We talk a lot about children out here in the academic blogosphere. Much of the time, the conversation is about how kids and parenting affect us in the workplace, whether we *are* the parents or we feel that we are expected to pick up the slack for our colleagues so that they can be better parents. Most of those conversations touch on the issue of choice, whether it is our choice to remain child-free, or the choice of our colleagues to have children. I happen to be one of those people who tend towards seeing my colleagues' families as a lifestyle choice, and one that I should not be expected to subsidize through my efforts, even though I also am very happy to rearrange my time to accommodate their schedules whenever I can. I might feel differently if I didn't work in a place where my colleagues were also my friends, I suppose. As it is, the kids are people I know and like, and I enjoy spending time with them as well as their parents. Still, there are times, professionally and socially, when my colleagues' chosen lives have an impact on mine and, if it comes down to someone else's finding a sitter or me rescheduling a trip, they can find a sitter. It was their choice to have kids.
Sometimes, though, it's not always that simple. When we choose to have kids, most of us imagine that the kids will be healthy and relatively happy. Yes, we expect illness and tantrums, and that little kids will need more care than their older siblings, but that they'll eventually grow up and take care of themselves -- and maybe even us. Sometimes, what we ask for is not exactly what we get. The choice to have children ends up coming with obligations we never imagined. That's something we don't talk about in our conversations about academic parenting, either because we instinctively know that a child with disabilities creates a different situation, or because we are uncomfortable talking about it, or because we have mixed feelings about how to deal with our colleagues when the colleagues may themselves not be dealing well -- or when they seem to be dealing very well. Mostly, I think we just aren't sure of how to handle the whole subject.
The reason I bring this up is that it's Blogging for Kids With Disabilities day, or so I hear. I have several friends and family members whose children have disabilities, from genetic disorders to autism to milder learning- and speech impairments. The Kid, about whom I have not spoken for a while, has a congenital hearing problem, so that she is mostly deaf in one ear, and partially deaf in the other. Even something so relatively explicable can have unforeseen problems: when we lived abroad, and tried to explain to her teachers that she needed to sit near the front of the room to read lips and that her loud voice was partially due to not being able to hear how loud she was, or that the teacher might have to touch her or tap her desk to get her attention in a loud room, we were told that she might be better off in a 'special' school. WTF? Because she was embarrassed about it, we had to mention these things to other parents, so they wouldn't think she was ridiculously rude. It was difficult, and still can be, but it's hardly insurmountable.
Still dealing with the Kid, and with some behavioral issues that were in part the result of her being treated for years as a problem child who couldn't pay attention, ate into a good chunk of my dissertation time. This is something we don't talk about much, either, even when talking about childcare and the fact that women academics often still bear the brunt of housework and childcare, and how it affects their careers. If childcare and equity are feminist issues, then perhaps we should think a bit more about how having a child with disabilities might make things even tougher.
The reason I would like people to think is because, contrary to what you might be feeling right now, I don't see this as a problem to be dealt with. I see this as something we should think about, and if we do, we might be reminded of how amazing some of our friends, families, and colleagues are. Not because they have a problem, but because honestly, parenting is hard, and parenting a child with disabilities can be even harder. And yet, when I think of my colleagues who have children with disabilities, they are all scary overachievers. They are the people you most want to work with, and honestly, I don't know how some of them manage sometimes. Well, I do, a little. They make other choices, choices we don't see. They don't go for the jobs that will keep them away from home at all hours. They don't travel as much, sometimes, because it would be too hard on a partner or child if they took that fellowship. They might not eat out or go to movies much, whether because they are paying for extra tuition or maybe because they know their kid isn't quite ready for the sensory input of a crowd, or darkened cinema with loud noises and flickering lights. They may not come to parties because they are spending extra time helping their kids train for the Special Olympics ...
And they may not mind, or they may be resolved, or they may scream and cry in frustration to the world, and then show up to the office, looking a little drained, but still plowing through the backlog that we all have.
I'm applying for a job. I remembered to ask my Dean for a referral. But as for others, I forgot that I haven't yet asked people, and also I have no idea to ask anymore. I seem to be in a weird place where my only publication is forthcoming and in pedagogy, and I'm trying to think of people who have come to my presentations, and I don't really know them well enough to ask on what is becoming very short notice! Aargh.
I spend an awful lot of time thinking about applications, so that I write good letters and statements, but I don't know how I managed to blank on this part. D'oh.
Has anybody got suggestions for how to dig myself out of this one?
Longtime readers will know that I am not really fond of theory qua theory. I mean, I think it's important to be able to identify a Marxist, or Feminist, or PoMo, etc., approach, but I tend to switch lenses like a crazed lighting director changes gels. For me, the sources and questions they inspire sort of dictate my approach to them, and theory is something that sneaks in around the edges. I admit that I really do need to read more, but I'm not sure that I have to read *that* much more theory to understand what Judith Butler's 'performative acts' and how that may or may not inform my readings of Althoff and Buc on ritual, for example. Yes, I realize that those things are in and of themselves 'theory' ... but I tend to think of such things as bring really straightforward, so, um, right.
