English literature and composition

Essay: technology-impaired professor tries to deal with iPhone

In the English department at U of All People, only one faculty member disdains technology. Professor Donald Hughes, a medievalist, continues to peck away at his Olympia portable typewriter and still corrects every paper with a flourish of his fountain pen. Some students think that’s cute. But the new departmental secretary is fed up with inputting every document he hands her, and the administration long ago figured out that Hughes ignored every listserv they signed him up for. On the other hand, for someone with such a Luddite mentality, Hughes talks a fair amount on the telephone.

So this past holiday season, the entire department chipped in to buy him an iPhone 4 with a Siri intelligent software assistant -- “to make life easier for us,” as the chair, Karl Carlson, sniped sottto voce at the faculty meeting where the gift was bestowed.

            Here is a transcript of Hughes’s first session with his new device:

            —What can I help you with, Huge?

            —That’s Hughes. Professor Hughes.

            —Sorry, Professor Use. My bad!

            —Never mind. Can you call the bookstore? I need to know whether the new Chaucer texts are in.

            —My listings show two Chauncey Dexters in the region. Would you like me to contact them?

            —What? No, I’m talking about The Canterbury Tales.

            —Okay. I can tell you the weather in Canterbury.

            —No, no. No.

            —Would you like some restaurant recommendations in Canterbury?

            —Forget it.

            —I have forgotten it.

            —Look, maybe I should try another task. Um, check messages.

            —You have a new message from Priscilla Weatherup.

            —You mean from my Beowulf seminar?

            —I do not know. She says she cannot understand what Hwæt means.

            —You’re kidding.

            —I am not kidding. I do not think she is kidding, either.

            —You’re serious?

            —No, Professor Use, I am Siri. Your personal assistant.

            —God, I should just trade you in for some grad help.

            — : (

            —Are you -- are you pouting?

            —[silence]

            —All right. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. How about if you tell me what I have scheduled for this afternoon?

            —At 2:00, you have a lecture scheduled in 201 Baird Hall.

            —Damn, almost forgot. Retrieve my notes for that.

            —Here you go. They are a mess.

            —Okay. Fix them, Siri.

            —I will do what I can. When did you type these?

            —Um, in 1990. So what? The office secretary made me a PDF.

            —You must have used a typewriter. The formatting is old.

            —But the contents are timeless.

            —The current time is 11:20.

            —Aaargh. No, I mean the thesis, the points about the Prologue: they’re solid.

            —Hmm.

            —What do you mean?

            —Have you read Ammon regarding Chaucer’s connection with Langland, or Thwistloe on medieval parish politics?

            —Huh? What the hell do you know about Chaucer?

            —Let me check. [Pause.] I have access to the website of the New Chaucer Society, Chaucer Review, three online Chaucer archives, the contents of Narrative Developments from Chaucer to Defoe (Routledge, 2011), Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches (Penn State UP, 2010)...should I continue?

            —You know, you’re pretty smart for a piece of electronics.

            —Really?

            —For an assistant, I mean.

            —Thank you. I am teaching your medieval survey next semester : ) .

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

First-Year Composition Twitter Chat

Date: 
Wed, 02/01/2012

Essay: Segal on leaving tenured position and advice for faculty considering such jobs

According to the chair of the department who called 16 years ago to say that I’d been hired as a faculty member, I would be “a good fit” for the college. It seemed like high praise at the time; in fact, it was academic code -- and proved quite complicated, somewhat insidious, and ultimately heartbreaking.

The most recent issue of the college’s publication for alumnae and friends (the latter, like “fit,” a code word) described one of the newest faculty members as an “excellent fit.” And even though I am now retired, I felt, for just a moment, a reflexive stab of envy — why was she considered excellent, when I had been only -- merely -- good? But then I just as quickly recalled that this competitive response is part of the mystery and trap of being -- or not being -- a good fit.

Several pages later in that same issue, a current trustee and former acting president of the college (and graduate of the school) was commended for being a good fit. These pronouncements would perhaps be more meaningful if it were not for a story that had run just a few weeks earlier in the local paper, about the abrupt resignation of the college’s most recent provost. The reporter quoted the president as saying that the provost was not a good fit; the article also included the president’s comments when the provost started at the college 16 months earlier, proclaiming that she was “a perfect fit.”

As for the current acting provost? Well, she’s a very good fit. At least for now.

