It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

But it is not, I would argue, an age of wisdom.  No, it’s increasingly becoming an age of foolishness.

In my last post, I wrote about time.  Time, as we know, is a resource.  But it is also, as I noted, the precisely wrong way to think about pursuing a college degree.

In that vein, I want to tell the tale of two students.  Both students are right now concerned about time, albeit in two very different ways.  And both students – students who have emailed me with their concerns within the past few days – are misunderstanding what I think should be the proper relationship between education and time.

But before I continue, I want to note that I do not blame these students for their misguided views.  This is not a post about how students “don’t get it.”  Rather, it’s about how these students precisely do “get it,” and that’s the problem.  It’s not that students misunderstand the relationship between education and time; it’s that they are forced to understand that relationship in a very specific way by their institution.

Student A is upset that she is not graduating “on time.”  This student is not graduating on time because she did not earn the grade she needed in the last course she took for her major.  This student spent two years taking courses at another institution, then came to SUNY Potsdam for two years.  For four years – at two different institutions – she took a full-time course load.  And she will not graduate “on time” because of a grade for one class.

She emailed her professor, and asked if there was anything she could do for her.  Was there, in other words, any way to give her the grade she needed to have that course count toward her major?*  The professor was unyielding, and stands by the grade.  The student is considering appealing this grade.

I use this student as an example because of what she wrote to me regarding her possible appeal.  Among the reasons she gave for why she is considering an appeal is that she attended all of the classes for the semester, spent “a lot of time” on all the work, and turned everything in on time.  I have no reason to believe any of this is untrue.  However, I also don’t see how it’s relevant.

My concern with this potential appeal is that at no point in the student’s email to me did she note that the work she turned in deserved higher grades than she was given.  At no point did she argue that her work was better than it had been judged, or that the grades earned were in any way unfair.  Instead, her entire appeal seems to be based on the fact that she put in the proper amount of time (both in class and outside of class).  Though I can only speak to the emails I have received (or been copied on), this student’s primary concern seems to be that she is not graduating “on time,” and this is unacceptable because she put in the proper amount of time.  She gave the class the appropriate amount of time, and now deserves a grade to earn the degree that she has also put the proper amount of time into.

In short, this student put in her time, and now expects to be awarded a degree.

Now, I know some readers will be tempted to think that this student is wrong.  Hell, based on my last post, I was initially inclined to assume this student was wrong.  Time, I was tempted to write to her, has no bearing on whether or not she deserves a degree.  Credit is awarded to those who do the work, not just the time.

But then I received an email from Student B.

Student B was enrolled in my Introduction to Literature class last semester, and wants to have her money refunded.  She stopped attending classes early in the semester (I do not know why), and is arguing that she stopped attending classes early enough that she should get her tuition refunded.  The university (as I’m sure most do) has a policy: if you stop attending classes by a certain date** then you can have your money refunded.  To determine if a refund is in order, her professors were asked for the last date she attended class.  That’s an easy request to fulfill.  But it’s also completely misguided.

The university is not interested in how well this student was doing in the course, how strong her work was, or how much she learned.  None of that is relevant to the university.  I’ve posted before about my thoughts on the economic transaction between the student and the university, so I won’t rehash that here.  However, it is relevant as the student is asking to have that transaction voided.  Essentially, the student is claiming that she did not partake of the product, and deserves to have her money refunded.

Regarding this transaction, the only fact that matters is her last date of attendance.  If she stopped coming to class before that date, she gets her money back.  Plain and simple.  Or, to put this another way, the university only cares about whether or not she spent enough “time” coming to class.  If she didn’t spend enough time in class, then she gets her money back.  As far as the university is concerned, the “product” can be boiled down to amount of time in class.

I would like to tell the university that, during her time in class, she was an engaged student.  She spent more time participating in discussion in a few short weeks than some of classmates did all semester.  She took more notes, and asked more questions outside of class, in those few weeks than many of her classmates did all semester.  I can’t speak to how much she learned in those few weeks, but I know for a fact that she learned more than one of her classmates, who learned nothing.^

(I know better than to make this argument.  Not only would it be pointless, but I also do not want to get in the way of the student getting her tuition refunded.  I don’t know what happened, but I hope things get worked out and she can return to school next fall.)

Anyway, anything that the student may have learned is incidental.  And the university simply doesn’t care how much work she did, how good that work was, or whether she learned anything or not.

And Student B is exactly why I do not blame Student A for her concern with time.  Student A has learned, after four years at two institutions^^, that a degree is the reward for time served.  Student B, as a freshman, is just now learning that.  I have no idea what her thoughts on the matter are, but I do know what the university thinks about her situation: check the time card, and see when she clocked out.  The university could decide that she spent too much time in classes, and is not deserving of her tuition money reimbursed.  They won’t care if she didn’t do the work, or didn’t learn anything.  The work – the knowledge – is not the product.

Her classmate who was tied to his cell phone “bought the product.”  As far as the university is concerned, he received the product.  His financial transaction with the university has been fully honored, even though he didn’t learn a damn thing, and subsequently failed the class.  And sadly, neither party in that transaction seems dissatisfied.

As I noted above, I do not think that Student A will win a grade appeal.  But that said, it’s because I’m concerned with the quality of the work that was produced.  And as Student B demonstrates, that is not at all what the university is concerned with.  And maybe, for that reason, she should appeal that grade.  Because she can demonstrate that she has fulfilled her financial transaction with the university according to the university’ values.

She put in her time.

And increasingly, I’m wondering why – as an employee at the university – I should have values that differ from my employer.  As a functionary of the institution, shouldn’t my values reflect the values of the institution?

*At SUNY Potsdam, students must earn a 2.0 (C) in a course for that course to count toward the student’s major.

**I have no idea what this date is.

^Nor did he want to.  Most days, he sat down, put an ear bud in his ear, and quietly played on his cell phone.  And that’s fine, because he didn’t bother anyone else.  I have no idea why he thought my class was the best place to play his games, but I also don’t really care.

^^Once again, I will not even attempt to address financial aid here, but only because I know so little about how it works.  I pay my student loan bills, but I won’t pretend to know anything about how complicated it has become for students today.  But I do know that some students need to finish in four years because after that, they no longer qualify for financial aid.


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But there never seems to be enough time / To do the things you want to do

I enjoy hiking.  I particularly enjoy hiking in the Saranac Lake region, though I am hoping to get back out to the southwest to do some more hiking.  Hiking gets me outside, which is always a plus.  It gets me moving, which is great.  And it takes me away from everything else for a while.  I firmly believe that we should all spend some time outside, away from our places of work and our computers and even other people.  But I sometimes have a tough time hiking with other people.  I am a very slow, laborious hiker.  As an overweight, middle-aged asthmatic with a bad knee, I take my time going up a hill, and sometimes even more time going back down.  This does not bother me, but I’m always afraid it bothers other people.  I worry that when I hike with someone else, I’m slowing them down, holding them back.

