Friday, August 24, 2012

And we're off!

I survived the first few days of the semester!   I'm kind of fried right now, after a whole week of poorly slept nights and constant improvisations of all sorts.  Let me see if I can get my thoughts ordered.
  • Three preps is going to kick my ass if I don't keep to a tight schedule.  I have to do an unusual amount of prep for Intro to Libel and Slander, since the substance as well as the form of the course is somewhat alien to me.  Pseudology of Area Studies requires relatively little prep, thank goodness; I've read everything we're going to study cover-to-cover, except for one text that I've only dabbled in.  (And I've already read the intro to that one.  As any pseudologist worth hir salt knows, the intro chapter of a pseudological monograph is the key bit.)  But it's my baby, Super Awesome Cool Stuff, that may kick my ass the most: I couldn't resist the temptation to assign a bunch of nifty-sounding texts that I have never read.  I'll just have to read them right along with my students, which means I probably won't get a decent night's sleep until December.
  • Being a new faculty member requires an odd balance of enthusiasm and reserve.  On the one hand, I obviously want to do a good job, and as my regular readers all know, I'm deeply grateful to have escaped from Godforsaken State.  On the other hand, I felt peculiar hanging out with a senior colleague yesterday.  Zi is a recently tenured pseudologist and seems to be stepping into the role of departmental mentor to me.  But of course, those who are tenured and have been around a while tend to develop grudges and complaints about some structural issues in any university.  It was, frankly, weird to feel hir dampening (or trying to dampen?) my enthusiasm for the job by venting to me about the administration's vision, the quality of the students, the ignorance of the alumni community, etc.  One just can't be all Pollyanna in the face of such unloading by a close colleague.  But I feel like I can't take on those attitudes, for a multitude of reasons.  First and foremost, of course, is that I'm not permanently tied to CBU, as zi is.  But stating out loud this lack of need for institutional loyalty feels discomfiting, even after we had a frank conversation about the impossibility of my staying past my two-year contract.
  • So far, I enjoy my classes in direct correlation to their academic levels.  The 100-level, Intro to Libel and Slander, may have its moments, but I can't even pretend to be deeply invested in it, nor to think much of the grade-grubbing kids with math anxiety who register for it to get a distribution requirement the easy way.  (I took my share of Science for Poets, but I would like to think that I never expressed to a professor my fear that I would actually have to, you know, like, know facts.)  
  • My 200-level, Pseudology of Area Studies, is much more promising than the intro course, even if all the students have is some native intelligence and the will to learn.  Explaining the basics of my area studies to even the most erudite undergrad can be a frustrating experience, but at least my students acknowledge that they feel out of their depth on some matters.  I'll have to walk a fine line between pushing them to think out loud and freaking them out because they recognize the limits of their own knowledge in some sensitive subjects.
  • My 300-level, Super Awesome Cool Stuff, could hardly be better so far.  I nearly applauded my students today at the end of our first session discussing a text.  It's a famous foundational text that I first encountered as a wee freshman, lo these many years ago, and which, as I ascertained, none of them has ever read before.  It's a doozy: complex and tangent-ridden prose style, littered with references to historical figures and literary quotations totally beyond their knowledge base, and predicated on some very difficult abstract concepts.  With just a little coaxing from me, they took that ball and ran with it.  They mused out loud about its implications, wondered what the author was trying to do, asked each other questions, and occasionally (very gently) critiqued each other's understanding of the text.  I actually had to cut short the discussion when time ran out: they literally talked right up to the end of the class period.  I told them, in all honesty, that I had never taught such a successful first day of class before.  If they can maintain this level of intellectual curiosity and engagement, then the course will be a real treat for me.
  • My kitchen is currently full of dirty dishes and glasses that I just can't be bothered to touch right now.  Something had to give during this first week, and it turned out to be my housekeeping.  I'll do a lot of clean-up tomorrow, but tonight, I'm just going to fall into bed, lulled by a cocktail and a considerable sleep deficit.
  • I suppose I also had to give up a little emotional stability, courtesy of the aforementioned sleep deficit.  When I'm underslept, I get more emotional.  I was reminded of this when I plopped myself down on my couch to listen to this podcast, and found myself sniffling regularly.  Time for bed, I'd say.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

So unprepared

First day of classes is tomorrow.  I think I'm going to die.

I would do the most ungodly favors for anyone who will finish my Intro to Libel and Slander syllabus for me and prepare the lectures.

Aaargh...I'd better chug this whiskey and ginger, or I'll never get myself to sleep tonight.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Trying to be a good kid: Citation for students

I'm sitting in a Panera at a mall, since this is the only way to get both breakfast and wifi out here in the sticks.  I was getting nervous about all the repairs that my car needed, and decided to bite the bullet and take it to a VW dealership so I could get people who know their business to fix it all.  They're probably going to be working on the car through lunchtime, so they gave me a ride to the mall so that I had a slightly nicer place to twiddle my thumbs.  I am smart, though, and instead of thumb-twiddling, I have work on hand, so I went for the wifi and coffee.  I fear that the repair bill will be frighteningly close to $1000 $1300 (fuckfuckfuck), but I couldn't see any way around it.  This is why the devil invented credit cards, right?

Speaking of work, one of the syllabus-related matters on my mind is how to explain thoroughly to students how to avoid plagiarism.  I constantly sit on the fence in the argument about whether these kids nowadays don't properly understand what plagiarism is or whether they're just lying little sacks of shit trying to get away with whatever they can.  In any case, one must assume the former before getting to know them, so I need to walk them through the whole deal. 