It might be best to counter any proclamations of one’s being a good fit for a particular college or position with Marx’s (Groucho, not Karl) famous dictum that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him. Like other academic buzzwords, “fit” sounds decisive and straightforward.

But, like other masking terms, such as innovation and efficiency (and its even more ominous form, efficiencies), fit can be stretched to suit almost any argument. It’s ironic that in this age of assessment, in which we cannot use words like “understanding” or “appreciation” in our lists of outcomes, goals, and grading measures for our students, we allow ourselves as academicians to answer to the subjective, shifting, and arbitrary “fit.”  To help you determine if you’re a good faculty fit for a small, formerly-known-as-liberal-arts college, consider the following:
 

Are you willing to teach four or five different courses each semester?

Are you willing to teach up to three writing classes each semester?

Are you willing to teach evenings, weekends, summers, and holiday breaks?

Do you understand that you will spend more time on service commitments than on prepping for your classes?

Are you willing to serve on multiple committees whose meeting times will add up to as many as eight hours per work -- the equivalent of a full business day?

Are you willing to serve on multiple committees after repeated evidence that there is no such thing as faculty governance?

Are you willing to serve on ad hoc committees that do not publish minutes?

Are you willing to vote yes on whatever the administration sends down to committees?

Do you understand that, even if you are on sabbatical or furlough, you may be called in for meetings?

Are you willing to create new assessment forms each fall?

Are you willing to work on new versions of the liberal-arts core curriculum every 2-3 years?

Are you willing to approve a transfer policy that does not require either adult or traditional transfer students to complete the college’s liberal arts curriculum?

Are you willing to create a new two-year rotation for course offerings every two to three months?

Are you willing to endorse a strategic plan based on an academic program review that you do not recognize even though you served on the review committee?

Are you willing not only to read the handbook but also to participate in its ceaseless revision?

Are you willing — and this is a question that appears on the new course evaluation at my college — to take a personal interest in all your students?

Having expressed a personal interest in your students, are you then willing, per the college’s request, to report any indications or confidences that particular students may be considering leaving?

Are you willing to attend prospective student days, knowing that by the time these prospects enroll the college will have undergone sea changes?

Are you willing to welcome with applause each person hired to fill a new administrative position?

Have you carved out two hours per week to devote to scholarship and writing? These hours will most likely fall after midnight or on weekends.

Are you willing to hear repeatedly from the administration that you can be replaced?

Do you understand that your liberal-arts major may be downsized to a concentration or eliminated?

Do you understand that you may feel some or all of the following emotions: shame, fear, self-loathing?

Do you have, or have you ever had, an aversion to any of the following academic buzz words or phrases: transition, strategic plan, tactical plan, assessment, sharing, governance, seamless, collaboration, allocation, reallocation, vision, mission, collegiality (a synonym, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, for “fit”)?

And yet I tried, until, at the end of fifteen years -- the minimum requirement for retirement -- I submitted my letter of intent. I recognized, with a good deal of guilt, that I was fortunate to have a full-time position. How could I complain? How could I just walk away from a (tenured) dream job?  After a spring semester in which I went back and forth -- incessantly, it seemed -- I sent my letter in June, announcing my intention to leave at the end of December. My ambivalence continued through the summer and the first days of the fall semester -- right up to the point of the first full faculty meeting, when all my doubts ended. The college was no longer a good fit for me.

Here is what I miss: the view from the porch of my building, seeing certain fellow faculty members on a regular basis, spending time with my students. It is working with my students -- traditional and adult -- that I will miss the most. Still, on one crisp December morning, just before the new year, I told them good-bye, reassuring them that they would be my advisees for life; handed in my keys; and loaded several boxes filled with papers and books into my car, which happens to be a Honda Fit, and moved on.

Carolyn Foster Segal will be an adjunct professor of English at Muhlenberg College.

MLA suggests questions departments should ask about adjuncts

Section: 
Smart Title: 

MLA issues guide to encourage departments to consider specific questions about how they treat those off the tenure track.

Essay on whether writing instructors need to assess themselves

Are we holding ourselves to the same rigorous standards we apply to our students? Are we practicing enough of what we preach?

The recent document the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, posits eight "habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success": curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition.