I worry, in other words, that I am keeping them from finishing on time.

And it took me quite some time – and a little encouragement from a good friend – that this was not the case.

But I still can’t help it.  I’m not fast; I was not built for speed.  And that’s fine.  I may run regularly, but I’ll never be fast.  In fact, I generally hate rushing through things, whatever they may be.  I like to cook, and enjoy taking my time with it.  I consciously slow down when I read, because I enjoy savoring a good book.  Even when I clean the apartment, I’d rather take my time and do it right, than rush through it and be unhappy with the results.  And I loathe when people force me to rush through something, especially if there’s no need to (other than someone else’s desire to save time).

And I realize that this attitude is at odds with much of my professional life.

Although I’m still fielding questions and meeting with students, my university has largely just finished advising for the fall semester.  My students – more or less – know what they will be taking next year, and my classes have been scheduled (and, I’m happy to say, are filling up nicely).  And in every meeting and email conversation I had with my students, I kept coming back to one concept: time.

In particular, my students kept talking about the idea of graduating “on time.”  And of course, I know what this mean.  Most programs at most universities are designed to be completed within four years.  Four years is “on time.”  This idea is so ingrained that we give different names to each year – freshman, sophomore, junior, senior – to remind everyone where they are in the four-year plan.  And you can measure your progress by how quickly you can complete requirements relative to your year.  That is, it’s not at all uncommon for students to tell me that they are “really” a sophomore, but have junior “standing” because they are ahead of schedule.  And by the same token, it’s not at all uncommon (and increasingly more the norm) for students to say they are “really” a junior, but only have sophomore standing because, while they are in their third year, they haven’t completed enough credits to earn junior standing.*

Every student I met with so far was concerned with graduating “on time.”  And increasingly, I have a tough time thinking in those terms.

It seems to me that, by accepting this relatively arbitrary number – one that, admittedly, has no bearing on part-time students, transfer students, and students who need to repeat course work, or who change majors, etc. – higher education has (unintentionally, of course) trained students to see education in terms of time, and not in terms of academic progress.  (Hence the difference between number of years attended and actual standing, as noted above.)  As such, we have encouraged students to misunderstand the goal of a college education.  It’s not about time served; it’s about progress made.  And the more I hear it, the more it sounds like a prison sentence students hope to be paroled from.

Allow me a digression, to try and get to my point.

It’s common for students to consider the amount of time spent working on an assignment, or studying for an exam, as an important factor for grading their work.  Students who do poorly on an exam may plead that they spent a great deal of time studying, thinking that such efforts surely must be rewarded.  Even taking students at their word,** this is an absurd way to think about academic achievement.

I was always good at math.  I don’t recall studying for any math class I ever took, in high school or college,*** and I aced those classes.  But Geology was a beast.  It made no sense to me, and I spent hours studying.  I was under the mistaken belief that the more time I put into the studying, the more I would learn.  I was wrong.  That may have been the only class I ever considered cheating in.  It was rough.  And I retained none of it.  Nothing.  I couldn’t even tell you which Geology course it was.  The fact that I can spell “Geology” is about all I retained from that class.

But I sure did spent a lot of time on it.  Because I was told – by the professor, especially – that I just needed to give it more time.  And teachers do this all the time.  From what I have seen, “spend more time on it” is the single most common piece of advice given to students.  Not passing?  Spend more time on the reading.  Need to improve your grade?  Spend more time studying.  And while sometimes this might be useful advice – particularly to those students who may not be spending any time on the work at all**** – it’s also encouraging students to equate time with success.

Of course, this is not how a great many of us help students.  But I’m positive we have all been guilty of it at some point or another.  And I know that many students are still told this.  I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I have overheard this piece of advice – “just spend more time on your work” – being given to students.

The result, over what must be years of conditioning, is for many students to equate time with success.  If “more time” = “academic success,” then of course they are confused when, after spending more time on their work, they have not earned a better grade.  And because the grade itself does not indicate how much time was spent, students plead their case, often going into great detail regarding how much time they spent studying, working on an assignment, etc.

I see the same thinking in terms of a college degree.  A college degree comes after four years.  Therefore, anything after four years is “late,” and thus a problem.  Many students are then insistent that, regardless of whatever else needs to be attended to, they must finish in four years.  (This way of thinking is so ubiquitous that I am willing to bet a week’s salary that many people reading this would have a tough time finding students who know exactly how many credits they need to complete in order to graduate.  Hell, I bet there are even a few faculty reading this who don’t know the total number of credits students must complete to earn a degree at their universities.  Nor should you.  It’s not how we think.  A college degree is four years.  That’s it.  The rest is details we can look up online.)

But this an increasingly difficult timeline for many students to follow, and I wish I knew how we could change their mentality.  For instance, many students will transfer schools.  Sometimes, the students’ interests change.  Sometimes, they need to leave for personal reasons.  Sometimes, the school cannot deliver on what it promised.  And increasingly, students are completing time at community college to save costs.^  I know that at my university, many students who transfer in find that credits don’t transfer, especially toward the general education program.  And should those students transfer into a rigidly-scaffolded program that assumes students start there as freshmen, transfer students can easily find themselves facing another year of college.

Similarly, students should be encouraged to apply for study abroad programs, even though many students (in my experience) find that they cannot make the same amount of progress toward their degree abroad as they can at their home university, given the very different systems employed around the world.  I currently have a student studying abroad who cannot complete her degree without coming back and taking on an extra semester, in part because a year’s worth of credits at her current school is less than a year’s worth of credits here.  She will complete her coursework, but will not have enough credits to graduate.  At least not “on time.”

And we haven’t even yet considered the very real possibility that students may need to re-take courses, or take different courses to complete requirements.  Higher education is already designed as a system that seriously discourages failure.  That is to say, students who fail courses – no matter how hard they try, or how much time they spend on those courses – may find themselves on probation, or with lower housing, registration, or other priorities.  And let’s not forget financial aid.^^

There are a great many students who would do well to take more classes.  I often advise students to take writing classes to help improve their skills.  But invariably, if those courses are not required for graduation, students won’t take them.  Sometimes, those students want to take those courses, but cannot.  Taking on additional coursework means they cannot graduate “on time.”  The learning goals, in other words, come second to the need to finish in four years.

And then there are the students who might want to (or, given their future goals, should be encouraged to) double-major, pick up minors, or otherwise engage in “extra” coursework.  But if it cannot be done in four years, many students I work with are simply not interested.

Earlier this year I spoke with a student who insisted on finishing “on time.”  After a little conversation, I learned that she no financial aid issues keeping her to that timeline, nor did she have any real issue with taking more courses.  In fact, we were discussing whether or nor she could reasonably pick up a minor in an area she was increasingly interested in.  If money and interest were not at issue, what was holding her back from an extra semester?

