Thursday, January 31, 2008

Reading the Evals

Although we got the statistical reports on evaluations a few weeks ago, the actual forms with narrative comments did not come back to my mailbox until today.

I'm becoming a fairly popular teacher here, and so affirming narrative comments are embarrassingly common here. Not because I think I'm this amazing teacher, but because I'm beginning to think that the way students fill out evaluations is as much a function of their overall learning across many courses, as well as their general critical thinking acumen, more than what happens in one course. And that relationship is not necessarily a direct relationship, either.

Take the 300-level commonwealth course: The statistical scores were a bit more varied than other courses I've taught, with a few lower scores than I've gotten at this institution (though not other places--more about that in a sec). And yet the narrative comments say so much more than a 4.04 statistical mean on one score or the other. For example, the evaluation that answered the question, "Course material challenged students intellectually" with "usually" (3 out of 5), wrote in her narrative comments: "Horace is the absolute best professor I have ever had at BRU. He masters his subject matter, encourages critical thinking, and his enthusiasm makes you want to learn and participate. He is also incredibly helpful and has a great personality."

So wow. That's a dream comment, and I strive to live up to that kind of vision that some students have of me. But her decision to evaluate the questions individually instead of doing a straight-ticket evaluation tells me more about my teaching, and affirms my teaching more than the student who assigns all 5s. Why? because one of the higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy of learning is "evaluation." Which is to say that this student has (or at least demonstrates) a clearer sense of what the critical task of evaluation is than a student who assigns straight 5s, or, for that matter, straight 3s, and then leaves no narrative comments at all. The straight 3s, by the way, come from the only student who anticipated a C in the course.

In fact, I find that this institution generally has a bit of grade inflation when it comes to evaluation scores. Listen, I think many of my colleagues are likely fantastic teachers. But I also thought that my colleagues at my last institution were also amazing teachers as well. And while I don't have access to anyone else's evaluations, I can guess that eval scores and Rate-my-professor scores probably correlate pretty generally. And I know that here, RMP scores for my department are really generally quite positive, and at my last instituion (andexpensive, private, USNews-top-50 school) my colleagues RMP scores (and mine, too) were pretty average, even mediocre.

I fear that what this means is not that here we're better, or here the students are nicer, but rather at the last institution, there was a culture of critical thinking that is not strong here. Now this is a tenuous conclusion, I know, and it privileges all sorts of things (class and geographic location among them) in drawing that conclusion. But I fear that indirectly, at least, the most uniformly good scores that I get on evaluations may be potentially a sign of a secondary failure, by me and by my institution generally, to really make critical thinking (including but not limited to evaluation, but also analysis, creativity, and other higher-order thought) a priority and an automatic response.

Furthermore, I am both selfishly happy and a little disturbed to see how often "enthusiasm," "personality" and "humor" are listed as characteristics of excellent teaching in these evaluations. Not disturbing in and of themselves: I know I tell some decent jokes, and I like to think of myself as a nice person. But the fact that evaluations generally have become so important in terms of faculty evaluation makes me concerned for colleagues who are, say, low key, or not very funny, but brilliant, and who actually provoke a great deal of learning without necessarily being, say, entertaining, or lovable. This kind of customer-service teaching sends us in many of the wrong directions; It's a lucky (and not necessarily skilled) teacher, who can strike a balance between rigor and likability.

In the short term, these evaluations give me some nice data for my annual report. But they also send up red flags about the culture of critical thinking at this institution (and perhaps many others), and more generally, for the reliability of teaching evaluations for determining teaching efficacy and faculty merit.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

British VHS tapes?

I have a question for teh intertubes:

In obtaining footage of a British performance artist I want to teach, I ordered 2 videos from a British arts agency. I popped in the tapes tonight, and found that neither one played on either of the two working VCRs I own.

Did I miss something? Is the British VHS format different from the North American one? Is there a quick fix? By 4 pm tomorrow?


ETA: Help indeed. After confirmation of my fears by commenters (who are clearly smarter than I am!), I found that the European format is called PAL, and after doing a quick Google search on PAL and my university, I got to the university's Classroom Technology office, who now have the two tapes, a blank VHS, and my gratitude. I should have a VHS (for classroom use only, of course) with the necessary material by 4pm, just in time for class!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Teaching High

So after last semester, when I wondered whether my enthusiasm for teaching was beginning to flag in a longer-lasting way, I was both looking forward to this semester to remedy some of that ennui, and dreading it lest there be more of the same.

When the London Theatre Tour was canceled, I thought that the lighter semester (one survey course, and the grad course directly in my field), would be an opportunity to take a bit of the focus off of my teaching (which is not usually something I'm looking for, but which this semester I welcomed as a change), and focus more on my writing.