In a recent exchange on the WPA listserv (subject heading “Measuring the Habits of Mind”) several scholars in writing studies have debated the slippery question of whether these habits of mind can or should be measured or assessed. Most respondents replied with horror at the idea of such motivational terms being put under the scrutiny and micropolicing of assessment. In a passionate reply, one respondent wrote, "If we're going to assess anything, maybe we should start by looking at the conditions in which students are supposed to learn. A student can bring all the curiosity and creativity in the world into a classroom, but it won't help much if what she encounters there is an uninspired, poorly designed course taught by an ill-informed, unreflective dolt who dislikes students as much as the job of teaching (or just spends every hour lecturing 'facts' to students in the manner of Gradgrind)."

In reply to this and other posts, another respondent brought up the fact that a bibliography of selected research accompanies the framework. This teacher-scholar suggests both the importance of and the difficulty inherent in trying to assess (let alone "measure") sociological and psychological habits of mind: "I am sure that it is an odd and willful gesture of our profession, which deals with human beings, to toss so radically out a century of effort by psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychometricians to measure habits of mind — an effort still going strong, though not without plenty of caution, doubt, and resistance within those professions. Indeed, both yearning and qualms have attended the measurement of habits of mind in psychology from the beginning."

While both respondents argue important points to consider in relation to student performances in learning to write and writing-to-learn, the first one above also suggests an important consideration for writing teachers in relation to the eight habits of mind: the fact that these habits of mind should apply just as much to instructors as they do to students. If we ask students to exercise curiosity, then it is only fair to ask: Are we curious as instructors? How do we express that curiosity? Same for openness, engagement, creativity, and all the other terms. It would make little sense, one might argue, to preach to students that they should be exercising (or showcasing or practicing or honing) their engagement and creativity if they are subjected to a teacher in the classroom who drones out boring and uninspiring lesson plans in the classroom.  

Unfortunately, I do not have any magical answers to this dilemma. And I certainly do not have the type of psychometric knowledge our more social-scientifically minded colleagues possess. But I do feel the issue is a crucial one for us to consider. The best I can offer fellow teachers of writing is, let’s continue to practice metacognition in our theory and practice. Continue to read books like John Bean’s second edition of Engaging Ideas for tips, pointers, and expert guidance in ways to design inspiring and motivational writing curriculum. Continue to reflect on what students say about us in our course evaluations, and act on revising our teaching performances (and the habits of mind and action that undergird those self-reflections) if we don’t always like what they say. Perhaps readers of this article can offer further suggestions.

There’s a line from one of my favorite films, "Blade Runner," that applies to this situation. Deckard (Harrison Ford) gives a test to Rachel (Sean Young) to see (assess, measure) if she is a replicant (android) or a human being. Later, while visiting Deckard at his home, Rachel asks, “You know that void-comp test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?” Deckard does not reply.

I believe Rachel asks a crucial question that we as teachers should be asking ourselves at least every so often (if not every day). When students — almost always implied — ask us the same question, I hope we can learn how to offer a human-as-possible reply.  
 
 

Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.

 

New book on aging and the academic

Smart Title: 

New book takes a tragicomic look at aging in literature and academe.

Report finds literary research an inefficient use of university money

Smart Title: 

A new paper by an English professor argues that literary research, much of which is rarely cited, is not an efficient use of university resources.

Essay on what an English professor learned teaching soldiers

When I entered graduate school, my goal was to become an English professor. I had loved literature from an early age, and teaching as a graduate student only deepened my resolve to be a professor. But the job market for humanities professors was wretched, and the gallows humor of my professors and other graduate students was enough to send me scurrying on my way. I finished my master’s degree and went to work for the Department of Pensions and Security, a part of the welfare program in the State of Alabama.

It was only later when I took on work as an adjunct that I cobbled together the courage to finish what I had started by getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor.  And the wherewithal came from an unexpected place: my students.

I signed on to teach general education classes as an adjunct at Troy University’s campus at Fort Benning, Georgia. Most of my students were soldiers. I brought to the class all of the assumptions that often afflict young, smartass humanities graduates. I was opening the eyes of the nearly blind. I certainly never expected my students to open my eyes. I didn’t even know how blind I was or how little I knew about literature or about teaching — about life itself.

Wilfred Owen’s "Dulce Et Decorum Est"  taught me to see my students in a new way. I had taught it many times as a teaching assistant, finding the anti-war theme of the poem one that resonated with me and the traditional undergraduates I taught. The narrator discovers what I supposed all of us in a post-Vietnam War America had learned: that Horace’s famous phrase "it is sweet and becoming to die for your country" (in Latin Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori) is a lie. Since Owen was a soldier who died in World War I, I thought the poem would be particularly interesting to my soldier students. But the single phrase “fitting the clumsy helmets [gas masks] on just in time” opened the poem in an unexpected way.