She wanted to finish “on time.”  She wanted to graduate with “her class.”  It was an important part of her identity.  Even if it meant not getting the education she wanted to get.

I wish I had an answer here.  But really, I have no idea what to do.  I can tell my students that taking more time to finish their degrees will, in the long run, be largely meaningless.  I can tell them that spending more time in school – to get the education they want, to study what and how they want, to take advantage of the opportunities available to them, or getting the additional help and practice they need – is not at all a bad thing.  Employers won’t care.  Graduate programs won’t care.  And unless someone looks at the transcripts, nobody will even know.

And I sure as hell am not saying that I have this figured out in my own life, either.  In fact, I often find myself thinking in the same way about other aspects of my life.  I practice yoga, and I often convince myself to do a quick practice because I don’t have enough time to get through a full routine.  And I’m almost always wrong; I just want to get to something else that, in that moment, is more important to me.  (Like writing this post.)  I want to get through it as quickly as possible, just to be done with it, even when I know that I will get more out of it by devoting the proper time to it.

But this does not mean that “more time” = “better results,” either.  I find that if I go running, I chastise myself for not spending more time running, even when I know full well that more running may lead to injury.  (Think here in terms of the advice to students given above.  Nobody in their right mind would ever tell me that the best way to become a better runner is to just spend more time running, turning my 30 minute run into a 2-hour run.  That would be counter-productive.)

My larger point is, I know that in many aspects of my life, the quality of the experience has little to do with the time spent in that experience.  By the same token, I also know that spending more time on something does not, in and of itself, lead to improvement.  (For instance, I find that if I play bass for more than an hour, I get sloppy, and the practice isn’t doing me any good.)

Time is a very valuable resource.  Many of us don’t have enough of it.  In many aspects of our lives, we are encouraged not to waste it.  And the older I get, the more I realize that taking control of my time is the most important thing I can do for my own well-being.

And as I get to the end of this post, I realize I don’t have a solution.  Hell, I probably even lost my point somewhere along the way.  So I’ll end by noting that one thing I am trying to do with my own life – and especially with my teaching – is to ignore how long something “should” take, and accept how long it “does” take.  Because these arbitrary periods we attach to complicated and difficult activities – whether we’re talking about education, the arts, or just how long it should take to hike a mountain – don’t really mean anything.

*This, of course, causes a great deal of anxiety among students.  And perhaps just as importantly, this collective decision to define the undergraduate experience as a four-year endeavor has significant financial aid ramifications for students who do not keep to that plan. I will not be discussing either aspect, but that does not mean they are irrelevant.  I may collect my thoughts on them for a later post.

**Which I always try to do.  The number of students who I think are lying to me is very, very small.  I am increasingly disgusted by the way many academic speak disdainfully of their students in this regard, assuming their students must be lying to them, or playing on their sympathies.  That’s absolutely fodder for another post.  I don’t think students are lying to me when they claim they spend a great deal of time on their work.  But I do think they are buying into an incorrect notion of the correlation between time and success.  Spending six straight hours studying for an exam may take up a great deal of time, but I’m convinced the further into those six hours you get, the less effective studying becomes.  Time, in and of itself, does not in any way measure quality.

***Except for Statistics, because holy shit was that hard.  It looked like math – there were numbers and such – but it never made any sense to me.

****One of my students this semester recently admitted to me that he has not done any of the reading for the class, takes no notes, and does not study.  He spends no time on the class, and he was failing as a result.  After spending time doing the reading and studying, he finally passed the most recent exam.  This is great.  But I would never assume that all he needs is “more time” in order to keep improving, as if “X number of hours” translates easily into “desired grade.”

^I still remember a department meeting where one of my colleagues questioned the merits of this, considering that we cannot control the quality of the education students get at community college.  What bothered me was that the comment focused on community colleges, where it’s true that we have no control over the quality of education students earn at 4-year colleges they may transfer from, too.  That is certainly a post for another time.

^^Never forget financial aid.  But have no fear, your student loan providers won’t let you.

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Get the money / Dollar, dollar bill y’all

Today at the gym I had a conversation with someone that led to a profound epiphany.

Many universities – especially state universities – are dealing with budget problems.*  With shrinking state support, many universities are looking into new ways to raise money.  But there seems to be one that no university has yet implemented, which I find baffling.

The conversation I had today included someone asking me flat out why someone should attend SUNY Potsdam for purely academic reasons.  He claimed that, because most majors exist at most universities, picking one for a specific major (except specialized majors offered at select universities) is silly.  He suggested that many students do – or at least should – pick universities based on sports, and that this should be true for fans as well as athletes.**

And while at first I thought he was pretty stupid, I later realized just how right he was.  I remembered that many of my students at UConn grew up as UConn fans, and proudly attended the university in large part for the sports culture.  And, of course, a great many athletes – especially those with dreams of playing professionally – select their schools based on the program’s popularity, chances of winning a national title, or ability to start (especially in televised, high-profile games).

Sports are a major reason why many students attend specific universities.

And I have no idea why universities choose to ignore that as a way to make money.

I’ve already proposed allowing students to major in their sport of choice, and do away with the outdated and erroneous notion of the “student athlete.”  In addition to that, we should also start charging students for that privilege.

For the time being, let’s leave aside the fan experience which, honestly, can already be pretty expensive for the students.  Let’s instead focus on the athletes.

Let’s take for granted that many students choose their university based primarily – if not entirely – based on their chance to play for a team.  And let’s also take for granted that for the most exclusive teams, there are a great many people looking to play.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that most NCAA Division I programs have no problem finding enough bodies to fill out their rosters.  (This is probably also true for Division II and III teams.)

So maybe it’s high time universities start profiting from this demand.

Right now, many universities recruit athletes with scholarships, at what turns out to be a huge cost to universities.  Sure, many universities make a great deal of money with their academic programs.  But the point here is that they could make even more.

Let’s take one university: University of Alabama.  And let’s focus on one sport: football.

The Alabama Crimson Tide football program has won 16 national titles, 30 conference titles, and 12 division titles.  It has produced 2 Heisman winners, and 8 players who have eventually been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.  And currently, there are 42 former players now playing professionally in the NFL.

Isn’t it about time Alabama capitalized on this?

There are a great many high school football players who want to play for Alabama.  Am I the only one crazy enough to think that some of those students would happily pay for that privilege?  That many of them would gladly take on student loans for a chance to play for a team that has played in two  – and won one – of the three recent college football national championship games?

Am I alone in thinking that some students would rather pay tuition to play for Alabama than get a scholarship at many other universities?

If universities are looking for more ways to raise money, why on earth are they not considering selling what for many students is their most desirable product?

I understand the concept of a loss leader, and maybe universities have accepted that sports should be used to “stimulate sales” in other departments.  But if that’s the case, then those universities need to do a much better job of using sports to “sell” academics.

