Friday, January 28, 2011

on the luxury of small classes

I am SO loving my classes this semester! Well, maybe not freshman comp, because freshman comp in the spring is always a painful slog, made more painful by the fact that about half my students this semester were in my Basic Comp class last semester. They imprint on professors, it seems, and it is like being followed around by a particularly clueless flock of ducklings. (Actually, about half of the Basic veterans seem like they're swimming tolerably well on their own, even if they tend to wobble a bit more than the others, which makes me feel good. The other half, however, are doing the freshman-English equivalent of trying to swim upside down and getting duckweed wrapped around their necks.)

But! The other three classes are a delight, and this includes Basic. I have only five students, and two of them flunked for nonattendance / missing assignments last semester and do not seem to have learned anything from the experience. So in practical terms, I think I'm going to end up with three. In the fall there were 21, and I had no time to give any of them the kind of help they needed. I think I actually like teaching remedial comp when I have only a handful of students. It's different in kind, not just degree, and it becomes much more about mentoring these students and rooting for them and much less about crowd control. I have more patience. And more creativity.

In Brit Lit II, I have eleven students on the class rolls (down from 26 in the fall). Ten, really, since one of then never showed up. And they are a delightful, talkative bunch (and mostly pretty insightful in the stuff they say). I don't understand why it is that you get dead silence when you throw a question out to a class of 26, and everyone talking at once when you have a class of 10, but I'm not gonna question it.

The Shakespeare class feels similarly charged, and even more on the ball in terms of saying smart stuff. Fifteen in that class, including one totally fabulous auditor. Freshman comp is my big class, with an enrollment of eighteen.

I am loving this so much (and feeling a bit guilty for loving it, because I know it's not sustainable and maybe not good news for my long-term survival in this job). But it's how education should be, God knows, and I'm so glad that for right now, this semester, it is.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


So, while I was away over Christmas, Deep South Town got a THAI RESTAURANT!!! (Excuse me, this is the sort of news that requires capital letters and lots of exclamation points.) I got takeaway today (two meals' worth, figuring I could stretch the leftovers out to three), so now I have a fridge full of drunken noodles and green curry. How awesome is that?

Maybe we will get an Indian restaurant someday. That would be excellent.

In other news, I'm going to New York in three weeks. This is kind of a loony thing to do in mid-semester, especially since I have to fly out of a city two hours away, but I decided I was fated to see Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice, because why would they have extended the run if the gods didn't want me to see it? Awesome.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

musings about majors

So, as everyone reading academic blogs knows already, the news story of the week is that Our Children Is Not Learning. Unless, of course, they happen to be liberal arts majors.

As much as I'd love to claim this as a victory for the humanities and sciences -- and for academic rigor in general -- I have to confess I'm skeptical. What I really suspect is going on is that a) we're admitting a lot of students who are way, way over their heads in college and would not benefit from most of their classes even if they had the best teaching in the world; and b) the type of student who DOES benefit from college also happens to be the type who is more likely to major in the arts and sciences.

I don't know exactly why this is the case, but I always scan my course rolls for students' majors as they start to register for classes, and I've learned a few rules of thumb. It makes me happy to see lots of English majors, of course; ditto history and other writing-heavy subjects; but biology or chemistry is usually equally good news. Actually, almost anything in the College of Arts and Sciences is good news (although fine arts is sometimes dicey -- theater majors, on the other hand, can be flaky, but they're usually smart). Secondary ed majors are quite decent, but they usually have a second major in the arts and sciences. Pre-nursing students are a mixed bag, but OK-ish students, as a rule. Ditto culinary arts. Business, elementary ed, physical therapy, and kinesiology majors are bad news. General Studies is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

I hasten to add that these are very broad generalizations, and I've met lots and lots of individual students who are exceptions. (And I don't, of course, let my preconceptions about the major influence how I treat the students; in any case, I've usually forgotten what they were studying by the time I meet them in the classroom, and only remember when I check back at the end of the semester.) But an awful lot of the time, the generalizations hold true. And the differences among majors are evident in freshmen, students who haven't yet taken classes in their intended major, so it's not as if education classes make people dumber. (Although I have sat through a couple of teaching workshops that I'm pretty sure made me dumber.)

