Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stuck with a syllabus

I've come to the conclusion that, for the long haul, I will have to severely re-tool the syllabus I've been using this semester.  For a number of reasons, it doesn't always work as effectively as I hoped it might, and in a few ways it actually seems to be counter-productive.  I'm not going to be super-negative and say that this is due to the intellectual inadequacy of my students — because that's genuinely not true.  I will, however, lay the blame for this largely at the feet of the great state of _______, which has apparently been bent on robbing its public school students of all critical thinking skills and allowing their nascent intellectual muscles to atrophy.  One of my students, whilst explaining to me why zi had found the course curriculum challenging, clued me in to the fact that the state educational structure encourages high school students to get their 'hard' courses out of the way during 9th and 10th grades, and then they do little (memorable) for the latter two years of high school other than study for standardized exams.  Historiann has sounded off on this topic before, and she's got lots more statistics and fleshed-out ideas about this than have I, so I'll let you play with those links and cede my time to her.  I gotta say, though, that I was stunned to hear from the horse's mouth just how little serious education high school students got, and how much time was devoted to studying for tests that literally would not help them after they matriculated to college.

Anyway, my point is that I think there are some structural problems with my syllabus, given the level of student preparation that I can expect to encounter.*  In the long run, this won't be a really big deal to fix: give me a few weeks of downtime with a few textbooks and readers, and I'll be able to put together something more suitable that will more easily reach the students "where they are" while still challenging them to go further.  But in the short run, I am – as are my students – stuck with the syllabus more or less as it currently exists.  I'm teaching four courses at a time for the entire academic year.  I'm firing with all cylinders on the job market.  I'm trying to write my first book.  I simply don't have time to cook up a new syllabus and its accompanying entirely new slate of lectures.  Practically speaking, I'm unable to divorce myself from my current syllabus, except perhaps to swap out a few readings where they proved seriously unworkable.

I'd ask for advice here, if I thought there were any to give.  All I can see is that I must do a little triage work on the parts of the syllabus that clearly do more harm than good, and then do what I can to present the rest of the syllabus in a more sugar-coated fashion.  Largely, this means accepting that diligent first-year students are going to try their best to do the reading, but will not understand it to any significant degree.  Therefore, I need to walk them through the meaning of each reading, instead of assuming that they'll get at least the gist if they try.  It also means that, next time around, I need to assume that no one has even taught them the basics of how one does college, and that as a result, I'll have to demonstrate to them in the early weeks how one engages with a piece of academic writing.  That in and of itself will eat up some time in the semester, giving me less time to deal with readings and concepts — but, then again, maybe that's not the worst outcome anyway.

Meanwhile, I'm exhausted from spending way too much time this evening parsing out the meaning of tomorrow's reading for students who have no idea how to pull ideas out of a relatively simple text.**  (Relatively simple = written for perhaps a 10th-grade reading level, and assuming little if any prior knowledge of the subject.)

* And, in the case of a few readings, sometimes I just blew it, and a particular piece wouldn't really register for students no matter what university they're at or how much college prep they've experienced.
** And yeah, I'm the first one to point out that a few of my top performers actually do get this stuff, and are stimulated by it.  But I don't want to face my judgment someday before the Flying Spaghetti Monster and have to explain why I directed my courses to the top 5% of the enrollment, and let the rest stumble around in confusion.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Repeat applicant etiquette

Ah, another dubious pleasure of academic job-hunting: seeing the same institutional names again, as one attempts to get a position at a university that rejected one from consideration last year.  Aside from avoiding the sense of failure resurrected, there's a particular trick about these that I'm still not sure how to do right.  Is it appropriate to refer to one's previous application, even if it was for a different position within the same department?  I'm tempted to say to Repeat U:

Please refer to my academic transcript from my previous application to your department.
It is, after all, sort of stupid to have to pay DOU-Town to send the Pseudology Dept. at Repeat U the exact same transcript that they sent last year.  It's not going to change at this point.  But good applicant etiquette demands that I do this anyway, doesn't it?

For that matter, in general, should I not mention my previous application?  In the case at hand, Repeat U is a pretty small place, and the Pseudology Dept. therefore is a very small place.  I'm already personally acquainted with the intended recipient of this letter as a result of last year's application process, if only by correspondence.  It seems somehow odd not to acknowledge this fact, especially since a lot of the form of my letter is the same from year to year — although, obviously, some pertinent facts have changed about my CV, and the nature of the position being advertised is also different in focus.  But does etiquette demand that we politely ignore this reality?  Must we (pretend to) start fresh?

