My colleague Stephen Casper sent this around via departmental email a couple of days ago & it seems prescient, which makes me feel old. I told Stephen when I saw him in the mail room that I’m glad I’m not, like him, just starting my academic career — because the old model of the university that’s being unbundled suited me fine. And maybe I would be more hopeful about these developments if they were not in so many cases driven by market forces unmoored from and value but that of the bottom line. Read Stephen’s blog, The Neuro Times.
I seem to be waking slowly from the trance induced by the last few weeks of the semester. The cold, wet weather isn’t helping.
It’s not that I was overwhelmed with work — the number of papers and conferences and faculty meetings was about average, I guess. But I admit to feeling a little bit demoralized by my students this term. I had a long wrangle with some of the students in my Honors seminar on modernity because they really didn’t believe the course had anything to do with their careers and they really didn’t like the fact that I kept asking open-ended questions that did not appear to yield to the usual procedures of problem solving. Seniors in the Honors Program have mastered the art of problem solving, though in many cases they have not mastered much else. [Here is what I wrote on our class blog after turning my grades in.] But at least the wrangle with the Honors seniors involved the active expenditure of effort; the vast majority of the sixty students in the two sections of my Literature of American Popular Music course simply absorbed energy like sodden little black holes. Out of the sixty there were perhaps half a dozen who tried from time to time to help be ignite a discussion, but their efforts were ultimately futile in the face of the pervading passivity and sullenness.
This was a course in which we read Howl and The Dharma Bums and listened to Monk and Bird and watched video of Lady Day singing accompanied by Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. We watched documentaries about Dylan and listened to old ballads about murder and adultery. And they just fucking sat there. As if none of it means anything. I’m tempted to never teach the course again — the students don’t deserve it. It profanes the sacred texts to exhibit them to such dolts.
I volunteered to lead our annual departmental writing assessment session this year, in which a group of faculty sit together in a room and read sample student essays selected by some magic algorithm known only to the dean in charge of university-wide assessment — or perhaps only to his chief elf. It can be a pretty mind-numbing task as the hours roll by, but I have to say that today’s session was the most pleasant I’ve attended. Perhaps because there is a modest stipend for the job, mostly junior faculty volunteer and we have a particularly fine group of assistant professors in the department at the moment; and perhaps it was because I was nominally in charge of the operation; but the real difference from earlier sessions was the absence of several control-freak senior colleagues whose certainty about the nature of college writing they felt compelled to impose on others. Endless argument over meaningless details. Today, we were so efficient we even developed a set of notes for improving the process in the future.
Assessment, of course, is all the rage in education policy circles these days. The result is mostly a dreary proliferation of standardized tests at the K through 12 level and an equally dreary emphasis on “outcomes assessment” in higher education, in which the outcomes must be quantifiable. The problem is that lots of meaningless things can be quantified and stuck in spread sheets and made to look significant when the truth is that the numbers say little or nothing about the experiences students are actually having with texts and ideas. I think it is perfectly reasonable for students and their families, and even state and federal government agencies who fund education, to ask colleges to assess the relative success or lack of success they are having in educating students; but my notions about what constitute success are probably not what they are thinking of in the dean’s office or in the high councils of the education bureaucracy. Continue reading
I’m getting ready to teach an online course, Modern American Poetry. The course requires junior standing and at least one previous literature class, but it is open to all majors. That is, I think I can expect a certain amount of reading savvy and engagement with the material, but not a lot of background in poetry as such, especially modern poetry. The last time I taught the class, in the flesh, as it were, I used Cary Nelson’s fat and inclusive anthology, which I like — it also has a good web-based supplement that includes critical statements about the poets, which I use as a way of getting students to enter into a “conversation” or on-going argument about a particular writer or text. But I had fourteen weeks during the regular semester, with class seventy-five minute class meetings twice a week. With the summer course, I can go as long as ten weeks, but students usually prefer a more compressed schedule in the summer, so I’m going to schedule eight weeks, with a couple of weeks of non-required start-up time during which the site will be live and I’ll be posting some general thoughts; students can also of course use this time to get going on the reading, which will not be voluminous, but will require close attention. So I’m going to abandon the Nelson anthology for the two, much more conservative, anthologies edited by Joel Conarroe, Six American Poets and Eight American Poets. Rather than assign a text about poetry — I like Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem — I will link to online resources and create a few pdf files of commentary for students.
Conarroe’s six poets are Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Williams, Frost, and Hughes. I will put all six on the syllabus; his eight are Bishop, Merrill, Plath, Ginsberg, Roethke, Berryman, Sexton, and Lowell. Of these, I will drop Sexton, who wrote very few good poems, I think, and Merrill, to whom I’ve never warmed, whatever virtues he possesses. And then I’ll add Eliot’s “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” — he was born in St. Louis, after all. Along the way, I’ll try to link to less mainstream poets as a supplement. For instance, I’ll use Hughes to link to a bunch of good online material about the Harlem Renaissance. I’ll expect about as much reading and writing from students each week as I would expect in a week & a half (three class meetings) during the regular semester.
Week 1: What is Modernism & what do we mean by “modern”?
Week 2: Dickinson & Whitman as the inventors of American modernism.
Week 3: Stevens & Eliot
Week 4: Williams & Frost
Week 5: Hughes & the Harlem Ren
Week 6: Bishop & Lowell
Week 7: Plath & Berryman
Week 8: Some contemporary poems / the reaction against the personal
Warm today & I just finished entering my grades for the semester into the computer, so I’m free until my online class starts up. Or I would be except for the job search I’m in charge of for my department. Looks like we’ll now be searching for two candidates since one candidate is about to turn us down & a current colleague is leaving for another institution. Seems like I’ve been doing this forever. The good news is that we have some strong candidates who are still interested in us, even this late in the cycle. It’s testimony to the crappy job market that these folks haven’t already been snapped up.
The search has the department on edge because it brought out fundamental differences among members of the faculty that we usually don’t need to notice in order to work together. And unfortunately, those intellectual differences in some cases became personal. As Chair of the Search Committee, I’ve tried to keep the search transparent and the decision-making out in the open & democratic, but that has not stopped some of my colleagues from making charges about the fairness of the search, which involved, just for added excitement, the partner of a current faculty member. Concern about ethics has been used as a cover for political sentiments
I guess I really do believe in that hoary old concept, collegiality. There was a time in my life when I would have relished being in the center of an emotional & intellectual maelstrom like this, but not any more. I’ve been surprised & disappointed by the bad faith exhibited by some of my colleagues & at their willingness to attribute ulterior motives to members of the search committee, including me. Can’t help but take it personally.