I think there are a couple of factors at work, one more or less benign, the other more worrisome. First off, a school like Misnomer U. -- a not-overly-selective small state university -- is really at least two different institutions awkwardly smushed together. It's a college and a trade school. Many of our students are looking for certification rather than education. Mostly, they get what they came for. A few of them may catch on fire when some stray sparks land on them in their gen ed classes. I like to think that some of the ones who don't catch on fire at least discover that the world is bigger than they learned in high school. But by and large, it's cool if they don't learn anything other than physical therapy. (On the other hand, if they are education majors it's not so cool.)

But even here, we get a fair number of students who are looking for more than certification, and those tend to be the ones who drift toward the College of Arts and Sciences -- because it takes a leap of faith, and a bit of intellectual passion, to get an undergraduate degree in history or theater or even math or chemistry, when everybody in your life is asking "What are you going to do with that?" You have to like an academic subject so much that you don't care what you're going to do with it, or have enough imagination to recognize that you can do non-obvious things with a philosophy degree, even if you've never seen an ad for a philosopher on Craigslist. You have to, in short, be a person who thinks. And you have to be OK with reading books and writing papers, or spending lots of time in the lab.

So far, so good. But things start to look less benign when I think about the differences between Misnomer U. and the Beloved Alma Mater (also a smallish state university, but far more selective; the sort of place where the vast majority of my classmates aspired to grad school or law school). See, we didn't even have majors like Physical Therapy and Paralegal Studies at the Beloved Alma Mater. Education was an option, but you had to double-major in something else. Business was an option, too, but that was about it for pre-professional studies. Practically everyone I knew was majoring in a traditional arts-and-sciences field, or else a quirky and even more gloriously impractical interdisciplinary program. I suspect that this still is the norm for selective colleges. It's the open- or nearly-open admissions schools that attract huge numbers of students with majors that are linked to a specific job. And within these schools -- if Misnomer U. is typical -- the students who aspire to a degree in education or general business or physical therapy mostly seem to be the first-generation college students who are coming in with spotty academic preparation and only a vague idea how the university works, not the children of doctors and lawyers.

And that's a problem. And I haven't the foggiest idea what the solution is.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Taking the pledge

No, not that pledge. I am not sure there is ever a good time for temperance and sobriety, but the eve of a new semester isn't it. I refer to the Academic Honesty Pledge, which (as of this semester) all students taking a course in my department are supposed to sign.

I dunno. I do believe in academic honor codes, and I think students should experience rituals that reinforce them every so often. It's how I came up: both the Beloved Alma Mater and the University of Basketball were old-school Southern gentlemen's universities, and as problematic as that heritage is in some respects, they did know how to impress upon students that the honor code was a Big Deal. But I kind of think that a culture of academic integrity has to come from the students, not imposed on them from above; and I doubt that one department, without institutional backing, can do much to create that culture.

I also suspect that to make an honor code really stick, you have to trust your students enough to let them be the enforcers -- and I'm not sure anyone at my institution does. (Misnomer U. began as an old-school Southern ladies' university, you see, a heritage that comes with a strong tradition of in loco parentis. While both of my alma maters have had a student-administered honor court since time out of mind, I can't really imagine the young ladies of prior generations at Misnomer being allowed to run anything of the sort, given everything else I've heard about the Old Days. And the paternalistic attitude still persists, even after coeducation; I was rather shocked, in my first year, to learn that dorms here have curfews.)

And I wonder, too, if we can sustain a culture of anything, considering how many students transfer in or drop out and are only on campus for a year or two. And how many of them live off campus and show up only for classes. So many of our students inhabit a different world from the one where I went to college, and where I taught as a grad student, and I don't know yet what that world looks like.

But it's a start, I guess, and it means that the students in our classes this semester will at least be aware that the university has an honor code. And maybe that's something.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Small Nephew at One

I haven't really been around babies much. I used to babysit, but only for kids old enough for their parents to trust a youngish teenager with them, which usually meant preschool and up. And on the two previous occasions when I had met the Small Nephew, he was either a newborn or just out of surgery and under heavy sedation.

He's not under sedation now, and he's getting to the age where babies are seriously interesting. One-year-olds can do stuff, like standing up ...

... and vacuuming! (Who knew he was going to be obsessed with vacuum cleaners? He certainly didn't get it from me.)

... and sliding:

... and screeching! (This, unfortunately, is another favorite activity, and he can hit some notes that are positively operatic though not melodious.)

He can also walk -- five or six wobbly steps at a stretch, sometimes, before falling down -- but I was sadly unable to capture this on film. And he's starting to talk, or at least say "Mamama" at sort of appropriate moments. One is a cool age.