2015-2016 School Year in Review

It has now been one full school year since I started at my current teaching position. So this month, I am going to reflect on what I have learned about teaching and scholarship from this new start just over a year ago.

One of the things that goes along with a tenure track job is summer school teaching. I have never taught one of these, nor have I taught a night class. I have taken both, though not recently. Yet starting next week, I will be teaching a major level course on Renaissance literature sans Shakespeare two evenings a week, with a third evening online. The two weeks I have between the end of the spring semester and the start of the first summer school term are being split between preparing two conference papers to be given over the summer, and the rest of the time on preparing for class.

This is also my first hybrid course (part online, part in person).  I have taught classes with online components, but never regular class periods. I have noticed in other courses that when I assign reading from online sources, students either don’t do it (at a higher rate than with paper) or don’t have access to the text in class, which makes for difficult in class teaching. I have also frequently posted online supplementary material that students either don’t consult or don’t cite. It bothers me that most students would rather go to Shmoop or similar than check something out that has been vetted and recommended by me. I have lost track of how many times I’ve explained why Shmoop is not a good source to use, even though entries supposedly are authored by Ivy League graduate students. First, I don’t think students know that, and second even if authors were named, these kinds of things stop students from doing any kind of critical thinking about a text; instead, they just accept and use what the website says.

I am fairly certain that students at an upper level should know better, but we shall see. To set an example, I have cited all outside sources for all my lecture notes. I am hopeful this will encourage students to check out the sources themselves. I will likely have to wait until the end of term projects and evaluations where I ask students about the best and worst thing about class, and best and worst text (I do this in most classes) to whether or not this tactic will work. Given the subject matter, Luminarium.org will feature prominently as will the websites of several major research libraries, including the Folger Shakespeare Library and the British Library. If I can get all of my lecture notes set up before class starts I will be happy. The way things are going now, I might just make it.

On a different but related note, not too long ago I saw an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about work-life balance concentrating on publishing output. Among its conclusions and proposals were the idea that scholars who take time off for a life actually publish more, and of course the standard advice about planning and scheduling writing/research time. I didn’t know the first, but the second recommendation is pretty much ubiquitous in these kinds of articles. Even though it’s stuff I already know, sometimes a reminder is useful. I’m going to try a self-imposed rule for when class is in session: thou shalt write/research thine own stuff for at least 1 hour a day, with Sundays off. We will see how this turns out.

Something I promised myself at the beginning of this year was to make more time for personal, fun reading. I have managed to start making a dent in my to-read pile, but there is still plenty to go. I have found that public accountability like a reading goal is useful. For this, I am thankful to Goodreads (the book based social media site- it has a yearly reading challenge where you can set and track a goal for the number of books you read in a year) and Cannonball Reads, a review and discussion based site that uses its recommendations to raise money for the American Cancer Society. When you sign up at the beginning of the year, you commit to a certain number of reviews for the year.  For me, the problem is less the reading, but finding the time for the reviewing. This is my second year, and I think this time around, I am managing my time better.

This summer will be busy, not just because I’m teaching but also because I have two conferences and a good friend’s wedding to prepare for and attend, and then school starts in mid-August. I will also get to start learning more about the university bureaucracy, as I learn how to work the student advising system, prepare for my first year of committee work aka service, try to navigate funding proposals-procedures, and get ready for the fall semester.

I will sign off with a few observations about how medieval things fit into all of the above. I have yet to teach a strictly medieval literature course (this could happen next summer- fingers crossed) but I have managed to bring in the medieval to all but one class. Another goal for the summer is to figure out if there is a reasonable way to include medieval literature in a Composition 101 type class. Anybody got any ideas?

Researching w/ Digital vs Paper: Advantage Paper

Just over a week ago, I went to a day-long seminar about the potential for free/low cost textbook options. All of them were digital. A low-cost alternative for instructor copies offered by a textbook company I happen to like is also digital. I own an e-reader which I use mostly for graphic novels due to the lesser cost and space required of the digital versions. Nevertheless, I still prefer a physical paper book (magazines too, but that’s another rant).

For academic uses, I find that paper books are superior in enough ways to be worth some extra cost. Granted these are books that I know I will be using, and that I can afford. Flipping between work and a source has to happen with both screen and paper, so there’s no advantage there. However, without greater technological resources than I have, it is not possible to split a screen between work and several sources, and keep everything in the same view and same focus while continuing to work However, this is possible with paper or/and a screen and paper combination. Advantage:  paper.

I don’t mind digital sources for browsing purposes, but for sustained work, I don’t think I will ever prefer digital to a paper option. Especially since paper is not susceptible to running out of power and needing to be plugged in, nor is it as worry-some to have out in public. I have no problem leaving a pile of books and notebooks on a table in a coffee shop while I get up and go to the bathroom. They’ll still be there when I get back. However, would I do that with a laptop or tablet? Not likely. This simple fact is also the reason why I don’t buy the portability argument in favor of digital texts. Sure they might be easier to carry, but then you’re stuck carrying them everywhere. I can leave a bag of books in the car to go into a grocery store; not so with a computer or other digital device (heat and theft both being possible concerns).

