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.

Time

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.

Body

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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The Charlatan in the Room. The Secrets of Your Part-time Professor.

By Kareme D’Wheat Another semester begins. I arrive early, well dressed, and prepared for action. Like a doctor making a house call, I bring all my own equipment, tools, toys, bells and whistles. I…

Source: The Charlatan in the Room. The Secrets of Your Part-time Professor.

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Each day’s a repetition / Of the one that went before / Like watching an old movie / You can’t sit through anymore

One of the joys of teaching is that I get to have the same conversations over and over again.  Every time I teach Introduction to Literature, I get to enjoy watching students slowly come to the realization of just how much information Hemingway can convey in so few words in “Hills Like White Elephants.”  Every time I teach Literary Analysis and Research, I am treated to the excitement students share when they finally have a language and framework to talk/write about the social forces they can feel operating in society, but have not yet been given the language and framework to understand them.  I will never tire of watching students make sense of what before confused them.

That said, one of the difficulties of teaching is that I have to have the same conversations over and over again.  This afternoon, I had two such conversations.

This afternoon, a student came into my office hours and asked me why I don’t assign more papers in my classes.  This conversation always amuses me, because the former student in me wonders why someone would ask for *more* work.  This conversation always comes after students have not done well on the early assignments, and are looking for a way to improve their grades; the more assignments they can complete, the more chances they have to improve.  This particular student did not turn in the first paper, and has admitted to often coming to class without having done the reading.  “Why,” I asked this student, “do you think that if I assigned more work, you would have done it?”  In other words, if the student is not turning in the few papers I assign, why should I believe the student would get the work done if I assigned more papers?

At the beginning of the semester, I always explain my pedagogy to students: I assign few papers, because I expect students will spend more time on them.  Instead of assigning more work, I expect students to spend more time on the work I do assign.*  I offer to work with them as often as they need during office hours, and regularly remind them during the semester when the due dates are.  But no matter how often I do this, I always have students who come to me – always around midterms and again before the final exam – to ask me if I can assign them more work.**

Today’s student was no different.  And as always happens when I have this conversation, the student told me that he does better in classes when he regularly writes down his responses of the readings.  So I asked him, “In what way am I preventing you from doing that?”  He looked confused, so I told him that if he knows certain practices help him better understand the material and perform better in class, he’s welcome to engage in those practices.  And as always happens, the student told me that he doesn’t do those things because I don’t assign them.

A similar conversation I always have – and which I had again today – is the conversation about drafts.  Today, a student came to me and asked why I don’t require students to turn in first drafts for papers.  I regularly remind students of upcoming deadlines and remind them that I am happy to discuss notes and drafts during office hours, but I do not require students to turn in drafts for credit.  Today, I once again had a student tell me that she always does better work – and earns better grades – when she works in drafts, rather than turning in the first draft of a paper.  And always, I asked this student why she hasn’t been doing that for this class; and as always, she replied, “because it’s not required.”

The most frustrating part of this conversation is not necessarily that I have it every semester (because I recognize that this may well be the first time the students have had it).  The most frustrating part of this conversation is that the students know what they need to do, but they choose not to do it, because that work isn’t explicitly required.

Some will attribute this to laziness.  And perhaps some students are lazy.  But that’s a cheap answer.  In some cases, students are overworked (both in the classroom and off campus, especially those who are working one or more jobs to make ends meet); in such cases, students may not have time to do anything not explicitly assigned.  However, in that case, those students wold not have time to complete that work if I did assign it, or they would not have the time to complete it properly.

My suspicion, however – and this is based largely on my conversations with these students – is that many of these students have been trained to only do what is explicitly assigned, and have been trained not to work outside of the explicit parameters of an assignment.  This is, as I have seen, a hard habit to break.

The second student today, for instance, told me that she’s used to turning in drafts for her composition classes, but not her literature classes, because her composition professors require her to turn in drafts.  When I suggested to her that the skills and methods she learns in her composition classes can be brought to bear on her other classes, she told me that she never thought of that.  By the end of our conversation, it was clear that she saw “drafting” as something one does in composition classes, but not something that one does when writing outside of those specific classes.

