Monday, December 28, 2009

The second time is no easier

The Second Time is No Easier

I start teaching a prep for the second time next term, i.e., in TWO WEEKS(!!!!!), and I have no effing idea what I'm doing. This is in part due to where I teach, in part due to the outcomes I've been driving for my department, which are more skills- than content-based, and in part from the resulting attempts to try to balance content and skills when I am the only damned medievalist in the department, and I am not sure what content is all that important anymore. No, seriously. This is the problem with not being able to teach one's own field very often. I seem to have lost a survey-level grasp of it and what my colleagues would consider important. (Hmmm... I have just realized I can search for syllabi online, and have done so, and haven't found a lot, but thank goodness for Jacqui Long and for Steve Muhlberger, who put up lots of sources at ORB). It doesn't help that I'm using the Innes textbook (which I like in many ways) and the newest James, so I'm sort of heading into uncharted territory. On the other hand, this means that I'm sort of caught up in the question of letting the texts dictate the shape of the course, or the ideas of what I want to teach dictate the ways I assign reading.

In my ideal world, I would have a list of topics, and then assign the readings as appropriate (and yes, I'm using primary sources -- the Rosenwein reader, possibly Tacitus, Beowulf (the dread Heaney translation, because it's in a Norton edition with good essays), Two Lives of Charlemagne, and probably some selections from the Tierney and Geary readers, as well as some stuff from the Fordham site. But my students do not have the narrative. We teach World Civ here, so there isn't a lot of time for Rome and the MA. Moreover, my students are not particularly likely to go find simple narratives for themselves, and they are also very likely to need to rely on the textbook for a narrative crutch. So somehow, I have to figure out how to balance narrative (possibly podcasts?), topical approaches, and the heavy discussion of primary sources that most of my courses rely on.

Now, this might be easy-ish if the course had worked last time, but in some ways it didn't. This was in part the composition of the class -- only two students really accepted the ideas that they were responsible for learning the narrative and that, for us pre-modern folks, a working knowledge of some basic primary sources and of types of primary sources is fundamental. Most of the people in the class saw the primary sources as being no more than those little boxes in big survey textbooks -- things that illustrate what the authors tell us, rather than the information the authors work from. I think this time, that will be less of a problem, if only because the students are all used to me and many have taken courses with me from the very beginning of their uni careers.

Still, I'm trying to work the balance, and also they sorts of assessments I'll be using. There will be a review essay, and I think a presentation each (how I'll fit those in, I'm not sure, but the topics will be biographical, I think -- Augustine, Gregory (of Tours, but maybe the Great), Bede, Boniface...suggestions?

Well, hell. I just got sidetracked by responding to some ideas about our thesis seminar syllabus, which a colleague and I have entirely re-written... what was I saying?

Oh, right. So does anybody have any brilliant ideas about this balancing act? I'm really thinking of sticking to Innes for a chronological (mostly) narrative, but taking in a break for James and then, within that chronology, pulling out some topics that I think need highlighting, and just forcing the students to work the topics into the larger narrative. Like wot I had to do.

Oh. And then there is geography. gotta work that in, too. bleargh.

This post brought to you by thinking online and blegging.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Carnivalesque 57

Carnivalesque 57

Hey, everybody! It's Ancient/Medieval Carnivalesque time!!! Go, read, enjoy!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

a note to my medievalist colleagues

a note to my medievalist colleagues

And to the rest of my blogroll, for that matter.

Please stop writing for a while. It's Solstice, I don't do well in winter so much, and I cannot keep up with all of you. I really can't keep up with you if I am to get any work done.

So you, the one with the ponytail and the metal t-shirts (you know who you are!) and you, you people who should be digging your cars out of Canadian snows, and you, you scary lit people and your bodies and monsters and cannibals and theories...

Just go take a break and play with your families, dammit!

