Fun with Pedagogy

Now that I’m past the halfway point of summer, I’m permitting myself some thoughts and work in teaching preparation: even if it’s just one day a week. Late August, as our term start looms, I’ll shift that to two and then three days a week in the final crunch of syllabus-setting and online teaching preps. The upcoming term will be crazily busy with four classes and, possibly, a senior student supervision. One of the courses is a brand new preparation, “The Occult in History”, requiring all sorts of background reading. I’ve chosen cool supplementary texts for my western civ and early modern British history surveys (the great Portuguese national epic, The Lusiads, for the former and Games’ enthralling reconsideration of the Elizabethan and Stuart experience of the wider world, The Web of Empire, for the latter) and been busy reading through those with an eye towards integrating them into our classroom experience.

Always Women Reading in School, 1899 reading, always reading. Who doesn’t love to read? Don’t tell me! My real pedagogical fun for the summer has been reading about teaching and learning. Every summer I reread Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do to get me excited about stepping back in front of the classroom. I also try to read two or three other new-to-me works in pedagogy. To this end, and with some inspiration from The Chronicle’s Top 10 Books on Teaching I picked up How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Ambrose et al. from my library and I also grabbed a copy of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning on my ereader. Reading these books has gotten me thinking about how I employ reflective responses and discussion segments in my classes, and that’s just a few chapters in with each of them.

I don’t want to reninvent my wheel when it comes to teaching but I do want to refine my craft while continuing to fold new discoveries and interpretations into the content that I teach. Creating new courses, choosing new supplementary texts and boning upon the latest insights into pedagogy are all ways that I can keep my teaching fresh for me and, hopefully, the students. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a lot more reading to do before it’s suppertime.

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File Wrangling

I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the past two months wrangling files. Actually, I’ve hired someone to wrangle a lot of paper files – to shred some materials that needed to be securely eliminated as well as sort out some old teaching files that I can now decide to keep or recycle. At the same time, in between writing, working on recovering my health and supervising a grad student, I’ve been wrangling professional paperwork. Both virtual and physical, I assembled a dossier documenting the past five years of my academic work.

Let me tell you, that is not easy. Even if I’ve been pretty good about managing and storing my files over the years, some files become corrupted, some documents don’t play well with other and some mandates (merge ALL the PDFs for everything you’ve taught over the past five years!) just don’t work well. Even when you have the tools, there are some mysteries that cannot be plumbed as to why the rubrics for my early modern British course did not want to be included in the mega-PDF but every other course’s rubrics worked just fine.

After a five-hour final marathon session, I called it quits on this particular task with a definite sigh of relief. I’m glad to have it off my hands. The only scary part is that our program is up for its periodic review this coming year and we’re going to have to do much of this work all over again but for all of the faculty for the entire program over the past seven years and a lot more besides. Oh, joy. Maybe we can hire a full-time file wrangler? I only wish!

What file-wrangling tips and tricks keep you on top of documentation, virtual or physical?


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It’s the start of summer and I’ve been writing pretty steadily all the way through the past four weeks. I’m finally getting to the project that I’ve been giddily awaiting – wrapping up an article draft on perceptions of stepmothers and mothering in the Old Bailey.

The difficulty is that I’d gotten pretty far along with the project last fall before I had to put it on the shelf. Now, I’m picking up the pieces and I’m thanking past me for, once again, being smarter than I’d thought. In this case, I’d peppered the draft with notes reminding me that I wanted to insert more of a lit review dealing with A, B and C issues and another alert that I should draw from the cases of X and Y to beef up the examples I’m analyzing. It doesn’t matter what particular form you employ, whether it’s comments in the text or a outline sheet for the project. What matters is that you have these notes somewhere they’ll be the first things that you see when you get back to the project.

Leaving breadcrumbs for your research is so helpful especially when you know that research will be interrupted. When I was a grad student, I had no idea about this. Once I started my dissertation research, I was on the same subject pretty much non-stop until the last eighteen months when I added in some conference papers branching off in related areas. I never got far enough away from my research to need a guide when I returned to it.

That changed dramatically when I started this job and figuring out smart, helpful strategies to keep my research on track despite months of sidelining? That’s something I wish I’d figured out before the last decade but it still makes me happy to have all of these breadcrumbs laid out to follow.

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Feed the Soul

Summer is well and truly underway. I know this because I’ve planted some flowers in my front yard. The roses that survived the winter (four of five) won’t bloom for a few more weeks so I fed my colour craving with a swathe of begonias and violas. Red, orange, yellow: the cheery colours please me and feed my soul.