And to a degree, that's been true. So far this month, I've finished a draft of an article and gotten to some work on th book project (starting with the introduction, no less). And the reading for the grad class has me decidedly in the frame of mind to work on the book.

What I didn't expect was the way it would have me also excited about teaching.

To some degree teaching this grad class so firmly at the center of my interests is anxiety producing: how to organize so many strands of thought? How to filter out the tiny details of the argument that will distract from the big picture stuff? How to decide whether the reading is broad enough to to engage multiple interests, and also specific enough to get to the core issues?

And of course there's the expertise question: if I can't answer in class questions about the topic I'm writing a book about, then what am I doing here?

Last night's class, though, the first real substantive class of the semester for this group, was not an unmitigated success. It has its challenges with a variety of students, some involving organizing all this material, some with making the fairly obscure material I'm working with seem interesting to Lit, creative writing, and professional writing students alike.

But damn it's invigorating. I cam home and talked at Willow for an hour straight about stuff going on in the class, and the personalities and the challenges and the good discussions that have already come out.

Add to that the fact that the survey class seems to be (knock on wood) seems to be the sharpest I've had in four semesters, and already seems to be engaging the material in substantive ways (who knew that an engaging class on Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads was even possible?)

So the good news is that whatever else is going on in my head right now, the teaching (as usual), is keeping me on my toes and engaged. So hurrah for that.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Oh, this can't be good

It arrived last night in a little Amazon box, alongside the cacao nibs I had ordered for Willow's baking. A brand new book. I hadn't heard of its author before the ASTR conference last November, but the mention got my attention, and I found that I had two essays by her in various collections in my office, both essays I had been meaning to read.

Let's just say (to poach the metaphor from Ianqui. Really I'm just doing this because I like the metaphor, not that I am actually hiding my work) that I do work on Photographs of Trees, specifically evergreen trees. My book (the one I'm working on) has three sections: Photos of the Insides of Evergreen Trees, Photos of the Outsides of Evergreen Trees, and Photos of Forests.

The book I got yesterday? titled "Photos of the Insides of Trees." It has a very short section on Photos of Forests. The author's focus is primarily on Evergreen trees, because they inevitably seem to yeild the most interesting photos. And it's pretty good: hits all the right trees, clearly knows the arboreal arts, etc. Even worse, it's from the first press I was planning on contacting in September. Uggh.

Last night, I sort of flipped out a bit--I'd been scooped, or at least a third of my book had been scooped. I knew it could happen. The iron was hot for a book like this. Three collections had come out since I defended my diss, but no coherent statement had been made in the form of a monograph. Yet here it is, in my hands.

My first impulse was "crap. now I won't be able to sell my book. I'll have to chop it up up into individual articles and send them out all over creation, and hope I can get tenure based on a series of articles." It might not be that bad, and I had a sense even as I was going into full panic that perspective on the issue was only an hour or so away.

The good news? One: It's on only one section of my book. Two, the section on Photos of Forests quotes me twice, fairly substantively. Three, it doesn't at all engage the work of the theorist that forms the center of my book's inquiry. In fact, I am shocked to find that I am quoted more often in this book than is Judith Butler (who knew that Evergreen Photography is performative?). So my central argument seems not to be touched on in this book.

So how big a deal is this, really? I don't know. I suspect that it may mean that I can't really expect anything from this press, even if I solicit another series that might be appropriate. I also have to grapple with this book pretty seriously in places, because there are some very important parts of her argument that speak directly to fairly important pieces of mine, and I can think of at least one argument that she's making that was an original argument when I first wrote it out.

If anything, this is my impetus to write write write. I've got some reading for the grad class to do this week (one of the articles is actually by this author, and now part of this book), but Friday morning, I want to pull out the manuscript and revisit the introduction. Start from the ground up. The time is now. Or it was a year and a half ago.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Random Bullets of Research

