Category Archives: academe

Short and Long Cycles (of Courses)

Publisher’s reps are emailing me with increasing frequency, asking what I’m teaching next year and what textbooks I’m going to adopt. I’ve had to consult some documentation to see what that will be because I am teaching a metric whackload of new courses – three brand new ones, to be exact, two of which I’m team-teaching so that means they’re set aside three familiar classes (and one new distance course that I’ll offer online for the first time next January).

There are some courses that I always teach – Western Civ is a historian’s version of Freshman Comp (and just about as much fun as a course concept even though I try to liven it up each year). I taught Renaissance Italy for eleven years running before I ran screaming from what had once been a favourite subject. I give graduate level historiography and methods a serious side-eye having taught it all but three years in this millennium.

Repetition can wear me down. In fact, the major reason that I’m preparing a distance course is to relieve pressure from an over-popular course in Ancient Near Eastern history which can be offered more often online (with another academic taking over the instructor’s duties) than I want to do in the classroom.

I know some academics advise a tight rotation of select courses – come up with a two-year rotation and stick to it. I tend towards the other extreme: I prefer a three or four year plan of teaching that allows me to get a break from a subject and turn towards other interests. I also am always game for a neat new course concept (which is how I ended up co-teaching a course on the history of the occult next year).

I suppose this is also my way of coping with the necessary repetition. I may have to teach the first half of Western Civ every year from now until retirement, but I have fun new courses on the history of war and on the history of crime to leaven the boredom, at least for next year.

What about you? Are you drawn to new course concepts or options (even new themes in a core course would count) or do you prefer to keep your teaching to a tight set of regular-repeated topics?

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Reading London

I’m simultaneously shocked and tickled pink to be teaching a course relating to my research specialty at the graduate level. After more than a decade teaching historical methods and years before that teaching nineteenth century European social history (don’t ask), teaching “Topics in British History” will be a positive pleasure.

The course theme is London, 1550-1950. Do you want to read along with my M.A. students? Here’s our reading list:

I’m also steering them towards many outstanding websites, including the following:

Am I missing anything great? Suggestions are eagerly welcomed in the comments. Classes begin January 6th with the first three articles on the list and we’ll wrap up the meetings in early April.

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Virtue is. . .

Not sure if it’s a reward or what, but I’ve been spending most of this month with my nose to the proverbial grindstone. I’ve been marking and writing and preparing teaching. The writing has come to a frenzy of productivity as my deadline looms.

I’ve also submitted the complete manuscript of The Hobbit and History to our publishers. It’s going to look very nice when it comes out in 2014 but no time to think of that now. I need to be writing!

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University from Both Sides Now

Eldest has graduated high school and is preparing to start university this autumn. It’s been an exciting and occasionally stressful year in our household with her working through the process of deciding where to apply, waiting on the responses, applying for scholarships, making her decisions and, now, following through with the endless summer of paperwork still remaining.

As a second-generation academic, I realize that I have a wealth of information and experience about the entire university application and entry experience. Despite that, this has not been an easy or simple process: forms for financial aid, scholarships and even redeeming your own educational savings appear to be entirely opaque. I’ve availed myself of the phone helpline for the last more than once and it’s not like I’m doing all the work, here. She’s been doing her share, which is quite a bit.

Seeing university from the other side, now, a generation (or more) beyond my own freshman year, is sobering. This is a lot more work than I remember. Is it that I look on the past with rose-coloured glasses? I don’t think so. This is a lot more complicated than it used to be and there’s no good guidebook, at least for the Canadian experience. (Believe me, I’ve looked!)

Particularly, it’s the tricky part of knowing what to do and when that’s got to be the hardest part of university. Here at our institution, which serves a large proportion of first-generation students, I’m constantly made aware of how much they don’t know. But even with Eldest, who was raised in this milieu and can navigate her way around my campus blindfolded, was left adrift, time and again, especially with the scholarships and other funding opportunities.

University is hard. Getting into and staying in university is even more difficult in many ways. What could be accomplished with more sessions that not only invite questions but also lay out the key elements that students, coming from a publicly funded K-12 system, might not know they need to know about? That would be amazing, I suspect.

