Working the Undergraduates

Yesterday, a student came to office hours and laid this on me: “I e-mailed the rest of the class, and there are a lot of us that think the workload for this class is excessive.”  Something like that, anyway–the short of it was that he and other students have been talking about how hard my class is compared to their other classes.

First, I gotta give points to this student for having the courage to come talk to me about this.  Maybe it’s because I’m just an adjunct and not as intimidating as proper professors, but to confront the person who assigns your grade is pretty gutsy.  Kudos to him for that.  And I’ll take some kudos, as well, for creating an environment where students feel comfortable approaching their instructor in such a way.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can take all the credit for that.

Second: How the hell am I supposed to respond to that?  I mean, my immediate response was to thank the student for letting me know, because this is something that I want to be aware of; then I rushed into a muddled explanation/defense/set of suggestions for dealing with the work load.  But obviously I need to address this somehow in class.  A group of students are now grumbling about my work load, and that grumbling could very well turn into stubborn resistance to fully participating in the class: if the students feel that the work load is unfair, they will feel justified in withholding their labor in whatever ways they can and still be safe.  We’re not talking a full-scale rebellion–they’ll still come to class, submit their work, etc.–but it’ll be like pulling teeth to get them to talk in class.  And as it’s a discussion-based course, that’s going to make my life miserable.  So: what to do?  A few options come to mind:

  1. Tell them all to go to hell.  They saw the syllabus a week before class started, and they could have got out while they had the chance.   Hell, they could still leave.  Nobody’s got a gun to their head.  If you don’t like it, fuck off.  I am sooooo tempted to say this.  But no matter how correct it is–and I’m right, right?–it would be unproductive.
  2. Show them how much I’ve reduced the work load in this particular class over the past five years.  When I first started this course, I assigned five books for course reading (each with a book review), plus a semester-long original research paper requiring ten secondary and ten primary sources.  As it is now, they have to read three books for class, and they have a series of assignments leading to a research paper proposal, not an actual research paper, based on three secondary and three primary sources.  So I could basically waltz into class and say, “You think this is hard?  You should have seen this class three years ago!  That’s hard.”  Again, though, I can’t imagine this would be productive.  The students could simply respond with “Okay, it’s better than before, but it’s still bad.”  Which would probably drive me to response #1.
  3. Address in a delicate manner the fact that college is meant to be challenging.  I’m thinking of using a series of analogies, like: if you want to get stronger, you lift heavier weights; if you want to play an instrument better, you play more difficult music; if you want to be a better chef, you cook more challenging dishes.  Somehow the students need to come to understand that this class isn’t meant to check what they already know and can already do, but to get them to learn more and to improve their academic skills.
  4. Provide the students with some strategies on handling the work load.  Stuff like scheduling your work week; forming study groups; etc.  These are first-year students, mostly, and they’re still figuring things out–although, unlike the fall, they now have some confidence that they’ve figured out the game.  Come to think of it, this is probably a pretty big part of the problem: these students have developed a bit of arrogance about what college is supposed to be like (based on the four classes they had last semester), I come along and push them harder, and they kick back. Hmmm….
  5. Talk with some other faculty about their work loads for similar courses.  The student who visited me yesterday said friends of his in similar courses reported work loads ranging from a bit harder to much easier.  I explained to the student that there’s a delicate balance between leveling course expectations and providing professors the freedom they need to teach the way they best see fit.  But I can also understand the student’s frustration.  Frankly, though, I’ve lowered the bar as much as I think is responsible; if there really are professors who teach similar courses with a reduced work load, they’re letting these students off too easy.  Which, to me anyway, indicates a basic lack of respect for what these students are capable of and what they deserve.

Obviously, this little talk left me shaken.  It’s some combination of anger, frustration, self-righteousness, and confusion, and I’m not sure how this gets resolved.

Learning to Nag

Okay, I’ve got to get this off of my chest.  At the end of a very nice conversation the other day, one of my advisers said, “Oh, by the way.  That recommendation letter that you asked me to write?  Yeah, I didn’t get that sent until two days after the deadline.  I included an apologetic note, and in my experience these things aren’t a problem.  But you really have to stay on be about this sort of thing.”

what the fuck.

I had sent this person three separate e-mails as reminders about the letter, including one five days before it was due.  The first e-mail contained not only my request, but also the due dates, in bold.  To which the professor responded, “Happy to write the letters.  Send me the due dates so I can put them in my calendar.”  Okay, maybe she missed that in the original e-mail, so I sent the info again.  And then once more, along with a draft of my proposal, which I assume she didn’t read.  And still that wasn’t enough.  Apparently I need to call her the day before the letter is due and the due date itself.

So I’m learning to be a nag, which comes with its own perils (“Jeeze, that student sure is a pain in my ass.”).  But, c’mon, get your shit together.  I know $7,000 may not be a lot when you’re making six figures, but that’s a lot of coin to me.