You are writing too many interesting things!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Something More Important

Something More Important

In case you have not been watching, the sf blogosphere has been full of righteous anger on behalf of author Peter Watts, who was arrested and beaten (beaten and arrested?) by US Border Patrol Officers last Tuesday.

There is a defense fund set up. Links are at the Scalzi post and at Making Light, I think.

I'm not going to get into arguing the fine points. I'm not really worrying about "he should have known better," for example, because US police procedures are not standard around the world, and also? No US police agency that I know of justifies using more force than is necessary to subdue a person. In other countries, it is perfectly normal to question the police as to the reasons for a search of a vehicle. Me, I'd have just done what the cops said -- not because I fear the police, but because I have known enough cops over the years to know that people who don't follow their orders can make *some* cops jumpy, and I don't like to be around jumpy people carrying loaded guns.

The sad truth is that we live in a country where people in positions of authority feel no need to justify their actions. One would think that the border folks might have thought about the fact that borders are places where cultural norms cannot be assumed to be the same. One would think.

More importantly, one would think that people who apparently posed no real threat wouldn't get pepper-sprayed, beaten, and arrested.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On the Recent Brouhaha

On the Recent Brouhaha

For those of you who don't read Whatever, you may have missed John Scalzi's recent post on the pay offered by Black Matrix Publishing, or his follow-up post that rounds up the responses of lots of pro writers and editors. Today, Scalzi points us to a very cranky response by MFA student and aspiring pro writer Jenn Brissett. The comment thread is wonderful. It's useful. It makes clear that Brissett doesn't get it.

So why do I care? Scalzi is not my friend, although I would love to hang out with him some time. I do know some professional sf writers and editors, though, and have been on the fringes of fandom for a long time. I don't see myself writing professionally, because I think I'm not really imaginative enough to write something that isn't jejeune and embarrassingly full of the Mary-Sue-ness that, even though it can sell (I'm looking at YOU, Stephinie Meyer), is not really very good. And if I wrote sf or fantasy, I would want it to be good, because I don't want the people I respect as writers to laugh at me. So yeah. Don't look for fiction by ADM anytime soon.

Right -- so this is why it concerns me at all. There are really a couple of reasons. The first is that, well, I have friends who write, and I want them to be writing for markets that pay relatively well. The second is that, well, I do write. I mean, I write really slowly, and I don't get paid in anything but CV credit, but in some ways I think that's relevant to the larger conversation. One of Brissett's arguments is that publishing with businesses like Black Matrix is still better than not publishing, because it can give a writer pro credits. The counter-argument is that some publishers are better than others; while the publishers who pay well tend to be the best-known and have the big pro reputations (hence good publication credits), many of the smaller and badly paying venues are also not places where the credit will count as much. This is not true for all of them, and I can imagine that, given the right publisher and editor, it might be advantageous for a newbie author to publish for free.

That seems pretty sensible to me, because the same is true for academic publishing. We rank our venues. A peer-reviewed publication is the bottom line, and from there there is a hierarchy of journals and publishers. Oxford UP or Cambridge UP will publish your book? Gold standard for many of us. Non-academic publisher or publisher with no guarantee of peer review? Not so much. There is an assumption of quality based on venue.

The second issue that strikes me about all this, though, is the one of payment. Academics don't expect to make tons of money from their books (although some do bring in some good royalties). To the best of my knowledge, most sf/f authors also do not make ginormous profits. Brissett argues that, by calling publishers like Black Matrix on their sweat-shop like wages, pro authors are acting as gatekeepers who don't want the newbies to get a fair shot. I call shenanigans on that. I may be a medievalist, but dammit, I teach the modern survey, too, and passed macroeconomics. I am familiar with Ricardo and his Iron Law of Wages. It's not about gatekeeping as much as it is looking around us and noting that, when we live in a society that undervalues labor, everybody's wages suck. This is true whether we look at people working at places like Walmart or in the kitchens of restaurants, or at humanities faculty. When people undersell themselves, they make it possible for employers to underpay them. Not only does it drag the wages of everyone else down, but it also encourages people to see what we do as having little worth. Unions can sometimes mitigate that, but honestly, they can't prevent state budget cuts and furloughs, which would not pass if people were properly infuriated and placed a high value on what we do.

