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In honor of National Poetry Month, recalling a strange reading (essay)

Ah, spring, season of starlings nesting under our eaves, season of mud, season of literary readings.

I generally try to avoid any event whose title ends in “fest,” but a few years ago I made an exception when a friend invited me to participate with him in a poetry reading at what the sponsoring local historical society was calling Eaglefest. Because the college where I was teaching at the time emphasized community service, this seemed -- after I confirmed I wouldn’t have to perform on the edge of a rocky precipice -- like a pleasant and practical way to spend a weekend afternoon. And the fact that Eaglefest would take place on the last day of April made it seem like a perfect ending for Poetry Month.

In the days before my scheduled reading, I assembled a set of poems about nature (my own, along with works by W. S. Merwin, Mary Oliver and others) and polished an essay I had written about the great blue heron who strode around my backyard, foraging for goldfish in the tiny pond.

Deciding how to dress for the occasion was far more difficult than choosing what to read. What to wear to an event called Eaglefest? I finally settled on what my daughters call my art skirt, because it looks like one of Mondrian’s Composition paintings; a T-shirt in my default color (black); and my poet earrings (long, dangling, silver). So I was ready and feeling pretty cheerful as I walked in to register.

The first ominous note came when the woman behind the desk told me that at the last minute there had been another event scheduled for the same time: a repeat performance of “Meet the Birds” would be held in the large auditorium where the first session was currently running. The receptionist then summoned one of the organizers, who, if she could not allay my anxiety about the scheduling, did put to rest any lingering questions I might have had about the dress code.

She had removed her feathery headgear in order to socialize and was holding it tucked in the crook of one arm; a sinister-looking beak dangled precariously. The body of the costume was a baggy brown sack made of some sort of synthetic fur, and the organizer could have easily passed muster as a bear, raccoon or chipmunk. Perhaps she does so on other weekends, at other fests. Her footwear, however -- large and bright yellow -- confirmed her avian identity for this day. Think clown shoes -- with webbed toes. She offered to show me the room where my co-presenter and I would be reading, and we hobbled over to a set of stairs, which, despite my protests that I would be fine on my own, she insisted upon laboriously climbing, and she led the way to a small room tucked away in a corner of the second floor.

Back downstairs, after listening to her make several jokes about poets in the attic and how it would be easier for her to fly, and after fighting my own fight-or-flight instinct, I perched on a chair but declined her offer of refreshments. I had been hoping for a handful of trail mix and a nice glass of white wine, but the fare consisted of soda and hot dogs, which somehow just seemed wrong.

By now my co-presenter had shown up, and he introduced me to another organizer (dressed in a gray suit -- business, not squirrel), who said, “Come with me,” and whisked us through a winding back passageway so that we emerged very close to the stage where a lecturer/handler, equipped with a gauntlet and a chain leash -- both of which seemed insufficient -- was showing off a bald eagle. Rather touchingly, the eagle had one enormous wing draped around the speaker’s back, and all went fairly well until the speaker tried to put the eagle back in his cage.

He began the process by reassuring us that the eagle went into his cage much more easily than the snowy owl did his. This brought a wave of uneasy laughter -- was this an example of nature stand-up comedy? Having missed the snowy owl’s performance, I was in no position to judge, but I did notice that the man in the gray flannel suit was backing away from the stage. Next, the handler dropped to his knees while the eagle spread his wings and attempted to fly off and generally battered the cage into submission. Eventually the eagle accepted his fate, and all that remained for the spellbound audience to see were some feathers floating gently on the currents of air-conditioning. It did occur to me, while listening to the eagle shriek, that this would be a hard act to follow.          

But it was time now for the reading. When he first invited me to participate, my co-presenter had told me that the society expected an audience of 400. I thought that this number seemed rather high for a poetry reading, and, in fact, there were 20 chairs set up in our little garret. And 20 chairs were more than enough, since the group that gathered consisted of my husband, whom I had routed out of the gift shop where he was admiring a tie with a silkscreened pattern of falcons, which I refused to let him buy; an artist friend of ours; my co-presenter’s wife and infant son (does an infant count as an attendee? For my purposes of counting heads, yes, an infant counts); and the woman in the bird suit.

It was clear that, here at least, Poetry Month would be ending not with a bang but with a whimper or perhaps a faint peep. “What do you think?” my co-presenter asked me. I thought that I could not compete with a bald eagle and that it was time to leave. He stayed long enough to read one poem at the start of the next “Meet the Birds” session, and I migrated across town -- to Macy’s.

Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College.

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Job Cuts at Concordia Moorhead

Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., is cutting its workforce by 5 percent to respond to declining enrollments, Forum News Service reported. The cuts are a mix of faculty and staff positions, and a mix of “separation agreements” and of not replacing people who have left the college.

 

Boston U English Language Lecturers Vote for Union

Part-time lecturers at Boston University’s Center for English Language and Orientation Programs voted 23 to 2 to join a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Wednesday. Some 750 other Boston University adjuncts voted to form a union affiliated with SEIU in February. The university did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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Iowa Bill Sparks Faculty Ire

A bill considered by the Education Committee of the Iowa State Senate riled faculty members this week, after it was shared on the American Association of University Professors’ Academe blog. The bill -- which Rudy Fichtenbaum, professor of economics at Wright State University and AAUP president, called “the most outrageous proposal I have heard from a legislator anywhere” -- would have required that any professor at a public institution teach at least one course per semester and be rated by student evaluations such that if “a professor fails to attain a minimum threshold of performance based on the student evaluations used to assess the professor’s teaching effectiveness, in accordance with the criteria and rating system adopted by the board, the institution shall terminate the professor’s employment regardless of tenure status or contract.”

Additionally, the bill said, “The names of the five professors who rank lowest on their institution’s evaluation for the semester, but who scored above the minimum threshold of performance, shall be published on the institution’s Internet site and the student body shall be offered an opportunity to vote on the question of whether any of the five professors will be retained as employees of the institution.” The professor with the fewest votes would have been subject to termination, regardless of tenure status.

After receiving a substantial number of emails from outraged faculty members, Inside Higher Ed determined that the bill had died in committee -- six weeks ago.

Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat who is chair of the Iowa State Senate Education Committee and a professor of economics at Iowa State University, said via email that the bill “demonstrates little understanding of higher education and even less caring.” Fortunately, he added, “cooler heads have prevailed.” 

Senator Mark Chelgren, a Republican who was the bill’s sponsor, did not immediately return a request for comment.

 

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Anti-Faculty Union Language Struck From Ohio Bill

Language that would have greatly restricted the right of faculty members at public institutions in Ohio to form unions has been removed from a 3,000-page budget bill before the state House Finance Committee. Faculty members and unions across the state panned the provision after its insertion last week, calling it a fly-by-night attack on collective bargaining. State Representative Tim Brown, a Republican who’d been lobbying against the language, told Bowling Green's Sentinel-Tribune that the language was “slipped in” and deserved “a fair and proper vetting outside the budget process.”

John McNay, chair of the history department at the University of Cincinnati’s Blue Ash campus and president of the Ohio conference of the American Association of University Professors, said via email that he and other faculty members are “very pleased that the House Finance Committee listened to our concerns.”

“We want the Ohio legislature to begin to look at the real problems that are increasing costs for our students,” such as escalating spending on noninstructional services and salaries, McNay said. “We are not the problem. We can be part of the solution if they will work with us.”

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A professor's lament to an athlete who doesn't care (essay)

Dear “Student-Athlete”:

Most of my encounters with students who, like you, are intercollegiate athletes, have been pleasant. Joking aside, the term “student-athlete” is not an oxymoron -- i.e., a self-contradiction. When it seems to be, it’s only what I like to call a fauxymoron -- like “jumbo shrimp”: its terms are not contradictory by definition. It’s just that the two roles can conflict.

For the most part, then, I have enjoyed having students who are athletes. Concerned with protecting their eligibility, they tend to come to class and do the work honestly to the best of their ability. Living with the demands of training and traveling, most have learned to manage their time effectively.  

But I have also had a couple of student-athletes who were trouble because they were athletes rather than students. Most of these individuals, not surprisingly, were male, and they were engaged in high-profile sports, such as football and basketball. Such programs seem to encourage a sense of entitlement on the part of their clients, who may receive academic assistance that goes beyond what is appropriate.

That’s where you come in.

When you showed up in my Introduction to American Studies course, your arrival wasn’t a surprise; I’d been alerted by your coach. In fact, he told me he’d be at the first class to introduce you. I was not pleased by this, for two reasons. First, it suggested that he wanted to impress on me your status (and stature) as a varsity athlete; while it may be well-meaning, this action signals that athletes deserve special consideration. Second, it placed him between you and me and thus characterized you as needing his intervention -- not a good start to our professor/student relationship.

