Saturday, February 28, 2009

There's always one rotten apple

I read through my teaching evaluations from last semester--with some trepidation, I might add. They were in my possession for about a week before I finally opened them and looked through them.

Last semester my academic performance took a dip for various reasons, but I can recover from this. I can make it up to myself (and in fact am doing so by rewriting the papers I turned in). However, I worried about traumatizing my students, or wasting their time--this is not as easily made up.

To my surprise and relief, the vast majority of my evaluations were positive, and enthusiastically so. I got some great feedback on what assignments worked, what readings were helpful, and was even told that my occasional profanity "made lectures more interesting."

There was of course, one smarty pantsed kid who sneered how often I cancelled class. My attendance policy is pretty much "someone is paying for this, so make it worth your money's while and show up to class." This is exactly what the kid targeted, despite the fact that s/he gave me perfect marks everywhere else. S/he felt that they didn't get their money's worth. I am indignant, and frustrated because I'll never get the chance to defend myself! So please, allow me to explain:

  • When I held student conferences (once at midterms, again at finals) I cancelled class.
  • When I had car trouble on ONE occasion, I was forced to cancel class, as my classroom was located on red-headed-stepchild campus.
  • There was one time that was a bit extraneous, I admit--but they'd finished their peer reviews earlier than I'd expected and I didn't have anything planned (except for a giant stack of grading and my own papers to write). So I told them to take the day to work on polishing their papers.

Since we're in the arena of "getting our money's worth" I'm tempted to resort to the fact that I taught the course for free. OK, maybe not quite. It's a pretty sweet deal to get my tuition paid for, I won't lie. I will note, however, that the stipend, whether I am teaching one course or two, doesn't budge. At least someone's getting their money's worth in this scenario--grad students work cheap!

I shouldn't let one silly remark like this get to me, but it does. What I ought to focus on is that, for as useless as I feel in directing discussion or teaching in general, my students approve of me. Funny that a part of me thinks: but on what authority do they judge my teaching? How do THEY know what makes a good teacher? I'm not sure who I'm looking for a pat on the back from, if its not from my students.

The purpose of these evaluations is not clear to me. One of the big-gun composition program people told me point blank that they are useless. I don't know who sees them, and what impact they have on my future. It sounds silly to admit, but I'll do so here, in pseudonymity.

When do the evaluations come back to haunt me, or help me?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

So this is gross

and easily one of the more inconvenient aspects of pregohood (says the fat lady who just stood through a 2 1/2 hour seminar, preferring sore feet to the breath-inhibiting rib pain that comes with sitting):

I can't touch cat litter. Well, used cat litter--specifically the pooed in type. Some would think this a nice vacation from a yucky job. But no. The kitten, hellspawn that she is, seems to know this about me.

She times her poop.

That's right. Little 3 lb meowmix converter will land a tanker of a turd in that box the minute she hears the Wrangler leave the driveway (note: not when the door closes, as she has become aware that often the poop-shoveler returns shortly, having forgotten his lunch or some other pertinent item). And so there I am, attempting to eat my breakfast, when there is no where I can run, in the whole house, to escape the fumes. (Her other favorite time to do the poo is when the poo-removal-committee has gone to bed for the evening, and the non-poo-removing-party is still up reading or grading papers.) They say smell is the sense most strongly attached to memory. Well, I will remember my readings of Derrida, de Man, and Saussure as eternally effused with eau de [cat]toillette.

What kills me is that there's a lot of scratching around during the process, and I hear the litter being dispersed in every direction but one--that of the actual pile of poo. Somehow, it remains completely nude, that is, not covered by one single kernel of the uber-expensive smell-reducing litter I purchase solely for this recent poo-timing conundrum. I am desperate for any method of reducing the putrid stank of fresh catdoody and so I buy cat litter beyond my means. And yet the poo sits triumphantly, curled on its throne of crystal step 'n fresh.

Oh, and the other thing? Pregnant women have an exceptionally heightened sense of smell.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sneakpeek into academic job candidate process

If my academic life is anything like my leaky basement, sitting in on the presentation of a job candidate this morning raised my water mark. I highly recommend it to any graduate student, whether or not you're interested in making a career in academia, and whether or not you choose to compare it with your leaky basement.

For starters, it is always exciting to watch one's professors banter over a given subject which is not necessarily the specialty of any one of them--and I'm not talking awkward Christmas party banter. This was like a coffeehouse on steroids, except that in place of feigned intellectualism it was pure--uncut--academic zeal and rigor. Maybe a little busting of chops, but no more or less than was necessary.

I felt akin to someone learning a new language who is suddenly immersed in a crowd of fluent speakers, and there was a thrill of self-congratulation* and increased enthusiasm each time I felt myself putting noun phrases and verbs together into coherent entities, and even more so when I found myself following the general direction of conversation!

This is where it got silly. When the words "synchronic" and "diachronic" were uttered, and I fully understood them in their usage and application to the discussion at hand (which, incidentally, I likely could not reproduce a sentence of here--it was fleeting perspicacity)--I jumped up and did a little victory dance.

Well, no, not exactly. But I did begin to daydream just a bit right around then. Not the kind of daydream that leads me completely out of the room and out of my head--this was akin to one of those waking dreams, in which I'm just conscious enough to have some semblance of control in whatever avenue the dream might take...I was entranced, so to speak, by the whole situation--as a newcomer, an observer of a very unfamiliar (and yet standard) ritual, and a neophyte by comparison with just about anyone else in the room. And so I watched the candidate tread water, change lanes and splash back with every question and comment that came her way. I thought, with excitement, of being able to volley questions ideas while maintaining an exterior of such absolute calm. She seemed more comfortable in that room than I was!