  • There often comes a point for me when I'm working on an essay when the entire thing seems totally obvious. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. It's a good thing when it means that my thinking about the critical problem has resolved into focus, and the logic seems so plain as to be self evident. On the other hand, it could also mean that the answer to the critical problem was in fact totally obvious, and therefore, not really worth a 25-page argument.
  • About a month ago, a regional conference emailed me and asked whether I'd be interested in doing a plenary talk (!!!). This on the strength of one article that is in a slightly off-the-beaten-path journal (though it publishes high quality work), and a short article in an online journal. I am excited about this, as you may guess, as I've never done a plenary before, but the impostor syndrome sets in pretty badly every time I think about it. The good news is that I have a good idea for the talk and the article that may grow out of it.
  • In prepping this grad class on what was essentially my diss topic (though more broadly construed), I am reveling in the opportunity to return to my research with clearer eyes. It's amazing to have a better sense of which sources were really important, and which ones were minor in the grand scheme. This is also helpful in figuring out what some of the more important conversations are in this little corner of the field, and ways that I can make my contributions more central. Since my teaching load is so light, I'm really hoping to coordinate weekly readings with a return to relevant sections of the diss, rewriting and reorganizing, and generally jumpstarting the revisions in as many places as possible.
  • One of the pieces I'm hoping to revisit, one I'm teaching in March, may be an excellent fit for the drama division's panel at MLA next year. Should I write up and abstract, since it's something I'm going to be working on anyway?
  • On top of these things (the article nearing completion, the plenary talk, returning to the book project) I'm trying to get the last of the edited collection done in the next few months. Because it's got a deadline in September, it will take priority at times, even though it's kind of a minor part of my overall research profile, but the light at the end of this tunnel feels like it's worth it. Let's hope so.
Classes start tomorrow. I wonder why I'm choosing this moment to fixate on publishing?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Back in the Swing

So now that the snow has melted, the holiday travels are over and our last guests are gone (sniff!), the new semester is suddenly upon us. Over break the department moved into a gorgeous, newly renovated historic building, and my old, windowless, 8x10 broom closet has been replaced by a bright, airy, 11x13 office with a view straight up the river to the hills beyond. I unpacked my stuff earlier this week, and have been busily designing syllabi, writing rec letters, and editing manuscripts yesterday and today in the new space.

After a vaguely disappointing fall semester, I'm getting quite excited about the Spring, in the new office, with the very friendly schedule, with the graduate course on the same topic as the book I'm committed to working on. Re-reading sources for the grad syllabus has been really invigorating, and I'm starting to think about the whole project in big picture ways that I haven't since it was a dissertation. I'm really excited about that prospect, and about the way that I hope these things could all intertwine this semester.

I'm also excited about getting back into gym, which I haven't seen enough of these last few weeks. While I have miraculously not put on any new weight, I think that's more out of muscle atrophy than some kind of restraint about eating. Pick-up soccer begins next week, and in the meantime, the elliptical and my iPod (crammed with new music from Christmas gifts) will keep me moving!

Anyway, I'm obviously feeling happier this week than last, and thanks for all the encouragement!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


First off, thanks to all the supportive comments on my last post. Managing some of these things has really helped (as has the unseasonably warm weather recently).

Things did get worse before they got better, though: on the day of the post, Willow and the kids were supposed to return home at a late-yet reasonable hour. They had a layover at OHare, and were due into the closest metro airport (usually about 75 minutes away) at 9:30. So my initial plan was to leave around 8, and be home probably around 11:30, which would've even een ok for the kids, who were still on Pacific time

I was getting a little antsy about the impending snow, but the forecast was for snow overnight, with 1-3 inch accumulations: the next day was going to be the doozy, with another 5 inches.

Funny, how delayed flights and faster-than-expect storm fronts can make all that much worse. By the time Willow's flight delays were done being announced (at SFO, and then 3 different ones at ORD), I was leaving the house at 9:30, driving about 45 mph through the driving snow on the interstate, and arriving with some time to spare before their 11:57 arrival. By the time we got the luggage, and got to the car, there were already a couple of inches of snow on the ground, and the drive ahead of us, starting at 1:15 am, was not looking pretty. The first 90 minutes of the trip were slow but steady.

Until we crossed the state line to home state, and slowed down considerably. The Speedometer registered about 35 mph, but with terrible traction, my clock told me we were going closer to 25. When we exited a few miles later, the town, which had gotten a bit less snow than the airport, but no plowing at all, was blanketed with about 3 inches of snow. It was 3:15.

Of course, Rambunctious wakes up having had an accident in his car seat, and Imperia, waking up from the commotion, claims to be sweaty, but in fact has also had an accident. We're five snowy, hilly miles from home, changing the kids clothes in a CVS parking lot, and I. am. freaking. out.

Have I mentioned that I am now verging on neurotically anxious about driving in the snow?

Deep Breath. Getting there was not pretty either. There is one long road with two ridges to cross to get to our neighborhood, unplowed at that hour, and a minivan is hardly the ideal vehicle to tackle it. We probably should have just gotten a hotel for the four hours until some plowing would have gone through, but dammit I wanted to be home with my family. But. After one false start up the first ridge, I found a track made by a truck that had just come down, and followed that track up, getting just enough traction to make it up the whole mile in low gear. When we finally arrived home, I was so pumped on adrenaline, I unloaded the kids and all the suitcases before I could even sit down. By the time the kids were bathed and in bed, it was 4 a.m. I was a wreck.