Anyhow, here's the possibly ironic part. Nice Colleague is teaching our methodologies and historiography class this year. She's working from the syllabus I put together when I taught it, which still needs some work, because I'd never taught it before. But basically, we decided that, since it's a departmental requirement, anyone who wants to teach it should contribute to the syllabus and agree to teach the same basic assignments, although we would all teach within our own general fields. She's an Americanist, and is using lesbian pulp fiction as part of her discussion of gender and feminist theory. I'm kind of jealous, and am so using the Rykener case next time I teach it.
But anyhow ... we realized that we really want to do a lot of things with this course that are really sort of, well, theory. Damn you, gender construction, for hooking me!
Well, it's the end of Fall Break, a weekend where I traditionally try to get caught up on everything, and usually fail. So instead I take stock and try to organize myself for the rest of the semester so that I can have a couple of days of rest at Thanksgiving and Christmas -- providing I remember to get online and see if I can redeem some miles to go back to the Left Coast and see X, the Kid, and friends. It was a good break -- not only did I manage to get all my marking up-to-date, but I managed to drive through three states yesterday to go and see my cousin and her kid. Sadly, they are moving back West. Happily, at least they are headed back to the same town my mom and sisters live in, so at least now most of my family is located on the same coast -- or in London.
I have to say, I love living east of the Mississippi. The drive to the cousin's was wonderful (except for the drivers on a long stretch of the road, where OMG they are frakkin' crazy). The weather was nice and dry, and the colors of the leaves were gorgeous. There are lots of miles of country highway on the route, and sadly, lots of roadkill. Raccoons seemed pretty big on this trip. One skunk. Countless furry-tailed tree-rats. Possibly a ground-hog. And something really, really big. Deer meets semi-truck is my guess. And it was mostly still in the road... just...open. Yuck. And yet, I couldn't help thinking about the Gary Larson cartoon with crows using spatulas. That and what a human body might look like after getting hit by a truck and a couple of cars. Ugh.
Oh -- and I managed to work on getting rid of most of a nasty cold -- yay me!
So, right -- stock-taking.
I need to do some revamping of my classes. Or maybe take some time out to talk about why I teach the way I do. I don't lecture. I stopped lecturing a while back, when I was teaching at Jesuit U, because my evaluations indicated that the students did not like it and expect more Active Learning. Since then, most of my classes are really discussion-based. This means that students really need to be prepared to discuss and they have to be able to put things together in different ways. Now, fortunately, my program's outcomes are also kind of geared towards my kind of teaching -- they focus mainly on teaching the skills of the historian. This is problematic in its own way, but that's another post.
When my students show up, they really don't know what to expect, and most are not prepared for this sort of class. But honestly, I don't think that they would be successful in the sort of class that I took as an undergraduate. I would sometimes like to craft nice lectures and expect the students to take them, the primary source readings, and the textbook readings, integrate them, and use that information to answer solid historical questions. But that isn't going to happen in the World History survey. My students have enough trouble keeping the information in the textbooks straight. So instead, I focus on using primary sources and discussion to highlight the most important issues. It has been pretty successful so far, but I'm finding I need to do a few new things as well.
My students are not particularly good at reading essay questions. This is true for multi-part questions that, when broken down, tell the students exactly how to structure the essay, as well as the more simple-looking questions that require students to consider the question and demonstrate that they understand all the issues at stake. Since they don't read -- or understand-- the questions (and really, these are the same questions we've all asked and answered: I've even poached questions from exams I took!), they don't answer them. I can't stop giving essay exams and papers, so I'm going to have to spend a bit more time early on explaining how to write essays. Where I'm going to find that time, I'm not sure. Possibly group work -- perhaps letting them use their computers in class to work on a wiki, and workshop the opening paragraph of an essay?
Beyond that, I probably need to add a bit more structure. Hmmm. And remind the upper-division students that they are responsible for information that I haven't talked about in class, if it's something that was in the reading. And I'm still behind on making the podcasts I wanted to make for this year, and on my reading. At least that last part I can do :-)
Apart from that, I'm feeling overwhelmed this semester, and shouldn't. Departmental administration is more difficult than I had expected. There's a lot that needs doing in terms of curriculum and program revision, and getting buy-in is ... interesting. Coming up with outcomes was pretty easy, but getting people to make the leap from outcomes to coming up with assessments that really do reflect the outcomes? Different animal. Plus there's a job application to write, a search committee to serve on (touch wood it's only one -- there are a bunch of searches this year).
And then there's the writing. I've got a book I've done bugger all on in months, and an article to write, whether or not it's going into a collection a colleague is proposing. I totally botched getting in a proposal for Leeds (but if anyone finds they need a chair at the last minute, do please let me know). I have to start thinking about a panel for Big Berks. And do some background work for the professional organization I'm a member of ... oh -- and maybe actually read some books and professional journals.
So, pretty normal for an Associate Professor of History, I think. Guess I'd better figure out how to get going on all of that. Reading for tomorrow first, I guess.