I realize that more than likely there are several things--either damaging or to her credit--that I was completely unaware of. My perception remained in the superficial, even aesthetic arena, and I had no qualms about letting it remain there (let the big dogs do their job. You know, like Olympic judges versus the uninformed onlookers). And this is where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers came in...the ease with which they present their task to their audience is a precise indication of their skill level. The enjoyment of the presentation is made richer depending on the audience member's own skill and familiarity with the dance. I am excited by the prospect of being so well-studied and academically mature that I could tap-dance with the material!

This clip of "Swing Time" about sums it up, if you're interested (it even has gratuitous fencejumping at around 2:15):

*I know it sounds petty, and yet this is the only description I can give the thrill. I don't intend it as a grandiose pat on the back; rather it serves as affirmation of all the reading/studying I've been doing for some time now, and incentive to continue this forward trek despite setbacks in circumstance and persuasion.

Expounding on the super smart Honors undergrad...

...if you recall my weak little post from the other day (here) I was venting a bit after a particularly frustrating day in class in which a very intelligent undergrad showed up all of the graduate students--yet again. I mean, he busted out with some Hebrew vocab! A student of this sort has been in every one of my graduate classes, it seems, and I'm going to venture to say that this has happened to just about every gradstudent out there--getting shown up, consistently, by a know-it-all undergrad.

What really bothers me is that I used to be one of them. My hand would shoot up before the question was even fully formed and my answer, even if half-baked, would be enough for the professor to lead me into its fully fledged form. (Recalling my undergrad days, and my pompous self-assuredness, I shudder to think what my fellow students thought of me. )

I've had this in my own classroom, of course. Sometimes it's a relief (at least someone is entering discussion) but oftentimes I want to finish my questions with "anyone other than...?" It can be a frustration as well as an excuse for other students:

frustration: I really want to say something, but I'm not sure how to articulate it. By the time I think of a decent sentence, the question has been answered and we're moving on.

Excuse: Why do I need to bother talking or adding my two cents, when dude will do it for me?

Depending on the day, I can include myself in either category.

* * *

My final undergrad semester, I took an upper level English lit course with my sister. On the first day, she leaned over and whispered: Look at all the grad students--they always sit in a pack and no matter what they say, they're just repeating what the teacher has said, or some critic.

And four years later, here I am. Front row: Grad students only. I am frantically searching in the extra notes I took for the sole purpose of outdoing this kid (though I'm trying to look thoughtful and deliberate as I do so). In the meantime he raises his hand, sounds out his answer on the spot without eventhinking about it*, and its a go. On to the next stanza...

*well, I'm sure he thought about it. But he wasn't racking his brain for the best way to articulate it, and coming up with back up defenses just in case...

Where is my own head? What happened to my own thoughts? Didn't I come into this with genuine questions and lots of curiosity? What am I so afraid of? It's possible that I have been contorted by my own competitive zeal, and now, rather than being self-confident, I am overthinking everything.

But why? This is embarassing...[allow me to digress for just a moment]

I have the teacher evaluation sheet nearly memorized. When I talk in front of my classroom, I keep it in mind almost constantly. I have this paranoid (okay, delusional) fear that my students do, too. Yes, I know--half of them don't even realize that teacher evaluations exist (despite the specific entry on the course schedule). Some of this has translated into my life as student. I imagine my professors tallying up my comments in discussion (okay, delusional), making notes here and there "Beeyotch unable to recognize simple pronoun antecedent..." or "completely out of touch with the text..."

I don't know where it came from, but I do believe I've got a genuine case of discussion anxiety. I don't mind expressing my thoughts and interpretations on paper (er, screen); the process is often exciting and rewarding. But when I've got to just spout out answers and defend the holes that are poked in them, I crack up into little stuttering pieces of nonsense.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The things people say to a pregnant woman:

On giving a fellow grad student the news: "I thought I noticed a little bump--but then, y'know, I figured it might've just been the holidays."

On being found in the bathroom (I avoid trips to the bathroom with other women, generally, and even more so now that my bowel and bladder habits are up for discussion): "Peein' again, huh? Let me tell you, girl--you ain't pregnant till you've pissed yourself."

On traveling (in my car, I might add) five minutes to work for my paycheck in a Midwestern February: "It's cold! You shouldn't be outside."

On the "glow" that pregos are reported to have: "What people really mean when they say that is you're so fat there's not enough skin to go around. Your skin's pulled taut so it 'glows'"

Monday, February 9, 2009

There's one in every grad/undergrad course

...the super smart Honors undergrad who consistently says smarter things than any of the graduate students.

I hate them worse than poison.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

I've always disagreed with T.S. Eliot

when he says that "April is the cruelest month."

Dude, its February. That's exactly why its also the shortest month. One day longer and people would go ballistic by the end of it (I get very nervous during leap years).

February is a teaser month. Take a look outside today, for instance. The sun is shining, snow is melting (and falling off of the house in loud chunks, I might add). It will stay this way until you begin to trust it, and allow yourself to relax and enjoy the mild climate, then WHAM! hit you with a mean Alberta clipper.

Just don't trust it...there's always more than six weeks left of winter, no matter what Phil says.