I am positive that I will have this same conversation again later in the semester (most likely after students get this round of papers back, and then again right before the final exam).  And I know I will have it again in subsequent semesters.  And sure, I could assign more work and require students to turn in drafts of papers.  And that might result in those students doing better work and earning better grades.***  But it won’t address the problem, that some students don’t see that the skills they learn in one class can be employed in other classes, that their education is supposed to be a unified dynamic, and not a series of independent experiences.

Honestly, I place much of the blame for this on what has come to be called “assessment culture,” whereby education is broken down into measurable units that are individually isolated and assessed.  Students earn set amounts of points for each unit, and the points are added together for a final class grade.  The grades for these various, independent classes are then averaged together for a GPA, which stands as a reflection of the students’ academic achievement.

But in the move toward gathering quantifiable data, we have lost the notion of education as totalizing, as an integral part of the human experience.

“Education” is no longer a long-term, multi-part process, but a short-term, measurable goal.

What do you all do in your classes to fight against this way of thinking?  How do you help students see the value of integrating the skills and knowledge learned in their various classes?  How do you get them to employ skills learned in other classes in your classes?

*I have the same theory about assigning reading.  I’d rather students read fewer works in depth – perhaps reading those works more than once – than read more works quickly.

**One reason I don’t assign extra credit is that I rarely find it helps for students turning in poor work to turn in more of it.  Not matter how many D papers a student turns in, the grade averages to a D.  I’d much rather students focus on what assignments remain, and demonstrate their ability to improve the quality of their work.

***Those students who do work in drafts always end up doing better work because of it.  Always.  But if students already know this, why don’t they use this knowledge to their advantage?

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I knew you were trouble when you walked in / So shame on me now

Now that I am back from sabbatical, I am becoming involved in all of the areas of my job again.  I’m teaching again, and that’s going great.  I’m identifying committees that I want to work with to improve accessibility issues on campus.  And I’m looking for certain fights to pick.  This post will be devoted to one of them.

Louisiana has been in the national news recently, because the state is claiming that it cannot afford to keep their state universities running.  The Governor is claiming that in order to keep the universities open, the state needs to increases taxes.

The argument here is that the universities are not taking in enough money to cover their expenses.  So what are their important expenses?

For starters, the football team.

The LSU football team employs ten coaches: one head coach and nine assistants.  This staff earns nearly $10,000,000 combined in annual salary (not including incentives and other bonuses).  That’s nearly $10,000,000 for ten employees.  Let that sink in.

No, really, let that sink in.  It will probably take a while.

I’m pretty smart, and not bad with numbers, and I cannot make any sense of this.  This is not how much money the university spends on football.  This is how much the university spends to employ ten people on its very large football staff (which includes trainers, recruiters, administrative assistants, grounds crew, etc.).  And that’s just one of the sports.  There are other sports, with other coaches, who also earn rather large salaries.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if all of these coaches found their salaries cut in half, they could still find a way to get by.  If Les Miles only earned $2,000,000 per year, he would still be – by far – the highest paid employee at LSU.  (Hell, even if he were only paid his incentives, he would still likely be the highest paid employee at LSU.

LSU is just the latest high-profile example, but we see this at universities across the country. The institutions pay salaries for top executive positions that is modeled on private sector business salaries. And because they see this model as expected, they do not consider cutting those salaries as a budget-saving device. The budget shortfalls are always responded to with either cuts to programs or tuition spikes.

It’s not just LSU, and it’s not just Louisiana, that is facing this problem.  New York is facing a similar problem – budget shortfalls – and shows a similar refusal to rethinking how it spends money.  Top executives are paid massive salaries – especially when compared to the salaries of the faculty and non-executive staff – and the ask others to make up any budget shortfalls.

For instance, a few years ago SUNY Potsdam faculty renegotiated their contract, and a major concession in that contract was a mandatory salary reduction, meaning that every paycheck, a portion of our salaries would be held back by the state to offset budget shortfalls.*  Executive administrative salaries were exempt from this.  The budget was bad enough for faculty and staff to kick back money, but not nearly bad enough for executive administrators to do so.