I could have overlooked this had you done the assigned work. But it was pretty clear from the get-go that you were not a serious student. You may have been the only student who never participated in discussion (which is encouraged but not required). That would not have been a problem if you seemed to be following the discussion. But that would depend on your doing the assigned reading. Which you didn’t seem to be doing. You rarely brought the text to class. When you did, it didn’t show any signs of having been read, much less underlined.

Professors really like their students to do the reading on schedule. It enables discussion and facilitates learning. A fringe benefit: it makes class more enjoyable for students. Indeed, I can imagine few things more boring than having to listen to others discuss reading I hadn’t done. And our classes were 85 minutes long!

What torture that must have been for you. In a large class, I wouldn’t have cared so much; you could have faded into the woodwork or dozed off, as even normally attentive students sometimes do. But in a small class, you were a real distraction -- a drag by your very presence. Your body language and facial expressions conveyed your discomfort and boredom.

I knew that there would be a reckoning when the first paper came in. And yours was obviously bogus. The first sign was that it was off topic. My assigned topics build on study questions and class discussion. Your paper was in no way responsive to the prompt. And a quick Internet search revealed that it was in large part copied from online sources. Had you properly cited these sources, you would have revealed that there wasn’t enough original content for you to claim the paper as your own. But in not acknowledging them, you committed outright plagiarism, so the penalty was failure for the course.

It occurred to me that perhaps you hadn’t done the cutting and pasting yourself. Maybe you purchased the paper online; more likely, it was provided to you by a “tutor” or “academic adviser.” You may have been unaware of what bogus goods you were handing over. But you couldn’t have thought it was legitimate to submit it.

With a grade of F, you stopped coming to class, and the atmosphere was the better for your absence.

That wasn’t the end of the story, though. From a coach’s email to all your profs, I knew your academic schedule, and I was curious about your performance in other courses. I recognized one as a notorious gut course in art history; I was unfamiliar with the others. Of course, I could not inform your other professors that I had failed you for plagiarism and warn them to watch for it. That would have violated your confidentiality. But I solicited their impressions of you as a student. None responded, so I assumed you were not regarded as a problem in their courses.

Not long after I gave your paper back, however, I did hear from another faculty member. He identified himself as the university’s faculty liaison for athletes (and I learned that he represented the university on an intercollegiate committee of colleagues). He offered to help resolve my problem with you -- a service not available to non-athletes. I responded that the problem had been resolved, and I never heard from him again.

I was sufficiently interested in your fate to Google you. I discovered that you’d transferred in from a junior college. And at the end of the year, you transferred out.

You never had a professional career in basketball. So I wonder what you got out of your college career. You were able to play your sport competitively after high school; that must have been gratifying. And in such a high-profile sport, you had a degree of celebrity on campus. One of the female students in the class seemed impressed by that.

But while you may have been accruing college credits (in your other courses, at least), you clearly were not getting an education. I don’t know which makes me feel worse: that you were wasting your time on a sham or that the college was wasting scholarship money on you.

But here’s the most insidious part of the phenomenon that you represent. In effect, the athletic program infantilized you. Others figured out what you should major in, arranged your schedule, interceded with your professors and chose your courses. (They didn’t even do that competently, or they’d never have placed you in one of my classes.)

So I would say that the athletic program did you no favor. Quite the contrary -- it deprived you of an opportunity for a genuine education, not just intellectual but personal development: taking responsibility for your actions, growing up. Rather than advancing your true interests and preparing you for life after college, I would say the program set you back.

I wish you luck making up for lost time.

Sincerely yours,

G. Thomas Couser

G. Thomas Couser is a professor emeritus of English at Hofstra University.

Berkeley study finds high levels of depression among graduate students

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A decade after a landmark study of graduate students at Berkeley, a new study finds many problems persist -- and many doctoral students are depressed.

Panel discussion centers on work-life balance provisions in faculty collective bargaining agreements

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Can work-life balance provisions be successfully integrated into faculty collective bargaining agreements? 

Essay on what to do when you are told you are not a team player

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Dear Kerry Ann

Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers advice on how to handle a criticism that many receive on the road to tenure -- and a perception that needs to be faced promptly.

 

 

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Labor conference panel centers on contract provisions for adjuncts for course cancellation payments and more

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Academic labor conference panel discussion focuses on contract provisions for adjuncts that go beyond better pay. Data suggest larger gains for part-timers in bargaining units that are separate from full-time faculty.

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