Thursday, January 27, 2011

It never rains in California

Okay, I have had times that I have been really ticked off with my colleagues, but this LA Times story highlighted a professor who was REALLY pissed off. Literally.

Apparently, Cal State Northridge math professor Tihomir Petrov, a grown-ass man in his 40s, was so upset with his colleague that Petrov had taken to urinating on said colleague's door. Not once or twice, mind you, but enough times that the university actually set up a hidden camera to catch the perpetrator. Now Petrov's picture is in the paper, and he has been charged with a crime. This scenario is so unbelievably outrageous as to seem like something from a Richard Russo academic novel. And like reading the Russo novel, this story gave me a case of the giggles.

I keep imagining the possible explanations to the jury:
  1. It wasn't intentional; I have incontinence and am leaving puddles everywhere I go.
  2. The research he produces is such shit, I mistook his office for the bathroom.
  3. In my culture, urinating on someone's property is a symbol of respect and admiration. 
  4. What right did you have to tape me without my consent? That is a human rights violation. I am suing the university.
  5. I have a Pavlovian reaction when I see his door, because it used to be the men's room on this floor before the recent renovation.
  6. Ah, hell, just tell me the fine and I'll pay it. And I might do it again, too. Fuck it, I have tenure and it's not like I'm gonna get a raise anytime soon.
Closing thought: Peeing on a colleague's door is such a guy thing to do. Women wouldn't do this, and not only because we don't pee well standing up. It's just, well, gross.

I am sorta hoping Petrov has a medical condition or an active substance problem, because otherwise, this story is just pathetic. And nothing like getting your name **and picture** in the local paper and national news for this kind of sad story.The best coverage may be the LA Daily News, which notes Petrov's publications and alma mater.

Still giggling.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

First day jitters

My first class meets tomorrow, and I am nervous once again. Even though I have been teaching for more than 15 years. Even though my Monday course is not a new prep. Even though I am confident that I can maintain control of a classroom. Even though I have won teaching awards and received pretty good/excellent student evaluations for years. So, you ask, why am I nervous?

This situation is a little like waiting to go on stage in theater. As an actor, I have prepared, memorized my lines, practiced with the other actors, and created a character I can inhabit for the course of the production. But there is one thing I do not control in this play: the audience. As you other performers and instructors know, different audiences react differently to the same play. A dead audience can feel like the kiss of death, and it means that the actors have to work that much harder (with none of the energy exchange) than if they had a "live" audience. One good laugher--you know the ones, they laugh with an openness and clarity that encourages laughter in others--can improve the whole tenor of the audience, and their absence is keenly missed. Students are much the same, in that the group of them becomes a force, larger and separate from all of them individually. That force can bode good or ill, and it is hard to know from the first how that happens.

Managing the tenor and energy of the classroom can be done in a variety of ways: humor, formality, friendliness, intelligence, structure, laissez faire, facilitating... Most of us hew to our most comfortable approaches, those that tend to work for us most easily, though good teachers know we have to modify that approach to the needs of the class. I am mostly comfortable with a friendly, humor-invoking stance, backed up by a commitment to preparation and structure. That said, if the students are acting out inappropriately, I can become a regimented bitch for a while. Like an audience, you can lose a class at almost any time, though a skilled instructor can usually win them back.

I view pre-class nervousness and anxiety as a gift that provides me with energy and excitement. I need that energy to be engaged with the students, to provide leadership to the class learning experience, and to get my ass out of bed and over to the classroom. That said, I have reviewed my notes and presentation materials, practiced my opening day presentation out loud, and reconsidered my plans several times. This anxiety doesn't keep up all semester long, thank goodness, thanks to years of teaching. No, the nervousness is just at the beginning of the semester, as I prepare to face a new audience, a new opportunity to teach. Once I have a feel for the audience, and they for me, we strike an easier balance that usually sees me through. And if, for some reason, the class takes an unexpected turn, my experience tells me that I can handle it and adapt to insure better learning.