But I suspect that’s not the case.

Honestly, I think this is a great idea.  Not only do universities save all the money they have been wasting on athletic scholarships, but they get to make that amount in profit.  (In 2015, universities awarded over $3 billion in athletic scholarships.  That could turn into more than $6 billions dollars in total new revenue.)

But what about universities – like mine – that do not offer athletic scholarships?  Well, they would not be saving any money, but they would still be bringing in new tuition dollars.  We simply determine how much it costs to fund a sports program – facilities, coaches, staff, transportation, etc. – divide that number by the total number of players on the team, and that’s how much you charge students to play.

My colleague at the gym was right.  Many students attend a university because of the athletics.

It’s high time we maximize the profitability of those programs.

*Not really, but let’s for the sake of argument accept that there is a national budget crisis, and not a national spending crisis.

**When I pointed out that the most popular sports are offered at most universities, too, he bushed that off as irrelevant.  Of course.

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It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few.

I open many posts with this, but it’s been a while since I last posted.  That was not intentional, but it was probably for the best.  I spent a fair amount of time last semester rethinking much about my pedagogy, and it was helpful to work it out in my head and in conversation with colleagues before thinking about how to write it all out.

Not that I’m writing it all out here, mind you.  But I hope to do so slowly over the course of the semester.  For instance, I’ve had a successful run including mindful movement into my graduate classes, so I will start incorporating it into one of my undergraduate classes.*  I’ve also started incorporating new kinds of final projects into my upper-division courses, and will add more to my course next semester.*

But today, I’ve been thinking about something I haven’t done for years: I want to teach a book.

One book.

Just one.

All semester.

Years ago, I spent a semester teaching Moby-Dick in a Freshman Writing class.  It was a very successful class, and I learned a great deal from it (lessons that still inform my teaching).  I learned to slow down.  I learned that complete coverage is impossible.  And I learned that we can’t expect students to work through difficult material if we don’t work with it in depth, over time, and come back to it later on.

Over the years, I’ve been toying with single author courses, teaching a very successful one on Walt Whitman and The Walt Whitman Archive.  And there are a few other authors I’d like to focus on.**  And that kind of course certainly has value: take a major American author, study their major works in depth***, and use that as a snapshot of the larger literary scene.

Can we do that with one book?

I think the answer is yes.  And I think there’s so much that can be done with just one book.

As I’m imagining it now, students would not only spend the semester working through one book – giving us all the time we need to work through the difficult, exciting, or just plain interesting passages – but would also have the time to work through a variety of contexts for reading.

Right now, I’m reading James Michener‘s Centennial, and so I’ll use it as the example here.  But other books easily come to mind.****

It’s astonishing how much research goes into a good historical novel.  And one of the benefits of a slow approach to reading would be to allow for students to dig into some of that research.  For instance, there’s an entire chapter on the geologic history of what is now Colorado, and students could research that background and present to the class that material in depth and explain the importance of that material to a fuller understanding of the rest of the novel.

Of course, there’s also a great deal of historical research that goes into the novel (which, for those who have not read it, is framed in terms of a historian doing research on the town of Centennial^).  Students could take a century, or a decade, and explore the distinction between the historical record and fictional material, which could lead to a discussion of fictional craft and narrative historiography.

Additionally, we could spend some time on literary theory, having students do some readings in various literary theories and exploring how those theories produce different readings by identifying different tensions and exploring different interpretive methods.  Students could read Bakhtin‘s “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” as a way to approach historical fiction.  Or they could read Jack Halberstam‘s work on masculinity (and maybe his essay on “Brokeback Mountain”) as a way of understanding the ways that the American frontier operated as a space for defining American masculinity, and how that definition became foundational for American society.  Obviously, there are many possibilities here.

One benefit of this approach is that it could allow students to select the kind of work they do for the class, especially important for non-majors.  The student in the sciences taking the course to a general education credit, for instance, might be more interested in approaching the book through the sciences as a way of using their own background and training as a means to appreciating the arts.^^

But another benefit is that it helps address one of the most persistent problems I face in the classroom: that there is one “right” way to interpret a literary work, and the goal of classes is to tell students what it is.  The other most persistent problem I face is when students believe that there are no wrong interpretation, provided students can in some way assert their opinions forcefully enough.  A class such as this will allow me to demonstrate to students that while there is no such thing as “the correct” interpretation, there is also a framework for coming to terms with the multiplicity of interpretations.

There are a few ways I could teach such a course in my department, a few existing courses where I could slide this in.  Ideally, I would offer it as one of our upper-division courses that do not have any pre-requisites.^^^  That way, I could get non-majors in my class, which I enjoy a great deal.

I’ll admit, I’m a geek who enjoys constructing syllabi.  I love designing new courses.  And just as much, I love teaching new courses.

This could be fun.  Maybe I need to talk to my chair about teaching it next year.


*Fittingly, a class on experimental narratives.  I know most of the students in that class, and while some will appreciate the exercise on its own merits, others will be open to trying something new.  I love working with students who are willing to try something new, and who accept that the classroom can be a place for experimentation.  Honestly, one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a teacher is that learning happens in so many ways.

**The short list includes E.L. Doctorow, Paul Auster, Joyce Carol Oates, James Welch, and Toni Morrison.

***Impossible with Oates, by the way.  She’s just too prolific and too talented.  You could pick a few of the greatest hits, but one could spend an entire semester just on the Wonderland Quartet, or just a course on the books she wrote under other names.

****The short list includes Moby-DickBlondeThe Sot-Weed Factor, and Caramelo.

^Another reason why I think this might be a good novel for such a course.

^^Let’s not forget that sometimes, students take courses outside their majors because they want something different.  I work with plenty of non-majors who want to study literature because it’s not the same kind of work in their other classes.  And by the same token, Literature majors might be interested in approaches that introduce them to new ways of thinking about literature.

^^^These are 300-level courses, which are upper-division, and because they carry a university general education designator (Arts Critical), are open to non-majors.  In fact, I actively try to recruit non-majors into my classes, and enjoy having them there.  Sometimes, the best discussions come from questions asked by non-majors.


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There’s only 28,000 days…

OK, so maybe the school year isn’t quite that long, but it can sometimes feel that way.  And while there’s little we can do about the length of the year, there is a great deal we can do about we make it through the year.

As noted in my last post, I’m gearing up for the start of the fall semester by making plans for my work directing the graduate program.  Of course, there are many other things I need to prepare for (teaching, of course, and laying the groundwork for some research projects), but perhaps above all else, I need to prepare myself.

For years – both in graduate school and in my first few years here at SUNY Potsdam – I did a pretty poor job of managing the work/life balance.  Like many academics, I saw work as my life (which, in case it isn’t already clear, is a terrible position to take); just as importantly, I allowed my job to encourage me in that thinking.

