Thursday, May 29, 2008

End of the First Year on the Tenure Track: Part Two - Teaching

This should be an easy one, yes? I have some experience setting up new classes and I taught almost exclusively things that I'd taught a few hundred times (it seemed) or things I'd read closely as a grad student TA. While I was trying to crank an article out by the end of the first semester, everyone was saying, "Don't worry about it - no one expects you to get any real research done your first year! Just get used to teaching your classes!"

Ha! I would smirk at them and think, "get used to teaching? Dude, puh-lease. I could do this in my sleep..."

(*picture of cocky jr faculty member getting ready to be smacked down*)

Now, teaching did go....fine. I wasn't a sensation. And I'm sorta used to being a sensation (and I don't mean this to be a shithead, although you're all thinking that right now). What I realized is that, yeah - if you have NO OTHER JOB OBLIGATIONS AT ALL, you can be a crackerjack teacher - everybody's fave. But I was always used to teaching in a vacuum - I was used to teaching like none of it mattered past this semester. Like I didn't have to think about getting tenure or (dare I say it?) a reputation.

And that last word brings me to another point. I've always been a fair grader, but that wasn't foremost on my mind (although a lot of people thought I was psychotically hard, apparently). I was, however, thinking about what kind of rep (English Department "street cred", if you will) I was carving out for myself. Was I going to be the one you hoped to take the Med-Ren survey with? Did you desperately want to take my Chaucer class if you could? The answer is, most students couldn't give a rat's butt. The more germane question for students is, "is the class being taught at 9:30 am? Is there room left in the 2:30 section?"

The thing I realized is that it doesn't really matter that much. I'm a good teacher and I'll always get good/decent evaluations. Some semesters I'll be able to dedicate more energy to teaching - the semester when I'm working up my tenure dossier? Probably not so much.

Two cool things happened this year regarding teaching:

1) After my grad class, several students said they were taking my next one, which gave me a warm fuzzy. BUT, a couple of days later I received an email from one of my students - he was one of the "cool" kids who I knew was only in there because of the requirement. He is very smart, but seemed disengaged throughout some of the class. The email was a more personalized addendum to the course evaluation they'd done at the end of the semester. "Oh, god," I thought. However, it was the most conscientious, thorough, most totally constructive evaluation I've ever received, bar none. He talked about how he'd inititally just wanted to get through my course, hadn't been interested at all. But, then he'd become very invested in the things we discussed and in his final project (for which he was able to incorporate some of his own interests - it was a great paper). His suggestions were spot on and I'll be incorporating almost all of them. So, all the angst I felt this semester was worth it, I think.

2) When I went to our departmental graduation ceremony, our chair also takes a minute to point out any special awards or grants that the faculty have won. Everyone claps for everyone and the parents get a glow knowing that their kids were taught by people who can, actually, read and write. I received a grant this year and when the chair read my name, about 8 of my former students who were graduating all whooped really loud. It made me happy.

Funny Addendum:
Some of you may remember my stupid existential crisis about getting a blue frowny face on RMP (I gave the little shit the stink eye at graduation, too. Because I'm petty and childish...). I looked again recently and saw something that I will actually wear as a badge of honor (and this is the gist of the rating, although I've corrected the spelling mistakes, which is why the student probably got a C):

Green "So-So" Face:

Prof. MW is a very nice person and very funny. However, her class is *insanely* hard! She takes attendance EVERY DAY and she expects us to have read this HUGE book BEFORE class! (I.e, the 5 poems we'll be discussing out of the Norton Anthology, kids). She gives three REALLY HARD tests and we have to take tons of notes in her lectures. I thought this would be an easy class, but I'm struggling to get a C! It's SO unfair!!


Friday, May 23, 2008

Can't we all just switch to the metric system or whatever?

I *hate* formatting stupid, f**cking articles to different formats....MHRA style my foot. Single quotations, blah, blah.....(*grumble, grumble*).....tedious.....

Thursday, May 22, 2008

End of the First Year on the Tenure Track: Part One - the Faculty Meeting

I thought I might post some reflections on what has been a BIG HONKIN' YEAR OF MILESTONES:

Part the First - The Faculty Meeting:

Learning how to speak up in meetings was a semi-fraught situation this year. What's interesting is that it's not because I felt uncomfortable about speaking up as a junior faculty member in a room full of senior colleagues. I know that some of the other jr-faculty in my department had that reaction; they have said in various contexts that they felt like they didn't want to antagonize the very people who would eventually be deciding their tenure cases. I haven't felt that way this year (not that feeling that way is in any way wrong or, in some cases, on the money). Rather, I was trying to establish what my voice in these meetings was going to be - passionate regarding issues about which I felt strongly, but also measured and as even-keel as possible. What I've loved about our regular department meetings this year (and I know I won't feel like this about dept. meetings in 10 years, but for now the novelty hasn't quite worn off) is the different voices that come out. For some reason, I imagine this must be like a huge heard of sheep; each one has its own distinct voice and the little lost lamb can hear its own mother among all the others that basically seem to bleat in the same way. Now, I'm not a lost lamb (although at times I've felt that way this year), but I quickly became accustomed to reading these meetings on a different level - abstracted from the actual situation at hand, I could tell why my colleagues were really saying what they were saying. If John Doe says this completely cazy, off the wall thing, it's to provoke a reaction, not because he actually thinks this. If Jane Doe starts going off into conspiracy theories about X, then Jane Doe 2 will intervene in a non-threatening way to neutralize the acid spewing forth. It's like reading a Spenserian allegory - there's so much more going on underneath the surface if you just look close enough.

