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Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

I’ve been kind of down on academia the past couple of months. In large measure this is a function of having absolutely zero success on the job markket — I’ve failed to generate any response from a single search committee other than the standard form letters and rejection notices, much less a measly interview. It’s easy to get down on academia when it feels like academia is down on you.

At the same time, I think I’ve finally started to believe my own words of wisdom to myself about how my non-success to date in landing a job is largely a reflection of the changed reality of the humanities job market, in which a severe overpopulation of soon-to-be and newly minted Ph.D.’s is coupled with across-the-board budget cuts. This combination of too much supply and too little demand translates to a shortage of advertised job vacancies, but also to scenarios where upwards of two hundred people are applying for a single job with a teaching load from hell at Directional State University in the state of Miserable Place to Live. It must be a grand old time to be one of the departments with the wherewithal to make a new hire. But it’s not exactly a recipe for professional success if, like me, you’re looking for a job.

Anyway, even though I’ve known for a while that this is the current reality of the academic job market, I found it difficult until recently not to interpret my complete lack of success as a reflection of some failing on my part. It’s just hard not to take it personally.

Striking out repeatedly on the job market and feeling down about my prospects in my chosen field led me to check out mentally from academia. As I began to doubt whether I’d ever find a job, I found it harder and harder to put any effort into anything academic. Grading, teaching, applying for jobs, even revising my dissertation — my performance across the board probably suffered, since I just didn’t believe in it with the same conviction that I had just a few short months ago.

I feel like my attitude has softened, and perhaps even improved these past few days. Part of it may be a function of not interpreting my disappointment with the job market as an indictment of my own abilities. Part of it may even be a case of me making my peace with the increasingly likely prospect of never landing that coveted tenure-track job at a good university.

But I think a lot of it is attributable to a kind of happenstance, almost an accident.

A few months ago, I applied to teach a class for my department this summer. I figured I could use the summer income regardless of what happens with the job market, and I got assigned to teach the same one-month European survey I taught last summer. That was a real blessing, in my eyes, since it meant minimal preparation would be required on my part, and, needless to say, I’ve found it hard to summon a lot of motivation and enthusiasm these days for teaching.

But then a few weeks ago, I got an e-mail asking if I’d be willing to teach a second course, a junior seminar, to round out the department’s summer offerings. I mulled it over for a couple of weeks, since it’d be sticking around an extra month this summer, though it would also double my income. Plus, being a seminar, I’d only have to teach one day a week, and I wouldn’t need to write lectures. Ultimately, I decided that whatever happened with the job market, it was probably a minimal gamble, and it certainly stood to be a relatively lucrative one on my end.

So, I accepted the offer last week, then pitched a few topics. I mostly stuck to familiar topics, things I had already taught or that were firmly grounded in my field (unlike survey courses, which require me to stretch my knowledge). After some consultation, I settled on a topic — the fall of the Iron Curtain — and after wrapping up the revisions to my dissertation last week, I set to work this past weekend on putting together my syllabus.

The funny thing was, what began as largely a chore of designing a new course from scratch turned out to be pretty enjoyable. This seminar is, arguably, the first class I’ve taught that’s entirely within my expertise (my history of communism class from last year largely tread on familiar ground, but I’m still far from an expert on Asian or Latin American communism). Instead of hunting around online and in the library catalog, trying to find syllabi from similar classes to poach, I already had a few books in mind and mostly pulled a bunch of them off my bookshelf.

As I flipped through my books, it was likely visiting with a familiar old friend. I remembered how much I love my topic, how passionate I am about the history of East-Central Europe, and it reminded me why, so many years ago, I thought I wanted to make this my career.

To make a long story short, I chose my topic well, since I’m not wanting for motivation or enthusiasm. It’s going to be an easy class for me to teach, not only in terms of not having to teach myself a lot of new material before I teach my students, but also in the sense that it doesn’t feel like a chore in the way prepping for classes out of my sweet spot often does.

And, even more surprising, my revived interest in academia got me sufficiently motivated to complete three job applications yesterday. One of them was even a tenure-track position at a school that, while not necessarily prestigious, is at least located in a good climate. Even though this particular job advertised for a military historian, my adviser was in contact with the chair of the search committee, who said they’d be interested in someone like me, provided I could teach a class on military history. And as I thought about it, I came up with what I felt was a pretty good argument for why I “do” military history — or at least for why there’s considerable content on military history in my dissertation. I think I wrote a pretty good cover letter, and I actually felt sufficiently reinvigorated by things that I rattled off applications I had put off for weeks for a couple of one-year positions.