I was in college when digital resources were still being integrated into standard academic study, so I learned how to use paper catalogues and journal indices, but also how to use online search engines and bibliographies. While I can appreciate the speed of the digital version, I think that’s the biggest problem with current academic study now. Because the digital is so much faster, people are prone to expect automatic results, and give up immediately if the search does not instantly yield the ideal matches. This is one of my biggest irritations with teaching academic research.

There are plenty of studies that say students today are digitally literate, and plenty more that say that digitalization has ruined at least two generations for serious academic study thanks to decreased attention spans etc. Personal experience suggests that the latter is more accurate.  I have been in a variety of classrooms for a total of 7 years with 100s of students, and I can count on 1 hand the number who would probably have the patience to go through 100 hits of a search to find the best results. Granted that level of tenacity and thoroughness isn’t usually required until late career undergraduate projects and beyond, but patience and the willingness to spend time focusing and working through a range of sources is a good general skill to have.

Back to the textbooks scenario I opened with. There is another disadvantage to digital textbooks that often seems to  go unstated. If students have to use their digital devices (laptop, smart phone, tablet), then they will have the devices out in class in order to discuss or work with the texts. This means that the temptation to check email, social media, text a friend, etc. will be staring them in the face. My experience again suggests that the number of students who might have the patience to go beyond the first 3 search engine hits is probably pretty similar to the number who can resists the urge to check something not class related.

Research (Paper and Digital): 3 Rules and 2 Laws for Success

The Craft of Research is ever bit as much an art as a science (and yes, I do recommend the book by that title linked here). Every person has to find the method that works best for them and their particular situation.  A lot of people think they know how to do academic research by the time they finish high school, but as an instructor of intro to college writing, I am firmly of the opinion that the majority of these people are wrong.Looking back at some of my papers even during my senior year of college, I’m pretty sure I didn’t really understand real academic research until graduate school.

With the rise of digital technologies there has been an incredible rise in the amount of things that can be easily accessed and the speed at which such info might be obtained. This is sadly accompanied by a rise in minimal to non-existent attention spans which causes serious problems for true academic research. Research takes time. It requires in-depth and detailed attention to potential sources and avenues of inquiry. I can’t think of many people who have the patience to comb through fifty pages of database hits to find the perfect source. I have done this. It is painful, but worth it for a stronger paper. The standard ‘first-three-items-that-show-up-on-Google’ does not work in the long term. Let it be known that I have no problem with Google or Wikkipedia. I use them myself. But these types of resources work best for finding basic information and locating resources; they are not great sources themselves.

This problem is not limited to the digital realm. The same applies to academic books that might be potential sources for a research project. Reading the Table of Contents, Introduction, and Glossary are a start, but the book should actually be read. If the topic of the research is narrowed down enough, certain chapters or sections might be skimmed but should not be skipped. Like digital sources, books are not simply sources for soundbites. Many student who are just now beginning college do not realize this but there are databases on paper; they are called ‘Indexes’ of journals and generally cover the year’s contents of a given journal or publication. They often contain possibilities that are not available online. Yes, people, there are materials out there that have not yet been digitized (and may never be).

In addition to misusing digital resources and not taking enough time to sort through the material, problem number two is failure to keep records of research. One of the worst possible feelings when half-way through a project is to remember a citation that would suddenly be perfect, but not remembering where the fact-quote-reference was from.  To that end, I introduce K’s Recommendation 1: Keep records of searches, and notes on what has been read. This will save time in the long run, no matter what the scope of the project. I promise.

Also keep in mind the following:

Machan’s Law: Thou shalt not begin a project with a specific outcome (ie-thesis) in mind. This is the mark of an amateur. Begin with a question and possible answer, but be willing to change thy mind if the research so dictates.

Curran’s Law: If, in the course of a project, you are not wasting time chasing red herrings, you aren’t doing research right. In order to be thorough, you will run into dead-ends. This is not only ok, it is a sign that you are narrowing your focus. This is a sign of progress. Whine and cry if you must (I know I do), but embrace it.

In light of these two laws, based on some of the best research advice I got as a student, I also present K’s Recommendation 2: Be ready to find out that someone else already had your initial idea (or something very close to it). When this happens, do not panic. This is almost a moment of pride. As the old cliche goes, “great minds think alike”. You just had an idea that you share with a published scholar.  Keep working, and you will find a new, original angle. For example, you might find a different reason or way to reach the same conclusion. You might find other evidence that proves the same point, etc.

And finally, K’s Recommendation 3: Listen to your professors, students who have been in your program longer, and to each other. Go ask for direction; discuss your project with others. If someone recommend a title, it is probably for good reason. You are not obligated to use said recommended title, but you should at least look at it. Even if you don’t end up citing it, you might use it to locate other sources or directions from which to approach your topic.