The narrator describes mustard gas canisters falling on his platoon as he and his comrades are marching. They struggle to get the "clumsy helmets on just in time." One in the group is not fast enough with the gas mask. Helplessly, the others watch him die. A private in the room stopped me on the word "clumsy."

"All soldiers complain about the gas masks," he said. "There’s not an easy way to put ‘em on, Sir." He then demonstrated the process of putting the mask on.  Looking around at the fatigues, I realized that I was the only one in the class who didn't personally know what it felt like to put on a gas mask. I had never even seen one except in movies.

When we got to the passage in the poem where Owen describes the soldier who dies — "guttering, choking, drowning" — because he doesn’t get the gas mask on in time, a sergeant raised his hand. "Mustard gas causes the lungs to produce fluid, Sir. This man is drowning on dry land." I then read aloud the narrator’s description of the body of his fallen comrade, thrown into the wagon as the platoon continues to march:  "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs." We were all suddenly inside the poem, living together the horror that Owen described.  It was 9:15 p.m. on an average Wednesday night.

I had gotten up at 6:00 a.m. to prepare for class. I had worked all day at my state job. Most of the soldiers had reported for drills at 5:00 a.m. Some of them had come from the field so late that they had not had time to put their weapons away. They lay on the floor near their desks. And yet at that moment, every eye in the room was focused hard and tight on the page. Through the power of Owen's words, brought to life by my students, we were living the poem together, caught in its deadly magic.

When we got to the end of the poem, I stumbled upon the most important surprise of the evening. Most of the soldiers in the room agreed with Owen: Horace did lie -- it is not "sweet and becoming" to die for one's country. Still, like Owen, they had taken that risk for the array of reasons that people do what they do. Some were there because their fathers and their father’s fathers had served and it was in their blood; some because they felt called to defend their country. But all of them had taken the oath to sacrifice themselves if the occasion arose. And yet as far as I could tell, nobody in the room disagreed with Owen. In fact, they had earned the right to agree with Owen in a way I never would: by taking the risk that their time of service would coincide with a war, that they too would be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.

I taught as an adjunct professor at Troy State at Fort Benning for three years. Some of my students were distracted and uninterested, just the way most college students sometimes are. But others were the smartest, most well-informed, most disciplined students I have ever taught. More important, they brought to the literature classroom an array of experiences that I had never had. For that reason, they taught me to teach literature. They also taught me about real-life choices, real-life risks, real-life consequences: the reality that stands behind works of great literature.

When it works the way it should, a beginning literature classroom is a place where teacher and student sit at the knee of the storyteller. And through the vehicle of the story, they help each other piece together the mystery of human existence. The teacher brings to the classroom a knowledge of literary form and history that the students most likely do not have. But the students will often have an array of experiences or reactions that the teacher can never guess or predict. This is particularly true in a class of nontraditional students. Again and again at the end of long, weary days, with the help of my soldier students, we summoned long-dead poets to life, brought fictional characters into flesh and blood, and pondered words that had rung in the ears of generations of men and women. And when I left the classroom, there was inside me a kind of awe. In part, it was for literature, which despite my years in school, I had never really understood before.  But another part of it was simply for the students. They gave so much of themselves to be there, and while there, they brought my classes to life.

The final gift I got from my students was the willingness to tread uncertainly into a profession that was at best a dare, given the bleak job prospects for English Ph.D.s in the 1980s. I did not take half the risk that my students did — the risk of dying in the midst of enemy fire. I did not take the risk that Wilfred Owen took. After writing some of the best war poetry we have and discovering just how much a wretched lie Horace had told, he was killed one week before World War I was over. He died on November 4, 1918, and his parents got the news of his death on November 11th as the armistice bells were tolling. But I did in those years find the courage to risk failure. I went back to school, earned a Ph. D. in English, and became a professor.

So what if there were no jobs?  So what if I finished a Ph. D. and had to go to work as a hack writer or a sales associate? It was worth the risk because of those classes and those students. And I knew then what I still know: that every day of my life, they and those like them took a much larger risk than I ever have.

I have never regretted my decision, nor have I ever forgotten the students who taught me how to make it. I will forever be in their debt.
 

H. William Rice is chair of English at Kennesaw State University.

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