My summer work schedule is going pretty well. I’m only behind by a day and a half from my original plan which isn’t bad. To-do lists of particular tasks combined with long-range plans do the trick of keeping me from panic. Tomorrow I have to purchase more canned cat food, book a check-up for the older dog and get rolling on a RESP maturity application as well as finish the unit on Achaemenid Persia for the correspondence course I’m writing. I’ll try to get more read in the M.A. essay I’m supervising which appears decent so far. Lurking ahead on the horizon is the task I really want to tangle with: more Old Bailey writing, and that is up next. All of those tasks are on the plan. All of that work will get done. But they’re not exactly deeply nourishing in a personal sense.

Teaching preparation has an appeal, but I’ve found, over the years, that it’s not the best use of my time at the start of the summer so I’m resisting the urge to dive into my new course prep readings. I have an alluring stack of books on ancient, medieval and Renaissance occult topics, including Deborah Harkness’s study of John Dee’s angelic conversations. These all need to sit and wait until after the Old Bailey article is in good shape because an article for publication trumps reading for teaching. In any case, it will be better for my teaching to complete the reading closer to the time I’m refining all of the course plans and better know what I need to know and teach. Right? Right!

It’s funny but the prospect of my next research writing project just ahead feeds my soul as much as the begonias and violas in the flower bed. It may be a cliche that academics can’t tear themselves away from their research. I can and frequently do, but when a research topic gets me energized, I don’t want to wait! Soon, I won’t be waiting any more.

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Low on Spoons

Of late, I’ve been dealing with health issues and, you’ll be happy to know, I have an excellent doctor who’s taking this seriously. We’re pursuing a diagnosis and have already started on one part of a treatment which seems to really help.

That’s the upside. The downside is that I still don’t know what my problem is and what it will take to fix it. And, boy, howdy, does this body need some fixing because I am running low on spoons.

Yes, spoons. For those of you not acquainted with the Spoon Theory, explaining how chronic illness can be likened to a handful of spoons. When each task in your day, however modest, must be paid for in spoons, that morning handful can be quickly depleted. Walk up a flight of stairs? Pay with a spoon. Put away a load of laundry? Forfeit another.

The metaphor of a handful of spoons explains my situation of the past several months pretty well. Thankfully, my morning handful’s been getting larger every day for the past few, but I’m still nowhere near normal. That said, I have the prospect of a pretty full recovery, once we get the latest test results back.

Until then, I have to shepherd my spoons carefully – working on the article revision, supervising my M.A. student and wrapping up the last elements of the correspondence course manual. Yes, much of my work doesn’t require a huge output of physical effort, but my endurance is at low ebb. I don’t have the energy for a lot of normal activities: not walking the dog, not working on the next article, not reorganizing my office, not picking back up my needlework. Saddest of all, missing more long-anticipated conferences just ahead, beginning with the Toronto Berks.

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Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards

The teaching term has definitively ended and it was one of the best I’ve enjoyed in many years. However, if the term is over, the paperwork isn’t! Next week I have to polish off my annual report along with my teaching and research dossiers. The dossiers represent a staggering amount of paperwork although this year not quite so daunting as I’m between two deluges of publications. Next week I also must needs start on my summer’s hectic schedule of WRITE ALL THE THINGS.

In fancy-pants academic lingo, I’d label this week as “liminal”, being the semi-porous boundary between the old term and the new. It’s all stressful because, OMG wrap up all of this term-end stuff and get going on the summer research plan, now, now, NOW! But which way to jump? What gets done next?

A check-in on Friday with Jo VanEvery made a world of difference with my stress levels and sense of flailing. Jo helped me work through my long list of obligations, aspirations and implications, winnowing down to the important questions of what do I have to do, what do I want to do and how am I going to use my time to achieve those goals. Jo’s advice is always spot-on, as with her recent post on self-directed writing retreats, a version of which I will use in June to wrap up an article I desperately want to complete this summer because the project is very dear to me.

Now I have a better handle on the week ahead and the summer beyond that. I still have a lot on my to-do list but it’s going to be whittled down in an orderly fashion, matched up against a calendar for the time-sensitive elements (textbook orders due mid-month, grad student research essay deadlines in July and August). It may not be simple, but I feel a bit more in control as I look backwards and forwards this week.

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Despair in Disorder

Unlike Herrick, I do not delight in disorder. However, the end of term (and two piles of exams) has brought a lot of disorder to both my work and my personal environment. Add to this the usual burdens of the season and, well, I’m disturbed by all of these messes impinging on my space and taking over my brainpower. Because they do: there’s a palpable psychic weight to all of the stuff that accumulates, waiting to be managed. First thing that’s on my to-do list once marking is well and truly wrapped up is to tackle the mountains of random paper so I can purge what’s likely a lot of trash and set the rest to filing or, in the very rarest of cases, responding.

I had hoped to get on top of all of my office paperwork last summer but the new puppy took the wind out of my sails with her needy nature. Here’s hoping that the summer of 2014 will be one for organization and decluttering!

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