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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Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes

Next semester, I return to teaching, and for the first time will be teaching our graduate program’s Thesis Workshop, which is designed to help students develop identify a research question, engage in research, and draft a thesis proposal.  When I was first approached to teach this, I admit, I was not pleased.  I find research methods-based courses to be pretty boring.  Necessary, sure, but also boring.  But once I realized that I can change that, I became increasingly interested in this course.

I should also note that I’ve only had about two weeks to draft a syllabus for this course, which I think worked in my favor.  Had I more time, I likely would have talked myself out of the various…non-traditional things I want to do with this class.  I would have over-thought everything, and in the end likely would have gone with something more traditional, and perhaps more boring.

In short, I want to spend less time on the research-methods focus of this course, and introduce into it some readings and exercises that (hopefully) will inspire interdisciplinary thinking and creative approaches to their research questions.  I may fail, and I may even fail spectacularly.  But that’s ok, too; I fail all the time.

I’m still working out the week-to-week details, but I wanted to share some of the broad strokes, and solicit any advice you might want to share.

Workshopping

Part of this course will involve sharing and workshopping various drafts of the thesis proposal (which includes an annotated bibliography).  At four points during the semester, students  will workshop their drafts, with each workshop focusing on a different set of questions: How clear is the research question?  What different disciplines are engaged?  What are the smaller pieces that must be addressed in order to complete the project?  How is the project changing with each revision (and as more time is spent in research)?  Ideally, students will become comfortable with the idea that research projects change over time, and that embracing this inevitable change leads to better research, as well as a more profound learning experience.*

Interdisciplinary Thinking

According to the course description, this course builds upon the interdisciplinary research methods developed in Intro to Graduate Studies (which I will be teaching for the first time next fall).  And while it’s useful to spend time on the various resources used by scholars in various disciplines, I also think we need to spend time reading interdisciplinary scholarship to help students see what an interdisciplinary research question might look like.  How do we formulate interdisciplinary research questions?  How do engage in the research to address them?  How do we work within multiple discourse traditions?  For this reason, we will be reading Arthur I. Miller‘s Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc.  We will spend two weeks reading and discussing this work, focusing on how and why he identifies the parameters of the research project, as well as how he addresses it.

Creativity

This, admittedly, will be the most difficult part of the course.  How does one inspire creativity?  It’s common to invite students to “think outside of the box,” but how does one encourage that?  As one friend (herself a sharp thinking with an interdisciplinary academic background) puts it, we should engage in “intellectual cross training.”  I can personally attest to the value of getting one’s head out of one’s work and exploring something new.  Earlier this semester, I took an online Intro to Mathematical Thinking class.  At times, it was quite challenging, and there’s a great I didn’t fully grasp.  But doing the work worked my brain in unexpected ways.  And this is why, of all the works of interdisciplinary scholarship I could have chosen, I selected one that works with art and physics.  Given that most of the students in our MA program come from the broad umbrella of “language arts,” I want my students to be engaging with a discursive tradition outside of their background and training.

Additionally, my students will be reading Lynda Barry‘s Syllabus, and completing some of the assignments she gives to her students.  The purpose is not necessarily to get them to draw, but to get them to engage in work that allows them to stop thinking directly about their projects and to, to continue the athletic analogy, work under-used muscles that contribute to overall health.  We will also spend one week listening to various versions of “My Favorite Things,” and investigating the ways such different performances can all still be manifestations of one song, while also looking at how one different artists can all build off of the work of previous artists.  Ideally, students will see how all projects are built upon the work of other, existing projects.**

Professional Development

Although unstated in the course description, one reason for this course is to help students engage in professional development in drafting and revision professional text.  Alongside that aspect of professional development, I will also be helping students develop their conference presentation skills.***  Developing good work is important.  But if that work isn’t shared with the right audience, then that work might just go to waste.  How do we identify the best audiences for this work?  How do we present that work to those audiences?  Hopefully, by the end of the semester, we can start to address these as well.

Mindful Movement

The final piece to this course is one that I’m not including on the syllabus.  I know that I get fidgety and bored when sitting in the same seat for long periods of time, and I assume my students do, too.  And while it’s common for students to be given a break, I want to do something deliberate with this break.  In an effort to avoid over-efforting, I will be inviting my students to join me during the break to do a little yoga.  We won’t be pulling out mats and blocks and doing a full practice,^ but we will spend some time in class getting out of our books, away from our thoughts, and focusing on our breathing and some simple movements.  I hope this will help us to clear our minds, as well as stave off the physical discomfort that comes from sitting in a classroom for extended periods.