So, like any performer (even the King!), I am waiting expectantly in the wings for my time on stage, hoping the performance will turn out good for all of us. And, unlike a play or a one-time performance, I have all semester to perfect the show.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Hard stuff

I writing to commend to you an excellent essay written by Dr. Madeleine Li  about her failure to attain tenure. The story is especially heartbreaking, as her father was dying during that same period. To add insult to injury, Li describes being asked to be the institution's graduation speaker (yes, for the whole institution) at the same time that she is needing to find a new job. Her grace and commitment to the students comes through very strongly, and I finished the essay with nothing but respect for Dr. Li.

There are a number of elements to the tenure process that are out of a person's control, leading candidates for tenure to a state of anxiety and a constant series of questions: Will the book get a publisher? Is the publisher good enough? Will the revise and resubmit get through in time? Will they choose an outside reviewer who has a problem with me or my approach to research? Will the two people on faculty who have a grudge against me/my research/my teaching use their pull in the department/college/administration to sink my tenure proposal? Even people with strong records have reason to worry that no one's tenure is guaranteed.

I have known a number of people who did not get tenure, and the experience was devastating for them, even if they were not completely surprised by the decision. Li explains that when her book was not accepted by the press (though it was supported for revision), she knew her chances had diminished. She could have played the tenure game and published essays and articles instead of a book to improve her chances, but that wasn't her vision for her work. That said, embarrassment, frustration, and anger marked her remaining time at her institution.

Yet, I have also seen these same people who didn't get tenure at their original institutions thrive in their next place of employment. Some of these educators were in a situation that was a bad fit (research v. teaching institution), while others were undone by timing issues, tenure process issues, or personal challenges that were addressed by being afforded more time. New institutions and new tenure clocks made a big difference in their abilities to be successful. I hope that Dr. Li's story follows this same trajectory.

This essay is the first in a series, one I look forward to following.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

New Course Preps

Like my bloggy friend, Dr. Crazy, I am returning from sabbatical this semester and teaching a new course prep. Yes, this means part of my sacred sabbatical was spent prepping the new course. (And unlike Crazy's teaching-oriented institution, my R1 will not be impressed by the time I spent on teaching.) And yes, I will bitch about new course preps like anyone else, especially when I have research and writing that is waiting to be done. But honestly? I believe that new course preps are a blessing dressed as a curse.

The curse is more obvious: new course preps take a LOT of time, especially if they are done right. If the course is required for majors, I have to be sure that the readings and assignments address the approved learning objectives. In some schools, it requires even more, including negotiation with other faculty who teach the same course to agree on common textbooks, assignments, speakers, and/or field trips. I have taught courses with a lot of autonomy and others where we negotiate everything, and since I often get my way, I am fine either way. (BTW: That is tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, with more than a bit of truth.)

Regardless of how autonomous an instructor can be, though, a new course prep requires:
  • reviewing multiple textbooks on your topic and selecting the one(s) that best communicate the points you (and the master syllabus) think important
  • finding useful articles that illustrate or support the points you are trying to get across in class
  • selecting videos, webpages, and other supplemental materials that will enhance student learning
  • preparing any course web materials (quizzes, surveys, games, group activities, links, etc)  
  • identifying potential speakers or external activities to make class more interesting
  • designing in-class activities, assignments, and exams (along with grading criteria) that both encourage and assess student learning while taking into account different students' learning styles
  • finishing a new syllabus
  • a glass or two of wine and/or handfuls of chocolate (...maybe that is just me)

All of that takes time. Obviously, all of this work is not totally finished before the class begins. Instructors will likely be securing guest speakers, films, and determining in-class activities up to the last minute.  (That may not be true for online courses that have to be "in the can" before the semester starts.) But even for those of us teaching traditional, face-to-face courses, a lot of the prep work (readings, assignments, etc.) should be done before you greet the class on day one. (Makes it easier to answer those pesky, type-A students' questions about expectations on a paper that won't occur until late in the semester.) As a result, part of your prior semester and/or the winter or summer break will be spent on significant course prep--time you won't be doing research or writing... or traveling, taking a vacation, or simply chilling at home with fiction on the Kindle.