Now, because I can’t think of this phrase without thinking of the song, here’s a lovely 1991 cover of “Both Sides Now”:

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Another Crop of Students Done

Yesterday I participated in an excellent graduate student’s M.A. thesis defense (in French – now that kept me on my passively-bilingual toes). This is the third student in nine months to complete an M.A. under my direction or co-direction. It’s been an anomalous last two years with multiple students on the go, pursuing feasible and fabulous projects related to my own early modern specialty. Usually I’ll supervise one grad student every few years as more of our students are interested in modern Canadian history which definitely isn’t my strength.

Right now, I have no grad students lined up for next year and that’s all right with me. First off, most people don’t need a graduate degree in history. Second? Well, let’s just say that graduate students require a lot of work. It’s all the good kind of work: the real exercise of scholarship for which we all entered our fields. Still, I look forward to focusing on my own research and writing in the next while.

I pride myself on the fact that these three received excellent support, not just from myself but from our program!, and a chance to develop as researchers and writers. They can apply these skills inside and outside academia. That’s a vital consideration these days. Only one of the three is going on to doctoral work at the present and that’s because this student received full funding. Without that support, it’s really hard to justify the endeavour.

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Bingeing on Books

I wrapped up my winter’s term marking just as the last of the ice melted off of the lake. While getting back into my academic writing that’s been shelved most of the past month and pulling together the reams of documentation necessary for my annual report, I’ve been reading lots. Bingeing, almost. Fiction, that is. Genre-style.

Over at Novel Readings, Rohan Maitzen has an intriguing post on binge reading. In her case, she’s doing it for a project, to review the novels of Dick Francis. When I saw mention of this on her Twitter update earlier in the week, I was intrigued. Not only because I was a big fan of Dick Francis’s work back in the day (when I was a teen, I binged on about twelve or fifteen books of his in quick succession, borrowing a stack at a go from our city library). I quickly recognized the formula (wiry, game ex-jockey who goes through some horrifying torture on his way to solving a racing-related mystery) and reveled in the easy read that predictability provided.

Today we read more about binge-watching television shows but binge-reading has its uses. Concentrated non-academic reading clears my mind of the detritus of a term of teaching. I’m not obsessing about the successes and failures of my students (or the recurrent problem some demonstrated in differentiating between hanged and hung in a discussion of early modern punishments). By reading a raft of mysteries, romances, fantasies and other completely non-work-related non-fiction, I’m attuned to words in a very different way than I was in the midst of marking. I’m thinking about what makes a story compelling and where it disappoints. I’m aware of how word choice can make or break a scene, all in a way that’s fun and energizing. I’m reminded about what I love in reading and ready to get back into writing, even my own much more sedate academic history.

Reading for teaching is diagnostic: you’re trying to find problems or help prescribe solutions. Reading for research is surgical: you’re in there to get some specific nuggets of information to fuel your own scholarship. Reading for entertainment is restorative: you’re in there to relax or explore or think in different ways. A balanced reading life includes all of these aspects. Sadly, when term’s crazy, I tend towards only the first two forms but this entertainment binge has me back in balance and just in time. Another deadline’s looming!

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So What (I’m Still a Rock Star)

I got a professional rejection today. Or, should I say, a rejection for a professional application: a research grant. The rejection itself wasn’t very professional. In fact, it was downright dismissive.

Now, I can take away some useful lessons from this, like, hrm, I need to work more on articulating what I’m doing in the grant and beefing up the bibliography. Some other lessons aren’t terribly useful because I can’t do anything about my research record until more of the pending articles and chapters get into print. I also suspect that I won’t get this group to fund anything to do with this line of research until it’s all but done because they really just don’t get it. So unless they see many related prior publications, they’re not going to see where this is going. These are all important lessons for the academic researcher. However, the best lesson was paying attention to my own emotional reaction.

I was a bit disappointed. That was all. I read the reasons for my rejection and chuckled at the heavy-handed rhetoric while retaining the useful elements.

Most important was what I didn’t feel. I wasn’t crushed. I wasn’t even angry. Irked, maybe, at the tone, but that was all. Honestly, the first words that sprung to my mind were “So what?”

Is this rejection really going to negatively effect my research plans for the next year? No. In fact, since all of my M.A. students are graduating, I’m short of prospects. I don’t have a grad student working with me in 2013-14 or even any seniors lined up for projects. I’d have a hard time finding a student to work on the project which involves reading a lot of seventeenth-century manuscripts: not a skill you can expect to build in every undergraduate who comes along.