I’ve written before about “teaching less,” and want to make sure I don’t view this class as an excuse to cram too much work into a the course calendar.  Yes, there are always more readings to include, more drafts to write, more exercises to engage.  But at some point, “more” becomes “too much,” and students burn out.  And we don’t serve our students well if we don’t keep from from over-working themselves.

Ideally, this course will do more than merely serve the program’s need for a thesis workshop.  I hope to use this course to help students develop skills and habits that will serve them well in the rest of their academic careers.  And if they get something of value – however they may define it – for their lives outside of their studies, all the better.

 

*I have a great deal of sympathy for students who are nervous about making changes to a research project, especially the further along (and more invested) one becomes.  Hopefully, by working through these various changes at the proposal stage, students will not only develop stronger thesis projects, but also become more willing to accept and better equipped to address the inevitable issues that will arise when writing the thesis.

**I will also be sharing with the students my current research, explicitly walking them through how I am building my work off of the work of others.  I think that, too often, “creativity” is confused with “uniqueness.”

***One of my professional pet peeves is people giving terrible conference papers.  No matter how interesting the material, if the presenter reads too fast, too slow, has no sense of pacing of proper emphasis, never engages the audience, etc., then the presentation fails.  Similarly, trying to include too much, or getting bogged down by interesting but unnecessary minutiae, getting off on tangents, etc., can make the work difficult to follow.  Presenting a conference paper is not – as many sometimes think – merely reading a short version of an article out loud.  It’s unfortunate (even if necessary) that all of the review that goes into a conference paper happens months before the paper is delivered.

^I am in no way, shape, or form a yoga instructor, and consider myself to be little more than an interested novice.

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On teaching less

 

No, this is not a post about how we should do less teaching. It’s true that we should, and maybe I’ll write about that at some point.

More properly, this is about teaching fewer. As in, teaching fewer books per semester.

In one of my first blog posts, I wrote about the course where I slowed everything down and spent most of the semester teaching just one book.* It was one of the most successful classes I have ever taught, and got me thinking about how to change my approach to teaching literature. And then, a couple years later, I started teaching survey courses and forgot every lesson that class taught me.

Survey courses are among the most difficult to prepare for, in my opinion, because the goal of the survey course is coverage. The intent behind these courses is that students will read major works from the major writers, and learn something significant about a pretty big chunk of literary history.** At UConn, I taught American Literature to 1880, which was pretty daunting. Don’t believe me? Check out the Table of Contents for the Norton Anthology of American Literature. I defy anyone to teach this in just one semester.

And of course, nobody does. Nobody comes close. Everyone does the same thing: they pick their version of the best/most appropriate/most representative authors on the list, and recognize that they can’t cover everything. And this means that everyone who teaches survey courses makes cuts. Necessary cuts. We can’t, in other words, teach it all.

For years, this realization has been a major driving force in my course design, for most of the courses I teach.

Next semester I am teaching a section of Native American Literature, based on my current research project.*** And I decided that I’m only teaching 6 books (as well as a couple of scholarly articles). Yup, 6 books. That’s it.

A few of the people I have shared this syllabus with have expressed concern, asking me why I’m teaching so few materials. How can I call this class “representative” of anything with so few works? Well, for starters, discounting the mountains of scholarly works I am also reading, it pretty accurately represents my research. I’m only writing on 4 of the novels, and picked a fifth (in part) to fill out the semester, but also to teach a novel I have not read yet (something I try to do for most of my upper-division courses). But more importantly, I have long since given up the idea that any course can be “representative.”

I’ve been asked these questions before. Last year, I taught a course on Modern American Poetry that covered only 6 poets. And last semester, I taught a course on Poetry of the Beat Movement that covered only 4. Everyone I talked to had ideas on which other poets I could have included. Trust me, I know all about those authors I didn’t include. But once I realized that there’s no such thing as proper coverage – once I realized there will always me huge gaps – it became much easier to make cuts.****

And these have been some of the best courses I have ever taught.

For starters, we get to slow down. Knowing we’re going to spend multiple weeks on each writer, we have time to really dive into these works. Spending one day – one very quick 50-minute class – on a single poem now no longer seems a waste of time, as it did when I was trying to teach hundreds of years’ worth of works in a single semester.^

More importantly, perhaps, is that students learn quite a bit more about the writers they do study. I can’t think of any author who is best captured by reading only one work. So by reading multiple works by these authors, students get a much more nuanced understanding of the works they do read. In other words, Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers without End becomes a much more meaningful book to study for students who have also read Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems and Turtle Island.^^

And I have also found that being upfront about what is not included in the course can inspire students to fill in some of those gaps on their own. That is, by clearly noting that the course is in no way representative, the students know that there is much more out there to read and study. By consciously including this in the conversation – such as noting Michael McClure’s poetry while discussing Gary Snyder, or naming some of the other poets and activists who traveled in Di Prima’s circle – students begin to see that the picture is indeed much larger than what the class paints. Think about the language many of us use when teaching survey courses. “This week we are covering Modernism.” As if something so broad and multifaceted could ever be “covered” in one course, or part of one course. I know people who have devoted entire careers to this field. I’m not saying that people who teach survey courses think they are covering it all. But if they are not clearly noting for their students that there are huge gaps in the syllabus, those students may not spend much time thinking about those gaps, and how to fill them in.