Speaking up in meetings became important this year in particular because I was thrown into the semi-deep end of the pool early on. I was on a search committee and, thus, had to make my voice heard in many ways. The committee and I agreed to a spectacular degree on the status of all the candidates, so there wasn't strife per se, but there was the need to make our case persuasively to the rest of the dept. There was also another hiring issue that I was extremely personally invested in as well as some discussed curricular revisions that would impact me and my cohort tremendously. These issues became the basis on which I began to create my voice in the department. I should say that 99.9% of the senior faculty here really value the junior faculty and encourage us to speak up and become invested in the department goings-on. Fortunately, there's not the pat on the head and the "this is how we do things around here, kiddo" condescension I've heard about so often with some of my friends. They were pleased that I spoke up in meetings and staked my claim. But it felt that there were also times when certain well-meaning colleagues were attempting to appropriate my voice and my situation. It was well-intentioned and it was ultimately in the service of what we all wanted to happen, but it impressed upon me even more that I needed to be responsible for voicing my opinions; I needed to decide what aspects of my individual situation (both personal and professional) should be brought to bear on this issue. Ultimately, it worked wonders - we got what we wanted voted on and passed by the department and I received many emails from my senior colleagues saying how happy they'd been that I was so proactive and invested in our department's inner workings. It was a kind of validation I'd never experienced because my voice had never been valued in departments where I was an adjunct or visiting professor. This aspect, more than the knowledge that I will have steady teaching and a relatively stable identity as professor for the foreseeable future, has made me feel "all growed up" this year...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Is it summer yet?

Well, I made a big pitcher of sangria today, so it feels like summer! If anyone's interested, I'll post my recipe - no apples, all citrus juices and wine and a little brandy (if one wants).

My lovely friend who got the job at the Dream Academy is coming into town with her partner on Monday to look for a place, etc. I'm so happy they're coming! I'm still not really believing that she'll actually be here next year. I've set up a big new and junior faculty get together (two of our new hires will be in town next week), so that will be fun.

I'm trying to finish up the "Article That I Never Thought Would Die But Then It Did." I got a few things to revise (look at this, format that, push the conclusion a bit further, etc.), but nothing terribly substantive. It needs to be done by the end of May, however, to get the collection to the publishers. So, that's been on my plate for the last few days.

Grades are in (although grad papers haven't been commented on - they'll have to wait!) and graduation is over!

Life is status quo, five-by-five, copacetic, but good...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

But can I still write about Women, though?

I was talking with Adjacent Field Friend the other day (who recently got a book contract - way to go!) and we were talking about studying women in the early periods. We both work in this subfield and we both do work that, at one point or another in our graduate work and/or our fledgling careers, has been considered to be "non-literary" - not so hot when you're an English Ph.D. Without giving anything away about either of us, let's say that she works on both canonical and noncanonical authors and genres. I work in more than one medium (but don't we all, really?). Anyway, we were discussing how our work has been dismissed by using evidence from the "historical record" (with all the attendant caveats that term requires).

For example, many people think I work on women's literacy - I don't, not really anyway. My work is predicated on early women's literacy in the same way that some conclusions about medieval population studies might be predicated on the fact that there was, actually, a series of plagues in the Middle Ages. But many, many wonderful scholars before me have already established that women were literate to varying degrees and in many different ways in the Middle Ages. I refer to their work and build on it to go in my own, slightly tangential, direction.

I remember giving a paper on one of my dissertation chapters once about a series of manuscripts that showed an interesting kind of women's readership. I was looking at a series of very cool and, theretofore, little studied marginal notations to make arguments about how these women were reading these texts, what purposes those texts seemed to serve in their lives (again, with all attendant caveats), etc. One of the questions I got asked was from a professor at the university hosting the conference. He said, "what you've outlined here is really interesting - I really want to believe that she was writing all these you think she really was?" I blinked and said, " certain as I would be if a hand calling itself 'Henry Smith' was writing so thoroughly and aggressively in the margins of the text." Just because there were far more men than women involved in literate practices in the Middle Ages, doesn't mean that every hand signing the name "Jane Doe" automatically has to really be John Doe. Or even John Doe who's in love with a girl named Jane and decides to write her name 60 times in a book margin! (that possibility was also suggested to me)

But basically, the guy was missing the point. As I've said before, I'm aware of all the caveats needed to make a responsible argument about medieval women's literate practice - I know that the historical record is even more patchy than usual. And I'm a responsible scholar, so I take these things into account before I make my assertions. But we still come back to this whole question: could women really read in the Middle Ages?? It seems like that's the point at which a lot of people stop and then decide on the basis of that question whether or not to pursue certain arguments with me (and also my colleague). Funnily, I published a portion of that chapter in an essay collection - it was reviewed by someone and the only thing they really said about my piece was that "Medieval Woman discusses how women read these texts; but surely we've already concluded that women were reading these texts by now..." Again, they went along for the ride only so far. Was I clear about what my argument was really about? Yep. Women's reading was only step one - I lost the reviewer and the commenter after that.