The truth is, the job will take as much time as you are willing to give it.  And the job will always be ready for – and sometimes ask for – more.  Because the truth is, you can always spend more time working on your teaching; you can always spend more time on your research; there is always another committee, student club, task force, etc. that you can join.  Because “more” doesn’t stop; there is always more.  And if I had a nickel for every time a colleague, chair, administrator, student, parent, or colleague* helpfully told me I could do more, I could probably retire.

So with this post, I’d like to lay out some of my own plans, how I manage to stay sane during the semester.  I’m not saying this is the magic formula, nor am I suggesting that this always works (or that I always stick to it).  And some of these are new ideas that I hope to implement this year.  As always, I’d love to hear from anyone else, how you manage the work/life balance.


There are only 24 hours in the day.  That doesn’t change.  So once you have your teaching schedule, it’s up to you to block out the time you need for the rest of your life.

  1. Sleep.  You need it.  You need it every day.  This is a fact.  You can argue with it, fight against it, or try to chemically change it, but these are battles you will lose.  Whatever else you need to schedule, make sure you schedule to sleep.  If you set a time to go to bed, stick to it.  I don’t care if you want to finish that last bit of grading, or if you only have one more chapter to read, etc.  Go to bed.
  2. Grading.  A very common approach to grading is to do it until it’s done.  I have found this to be incredibly inefficient, and can lead to eating up time for other things (especially sleep).  I have two recommendations here.  First: schedule time for grading.  Set aside the number of hours you need (per day, per week, etc.), and stick to it.  If you can’t, maybe you are assigning too much work to grade.  Or maybe you are spending too much time per assignment, which leads to my second recommendation: set a limit on how much time you will spend grading individual assignments.  (This may change, depending on your own grading methods, and the length/complexity of the assignments.  But over time, you can ballpark this.)  And just as importantly, plan for this.  You may not have to devote the same amount of time every week, but in the heavy weeks, plan for the time.  (But, and I cannot stress this enough, do not draw that time away from sleep.)
  3. Research.  Personally, I like to use the weekends for research.  I’ll go into the office on the weekends to write, or go to the local bakery to read and take notes.  Or maybe I’ll just stay home and think.  (Of course, some weekends I just relax.  But I find it helpful to devote the weekends to research.)  Maybe you block off two hours every day.  Maybe you get up early in the morning to do some reading, take notes, etc. with some tea and toast.  The point is not how you do it, but that you block off time to do this.  And as with everything else, do not steal from this time.**  It can be very tempting to steal from this time to get grading done, or do extra service work, or any other instance of the “more” that is always knocking at the door.  If you know one week will require extra time to grade, maybe schedule that time to grade instead of doing research; but you pay this time back when the grading is done.
  4. Your life.  You are allowed to have one.  In fact, I highly encourage it.  And you should spend some of your day – every day – enjoying it.  And no, “sleep” is not enough.  Personally, I play music (almost) every day.  And during the semester, most days, I play for at least 45 minutes when I come home from teaching.  I get out of my work clothes***, grab a cold drink, and play guitar.  If I have to grade, or prep for class, etc., it can all wait until after I play guitar, until after I check on my plants, until after I make dinner.  It doesn’t matter what you do: walk the dogs, play with your kids, join a local club, sit quietly and watch the sunset.  But this is your time; spend it as you see fit.  And no, don’t tell me that grading, or your research, or some other part of the job, is how you want to treat yo self.  That kind of thinking is exactly how we fail at the work/life balance.  Now, it should come as no surprise, I love to read.  So another way I spend my time on me, while engaging in an activity that I have also chosen to devote my life to, is to read for fun.  I may not pick it up every day, but I am always in a book that I am reading just for fun.  This is never something for class, or for research, but just for fun.  Maybe it’s a novel by one of my favorite authors, or a collection of poetry recommended to me by a friend, or even a work of theory that I find fascinating.  Again, it doesn’t matter what it is.  What matters, of course, is doing something just for you.


You’ve got one.  And the better you care for it, the better prepared you will be for the semester.  Admittedly, I often fail at this.  Much as I try otherwise, I often eat poorly at the start and end of the semesters, the most stressful parts of the semester.  (These are times I’m more likely to get take-out, or stock up on chocolate.)  This is true even though I enjoy cooking, especially as a way to unwind after a long day.  (Sometimes, I’ll cook even when I have leftovers, specifically because cooking relaxes me.)  This semester, I’m going to do a better job of planning for those stressful times.  I’ll make good food ahead of time, so that I have plenty of tasty, healthy options waiting for me when I get home, so that I’m less likely to get take-out.****

Similarly, spend some time in exercising.  Again, it doesn’t matter what you do.  In grad school, I trained in martial arts.  Lately, I’ve been doing yoga.  And for the past few weeks, I’ve been getting up to run three times every week.  I hope to keep to this schedule during the semester, getting up early to run, stretch, and have a bite to eat before going to work.  I also plan on doing yoga several times a week, at some point after I get home from work.

And although I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: sleep.  You need it.

Other people

I won’t lie; other people can be the worst.  It’s always other people who want to give you more work and take away from your personal time.  And for all that we can manage how we spend our time, most of it won’t do a damn bit of good if we don’t manage our interactions with other people.  So here are a few pointers that have worked for me over the years:

Email.  Email is a great thing, except that it also allows people to contact you at their convenience, not yours.  Remember that this works both ways: people can email you at their convenience, but that does not obligate you to answer.  And I get it; clearing the inbox can be very satisfying.  But it can also become obsessive.  So when it comes to email, I have two basic principles:

  • I have two email accounts, one for my life, and one just for work.  I only use my work email for work-related communications.  I do not use my work email to contact friends and family, to make personal plans, etc.  Work email for work only.  Because if you start using your work email for personal communications, you’ll find yourself checking work-related emails when you’re dealing with personal things.  It’s too tempting to open those emails, respond to them, etc.  Just as you should set aside time for other work activities, you should set aside time for work emails.  Personally, I check my work email when I check personal email.  But I don’t feel obligated to read or respond to them (sometimes, I check because I’m waiting for something, or just to make sure I’m not behind on things).
  • Also, I set a time when I am available to students over email, and that doesn’t change.  I don’t check work email before 9:00 am, and I don’t check it after 9:00 pm.  And I make this clear to my students, if only to remind them that there is nothing I can do for them between 9:00 pm and 9:00 am.^  There is nothing I need to know between those hours.  There is nothing happening at work between 9:00 pm and 9:00 am that I can do anything about until after 9:00 am.  And while I understand the impulse to want to know if a student has an emergency and can’t come to class the next day, or can’t turn in the work the next day, etc., there’s no need for me to know.  Nothing will change if I wait until after 9:00 am to know, and make any decision, or deal with any issues.  In fact, if it really is an emergency, it’s best if I wait until after I had a good night’s sleep and a nice breakfast to address it.