The good news? We spent almost the whole day indoors. I lit a fire in the fireplace, got 30 minutes at the blue light, watched the snow fall outside knowing we didn't need to be anywhere else, and recovered from the holiday. I haven't had a day nearly so bad since.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

SAD on New Year's Day

While everyone else is doing thoughtful reflective New Year's posts, meditating on the last year, expressing hope for 2008, I am home trying my best not to flip out. I'll explain in a second.

The resolution that seems the most pertinent at the moment is that in the coming year, I want to do a better job of acknowledging and managing what is almost certainly Seasonal Affective Disorder. I'm even a little anxious to name it, since on the one hand, it's the sort of thing that can debilitate people in real ways, and I don't want to minimize that with my own issues, and on the other hand, it seems to be discussed as one of those diagnoses that pathologizes "normal behavior," and is therefore the territory of greedy drug companies, hypochondriacs, and bad doctors, not unlike the over-prescription of Ritalin to kids.

But I'm going to try to suck it up and call this thing real. When I was a kid, it was a known fact that my grades were going to suffer in the third marking period, the one that extended from January to March. As a young adult, I entered therapy for several short stints, almost always in February and March, and often felt silly going to therapy by mid April, when I was doing, frankly, fine. When SAD started getting press, I thought, "Yeah, I've probably got a mild problem with that," but I tended to just want to call it winter blues or something.

Two unsuccessful stints on the job market led to two particularly bad winters, but I blamed the depression then on the job market failure. But last winter, when ostensibly everything else was going well, I had one of the worst winters I've ever had in terms of mood. I'd wake up wanting to cry for virtually no reason, and had a really hard time getting a handle on general malaise, or occasionally, pretty serious bouts of anxiety.

I'm having one of those anxiety days right now.

There are a few things that help me stave off the worst of it: activity/ exercise, whatever sunlight I can get myself into, social contact, sufficient regular sleep, and keeping my workload under control. For the new year, I want to try to be a little more proactive about all of these things to see what I can do.

So today, I hit the elliptical machine we have downstairs for a bit, tried to get outside for a few minutes here and there, etc. I slept in as much as I could today, and have spent as much of my day as possible staying on my feet: cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, cleaning the guestroom. The only reason I'm blogging right now is that I'm sitting in front of my therapeutic blue light for 30 minutes.

But there are also obstacles. Being alone for an extended period is one of them, and wonderful as MLA was, I spent a lot of time on my own, and have returned to an empty house--I pick up Willow and the kids this evening.

The other obstacle, and lately this has been a doozy, is snow. N ow our weather here isn't really any worse than the midAtlantic weather I lived in all my life before coming here, but the hilly terrain makes snow a major menace, since it a) usually means the sun is lost behind a low, dense layer of cloud cover, b) it's hard to really get out and be active (since being cold seems to be another problem factor), and c) snow renders my precious sense of control fairly moot. It forces me to change plans, and when I do have to venture out to shovel it or drive in it, the insecure feeling it leaves me with unsettles me pretty badly. It's gotten bad enough that a trip to DC with friends last February, that had us driving in some fairly manageable snow (though DC sucks for dealing with snow), saw me freak out pretty badly one morning when everything, was, without doubt, going to be fine.

So it's starting to snow here, as it will for the next couple of days. And I've got to pick up Willow and the kids at 9:30 tonight, at an airport that 's about 75 minutes away via interstate when the weather's perfect. THIS is why I'm trying not to flip. I suspect I'll be fine as soon as everyone's in the house tomorrow, since the grocery shopping's done, and no one has to work tomorrow. We can call it a snow day, drink warm vanilla milk, tea or hot cocoa, eat well, maybe even take naps. But today, sitting (or even bustling) at home alone, dreading the trip to the airport, and playing out all sorts of terrible scenarios in my head, has me feeling like maybe this isn't the best way to do New Year's day.

So this year: Be proactive about my seasonal affective disorder. Set a regular gym schedule. Enjoy the fact that my new office has windows. Stay on top of the sleep schedule, which means among other things, consuming less alcohol on nights when we do drink. Keep my social calendar as busy as I can. Try to stay on top of grading (this is a biggie, apparently). Use the blue light every day. Drink lots of water, and probably less caffeine. And look forward to April with a big, wide open hope that a sunny day at 60 degrees will make many many things better. It seems to every year.

So the blue light just ended its 30 minutes of goodness, and there's work to be done. Time to wrap up this post and get back on my feet.

Happy New Year, all. Hope yours is starting off better than mine, though I'm confident that mine will not be this anxious for most of the year.