What's interesting is that they both left the party at the same point, but for different reasons. Commenter couldn't get past the notion that the historical record doesn't provide (in his opinion) enough evidence to help overcome his skepticism, no matter how much he wanted to believe it. Reviewer left the party once they thought that I was merely stating that, yes, in fact, women were reading these texts. In their opinion, this was old hat; it had already been established.

My colleague has encountered the same thing in the work she does in the field chronologically adjacent to my own. She will combine texts written by and about women with the work of canonical male authors and look at the way certain vocations traditionally done by women are represented in both (for anonymity's sake, I can't give her project even a tiny measure of its true coolness). She once got a snide, dismissive report (written, as it turned out, by a man) that said: "Why are you looking at these women's texts when X phenomenon is clearly going on in Y Male Author's texts and a bunch of other Male Authors' texts?" Because that's not the point of her work. Yes, she could have written that book/article/conference paper. But that's not her work. You have her work in front of you and she's done a damn good job justifying why she's doing it this way and not that way.

We've all encountered in one form or another the reviewer who says, "Why didn't you write the article/book the way I would have?" But what my friend and I were discussing is how the presence of early women in the historical record - either their seemingly too overt or too clandestine presence - is used as a reason to a) dismiss certain kinds of scholarship once you've (mis)read it or, b) not engage with it at all.

Basically, I'm not sure if this is just something that plagues gender and early literature and/or history. Feminism and the Middle Ages had its beginning relatively late - late 80s, early 90s with folks like Dinshaw, Ferrante, etc. And that's not to say that people aren't still working on medieval women - jeez, I know one medieval woman who's working on medieval women! But it just seems like many people think it's been done to death. But I would love it if (after hearing that I work on medieval women's textual practices) if that medievalist or other scholar/colleague asked me, "Oh really? How does your work differ from the early work done on feminism and medieval literature? How do your methodologies differ from X and Y critics'? How do your questions build on rather than replicate this previous work?" Because I can speak to that - I can engage with that because I have to engage with that. But I can't bear another bored response from a fellow medievalist: "Oh. Could women even really read back then? I mean, do you have any evidence for that?"

Argh! Either we have to educate our audience beyond the point of ridiculousness or we have to deal with an already educated audience saying, "Oh please. Haven't we already established that women could read??"

Dudes. Please just finish the article or conference paper before you dismiss it? There's a step 2 and 3 and 4, etc. after step 1.

P.S. My colleague's and my conversation was brought on my some comments I recently got on a grant application that I didn't get (and, really, no sour grapes because I ended up getting the other one!). The reviewer said, simply: "the applicant hasn't even said why female literacy in the Middle Ages was important."

(*hits head repeatedly against desk*)

Because it's not about female literacy....

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Tidbits of Happy

Medieval Woman still lives. She has yet to figure out an appropriate balance between blogging, cohabitating with husband, and grading. But she will perservere.

Thus ends the part of the post where I speak in the third person.

On the cohabitating front - this is damn cool, I'll tell ya. We do not stare solefully into each other's eyes and feed each other peeled grapes or anything (why peeled, btw?) We have set up a little desk in the office for TD and he works happily away with his back to me as I work happily away.

He just brought me a piece of cherry strudel.

In other news, he is complaining about the location of the litter box. I have just had a girls' night out (wine and filet mignon) and apparently the litter box, which is located in the office (b/c there's no place else for it) was quite....busy....this evening. The Furballs have always been a bit shy about using it if I'm in here working - they're weird that way - they also don't like it if I watch them drinking water. But TD just laid out this entire scenario for me which included what can only be called a "line" at the kitty commode. Picture really annoyed passangers on a plane lining up outside the lavatory, tapping their feet, checking watches, eye-rolling, etc.

Furball #1 lost patience with Furball #2 and basically gave her the evil eye, sighed audibly and then started meow-growling under his breath until she vacated the premises. This happened several times and TD now wants to relocate the fur-facilities.

I realize that most of this post will be totally gross to anyone who isn't a freaky cat person. But for those of you who are, I hope you've had a giggle.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Problems at U of Toledo - Fear the Ripple Effect!

I am late in coming to this, but I want to point you all to an extremely important and well-written post over at NK's about some very scary changes taking place at the University of Toledo. This is the most aggressive form I've heard of a tendency that's been creeping about the edges of academia for a while now (and sometimes at more than the edges). Here at the Dream Academy, we're seeing a bit of this move towards "market driven" curriculum, there are "buzz words" flying around about making our education marketable and more conducive to making certain kinds of fundable bridges (i.e., not the Humanities). I can't say more and it's nothing like what's going on at U of Toledo. But please do take a look at this and, if you feel as worried as I do, lend a voice of protest in whatever way is most comfortable to you!