In my Poetry of Beat Movement course, more than half of the students used their final papers to study works not on the syllabus. One, moved by Ginsberg’s verse, write a paper analyzing some of his mid-career books (ones that often get left out of anthologies purporting to “represent” the period). Another chose to analyze works by women whose poetry has long been ignored by anthologists and scholars alike. Knowing that there were gaps – and interested in those gaps – students used their time and energy to fill those gaps. Some of those students have come to me after that class ended for reading recommendations. Knowing that there are gaps – and knowing that they may not know what all those gaps are – they wanted to know what was missing and where they could find it.

Granted, not all students will be so eager to do this work. And no pedagogical approach will work for all faculty and all courses. But the next time you find yourself frustrated by the fact that you don’t have enough time in the semester to “cover” everything you want to include – the next time you find yourself agonizing over deciding what gets cut – remember that no matter how much you include, there will always be huge gaps. Consider embracing those gaps.

Consider teaching less.

*For the record, I did teach two books that semester. But we only spent one week on that second book.

**In many places, survey courses are split in half, with “American Literature” and “British Literature” covered in 2-course sequences. I have not taught the British Literature versions, and do not envy anyone tasked with surveying British Literature from the medieval through the early modern periods (as the first half of such surveys is often divided).  It’s crazy and, in my opinion, pedagogically misguided.

***Still loving sabbatical, even though my work has slowed down quite a bit. I’ve started doing some work related to my new role as Director of Graduate Studies for my department, and just finished another exciting round of sending out job applications. But the good news is, now that I am looking at a stretch of time, I’m quite excited about diving into my chapter on Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes and intersectionalist narratology.

****Just taking Beat Poetry, look at what’s available. Even considering the 4 poets I chose – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Dianne Di Prima – there was no way of covering everything. Ginsberg alone has written enough poetry to fill a semester. I chose 2 early works and 1 later work, and still we had to skip over entire decades where he was producing quality poetry. The same is true for Snyder. Di Prima has published more than a dozen books, spanning 60 years. And while Kerouac’s output was neither as prolific nor as powerful as the other poets on the syllabus, we still only read a fraction of his published verse. I barely covered enough material for each poet to represent those poets, let alone an entire movement that covered more than half a century.

^And when you remember that any given survey course is also going to include long prose works, you’re doomed. I can still remember my British Literature II survey course as an undergraduate. We spent one month on the Victorian period. You get one month. Which Victorian novelists do you include? How much of their works can you reasonably teach? How representative can you be?

^^We also spent time reading other works by these authors – essays, reviews, etc. – as well as listening to recordings of them reading their works. I can assure you that the best way to understand Ginsberg’s “Howl” is to spend as much time listening to it read as reading it. And if you can listen to different recordings, to hear how he changed the rhythm, pitch, and pacing of the poem over time, even better.

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plus ça change*

Yesterday, I received notification that my membership dues for NeMLA are about to expire.  This surprised me, as I had already paid membership dues in July, when I proposed a session for the March 2016 conference.**  When I paid those dues, my automated receipt noted that I was “confirmed for 46th Annual NeMLA convention.”  I did not immediately notice that the email also noted that the conference was in Toronto, the previous conference location, for a conference that took place 2 months before I paid my dues.

So when I was asked to pay another round of dues, I emailed the administrative coordinator, who told me that I was not mistaken.  In order to propose a session for the 2016 conference, I had to pay dues for 2015.  When I suggested that it was unfair to ask me to pay dues twice in order to participate in one conference, I was told that I was mistaken.  I was told that I was not paying twice, but that I was paying for two separate years.  Yes, I replied, I know I am paying for two separate membership years.  My point is that I had to pay for two separate membership years for one conference.  In order to propose a session for the 2016 conference, I had to pay dues for the 2015 membership year.  (I also suggested that perhaps the organization can charge pro-rated dues for those in this situation.  Asking someone to pay a full year’s worth of dues in July of that year seems exploitative.  I did not hear a reply regarding the possibility of pro-rated dues.)