I'm quite interested to see what readers have to say on this topic, both my fellow job-hunting rookies and more senior faculty who have served on hiring committees.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Clock it

I received my first rejection email of this job-hunting cycle today.  And we're off!

On the plus side, I had a freakishly good week of Q&A sessions with my students.  Who knew that they would have such an appetite for, uh, Fruit Studies? 

*waves at Sisyphus*

Monday, October 17, 2011

In these shoes?

 Hmm, shoes.  The responses to my last post suggested I may need to upgrade my footwear for teaching purposes, to help ward off lower back pain.  (And yes, I get it, I should also be exercising.)  Since this relates to an earlier post in which I wondered about buying new shoes versus repairing old ones, I am now considering afresh what to do about the damn things.  (Obviously, I never made it to a shoe repair shop this weekend.  Midterms.) 

So first of all, here are the shoes I've been wearing pretty much consistently for the last few years.  I don't like to think too much about this stuff, so I buy a pair in tan and another in black, and I'm covered for almost all wardrobe situations in my working and private life.  They work fine with business-casual trousers, they look great with jeans, and on occasion – including my memorable campus interview this past winter in a heavy snowstorm – I can even get away with the black ones when I'm wearing my charcoal-gray suit.

These shoes have several virtues in my eyes – versatility and comfort – but durability is kind of a problem.  A year and a half walking around DOU-Town did in my last pairs, and less than a year in Research Country accomplished much the same thing to my current pairs.  So, with that in mind, as well as my aching back, I'm no longer sure that I should bother to repair these, or even buy new pairs.

So, tell me, O internet, what other options have I, as a dorky academic who just wants a nice pair or two of plain-toe* oxfords for all occasions that fit comfortably and are good for my health?

Yeah, yeah, I know, Dr. Martens are supposed to be nice.  But I never really understood the point of these shoes, once we all graduated from college and were no longer allowed to look like...well, like college students.  That stupid-ass yellow stitching and creepy-colored sole utterly ruin color coordination with anything that didn't come out of the $1 bin at the Salvation Army.  And really, I never went for wingtips.  Wingtips are, from my perspective, kind of douchey.  Even the ironic ones.  For that reason, I'm not much fonder of these (non-ironic?) Dr. Martens.  As a final complaint on these shoes, I find the heel very thin and knife-like whenever I've tried them, and I really hate shoes that make my heels blister.  Comfort is key!

Swinging in the other direction, there are some seriously cushy-heeled shoes out there, like these Tims.  And Timberlands, as I've found, are pretty hardy shoes.  But these?  They're a little too boot-like for my taste.  As far as I can see, they are Timberland boots, except with a lower top that doesn't go over the ankle.  But this doesn't make them look like any classroom-to-dinner-date shoe that I've ever seen; it only makes them look like industrial-strength safety shoes.  (Don't they look like they should have steel toes?)  I can't imagine wearing these to a conference, especially in a year like this year, when I'm on the market and, pace Historiann, should be prepared to wear a suit or something close to it for my (fingers crossed!) preliminary interviews.

Now these more formal Tims are closer to what I'm looking for.  Nice simple lines, no wingtip nonsense, no ooh-look-at-me ironic-hipster trimming, and even a little cushioning around the heel.  Frankly, the only thing I worry about with these – apart from the obvious fact that I won't know how they fit unless I buy a pair online or trudge all the way up to Major Regional City and go shoe shopping – is that the sole may not offer the level of support that I need to teach on my feet all day long.  Well, that, and the inescapable fact that they cost $120 per pair.  The Dockers I've relied on for years cost half of that.  But perhaps this is one of those situations in which you get what you pay for.

I dunno.  Can anyone lend me some fashion brains for a few minutes?

And, lest the post title leave you hanging...

*Cap-toes can be fun, but a little ostentatious for me.  I have a ridiculously over-the-top pair of cap-toe oxfords that I've worn with my gray suit for ages, though.  Maybe I should get something a little less flashy and workaday, but I can't bring myself to do it, given that I wear a suit about four times a year and want to enjoy the occasions as they come.