Office hours.  I have them.  I make use of them.  And I do my very best to hold to them.  In the past, I have scheduled my office hours for the end of the workday, so that students can come to me if they have any questions following class.  However, I have found that, with nothing else scheduled after office hours, I allowed myself to linger.  Rarely did I linger because I was working with a student.  But I found that there was always something to do, and rarely was it time-sensitive.  So starting next year, I’m scheduling office hours at the start of the day, and in the middle of the day.  Office hours will never be my last work obligation for the day.  I can finish teaching, and then walk away.  Last year, I wasted quite a bit of time not leaving the office.  That ends now.

Personalizing.  This is tough, because sometimes this is fun.  I genuinely enjoy the company of some of my colleagues and students, and I enjoy that I can spend time with them at work as people, and not just as workplace proximity associates.  However, sometimes this takes up a great deal of time, especially if I have work to do.  I need to do a better job of telling people that I need to get to work.  But at the same time, if I have the time to be friendly, I want to do that as well.  I’m not sure what to do about this, except to keep an eye on it and see what happens.

Students.  Yes, students.  Nearly everything I’ve been writing about so far comes back to students.  Because we want to be there for our students, and the students want us to be there for them.  However, we also do not – let me repeat, we do not – have to be on call.  In fact, we should not be.  We are entitled to a life outside our jobs, and this means we are entitled to a life outside our students.  We are entitled to not be on call.^^  And do not allow people to tell you that not being on call – or not otherwise devoting your free time to your job – is inappropriate.  To this end, some rules regarding students:

  1. Students do not get my personal email.  Ever.  For any reason.  They can contact me through the university-provided email.
  2. Students do not get my cell phone number.  Ever.  For any reason.  They can leave a message for me on my work voicemail, if they need to call me.  (If I have messages, I check them first thing when I get into the office.)
  3. Students do not get to friend me on Facebook.  Ever.  For any reason.  I am friends with a few former students, but never before they graduate.  There is absolutely no reason why students should need to contact me via Facebook.^^^

This does not mean that I am not available to my students.  And it certainly does not mean that I don’t care.  I am invested in doing my job well, and I do want my students to succeed.  However, this does not mean that I have to devote my life to my students.  One thing to remember is that teaching is a job.  And while many will try to convince you otherwise – teaching is a calling! teaching is your passion! nothing is more important than the work done by teachers!^^^^ – you do not have to devote your life to your job in order to do your job well.

I suppose I could write more, but it’s time for lunch, and then I have a plant I need to take care of.

Ultimately, the goal is to find a balance that works for you.  But the truth is, the job will never provide that balance for you.  Neither will students or colleagues.  This one is on you.  And I promise you, you deserve it.


*Yes, I listed colleague twice.  Because more often than not, this advice comes from colleagues.  Sometimes it’s well meaning; there are things I am good at, and colleagues want to enlist my help in certain areas.  Other times, it’s an excuse to try and off-load some work (beware the phrase “good opportunity”).  It’s not so much that it can be hard to see the difference between the two; it’s that it doesn’t matter.  Good intentions don’t give you more hours in the day.

**Exception: you can steal from this time to sleep.  Or really, any other non-work-related activity.  If you want to use your research time to hike, or do yoga, or play with children, or do some gardening, or lose yourself in some art…that’s just fine.  A good rule of thumb is that if you want to divert work-based time to personal activities, go right ahead.  But never the reverse.

***This might sound silly, but I think this is incredibly important.  I get home from work and I immediately change out of my “work clothes” (which, some days, might just be jeans and a t-shirt), into something more comfortable.  I literally peel my work off of my body, put it in the hamper, and am done with it.  And after a nice walk home from the office, by the time I get home, I am often ready to get back to the important “work” of living my life.

****That said, I have a first day of school ritual: Thai take-out and Taza chocolates.  I treat myself to large amounts of both after the first day of classes, while watching something fun on Netflix.  Speaking of which, I highly recommend establishing some rituals of your own.

^Of course, it’s not just my students.  But most of my colleagues know this, and rarely do I get emails from colleagues between these hours.  And most of the ones I do get during those hours are best ignored.

^^I have repeatedly told people that I’m actually happy to be on call, but only if I am paid for it.  I’m happy to be paid to be more available outside of work hours (even beyond my very generous email availability).  But I want to get paid for it.  The last hourly job I had paid me $20/hour; that was with an MA and back in the 1990s.  Let’s say that a reasonable number – based on better qualifications and inflation – is $40/hour (and even that is seriously under-selling it).  But if my work wants me to to be on call, that’s the starting rate: I’ll bill $40/hour for every hour I am on call.

^^^In fact, most of the Facebook interactions I have are with people I don’t see regularly.  Rarely do I find the need to have extended online conversations with people I see in person on a regular basis.  That said, if you do use social media to connect to your students, regulate it in some capacity.  Again, the goal here is to have a clean split between time you spend working, and time you spend not working.

^^^^Always true…until it’s time to talk salary.

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“Long live all the mountains we moved”

Four weeks from today, the fall semester begins.  And that means that I am thinking about – and prepping for – my classes.  And as always, I’m enjoying re-reading familiar material, learning quite a bit by reading new material, and increasingly wishing I had done more hiking while I had the time.*

And because I am now the director of my department’s graduate program, this means I also need to start laying plans for that program.  I have already posted about some of my pedagogical plans, and given the success of last semester’s Thesis Workshop, I will continue those plans.**

But I also need to start planning for the administrative changes I want to make.  I have already begun working with the Graduate Studies Office to develop a new recruiting program, which we both think could increase the number of applications, and ideally the number of enrollments.  Given that we have only admitted two new students for the fall, we are in dire need of better numbers to justify the expense of the program.***  I am also talking with people about developing a new option for our capstone project (that students could do instead of the thesis), which could include a service learning option.  I am cautiously optimistic about this initiative.^

And there is one issue I need to push, even though I suspect that nothing will come of it: workload.

If we do succeed in bringing more students into the graduate program, we will then have more students completing thesis projects (or other capstone projects, if I things work out as I hope).  And this will require more faculty to advise these projects.  And that’s work.  “But,” I can hear you ask, “isn’t that your job?”  Yes.  But actually, no.  Let me explain.

According to our program guidelines, students must take the Thesis Workshop course, and then register for 9 thesis credits (the equivalent of three graduate classes) to work on their projects.  Students register for these credits with an advisor, who works directly with the students.  (Students also select a second reader, whose involvement can be as active – or not – as the student and advisor see fit.)  When students are done, they defend their theses, and then apply for graduation.