Budget problems are also the reason why departments cannot hire tenure track replacements for needed lines.  My department offers a BFA in Creative Writing – one of the few of such programs in the state – and we currently have only one tenure track line devoted to this program.**  We used to have two.  This means we are down one tenure track line, which translates to roughly 1/3 of the courses offered, for this program.  We have been arguing that we need to replace this line, and have been told that the university cannot afford it.  However, we can afford to create a new Associate Vice President position for diversity.***

So instead of hiring a new tenure track faculty member for Creative Writing, we are hiring a 2/3-time 3-year Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing.  (The title suggests that this is a full-time position, but it is not.)  This position will pay $30,000 annually (which is roughly $15,000 less than what we would offer a new tenure track hire), and will not be subject to cost of living raises.  This person will teach 4 courses per year (as opposed to the 6 that a new tenure track hire would teach), and be expected to engage in university service as well as maintain an active creative output.  Other than advising students (and keeping in mind a 2/3 teaching load), this person will be asked to do the same work as his/her tenure track colleagues.

When I objected to this, noting that such a hire is exploitative, I was told that this is a standard type of hire for this kind of position, and that this is a good compromise given that we are not approved to hire a tenure track line in this area.****  Neither of these are acceptable excuses.  First, that this is standard does not mean it’s not exploitative.  It’s also standard to pay executive administrators massive salaries and keep adjuncts below the poverty line.  “Standard” is simply another word for which abuses we have learned to live with.  Similarly, I refuse to accept that this is a compromise; we are hiring less than what we need, paying less than what we should, and thanking the administration for the opportunity.  This person will be replacing a tenure track colleague who taught a full load and advised students, meaning that her work has been shifted to other colleagues (or simply left undone), and the new hire will only pick up 2/3 of that workload.

Universities are increasingly relying on a non-tenure track and non-full time teaching force, while simultaneously constructing larger executive administrative staffs whose salaries increasingly out-pace those of the rest of the employees.  New campus initiatives often mean new executive administrators to oversee those programs, while those new programs rarely result in new faculty or non-executive staff to help develop and implement these programs.  (Increasingly, we are told to make various changes on “existing resources.”^)

This system will eventually topple.  This kind of thinking is unsustainable.  And it exposes a blatant hypocrisy.  Bloated salaries for executive administrators are often justified in terms of the market: to get competitive executive administrators, we need to hire a competitive salaries.  And I am left to wonder why this is not true for faculty and staff positions.

Or perhaps it is true, but the institution has decided that faculty and staff needs are not important enough to hire competitive applicants.

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*At first, this was pitched to faculty as a furlough.  In the first year, we were furloughed over Thanksgiving break, and told that we were not expected to show up to work on the days that the university was closed.  Our union representative told us that we were expected to take Thanksgiving off, and put off any work – committee work, grading, course preparation, etc. – until the following work day.  In short, we were supposed to do the same amount of work, but not get paid for it.  The following year, the university stopped bothering with the pretense of an imaginary furlough, and just kept taking the money.

**We have a few faculty members – including one non-tenure track colleague – who offer courses for this program.

***I want to note that I do not think such a position is frivolous.  In fact, I support SUNY’s desire – as a system – to improve its approach to issues of diversity in administrative, curricular, and personnel matters.  However, what I object to is the idea that the best way to serve that need to is create another executive administrator position (and every campus in the SUNY system is being asked to create such a position), while faculty and staff positions that directly serve the students go unfilled.

****For full disclosure, I should note that we are hiring a tenure track position to fill a line in Composition.  We were given the opportunity to hire one tenure track position and one non-tenure track position, and this is what the department decided.

^The former dean of Arts and Sciences came to my department once and told us that our new plan for the college was to “do less with less.”

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And I know what’s been on your mind / You’re afraid it’s all been wasted time

Although the semester does not start until the end of the month, I went into the office to do some work today.  This is not abnormal for me; there are many parts of the job I refuse to do from home, in an effort to better separate my work life from the rest of my life.  I actually spent a fair amount of time in the office during my sabbatical.  I write better in the office, do not want to have to worry about bringing home everything I might need, and have become very good about closing the office door and making sure nobody knows I’m there.*

I managed to get quit a bit of work done, even if my pre-sabbatical plans were much grander.  I drafted the introduction and first two (of four) chapters, have a good sense of where the next two chapters will go, and even spoke with some editors at a press that would like to see this draft when I am done with it.  Although I need to take some time away this semester – because I am teaching, starting my gig as the director of my department’s graduate program, and have a smaller project with a hard deadline to work on – I am more excited about this project now than I was when I started it.  I hope to have the whole book drafted by the end of the summer.

