expense, of say, scansion, or and introduction to feminist theory, or critical race studies, or one-on-one paper conferences. In this system, not only are students getting short shrift out of what could have otherwise been weeks of more nuanced classroom experience, but they’re also likely to forget many of the terms that they probably never really learned how to use anyway.

OK, so let’s give the exam at the end of the course of study: we all know where this is going. Students have no incentive to prepare or privilege an assessment instrument that uses a range of key literary terms, and so they blow it off, don’t study for it, and give us results that neither tell us how well we’re doing nor tell the administration that we’re doing great, thanks!

So, what? we decide to make passing that exam mandatory? We make it an exit exam upon which the degree is contingent? Of course not: no self-respecting English department is going to rest the award of a degree on passing a vocabulary test.

Obviously, this example is over-determined, but the kinds of assessment instruments that get designed still boil our very complex subject matters down into digestible measurable bits, bits that when we decide to measure them stop being observable in their natural habitat (is that Schroedinger’s Cat? Or the Heisenberg Principle? I can never remember), bits that get distorted out of proportion and minimize in their shadows the unmeasurable work that we all say we want to foster in the humanities classroom.

And to design and implement an assessment instrument that would, somehow, take that into account would demand so much work from so many people, that the hours and energies that went into assessing on a grand scale that it will take away from our research, our writing, our preparing for new classes.

Listen, I assess my teaching every semester, and more often: on this blog, in annual reports, in post-mortem notes for future semesters. I can take into account things in these ways, and get feedback on them, that invigorate my teaching, that help me serve better my students in every class. But I’m not putting a vocabulary test in my syllabus. My students are much better off using those weeks reading something new, engaging their ideas, and maybe even having a big idea of their own.

(ETA: Jason Jones has a thought-provoking essay in IHE that gives me much to consider as I continue to think through these issues. So as you read and consider this, please read and consider what Jason has to say as well. If anything happens, I hope to revisit this post soon with some "what to do" ruminations.)

A New Conference

I arrived last night in Phoenix for the American Society for Theatre Research Conference, one I've often been told is a good one, both rigorous and collegial, but which I've never attended.

I generally like conferences, but I hate conferences where I know no one. I hate the lonely milling about while others cluster in twos and threes, reiginiting connections that go back to grad school or to conferences past. I hate the eating alone. I hate the gaps between sessions while others convivially share pastries and coffee. I hate the moment of nonrecognition after tag scanning happens (which reminds me, this conference is going the no-institutional-affiliation route, as a kind of egalitarian move, as if "New Haven, CT" doesn't speak volumes...Ugh).

I know, I've made conference buddies before, and I really enjoy that connection, but the milling about beforehand, that odd circling to look purposeful that reminds me of being dateless at middle school dances, that drives me nuts. We're in between sessions on lunch break right now. I'm going to grab a bagel and eat while reading a book.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Up Too Late

When the day started at 6, it looked like it was going to be a wash: Willow was heading out of town for a day and a half, and Imperia was clearly going to be home sick. The child, darling as she is, is not particularly good at giving her parents space, or entertaining herself, or napping. I figured it would be a nice, calm day playing with ponies, and not accomplishing much else.

But while the day did include some pony-playing, it also included a clean kitchen, five loads of laundry, a graded batch of quizzes, a full proposal for writing-intensive status for a course I teach, research into the London spring theatre season, and a complete re-formatting (MLA to Chicago) of the essay I just pulled.

Of course, I'm up past midnight, and the girl-child will probably be up and chipper at 6 (her 3-hour nap seems to have been the turning point for the little Virus she was harboring). So off to bed...

Friday, November 09, 2007

On Engaging Exciting Work and Running out of Time

I've just finished the first two chapters of Jon McKenzie's 2001 Perform or Else, a performance theory text that transcends the field and, in my mind, is perhaps the most exciting thing I've read since grad school.

The book argues essentially that in the late 20th and 21st centuries, performance has replaced the notion of discipline of the 18th and 19th centuries as the onto-historical knowledge regime that most drives western culture. I'd go into it more, but I have a feeling that I'd simply end up quoting most of the first 20 pages. So suffice it to say that if you're doing any work on postmodern culture, you must read this book.

What is frustrating about it is that right now, it only tangentially touches upon the work I'm doing, and while the gears were turning at full speed as I read, there was a warning sign going off the whole time: You don't have time for this! You don't have time for this!

Of course, that's part of the whole argument, that the shift to maximum performance (as opposed to minimum misbehavior) as a measure of social complicity and use value, has us measuring everything in terms of a technological efficiency, including knowledge production. I'm working on a longer post on university assessment initiatives in the humanities, and this strikes me as deeply inflecting that drive,. I am unsettled by the demands for efficiency and productivity placed on our scholarship, demands that seem to me to actually inhibit the kind of thoughtful critical reflection we require.