Stolen: Wind from My Sails

For about one hour this morning, I was in a state of inspired productivity.  I came up with an intro for a paper that I’ll be presenting in March; I had an idea for a lecture that I’ve been struggling to conceptualize; and I think I figured out how to restructure an article that I’ve been editing.  I was riding high.  And then I looked up the name of this fellow who I had been told might be working on something similar to my dissertation.  Similar?  Try exactly the same.  This guy’s got an article coming out, and he’s been nice enough to post it on-line; reading it, I felt like I was reading my own thoughts.  Shit, he even started his piece with a quotation that I used in my dissertation prospectus.  What the fuck?  I actually sobbed a little.  Crushing.

Fortunately, my adviser’s quite good at talking people down from their ledges.  He reassured me that I have nothing to worry about.  My topic is big enough for the both of us, me and this other guy, and probably more people, too.  He also reminded me that I am an environmental historian, and noted that this other guy is a diplomatic historian, so it’s not exactly the same thing; in fact, these are very different approaches.  And this might help when I go to look for a job, because this other fellow’s book (he’s a professor at Harvard) will be out five-six years before mine, so I’ll have a literature to directly engage.  All it really means is (a) I gotta get my ass moving on this and (b) I need to make sure to clearly define my environmental history approach to the whole thing.

Still, I’m a bit deflated.  It looked like I was going to kick some serious ass today–on a Friday, no less!–but now, not so much.  Instead, it may turn into a day of administrative work and video gaming.

The Gambler, Graduate-Style

Yesterday I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of five hours searching for fellowships and grants for next year.  What a mind-numbing experience.  Also a bit frustrating, because I’m pretty sure that I won’t be getting any of those fellowships.  No Ivy League credentials, no publications, and (gasp!) a lot of time spent teaching instead of researching.  I suppose there’s a chance that I’ll get lucky; it’s pretty much a crap shoot, as far as I can tell, depending more on the mood of the reviewer than the quality of the application.   It’s kind of like playing the lottery, except that I’ll spend hours-upon-hours of writing time instead of dropping a buck and getting a squishee at the Qwik-E-Mart.  Sigh.

Still…wouldn’t it be great if I got one?  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the sentiment that will keep me coming back for more.  I believe it’s also what keeps people at the slot machines.

On Schedule, Or Getting There

About a month ago, I became/went ABD (All But Dissertation, for those fortunate to have avoided such a silly acronym).  I did so before the official beginning of my fourth year in the PhD program, which puts me right on track with the norm.  In our program, you’re meant to be done with your coursework, minor field, comprehensive exams, and dissertation prospectus by the end of your third year, and I just made it.  So hoo-ray for that.  Since then, I’ve been busying myself with teaching two classes (African American history is going quite well, thank you for asking), occasionally looking through microfilm for an article I’m revising, and playing Civilization, one of my favorite video games of all time.  What I haven’t been doing is my dissertation.  I’ve read a few books, spoken with some people in the field, and put in a few billable hours of “thought” or “conceptualization,” but I haven’t done any real research.  Nor have I looked into fellowships and grants, which I’m pretty sure I should be doing.

Today, I make a concerted effort to do what I should be doing.  But what should I be doing, exactly?  The last three years have consisted of identifiable hoops through which to jump.  Now I’m on my own, equipped with a vague sense of what I need to accomplish–get fellowships, write a dissertation, get a job–but little idea of how to do those things, exactly.  There are some more experienced graduate students whose example I can try to follow, but (a) I’m frankly unimpressed by much of their work and their (lack of) progress; (b) no one provides specifics on what they’re doing, exactly; and (c) everyone’s case is different.

So off I go.

Whale Shit

I note that my blog has been as boring as–per the saying–whale shit.  Actually, more boring; it turns out whale shit is quite interesting, as you’ll see here.  Many apologies to you all.  I hope to identify that little part of me that is interesting some time soon, and transfer it to the blog.  Meanwhile, I’m working away at my dissertation prospectus.  Had a productive morning yesterday, banging out half the outline.  Hope to do the same today, but I got barely a wink of sleep last night, so we’ll see how it goes.  Content-wise, I’m drifting more and more into work on the aftermath of colonialism in the 1960s and 1970s.  Suggestions on neocolonialism are most welcome.

Your Advisor: Just Not That Into You

One of the more depressing moments in a grad student’s life is when she figures out that she is simply not all that important to her advisor, at least compared to how important/influential the advisor is to her.  I–and I’m betting other grad students do this, too–idolize my advisor, and for good reason.  He’s written a brilliant book and finishing an even better one; he’s been published in academic as well as public-intellectual-type journals; he’s kind of famous, both in and out of acadame.  And I found out last week that my absolutely favorite historian, the Grand Poobah of my field, assigns my advisor’s book.  My first reaction was: AWESOME!  I’m that guy’s advisee!  Me!  And then I thought: who cares? I mean, who really gives a shit?  Certainly not the Grand Poobah or his students or their advisors or their other students or people who read journals or book editors or hiring committees.  And, sadly, probably not my advisor, either.  Not that he’s insensitive or mean; to the contrary, he’s probably one of the nicest people in this business.  But the fact of the matter is that I do absolutely nothing for him or his career.  I haven’t got my shit together and published the book and three articles I promised I would.  Hell, I haven’t even moved along in the program as fast as I thought/said I would.  All I am is a time-drain for him.  And it makes me feel like I did in junior high: the geeky fat kid who chummied up to the nice cool kid, who let me hang around out of pity.  What an icky feeling.