Yeah -- that's getting a little close to blaming the victim, and I don't mean to do that. But this also connects back to our discussion of Bennett's History Matters, in terms of women and their occasionally willing participation in the perpetuation of the patriarchal equilibrium. Actually, it just connects back to feminism, plain and simple. If we aren't part of the solution, we are part of the problem -- and Brissett not only is part of the problem, but her arguments are so self-interested that she seems unable to see the same problem the rest of us do, i.e., that a poor wage structure, especially coupled with a venue that does not supply any particular cachet to its writers, is a sucker's game.

A final issue, which make it three for the promised two, is that ... WHAT? As I said above, I'm really sort of on the fringes of fandom. I don't drag myself to cons, even though I am starting to explore options there (Readercon, Sirens, and Wiscon are on my radar these days, although often they are not at convenient times for me to travel). But my overall impression, from being on those fringes for the past 30 or so years, is that the world of sf/f writing and editing is really not one of extraordinarily high, multi-bolted gates. There seem to be an awful lot of pros who got their start writing fanfic or editing fanzines. Smart people with something sensible to say seem to get put on con panels, and get worked into the system, although there does seem to be a flexible, but existing, frontier between the pros and the fans. But by and large, it seems to me to be a world where the talented can reinvent and establish themselves in ways that are not nearly as possible in many other professional areas.

You may wonder what all this is in service of. First, it's my blog and I had too much to say in a comment. Also? I've just successfully avoided marking essays for about 40 minutes! Guess it's time to get on that...

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

oh, dear

Thanks to Dr. Crazy for taking me to this site ...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What day is it?

What Day is it?

What I have done this week:

  • taught 6 classes (including prep, obviously)
  • had one chairs' meeting
  • dealt with several end-of-semester student crises
  • two phone interviews (on a search committee)
  • Weighed in on College issues
  • written up questions for a different part of the search
  • written a review for survey classes
  • lost a large chunk of my mind
  • ranted about people who really got on my nerves
  • paid bills
  • had a really good meeting with a colleague on some of the things we're doing to revamp the program

What I would like to have done:
  • slept more
  • got to the gym
  • kept the flat tidy
  • read something for me
  • reviewed to start writing again
  • gone to the basketball game with friends
  • did I mention sleep?

What I'm going to do with the rest of the week:

  • sleep
  • get to the gym
  • have friends to dinner
  • go out for a beer on Friday
  • finish all my pre-exam grading
  • write my final exams
  • prep my last three days of classes
  • teach 4 more classes this week
  • finish reading Bone, from volume 5 on.
  • Start my Christmas cards!!

If I do this, I can go for a hike next week, do some search committee work, and still get my grading done and in by next Sunday, and will have most of the break to write and prep for the newish course in my specialty area that I am teaching in the Spring. w00t!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Disturbing thought

Disturbing thought

I was looking around the blogosphere this evening, thinking about how much content people manage to transmit to their students. I don't get enough of that done, because I am so busy being Dr. Socratic Method to a bunch of people who can't be arsed to remember anything and have to be re-told/re-led to the same conclusions over and over again. And I get behind. And all my plans to be really good at my job fall apart, because I'm not making them learn enough stuff, and I'm not getting through what I want to get through, and I'm not delivering enough content.

I am teaching some of them how to read primary sources, though. Unless they talk about religious stuff, in which case, roughly 70% of my students will fall into ignorant credulity and talk about how clearly miracles must have happened if people said they did.

But anyway. Did you were worry that people think you're good at your job in part because they don't know any different? I wonder how they'd feel if they had to get through some of my medieval colleagues' classes. It's stuff like this that makes me worry I couldn't cut it somewhere else.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Call the Whaaambulance.