Anyway, I went into the office today.  Finalized and made copies of my syllabi, made copies of some handouts I will need, responded to a few emails…and stayed abut 90 minutes longer than I had planned.  90 minutes longer than I needed to.  And thinking about this on the walk home, I realized something that I’m sure many of you already know:

The office is not necessarily where work gets done; quite often, it’s also where work gets created.

One of the best things about being on sabbatical was that I did not have to be on campus, for any reason.  I was not ever expected to be there.  So if somebody needed me, they had to email me.**  This was very different from most semesters, when all someone had to do was come to my office.  After a couple weeks, we all get a general sense of who is around at what time.  I hold regular office hours, and am always in my office when I get a break between classes, as well as at the start and end of each day.  So once we all got familiar with the department schedule/routine, people who needed me could generally count on when I would be on campus.

This, inevitably, led to many informal chats, conversations, and even a couple pick-up meetings, most of which could have been handled by an email (or, sometimes, not at all).

I know I’m not alone in this, but I loathe most meetings.  And that’s because most meetings are too long, and many of them don’t need to happen.  But sadly, many people feel that “work” requires meetings.  This is another aspects of “the corporate university” that is slowly but insistently creeping in on our work.  And unfortunately, there are a great many faculty who embrace this model.

A few years ago, I was on a committee chaired by such a person.  At the start of the semester, the new chair suggested that we meet every month.  Confused, I asked what it was we were working on, as we didn’t have anything carrying over from the previous semester.  This chair told us that there was no work that had to be done, but s/he thought it would be wise to check in once a month, so we could “debrief” and “brainstorm” if there was a need to.  By our third meeting, we had some work to do.  But the first two meetings – which this chair called, and scheduled a conference room for – ended five minutes after they began.  This was the most extreme version of such pointless meetings, but certainly not the only example.  More often, this kind of wasted time comes in the form of people wandering by and turning a simple “can I ask you a quick question?” into something far more prolonged.

This is only going to increase next semester, when I officially start a new administrative position.  There will be required meetings – with the graduate committee, with the university graduate studies program, etc. – and that will be bad enough.***  I have no doubt that here will be even more of these meetings that cold have been emails, too.

One thing I need to do a better job of when I get back is doing a much better job of not getting swept up in this wave of the corporate university.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind productive meetings.  (I even managed to sit in on a few of them at the end of last semester, as I was transitioning into my new role.  Productive meetings – which get things done, and don’t waste time – can actually be enjoyable experiences.)  But unproductive meetings, and non-meetings that turn into meetings, and meetings that really should have been emails, need to be avoided, if not eliminated.

*When I was discovered on campus, the most common question I was asked was some version of “I thought you weren’t working this semester.”  It’s both sad and unsurprising that so many of my colleagues equate “work” with “teaching.”  (Several people actually suggested to me that I was wasting my sabbatical by spending it working.  With that kind of attitude among the faculty, I can see why administration wants to cut sabbaticals.  Luckily, many of us do not see sabbaticals that way.)

**Sometimes, people emailed me even when they didn’t need me.  But on the whole, the number of nonsense emails dropped while I was on sabbatical.  I’m really going to miss going days at a time without someone emailing me.

***I have already had one such meeting, and will have another one soon.  There are many people I need to be in contact with to do this job well, and one of them seems to love turning emails into meetings.  Twice now I have emailed this person for information – information that could have been sent back to me over email – but this person insists on meeting in person to deliver this information.  I don’t know this person well enough yet to know if this s/he loves meetings (and a fair number of people do seem to keep track of their productivity based on meetings) or doesn’t want to commit information to email (and a fair number of people, especially administrators, do seem keen on not ever committing to specifics).

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