You Will Know Me By My Mediocrity

As I have already noted on this blog, I’m not the brightest bulb in the pack.  In fact, I’m quite mediocre compared to most of my graduate student colleagues and many of my students.  Part of that mediocrity, it occurred to me yesterday, stems from my upbringing.  Unlike many of my students and some of my friends, I am not the first person in my family to graduate from college.  My dad went to university, as did his parents–one went to Stanford and the other to Berkeley, for pete’s sake.  So the fact that I am now pursuing a PhD is hardly remarkable.  And despite my family’s collegiate history, I also did not grow up in a notably intellectual household.  The TV was always on; my mom listened to oldies, not NPR; the first “opera” I went to was actually Phantom of the Opera.  As I moved through the stages of academia, I came to know more and more people whose youth was spent in much more sophisticated environments–hosting guests in the parlor, going to the theatre (note the spelling), finding stacks of The New Yorker instead of Sports Illustrated in the bathroom, etc..

This particular life path has contributed to my mediocrity.  Unlike first-in-family students, I am not driven by a sense of family pride and purpose, the sort of relentless I’m-going-to-show-the-world-what-my-family-can-do motivation that I see in some of my friends and students.  I also don’t have the pressure of expectations that might come from growing up in an intellectual household; no one will be disappointed if I never publish a book or get a university job.  And so I float along, knowing that my family has given me every opportunity possible, but not entirely sure what I should do with those opportunities.

And that’s why I’m so frustrated: because I lack the imagination and creativity to do something remarkable with the freedom and opportunities I’ve been given.  I’m not constrained by family poverty or family expectations; I’m constrained by my own dullness.  That’s the source of my mediocrity, and I’m not sure how or whether I can get past that.

At the end of the day, of course, it’s not some earth-shattering problem.  I do my work, walk my dog, love my spouse: life is good.  Most of the time, that’s enough for me.

Things I’m Getting Pissy About

I’ve noticed that I’m getting increasingly pissy as the years go by.  Of course, this is more or less fine by me; I sometimes dream of being a grumpy old person sitting in a rocking chair on my porch, shooting the neighbor kids with a pellet gun.  But in the here and now, I’m just complaining and grumbling a lot (not nearly as fun as shooting neighbor kids, I imagine).  A couple things of late:

1) Long blog posts.  I’ve noticed this at DailyKos, especially, and some other places I like to frequent.   4,000 word-long blog posts?  Are you fucking kidding me?  Dude, I have a stack of books that reaches to the ceiling, and I’m expected to know them inside and out for my preliminary exams.  And even without that required reading, there’s a ton of other stuff by actually important people that I should be reading–you know, Eric Hobsbawm or E.H. Carr or Jane Jacobs.  4,000 word posts ain’t going to work for me–or many other people, I’d imagine.  Learn to write more efficiently, for shit’s sake.

2) Undergraduate employees in service jobs.  Was I really that stupid as an undergraduate?  They seem to be trained to not listen and give bullshit answers to questions that they don’t understand, then get all indignant about having to work a minimum-wage job.  Yeah, working sucks, which is why you’re in college and will hopefully get a better job once you’re out.  But for now, you’ve got dick for experience and training, and a bad attitude to boot.  Now get over it and get me my fucking hamburger.


Finding Time

My partner and I just spent four hours–four hours–cleaning house. It looks great; more importantly, when the place is a mess, I can’t think straight. As near as I can tell, that whole “mess=genius” equation must be true, because how else could you keep track of things in disorder if you weren’t brilliant? Anyway, while I’m glad–embarrassingly happy, actually–that the house is clean, I’m now wondering how I’m supposed to write summaries of this, this, this, and this, and when I’m going to find time to grade the forty papers on my desk, and when, exactly, the time will come to read this and this. All of this, of course, I’ve promised myself to finish this weekend. Good luck with that.

And that’s just the stuff that’s in the right-in-front-of-my-face file. There’s also the article I’m supposed to be working on, the book review that’s due in about a month (on a subject that I’m not nearly the expert I claim to be), and a half-dozen other projects that would add a bit of much-needed weight to my CV. The (albeit weakly developed) point: there is a serious disconnect between what departments say you should do–get something published, review a book or two, etc.–and the stuff they make you do–read books you don’t really need to (although perhaps want to), grade, and all of that.

And then there’s the dirty laundry!