Sunday, May 24, 2009

Summer Reading

Now that summer has officially started, here are two books I will read:

Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton, 2008)

Clarence Walker, Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009)

Why these? Gordon-Reed's won the Pulitzer for history and Walker's was reviewed by The Tenured Radical and sounds fascinating. See the review here:

I am also reading The Historian, a novel by Elizabeth Kostova. It's a lot of fun but I am having a hard time sleeping at night ... beware, or your research might bite you!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Daily Preparation

How do other folks prep for lecture? I know that for experienced profs this is so old news. But for newer sorts like myself this is a painful question.

Now, first, I should say my ideal class isn't mostly lecture. It is mostly discussion and investigation. So, my ideal class is: here is some information (historical, biographical, technical, etc). Here is something to investigate (image, text, webpage, etc). Take this information plus this technique/idea/concept and apply to what we are investigating. What do you see? What do you understand? Let's discuss. To me, this is a good class. There are lecture-y bits, but there is a lot of back and forth, a lot of idea exchange. It doesn't necessarily take up our 75-minute block (although it does usually take up our 50-minute classes), and when it works it is typically lively and engaging, for me and for my students.

So if this is the format, how does one prep? Read everything under the sun then create an outline and fill in with copious notes. Do I do the reading, then scribble an outline, then walk into the classroom ... ?

Also, I teach five days a week. Every day. (Don't ask when grading happens.) I do not have the luxury of time (as if anyone does), a day off during the week to catch up, etc. So when I ask how do other profs prep I am really hoping that someone will answer!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

This bud's for you ...

After a long - almost semester long -hiatus, I am back again. There are a few weeks left this semester, and I am trying to figure out what happened. Why haven't I posted since January? Perhaps it was the four courses I have been teaching? Perhaps it was the new load of service I have taken on? Perhaps it was my young child who has absorbed all of my 'free' time?

The truth is that all three things have absorbed my time and attention and more. A few highlights. I survived a major review for my file. I have successfully almost-graduated my first honors student (this is a big highlight for my relatively short career). I am waiting on a bunch of fellowships, etc. Year Two is almost done.

On a more personal note - I am waiting for my tulips to join my daffodils above ground and I am cheering for my newly planted pansies as well. For all of those out there who are so relieved and overjoyed to see spring's arrival, this bud's for you ...

Monday, January 19, 2009

First Day

Classes start this week and I am not ready. Again. Once course, I am teaching for a second time so the big challenge there is simply deciding what I like and what I should cut. It's just that there is so much I could include. Why not put it all in? (Because I and my students will be exhausted and they will end up hating the topic, not exactly the 'goals' I have listed on the syllabus.) The second course is new, so this semester is like a journey without a specific destination. Oh, I know approximately where I want to end up but it's more like, 'let's go to California' and less like ' we will end up at the Getty in the gallery with Renaissance bronzes at 2pm.'

My big struggle is that I am not sure what to do on the first day (or the second day, since one course will be watching the Inauguration). I don't particularly enjoy simply reading or narrating the syllabus, although I do want to cover course policies, etc. I have an old exercise that is designed to elicit student questions about the course, my policies, and to get a general sense of my attitude towards, well, everything ... firm but fair, etc. It doesn't work here as well as it did my last institution. So, for now I plan to do narrate the syllabus and do a little first day song and dance. If I have a creative flash, I'll post it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


I am hard at work on planning for the coming semester. And I now have a pile of things on my desk. And I need to start planning next semester. Not very exciting, but I do know that the more planning I do now the happier I will be when committees, subcommittees, and sub-subcommittees start demanding my time on top of a heavy teaching load (four courses this spring). Oh, and there's that pesky publishing thing I ought to do ...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The 'A' Word ... Assessment

I found this post by Christopher Vilmar - "Exams & Regrets" - via The Long Eighteenth. It does perfectly capture the angst of grading. How sad to see all those weeks of work turned into a series of (often) poorly written rehashings of what we had been discussing, often with much greater sensitivity and sophistication. And thank goodness, as he notes, for the essays that do reflect real, independent thinking. Christopher opposes grading and syllabus writing, but I find it a challenge that they happen at virtually the same time, at least between Fall and Spring Semester. (Starting back up after a long summer break is a different post.)

What I always find myself spiraling back to is assessment (and it's not just because my campus is currently obsessed with it): to test or not to test? Should students just do projects and write papers and essays? Or do they need tests? Do I?

When I am grading, particularly at finals, these are the questions that chase each other around in my head. And they pursue me as I construct the next set of syllabi. Some semesters I include exams; others, just projects and assignments. I have not been happy with either result. What should I do next semester? Still working that one out.

Thanks to Christopher Villmar and Dave Mazella for leading me to my questions.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Go the Course

I have been thinking about the way that a syllabus sets up a course. Is a syllabus a blueprint? Are they are plans which help us structure the work we will do? First, we grapple with x skill or concept and, once we can perform the skill or articulate the concept, we move on to the next set. First floor, second floor, and so on. But a course does not, it seems to me, follow a necessarily strict plan. With a building, the stairs really do need to start in one place to end up in another. I am not so sure that that is the case with a course or a syllabus. In fact, that is something I am trying to move away from.

Another metaphor for a syllabus is that it is a map. It signposts the directions we will travel over the semester, so to speak. A syllabus is not a set of directions - go straight, then turn left - but provides information that allows one to follow an alternate route but still end up in the intended destination. This seems like a desirable characteristic. One group of students (and profs, I suppose) could best take Route A, but another will learn better via Route B. If we extend the map metaphor, however, a syllabus cannot contain all the possible routes, which I think is not possible in a classroom.

So, a better metaphor for a syllabus is ... ? I'm not sure - a floor plan (flexible, but with certain fixed boundaries), a palette (the more you work on it, the messier it gets), a Jenga game (build the structure and remove pieces without causing it to collapse) ...

I am trying to decide how I want my syllabus to function, in part because this is my primary planning tool and in part because I have never been fond of that other metaphor that is used a lot: the contract.

"The Syllabus Becomes a Repository of Legalese," The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 14, 2008)