What all should I be covering?  Obviously, there's the old-fashioned matter of how one should cite various kinds of sources.  That much is easily accomplished, and I can always tell them to consult the Chicago Manual of Style when in doubt about formatting.  Then there's the larger issue, related to doubt: when should one cite?  The traditional answer that I stand by is "When in doubt, cite."  But how do you explain this to students who do not yet recognize your version of common sense?  I'm trying to think of every situation, reasonable or not, that students could bring up.  Here's what I've brainstormed:
  • A short phrase of two or three words involving technical or abstract vocabulary that they wouldn't have thought of on their own.  "A good idea" is not a phrase that one needs to cite, but "a trenchant paradigm" might be.  The latter phrase is also ugly as hell and likely a smokescreen for a bullshit artist, so it throws up more than one red flag for me.
  • An idea or observation that needs a bit of explanation, even if it is phrased in the student's own words.  As much as most pseudologists are familiar with Benedict Anderson's idea of print capitalism and the effects it had on creole nationalism, I'll eat my hat if most college students know that.  Talking about that stuff without clearly citing the page numbers of Anderson's book so that I can fact-check an argument might not be plagiarism, exactly, but it's shoddy practice.  (Not acknowledging Anderson as the source of the idea at all — that would be plagiarism.)
  • Then there is the occasional student who thinks that zi can copy entire pages of text wholesale, as long as the source pages are clearly cited.  What's a good way to explain to a student that zi must simultaneously cite sources clearly and write for hirself?  I imagine this would be confusing to at least some people, especially the overly cautious ones who distrust their own instincts.  Should I just forbid block quotations of more than three lines?
  • Web pages.  Oy.  I would like to forbid my students from citing them at all, but of course this idea is increasingly troubled by digital access to peer-reviewed scholarship.  Even the idea that some sources are inherently less trustworthy than others can be hard to work with, since pseudologists frequently engage with things that people say and write that are verifiably inaccurate — we need to study things outside of peer-reviewed scholarship in order to do our jobs.  Is there any practical and brief way to explain to students how to be wary of the internet without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  How do you make undergrads wary of factual truth-claims without making them paranoiac?
What other craziness am I missing?  And what say you, my esteemed colleagues, for solutions?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Cows, corn, and trees

A bit of my ongoing acclimation to Cornstate and Tinytown: I'm participating in a workshop this week – my second one of the week, in fact – that meets off-campus at a little nature-y getaway that the university owns.  It's kinda-sorta tucked behind a nature reserve next to campus, and I had the devil's own time trying to find the fucker this morning.  I drove several miles on a sonofabitch of a gravel road littered with deep puddles that ran over several one-lane bridges and eventually dumped me out in...some exurban neighborhood I didn't recognize.  My iPhone's map function completely fucked me over this time: it swore to me that the institute I was looking for was at a particular point along the road, but when I got to that point, there was yet another one-lane bridge.  Google Maps doesn't know fuck-all about these rural locations.

In desperation – for heaven's sake, I hadn't even had coffee yet, much less breakfast! – I called a colleague who I knew was attending the workshop.  Zi has lived in Tinytown for years, and demonstrated it admirably.  When I explained to hir that I had gotten lost while searching for CBU's little institute, zi asked me, "Okay, what do you see in front of you: cows, corn, or trees?"

Five minutes later, zi had guided me over the phone right to the front door of the institute.

Apparently, there are only so many natural phenomena that a person can even hope to witness in Tinytown.  Oh, wait, there was one more: as I got close to the last turn I had to make, zi inquired, "Okay, now, do you see any turkey vultures?"

Strange landmarks these country folk use.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Frazzled: the run-on

OMG I am so tired that I can barely focus my eyes right now but despite that I am drinking an after-work beer at my desk because I'm underslept from trying to work on my syllabi and tone up the response to my readers' reports and all of that was sort of thrown off to the side last night because I had to change my cell phone number because it used to belong to some cheap thug and I was getting scary text messages and so now I'm underslept and had to go to a workshop on campus this morning and don't get me wrong the workshop is actually through Wednesday and then I have another workshop to go to on campus for Thursday and Friday for which I'm even less prepared and all I really want to do right now is finish my response and then think cool thoughts about my upper-division syllabi but I can't really do that right now because I'm a little stressed out because my entire back from my hips all the way up through my shoulders and neck is sore from helping Fie Upon This Quiet Life do a little preparatory moving and also I'm totally stressed out because my car's electrical system is slowly going on the fritz and my car title is totally fucked because the bureaucrats in Godforsaken State fucked up the odometer reading and now I'll have to get a notarized document and mail off the title certificate so that they can send me a corrected version if they feel like it and so until then I'm driving around Cornstate with expired license tags from Godforsaken State and a broken headlight cover and apparently as of last night a burnt-out turn signal and as if that weren't enough my dishwasher is on the fritz for real and I half-suspect that my leasing company will have to replace the whole damn thing so I guess it's good that I've built up so much experience in hand-washing dishes because that's what I'm still doing until they get around to that and that decreases my energy not only to cook but to worry about the subtleties of pedagogical method that this workshop is exploring and as if that weren't enough to fray my nerves I learned this morning that a family friend has died and that creates a lot of unpleasant unbloggable problems for my family so enough about that but at least I suppose I have my own health and I'm slowly figuring out my syllabi although I have four freaking days at the end of the semester for my Intro to Libel and Slander for which I literally have nothing fucking scheduled because I will have completely run out of things to say and again I must remind myself that life really could be a whole hell of a lot worse and hey I guess I've had much worse problems than my new-found difficulty in juggling schedules to go out with the sudden and I mean really sudden and unanticipated rise in women who want to go out with me and hell I suppose that if I have to take the constant low-level risk of driving with expired license tags in a dodgy car in order to have a dinner date when my work life is in overdrive and the unbloggable anxiety is rising once again then I'll just have to do that and be content that my social life is suddenly quite interesting.