This manifests in the amount of scholarship we are asked to produce in the early part of our careers, the amount of reading and production we demand from graduate students in a short time (and the amount demanded of new PhDs to be competitive on the job market), or even the comparative difficulty of doing the work needed to even stay abreast of our fields, like, say, carefully reading difficult but exciting criticism, while still maintaining our teaching and our service.

I'm currently wading through applications for our search, one that garnered over 100 applications. We asked for writing samples up front, and I'm trying to read them all, to give them their due, which is turning out to be nigh on impossible. This is a problem on many fronts. One, each sample was sent in good faith, and should be read in good faith. Moreover, I want to read all of this writing, much of which is magnificent. I'm coming to believe that being on this search committee is giving me a better education in the field than a graduate course would've, but an education I have to complete quickly. This may be a selfish complaint in the face of the 100 applicants who want this position, but it's ALL symptomatic of the demands for efficiency and the sacrifice of critical thought and reflection.

I don't talk much about my blogging IRL...indeed, I'm often vaguely ashamed to admit that I read academic blogs. It's an inefficient enterprise at best, though no doubt a valuable one. I can't help but think that the regime of performance as a metric for social value, while often a site for transgression and resistance, is also one that stunts the very promise of academic life. This argument will certainly invite criticism from those who say "Well, that's how we do it in the real world, so suck it up." So therefore I'll amend to assert that the regime of performance also stunts the very promise of any life.

Anyway, read McKenzie's book. It's brilliant and important.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Testing my Publishing Kharma

The gods will surely hate me for this one...but things are not as bad as they look. I hope.

In my department, we have the remarkably humane minimum tenure requirement: absent a book, four major articles. Thus far, I have one in print, one in press, and now, with the edition under contract, a co-authored introduction and a major stand-alone essay there, too. So, I'm well on my way, given that my critical year is still three years off, and there's plenty of writing in process, including the book project.

There is, however, another essay. It's one of which I'm quite fond. It is an essay submitted for a collection that was accepted last fall. I was a little wary of it, until I found out that my advisor was also contributing something for the collection, even though it was from a new press.

Now, the new press is not one of those almost vanity presses (yet) and claims to have a serious external review process, but it was, until recently, an unknown quantity. But I figured that a publication is a publication (yeah right...I can hear you wincing now).

Since then, I found out that the advisor soon withdrew his contribution, partially because it was solicited for something significantly more visible, and partially because of the dubiousness of the press. But I figured that this wasn't pure damnation for the thing.

But this fall, as I've been reviewing candidate files, I've noticed a handful of freshly minted PhD's sporting advance contracts with this very press. And their samples are wretched. absolutely wretched. In one case it would not have earned an A in one of my graduate courses. The other was not significantly better, either. So the press is looking now like a stinker.

My chair says, after I consulted him on this, that such a pub wouldn't hurt me necessarily, but if this essay were a lynchpin for my file it might not hold up. And if I felt it was a strong essay, that I should be prepared that no one would read it. The essay would essentially be an invisible line on the cv.

On the other hand, the collection is nearing a late stage, and I feel bad pulling the essay at this late date. And even though I know that this publishing scenario is not an ideal one, it still feels unsettling to pull an essay from the "in" column to the "under submission" column.

I haven't made the final decision yet, but I'm 90% sure I'm pulling the essay and putting it back into circulation, and hoping that instant kharma is in fact a superstition.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

3-2-1 Contract

Just received word that the collection I'm editing has been offered a publishing contract. I am super excited about this news, since, among other things, it means that I'll definitely meet the minimum requirements for tenure, and that I can look toward longer-term projects.

It also means that I've got a lot of work to do in a short period of time, a period that also includes an office move and a search committee. Light blogging ahead? We'll see, but for now, I'll pop a cork for this one significant step.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

RBOC: November is here already edition

  • Attrition in my two classes is terrible, around 30% in each of them. Ugh. That said, the students that remain in each class have become nice core groups to teach. At least there's that.
  • The search committee I'm on now has over 90 applications, all with writing samples. It's gonna be a long month.
  • While my weight loss has evened out (I've been right around 170 for 2 months now), I'm still needing smaller clothes. Most of my dress clothes (including 3 cashmere blazers) look like they belong to someone else. But the new sweater I bought yesterday? a medium. I haven't worn a medium convincingly since my early 20s.
  • Also, while it's a bit too early to report anything official, I can insinuate that good news looks to be coming down the road on the edited collection. And I'll give you a hint. It rhymes with fontract.