Maybe it’s just that I feel a sense of liberation, since I’m not really expecting anything to come of these applications. At least, I’m not investing a lot emotionally in the outcome. I assume it’s more likely than not that I won’t get any of them, but perhaps I can get someone to show at least a little interest, and at this point that tiny bit of affirmation would make me feel good.

Mostly, though, I think it’s a function of being reminded, after having lost sight for some months, why I thought this was a good path to follow in my life.

I suppose if these are, in fact, my final months in academia (or at least before I become a glorified hanger-on without any formal standing), I might as well enjoy them.

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Next week I have my class discussing Voltaire’s Candide, a classic of Enlightenment commentary and satire. To help my students prepare, I sent out a list of reading questions this morning.

When I checked my e-mail this afternoon, I had this reply waiting from one of my students:

I am sure we will be discussing this in class on Tuesday but I did not see how Candide was humorous or satirical.  The numerous calamities were a bit over the top but people being quartered and disemboweled seems a bit too disturbing to be funny.  Am I missing something or is it just a dark humor?

Sigh. I really don’t know how to respond to this e-mail. My first instinct is to wry a terse reply. Yes, you’re missing something.

My next thought was to write a slightly more expansive response. Yes, you’re missing something. Something big.

The response that comes to mind that I think would be most humorous (ironic, no?) would be to give this student a t-shirt that says, “A sarcasm detector, that’s a real useful invention.” But, alas, the humor might well be lost on the poor soul.

Instead, I’ll craft a lengthier reply that gently nudges the student to think about how the narrator’s initial belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds” does not, perhaps, square with the awful things he encounters on his travels.

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Anyone who knows me well knows I enjoy good wordplay and frequently insert puns into my everyday conversation, just to show off how clever and witty I can be.

Over the years, I’ve given the world — or at least my closest friends and relatives — a ton o’ puns that have made the world a little bit better. We all remember the classics. (What do altar girls wear? Altar tops! Oh, the hilarity!)*

But with my proclivity for pun-ditry, it’s easy to take my wittiness for granted. And, as I learned today, even I fail at times to appreciate in full my own genius.

Take for instance the e-mail a student sent me today during the mid-class break. I had been lecturing about the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, and right before break I was talking about Newton and his contributions to physics. I mentioned the concept of gravity, and how other thinkers had suspected such a force existed. But I mentioned that Newton is associated with gravity because he derived formulas that explained how this and other laws of motion functioned.

Evidently, at this point, according to my student’s e-mail, I added, “and that put some real force behind it.”

“Well placed,” wrote my student.

Indeed. So well placed was this bit of wordplay and so caught up in my own gravitas was I that my gem of a joke had gone unnoticed not only by most of my students, but also by me.

My un-WIT-ting pun also explains why this student and a couple of others around him were quietly laughing at one point during my lecture. And to think, I was afraid I had neglected to zip my fly.

Naturally, I wrote back to my student after class to thank him for his note, but also to take full credit for my ingenious pun. I saw no sense in confessing to the accident of my witticism. The joke, if unintentional, captured his interest and got him engaged in the course.

No, a candid admission of accident was out of the question. My unintended joke had done some pedagogical good, and I wasn’t about to sacrifice that for the sake of total and excessive honesty.

After all, I appreciated the gravity of the situation.

* I don’t care if there is no such thing as an “altar girl.” You can’t allow “reality” to get into the way of a legendary pun, just like you can’t allow the desire for straightforward storytelling to prevent you from recounting an anecdote in an especially tortured and convoluted way just so you can make a pun (or four) along the way. Like any good joke, the secret to great puns is in the set-up.

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The NYT has a feature today with professors offering short bits of advice to incoming college freshmen. I liked Carol Berkin’s advice for how not to alienate professors:

Do ask questions if you don’t understand the professor’s point. Do not, however, ask any of the following: “Will this be on the test?” “Does grammar count?” “Do we have to read the whole chapter?” “Can I turn in my paper late?”

I would add, “check your syllabus before asking your professor a question about course expectations and requirements.” There’s nothing like getting e-mails from students about something explicitly stated in the syllabus. It signals to the instructor that you don’t value her/his time.

Also along those lines I might add, if you get specific advice from a professor on a draft (say, a corrected misspelling), make a point of seeing the appropriate change makes its way into the final draft of your paper. Students who ask me to read drafts and then fail to incorporate my comments into their finished product make me want to grade punitively.

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On course design

Well, I haven’t been able to escape from work entirely. I’ve been taking things relatively easy since I finished teaching a week ago, but other school-related things keep cropping up and trying to encroach upon my free time.