So there is one reason at SLAC that I really do not love it. It's nothing I can do anything about, sadly. It will play itself out, one way or another.
Otherwise, I love my job, mostly. I love my colleagues, mostly, and I have made really good friends here. I am happy to work with them AND play with them. I love working for Superdean. He's a great boss in almost every way (nobody's perfect), and knows me well enough to nag me about my scholarship. Frankly, I could use a bit more nagging, but that's not really his job. I also just get along really well with him.
We have a cool new Provost and an energetic BoT, and I think that the direction SLAC is taking is one I like. In 5-10 years, I think we may have moved along to much closer to the kind of place where I want to end up. It's a neat idea to think of myself as someone who can help take it there.
Speaking of which, I really think that there's a chance of building a much stronger program, one known for producing good teachers, public historians, and grad students.
And I really like my students. Sometimes I wish they were more driven, but as human beings, they are some of the nicest I've taught.
So why am I thinking about applying for the really cool job? Especially when I really am not competitive compared to many of the candidates?
Well, besides working with an incredibly cool scholar I really admire, that is?
Because honestly, as much as I love SLAC, I sometimes feel that I work best when surrounded by people who function at the levels I aspire to. When I surround myself with people who are good teachers AND good scholars, I find myself more energized and more productive. It's not that SLAC doesn't do that, but ...
so, my loyal readers, should I or shouldn't I? Am I disloyal to SLAC if I do? Am I being selfish?
Ok, so I've been teaching for a while now. I'm now at a point where students who have been taking my classes since they were freshmen are in my upper-division classes... and yet they seem to have learnt nothing. At least, they seem not to have learnt to use primary sources very well. And this makes me crazy, because it's something I focus on in the surveys all the time. It's not that they are hopeless; they are not bad at using the material in the documents, at least. But they seem really unwilling or unable to consider the source, if you know what I mean.
It makes me crazy. I set up assignments that are gradually more difficult -- assignments that require them to think about authorship. And they do it, more or less. In class, before we talk about a document, I always ask the students to tell me about the document -- author, temporal and geographical context, you all know the drill. And yet, when I give them an assignment that requires them to tell me what a set of documents tells me about X, it's as if each document exists in a vacuum.
So, I'm going to finish up with my marking and do some revamping of classes, I think. And I think I'm going to add an assignment or two that require the students to work in groups to tell me everything they can about the documents and their authors before we even start to look at the contents.
I'm in Grading Jail, but I have a couple of posts lurking behind the scenes, one on 'institutional wisdom' and the second half of the interdisciplinarity post. Till then, watch Jay Smooth, who is becoming one of my heroes, talk about Polanski.
OK ... I'm sick and in grading jail. Not so much fun there. And I'm procrastinating a little, as do many of us when we are staring at mounds of papers and exams. The papers so far are pretty good -- upper-division papers, that is. The exams? I anticipate some dreadful ones, but also some good ones. If I could just stay home and mark for the next few days, I'd be happy, but for some reason I have to teach, too. Feh.
In the meantime, I'm sort of marveling at something. It's institutional wisdom that isn't. Most of the places I've taught, there were ridiculously long contracts and handbooks, and orientations that told us what we can do and what we can't. That's also been true for non-academic workplaces, as well. The only places I've worked where that was not true were start-ups and SLAC. I have a feeling that this is not just my SLAC, but maybe something that is related to the breed, the suddenly growing SLAC. Maybe you all can tell me if that's true.
Institutional wisdom can be a slippery thing. In a lot of places, there are one or two people, often admin assistants, who know everything about a place. They know where the skeletons are buried, they know people's direct extensions and have them memorized. They also know who to call to get things done, even when someone else says they can't be. These are the people I like to know. Hell, I used to be one of those people. In some ways, I still am. I like to know stuff, and I really like it when someone mentions how nice it is to see someone doing things right. Yes, I admit it... I am a Do-Bee. And since I hate to have paperwork handed back to me, or lose out on money, or any number of things that can happen when things aren't done correctly, or when you annoy the staff people who handle our paperwork, I really think it's important to learn and follow procedures. Yeah ... I'm also kind of rule-oriented when it has to do with a procedure that makes sense to me, or that is set up to make things easier for everybody. It is in some ways a bad quality: it can stress me out way too much and it can also make me a pain in the ass.
But here's the thing for me: this stuff is not so hard to find out. And yet ... I'm sometimes amazed at how many times I hear that X is the way we do things, X is always the way we do things, X is the way we have always done things ... despite the fact that Y is what is written down in several places, and if one does X where X is something connected to the people who handle money, one is likely to have one's paperwork sent back with a note to please do Y!
I would understand if this sort of thing were restricted to my more senior colleagues, the ones who have been doing X for donkey's years and just refused to see any reason to change to Y, even if Y were a change that made things much more sensible and simpler for many people. But it always confuses me a little when I hear similar things from my more junior colleagues, some of them junior faculty. It's especially weird when you hear from them that Z is the norm. Because, you know? the handbook still says Y. And my mind is breaking from the idea that so many people don't bother to look, and then pass on misinformation to others.