Where this becomes a workload issue is that faculty are uncompensated for this work.  Essentially, this is volunteer work.  Now, one might argue that this falls under “service.”  However, I am not such a one.  To begin, this is quite clearly “teaching.”  Faculty are using their expertise to instruct, advise, and mentor students, for the purpose of completing academic work.  That’s teaching, plain and simple.  Further, “service” is generally done for the benefit of the department, college or university.  That is not the case here; the students – and the students alone – benefit from this work.  And because the students register for these credits as they would register for classes, our system recognizes this as “teaching.”  I am convinced that faculty have been encouraged to think of this as “service” to avoid having to compensate us for this work.

But no, it’s not “service.”  For starters, in my 10 years in the department, I cannot recall a single instance of this coming up in anybody’s application for reappointment, tenure, or promotion.  And on the flip side of that coin, I cannot recall any discussion for personnel actions where not doing this work was held against a faculty member.  In short, do it or don’t, it doesn’t matter when it comes to our careers.^^  Similarly, this work is not asked for on the Faculty Information Forms we are asked to fill out every year.  In fact, you should notice that “service” is explicitly defined as either “administrative/committee assignments,” “college-related public service,” or “community service.”  Thesis advising does not fit into this section of the form.  And if you go back to the “teaching” portion of the form, it doesn’t exist there, either.  While there is a space to note “academic advising,” this is for the students’ academic advisors; as director of the graduate program, I am the academic advisor for every student in the program.

In short, there is no official recognition – in any capacity – for this work.  It does not “count” for anything, and at no point are faculty asked to account for it in their end of year reports.  (For the record, when I do this work, I write it up under my “teaching” section.  To date, nobody who has read these forms has remarked on it in any way.)  If there is no official recognition, then this is not work.  And if it’s not work, there’s no good reason to do it as part of the job.

But there is one more point, which I only just realized: students are paying to register for these thesis credits.  The university charges students full tuition to register for these credits.  Students pay to register for thesis credits, and faculty work with students on the completion of those credits; but faculty are not paid for that work, as the credits do not come out of our yearly 24-credit- hour contractual load.  To give one recent, and telling example of how abusive this can be: one of my colleagues taught a 12-credit-hour load last semester, while also advising a graduate student who registered for 9 thesis credits with him.  Officially, this faculty member was on the books as performing 21 credit hours’ worth of teaching, but was only paid for 12.  Granted, this is an anomaly, but it’s common for students to register for 6 thesis credits in their final semesters, meaning that the faculty they work with are on the books for 18 officially-recognized credit hours’ worth of student-directed work, but are only paid for 12.

Before you ask, I have no idea where this tuition money goes.  Granted, where tuition money goes is a complicated issue.  But as some point, tuition money reaches the faculty members who teach the courses, even if there is no direct correlation between the work being done and the tuition being paid.

Here, we have a clear case of students paying to work with faculty, and faculty not being compensated for doing that work.  And that is exploitation, plan and simple.  And because we require students to complete this work, this means that someone on the faculty will have to perform this work, and will not get paid for doing it.

Just this past week, two of my colleagues approached me to tell me that they cannot do this work.  For different reasons, they cannot afford to to unpaid work.   Both of them recognize that this might put students at a disadvantage, given that students may want to work on thesis projects in these faculty members’ areas of specialization.  And I’m sure they also recognize that, if they do not do this work, it will fall to someone else, who also will not get paid for it.

So at some point in the fall semester, I will going to speak to the provost about this (with my department chair, who has been working on department workload issues for the past year).  I’m not sure anything will come of it; I mean, let’s be honest, when in the history of ever has anybody agreed to start paying employees work for they have been doing for free in the past?  But if I can’t make any headway, maybe I can convince my colleagues to stop doing this work.  Maybe, if students cannot register for thesis credits to complete their degrees, the university will accept that something has to change.^^^

If I’m going to serve as director of this program, I should have some direction.  And if I can’t direct my efforts to fixing problems, then what’s the point of being in charge?


*I’m hoping to go hiking on Wednesday, if the current weather forecast holds.

**In time, I will work this into my undergraduate courses.  Because those courses meet on a different schedule, I will need to think about this.  But I am thinking.

***Even though nobody can ever give me numbers, everyone assures me that the graduate program does not cost money.  But that cannot be true.  My department is running two courses for graduate students, holding open seats in one hybrid course for graduate students, and I get a course release for directing the program.  That’s 3+ courses that our graduate program is costing us.  We currently have 4 graduate students in coursework, including the two admitted for the fall.  We have to either admit more students, or we have to shut down the program.  To be honest, I am torn on which would be the better option.

^The people at the Center for Applied Learning are excited, as are the people in Graduate Studies.  And administration (including the Provost) likes this idea.  Now, if I could only convince my department…

^^This is not unlike some of the other kinds of service work that don’t really matter.  For instance, attending recruiting events.  Faculty – especially untenured faculty – are often told that this is a “good opportunity” (always beware that phrase!), and “counts as service.”  But truth be told, that isn’t true.  It never comes up.  Ever.  Doing it is not rewarded; not doing it is not penalized.  It literally doesn’t matter to our careers.  (Whether it’s effective or not for recruiting is another question, and one that nobody seems to be able to answer, as we do not collect, much less keep and study, any data on the subject.  The general belief seems to be that faculty should attend recruitment events because doing so increases enrollments.  But the only evidence anyone has to support that is anecdotal.)

^^^Truth be told, I’d actually be fine with eliminating the thesis requirement entirely, and replacing it with coursework.  Pedagogical arguments aside, this would allow faculty to be paid for their work.

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“I’m not trying to play the guitar. I’m trying to play music.” -Michael Hedges

Although I still have one more set of finals to grade, my semester is over.  As some of you may remember, this is my first semester back from a sabbatical last fall.  And it likely won’t surprise you that I was both excited and frustrated at the same time.  It was great to get back into the classroom and work with students, though it took me some time to accept that I would have to put my research agenda aside for a few months, especially after finally finding my rhythm with this new book project.*  But most importantly, I was excited to try something new with one of my classes, a graduate level Thesis Workshop.

Without question, my class was success.  By the end of the semester, the students had produced thoughtful, compelling thesis proposals that outline projects exploring multiple discourse communities and engaging in interdisciplinary thinking.  Sure, they have a great deal of work ahead of them, and these projects will no doubt change over time.  But the goal of the course was to get students to the point where they can begin a long-term thesis project, and these students are absolutely there.  Just as importantly, they are excited about their projects.  But most importantly – to me, anyway – is how they got to this point.

As I noted in my earlier post (linked above), I wanted to engage in what one friend has called “intellectual cross training,” and to help students to develop practices that inspired them to think and work creatively.  Because my department’s graduate program is designed to encourage interdisciplinary work, I needed to get students thinking across disciplines, as opposed to merely using research from different disciplines.  How, in other words, do different fields define research questions, and how do they engage those questions?  Again, all we did was start on this path, but I am happy with where my students are headed.  Both students, at different points, came to class concerned that they did not know enough to understand some of the materials they collected for their annotated bibliographies.  Both students  told me that, in order to understand this work, they had to go to other resources to understand how people in those fields think and write.  That impulse right there is a good one, and demonstrated to me that, while they have much work ahead of them, they are approaching that work properly.