The main issue looming in my mind is designing the course I’m getting to teach in the winter of next year, which will be a somewhat deeper survey of Europe, covering the period from 1648 to 1815.

In theory, this shouldn’t be too difficult, since it’s basically the first half of the period I covered in my introductory survey this summer.

Of course, since I find nineteenth- and especially twentieth-century history more fascinating, naturally, I spent a disproportionate amount of time (about three weeks out of four) covering those periods, whereas the earlier eras — basically the exact scope of my upcoming class — I raced through by the end of the first week.

I’m not really that concerned about being able to teach the content of this period; I do, after all, have about ten hours of lectures already in the can that covers this period (and I only have forty hours of class time for the quarter). I can fill it out by going into more depth on important topics like the Scientific Revolution, Peter the Great and the French Revolution, so it won’t be too difficult in that respect.

But there are other issues of course design that are continuing to perplex me. Not the least of which is finding readings that don’t skew my coverage heavily toward Britain and France.

It’s easy to justify spending a considerable amount of time on the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, and the evolution of political philosophy that occurred in Britain in the seventeenth century, since it influenced the ideas of natural law, universal rights and rebellion that inspired all sorts of challenges to government. As painfully dry as John Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government” are to read, they are influential.

Likewise, it’s hard to imagine not devoting a good chunk of time to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, since they represented such a radical break in European history and their influence extended well beyond the borders of France.

But it’s the rest of Europe that I’m struggling to cover in course readings. I really want to spend about a week on Russia from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great, since there are some interesting questions connected to making Russia “modern” and the idea of enlightened absolutism. And I’d like to spend about a week talking about enlightened absolutism in the Habsburg Empire (as well as Prussia), mostly because I find Joseph II an interesting figure.

Yet there isn’t much available in English that covers Eastern Europe in this period that’s in English. I can lecture on the key topics, but I want some readings to give students something to sink their teeth into. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good novels, plays or other primary sources for this period, which is really right before the golden age of Russian literature and other literary canons.

Then there’s also the issue of how to organize the course. It’s two hours twice a week, but I’d prefer to have something to break up lectures so it’s not me talking for two hours straight. I also have to figure out whether to have exams, or if I should just go with papers. The course is capped at 50 students, which could be a bit unwieldy for large group discussions, though I can have them do it in smaller groups. But I’m also thinking in terms of what I want them to get out of discussions and in-class assignments and how it might serve the goals of the course.

Anyway, I’m still grasping for solutions, but at least I’ve got a couple of months before I have to order textbooks, and several months until I actually have to teach the course.

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School’s out

Finally, I’m done teaching, I’m now done grading, and for the next two months I have no school obligations, no research of my own to work on, no classes to prep. At last I can enjoy a lengthy break full of fun and relaxation.

My inner nerd tells me I should bust out Guitar Hero III right this minute so I can jam on Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” to put myself in the appropriate mood.

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It’s been a while since I posted, mostly because I haven’t had the energy to do much of anything since my summer course began a week ago. Is it possible to be burned out after just a week?

I’m not sure why I find this course so much more taxing. I had two-hour lectures in the spring, so it wasn’t that difficult having to talk for so long. And I probably have more discussion mixed into each lecture, which spares me from actually having to speak for the whole class period.

Part of it, I’m sure, is a function of having to teach two hours a day, five days a week. That’s a big difference from previous quarters when I was only on campus two days a week.

I had a pretty nice schedule in the winter and spring, since I’d teach Tuesday and Thursday, and by early Thursday afternoon I’d be done on campus for four days.

But the grueling nature of this term’s grind began to hit me in full last Tuesday. I had something like the sensation of being done for the week until I got home and it dawned on me that, in fact, I still had three more lectures before the weekend. At least a couple of days last week I fell asleep on the couch before dinner out of sheer exhaustion.

It definitely makes me very glad that I finished all my course prep before the course began, just because I don’t feel like I have the energy to write one lecture a week, much less five. I’m not doing much, aside from going to campus and teaching for two hours everyday, and I’m probably getting a bit more sleep because having an afternoon class means I get to sleep in later.

Still, despite all those advantages, I was pretty well spent by about 4:30 this afternoon. I drank a whole pot of coffee, yet I still felt ready to nod off on the couch. Only a blood pressure-raising session of Punch-Out! (the remade NES version starring the fictional Mr. Dream in place of the disgraced Mike Tyson) managed to forestall another unplanned nap.

On the bright side, with today’s class in the books, I’ve finished six of the twenty lectures for the quarter, and I’ll be almost halfway done by the end of this week.

But it can’t be a good sign that I’m barely a week into the course and I’m already counting down the days till it’s over, can it?

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