I wanted to propose and chair a session for the 2016 conference.  But in order to do that, I needed to a member for both the 2015 and 2016 years.  Subsequent emails with the administrative coordinator and the executive director helped clarify the nature of the problem, but did not resolve it.****

Both the administrative coordinator and the executive director noted that there are other perks that come with membership, including but not limited to copies of the NeMLA Newsletter and a copy of the journal Modern Language Studies, as well as voting rights in the elections.  However, because I paid for my membership in July, I had missed the chance at these perks, which means that my yearly membership dues were nothing more than a fee to propose a session.  (Mind you, this was just to propose a session.  I had to pay these dues before the session was accepted.  I do not know if I would have been reimbursed had my panel not been accepted.  Given what I have learned, I suspect not.)

In my conversation with the executive director, she noted that this issue had been brought up by some in the past, but that changes could not b made due to “administrative reasons.”  Honestly, I’m getting tired of “administrative reasons” being used as a reason for why things are the way they are.^  An administration is system constructed and run by the administrators.  Until someone explains to me otherwise, I see no reason why membership in academic conferences cannot run on the same calendar as that used by academic institutions.

When I noted that this seems unfair, I was told that the organization goes to great pains to keep members notified about keping current with dues.  I have no doubt that this is true, but those reminders to members aren’t at all helpful for non-members, who don’t get any of those reminders.  Had I known a year ago that I would want to propose a session for the conference – had the organization posted their CFP early enough – perhaps I would have been able to join earlier and been able to take advantage of the benefits of my membership, including the conference that had passed and the publications that had been sent out.  Instead, what happened was that I was charged a full year’s worth of dues in order to propose a session for the conference taking place the following year, which I will have to pay dues for again in order to attend.

So, yes, I have to pay 2 years’ worth of dues to NeMLA for one conference.

When I highlighted that part of confusion comes from the confirmation email I received – and that none of this information is available on their webpage – I was told that they will make this information explicit on the website.  That’s great, I suppose, but it changes nothing right now.  Knowing ahead of time that I would have to pay a years’ worth of dues simply to propose a session for the following year might have made me reconsider proposing the session.  Maybe that’s why this is not already explicitly noted on the webpage?

Now, this may seem a minor problem, and perhaps it is.  Truth be told, I can afford to pay for my membership twice.  I am a gainfully employed and tenured academic, and double-paying for my membership will not take any food from my table or cause me to miss a rent check.  However, as the executive director has noted, this has come up in the past, and because they will not be making any changes, it will likely happen again.  And I’m wondering what will happen when a graduate student or an adjunct is asked to pay membership dues twice in order to propose a session if they are not already members.  I know that when I was a graduate student and an adjunct, I could not afford to join organizations unless I was chairing or presenting on a panel.  I simply couldn’t afford it.  (During those years, that money would have meant food off my table, though not rent money, at least not during the time I was living in my parents’ house.)

In the end, I’m more annoyed than angry, because I know that I can afford this.  My concern is that there are a great many (and growing number of) academics who are not in my position, and nothing is being done to help them out.  Sure, graduate students and adjuncts pay a lower rate for membership.  But if they find themselves in this situation, they will still have to pay those membership dues twice for a single conference.  (Yes, this issue will be more clearly posted on the webpage, but it won’t change the organization’s practices.  We also talked about possibly discouraging non-members from proposing sessions, which does not seem like a good solution either.)

At the end of the day, I’ll pay the dues again, and I’ll attend the conference.  My fellow panelists are not only good scholars, but also good people, and I look forward to the chance to spend time with them and hear about their research.  I’m sure it will be worth the cost of the membership dues.  I just hope it’s worth the cost of two years’ worth of membership dues.

*Have no fear.  I am still using song lyrics for my titles.

**Full disclosure, I used to be a member, but some time ago let my membership lapse.  Because my university would only reimburse me for conference fees if I presented,*** I could not afford to keep up my conference dues for the professional organizations I used to belong to.

***And I stopped getting any kind of reimbursement after I was tenured.  However, this year, that may change, as my department seems to have more money than expected for faculty professional development.

****I’d like to note that both were quite prompt and helpful in their replies, even if they were not able to change anything for me or – as I will note below – for anyone in the future.

^She also told me that MLA functions the same way, and that when she joined the MLA mid-year and had to pay a full year’s dues, it was “unfair.”  First, that other organizations run similarly is not a very good reason to run this way.  But note that she also thinks that this is unfair.  So if I’m understanding her correctly, this practice is unfair when it’s her membership dues, but not unfair when it’s mine?  Or maybe she recognizes that it’s all unfair, but still feels the need to defend it?  I was told more than once during this exchange that my dues go to pay for other things, even if I joined too late to take advantage of all of them.  That said, she did offer to mail me a copy of last year’s issue of Modern Language Studies, so I guess that’s something, right?

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