So, where is the blessing in the new course prep, you ask? After all, you argue persuasively, isn't it better to just refine all the hard work you did prepping the courses you have already taught a few times, leaving you more time for the all-important research and writing?? You could become an expert in specific courses, and you would never have to do another new prep again!

Well, here is where I have found the blessing this semester, as I prepare for a brand new course (my ninth in six-and-a-half years):
  • New preps give me a chance to be creative. I get to try new approaches to teaching, new books, new activities, and to incorporate new ideas.
  • New preps give me more insight into the discipline. I review syllabi from other programs, examining what they see as important and how they approach the central arguments in the field.
  • New preps allow me to focus on a formerly untapped aspect of my own knowledge. This is especially true this semester, because I am teaching a course I have never taught before, but it is on a topic where I do a good deal of research and writing. I then get to bring this knowledge into the classroom, while the discussions and readings from class get me excited about my own research and writing.
  • New preps keep me from being bored (and boring) in class. I had that teacher once who taught from what I was sure were 15 year old class notes, handwritten on yellowing notepaper. It was sad and ridiculous. His information was out-of-date, and he was surly when challenged by his students. The poor man needed a change... badly.
New course preps are both curse and blessing, but for me, the blessing is winning out. Classes start soon, and I am excited to go back after sabbatical. I am not sure I would feel that way if I was just recycling old courses. So, new class, here I come!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Hiring committees and professional growth for administrative candidates

After talking with friends who are seeking administrative positions, I am struck by the challenges of overcoming the limitations of hiring committees. I know, having served on search committees for administrative positions, that the easiest  thing to do is hire someone who has already done the job at another institution. I mean, there are so many applications that search committees are often looking for ways to easily cull the stack. Yet, while the positions my friends are considering are loosely related to work they have done (i.e., it is administrative, creative, and interdisciplinary), the actual office, and its purview, are different. They have not held a job exactly like the one being advertised, and that is the problem.

If you are hiring a Director of Undergraduate Studies, for example, it is easy to reduce the numbers of applications by picking out applicants who have held the same position elsewhere (even at very different type/size/structure schools), rather than to consider someone who ran a scholarship program, an honors program, or an advising program at a similarly situated school. That said, many of the skills and knowledge required for the Director job are the same as those utilized in those other positions, and the individual who held the same job elsewhere may not have been any good at the job! This kind of committee myopia leads to shallow and stagnant applicant pools, while limiting the professional growth of talented administrative professionals.

Committees would be better off identifying the skills and knowledge the position requires, and then consider all comers who have those skills/knowledge. For example, program development is program development, whether in undergraduate or graduate studies, honors programs or programs serving low-achieving students. If you can find someone who demonstrates leadership skills and a vision they can communicate to those around them, you might want to look beyond the job title they currently hold. This holistic approach requires a close look at candidate cover letters, CVs, and letters of reference, and it is enhanced by questions about specific skills, knowledge, and experience during candidate interviews. Yes, this approach is a time-suck when you are doing it, but it saves time in the long run if you can avoid having to fill the position again in 2-3 years.

What can candidates applying for a new type of position do to better situate themselves? The cover letter is especially important in this situation. Applicants can highlight those skills and knowledge from their experience that translate and discuss how these capabilities would inform their leadership in the new position. They should also reference any service that relates more directly to the new position.

Applicants should reach out to their professional networks for assistance and support. A reference from someone who has a position similar to the one they are seeking can be very helpful. This way, even though the applicants don't have the specific experience of the particular job, someone who does hold that job thinks they are capable. Applicants should contact people they know at the institution where they are applying to get the skinny on the job and the priorities of the administration, and see if they can rally some support from those on-campus allies. If these allies are willing to reach out informally on their behalf, a well-placed word can get applicants through the initial cut to the in-person interview, where they can help the committee see their strengths.