I like to believe that one reason students were able to do such work is because we spent a fair amount of time talking about, thinking about, and exploring creativity.  For instance, we spent one week discussing Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, where the students had to do some of the drawing exercises she assigned her students, and talk about their process.  We also spent a week listening to different versions of My Favorite Things,” and explored how artists take existing songs, melodies, phrases, and play with them in order to create something that is both recognizable and new.

Another reason that the students were open to this kind of work is that they both have undergraduate degrees in Creative Writing, and continue to work on their art.  These students were familiar and comfortable with the workshop format, and came to our workshops (4, over the course of the semester) knowing that what they brought was going to be later revised into something new.  They knew that the goal of the workshop was to develop the piece, to ask about what else it could do, or where else it could go.  That is, they came to class knowing that the work was not yet done, and that even if they could not yet see where else it could go, the workshop would help them figure that out.

I was also thankful that the students were open to my efforts at “mindful movement,” and at times they were thankful for it.  Once, we did move some tables and do some yoga in class to take a break from the intellectual work.  But mostly, we spent our time walking.  First we took short walks around the building, to really explore the physical space we were in.  But for the most part, we went outside and walked around campus.  Our conversations were about whatever popped up (though music was a favorite topic of ours***), but always led us back to where we needed to be.  We found that we couldn’t escape talking about class, no matter how hard we tried.  And that was a good thing.  We left the room, went outside, told jokes and stories, randomly hit on topics, and found our way back to the class discussion through new connections, coming at issues from new angles.  In fact, we did some of best “thinking” for this class while outside, walking around campus, investigating a wooden bridge or a tree that looked interesting.

And as I have thought about this course during the semester****, I kept coming back to on question: why are we not requiring students in my department to take Creative Writing courses?

I have long complained about students’ aversion to risk taking and creative approaches to their writing.  (I’d link to various blog posts, but I touch on this so often I can’t pick just one blog post.)  And many of my colleagues – and friends across academia – have made similar complaints.  We can point the finger wherever we like, and while that might make us feel better, it doesn’t solve the problem.  And sure, I do a fair amount of finger-pointing, but at the end of the day, I’d rather solve a problem than complain about it.  And I think one way we could attempt to solve the problem is to force our students to take Creative Writing courses.

In order to earn a BFA in Creative Writing, students must take at least 6 courses devoted to analyzing literature.  This is, of course, a good thing.  I firmly believe that students become better writers – better artists – by approaching literature as thoughtful, critical readers as well as craftspeople.  Literature majors, however, do not need to take a single creative writing class.  Is it not just as important for people studying literature to have done some work approaching literature as craft, and not just as an object of study?

Admittedly, some students will end up taking a Creative Writing class in order to fulfill a General Education requirement.^  However, I encourage my students to fulfill that requirement outside of the department, in order to spend some time engaged in an art they may not otherwise engage.  But more importantly, I do not believe that we should allow the General Education program to do work that I increasingly see as vital for my department majors.

I know what some of you may be thinking: we already teach “writing” in the Literature program.  Students have to take courses in academic writing, and they will develop their writing in upper-division literature courses.  And hell, isn’t all writing really just the same thing?  (OK, none of you are thinking that.  Or at least, I hope not.)  But isn’t that how it’s commonly taught?  Learn the basics – which you get in Freshman Writing and other lower-division courses – and the rest os just practice?  In other words, why are we demanding that Creative Writing students take multiple workshops to improve their writing, but Literature students don’t have to take any?  Sure, some faculty may have students do some writing workshop work in the classroom, but I suspect those classes are few and far between.^^

Admittedly, one reason for this – and is my reason for not doing more of this work right now – is that class sizes often prevent it.  Creative Writing courses are already unjustifiably large.  Literature courses are even larger, and doing effective workshopping with 29 students in the class just isn’t good pedagogy.  Small class sizes – not to mention better facilities – would go a long way to encouraging faculty to do this kind of work, work that I suspect everyone would agree is valuable.

But if we cannot turn every Literature class into a writing workshop (at least in part), can’t we have them take creative writing classes?

If we want our students to embrace creativity, to approach writing as a craft and not just as a means to an end^^^, why do we not require them to work with our Creative Writing faculty, faculty who have spent years approaching writing as a craft?

It certainly cannot do them any harm, and will undoubtedly serve them well.


*I also had a fantastic opportunity come my way, the chance to contribute a couple chapters to a forthcoming volume in Oxford UP’s History of the Novel in English.  This required reading some new – and very long! – novels, and the realization that I am in no way capable of doing justice to the topic, American historical novels after 1940.  I ended up having a great deal of fun with this, and developed a profound respect for people who do this kind of work well.  I’m glad I got to do this, because it forced me to do a kind of writing I have never tried before.  I’ll get back to this idea later in this post.

**One of my pet peeves in research projects – at any level – is when students see “research” as an exercise in finding quotations in published work that they can drop into their work to prove they did research.

***For reasons I don’t remember, we spent a fair amount of time at the end of our classes playing music videos, and ended up looking at quite a lot of hair metal.  Those of you who know me well know that I unapologetically love hair metal.  Often, I swear, this was related to some aspect of our conversations about their research.  One class, where we discussed obvious sexual imagery in art, led me to show my students what I believe to be the least subtle of all the hair metal works.  You’re welcome.

****I’ll save for another time how I plan on incorporating over time these various lessons into my other classes.  You know, once I figure out that plan.  But I will slowly work aspects of this pedagogical approach into my teaching on a fundamental level.  It will take time, but I have a long career to work this out.

^I have recently joined the university’s General Education Task Force, which is charged with re-thinking our General Education program.  This is very important work, and I am encouraged by the spirit of change and openness to new ideas reflected by many on the task force.  Instead of trying to “fix” what’s wrong, we are planning on completely redesigning the program.  This is about blowing it up and building anew, and not tweaking what currently exists.

^^Although I never had the opportunity to study with him, my friends from grad school all speak about the wonderful work Prof. Tom Jambeck did in the classroom.  If memory serves, he had students engage in “wrangling” exercises, which were intense workshops for the graduate students.  These exercises were not merely about content, but were honest workshopping events, geared to help the students become better writers as well as better thinkers.  It would not surprise me to learn that some of his students continue that practice in their classes today.

^^^I had a student this semester, a very smart student, who does not at all approach writing as a craft.  He’s bright and thoughtful – and over the past few years has come a long way in his thinking – but a terrible writer.  If spent half as much time to writing as a craft as he does to thinking about abstract ideas, he would be one of the department’s best students.  Sadly, in all the years I have known him, he has not spent any significant time trying to become a better writer, despite all the time he has devoted to becoming a better reader.

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