Without the grant money and hiring concerns, I can scale back the project from communities in three counties to one and cover all the material myself. I won’t have to devote time to hiring and training: I can simply segue into this project when I’ve wrapped up the next chapter on my to-do list and that’s just what I’ll do.

So what? I’m still a research rock star (or maybe, more realistically, a wedding singer? Whatever!). I got my rock moves and I don’t need that grant.

So for all those other great academics who’ve also been rejected this grant season, P!nk says it better than I could:

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I Used To Believe in Renewal

I just saw another tweet scroll by commenting on how tenure-track jobs are scare because older profs are hanging onto their jobs. Whether that’s because they believe they need to (to build up their pensions, etc.) or simply because they can (people are staying healthier longer and mandatory retirement’s mostly disappeared) isn’t the issue, here. It’s the belief that if only these older professors retired that new jobs would open up that has me shaking my head because from what I’ve seen in the last seven or eight years, it’s simply not true. At least not at most institutions. Sure, some of the rich privates and elite publics have healthy endowments, but even they’re playing by new rules these days.

Don’t get me wrong: there used to be a time when departments and programs could count on faculty renewal. Professor A retires or departs, leaving the department short one [insert faculty specialty here]. Department files a request with the dean to conduct a search to hire a new [insert faculty specialty here] in order to sustain the program. Permission is granted, a job ad is drafted: applications are received, assessed, etc. Soon, Professor B is part of the department faculty and all is well. That’s a pattern that I saw operating for years, from my childhood days as a faculty brat right through into my own academic career.

These days, when a faculty member departs, all bets are off. Continue reading

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Assignment Policies: They Matter

I opened up my email this evening to see yet another student email with the familiar attachment icon. Oh, joy: another unwanted emailed assignment.

You’d think I wouldn’t receive those since I have an across-the-board policy in all of my undergraduate classes that I do not accept assignments via email. Students may hand in a hard-copy at any time (there’s a late penalty that starts to accrue after the due date) or submit an electronic copy through our university’s online dropbox up to the due date. I will even, if there are special circumstances, open the dropbox to a later date for a student. I don’t want emailed assignments. I have a policy that clearly says that and, yet, every term, every year? I get emailed assignments.

Augh!

Emailed assignments are the hangnails of my academic life. They disrupt my well-oiled system to track and respond to assignments. They irk me enormously.

I can’t integrate emailed assignments into our dropbox. It only permits feedback for assignments submitted through the system. In fact, recent upgrades present me only those students who submitted online when I go into the grading mode for any given group of papers. That’s efficient but not adaptable to these emailed drop-ins.

I can’t integrate emailed assignments into my hard-copy marking unless I print them out. So now I have to track the student email until I’m able to print the paper. Considering how much I work on the road, that could be a good day or two. It’s really annoying to think at 11pm “Oh, yeah, now I have that paper to print that I didn’t ask to get via email” and go traipsing down the stairs to fire up the old printer.

How about I do it all on email? Now you’re asking me to set up a third system that I’ll have to manage. I have to make sure to save the emails, download the assignments, unzip the files, track them until I have time to mark them, mark them up as well as recording my additional comments, then save the lot. After that, I have to log back into email (let’s hope it’s up!), make sure I’m emailing the right student (which is a challenge in and of itself), and finally send them their marked-up assignment and the additional comments.

Worst of all is that these emailed assignments only come because the student missed the deadline. That’s the deadline they’ve had on the syllabus since the very first day of the term. These emails almost never are accompanied by an acknowledgement of that except a comment to the effect that “the dropbox was closed so here’s my assignment”. A student who emails me with an honest query “I tried to submit my paper online but the dropbox closed” will get a chance at sympathy and a link to the newly reopened dropbox. A student who emails the assignment? Gets my eternal irk. And is that what anyone wants at marking time? I think not.

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In the Restricted Section

Over the summer and unbeknownst to me, my university library moved all the U, V and Z (Library of Congress classifications) books out of the general circulations stacks and into storage. Err, the first floor depository, they say. I call it “The Restricted Section”.

Harry wandered over to the Restricted Section. He had been wondering for a while if Flamel wasn’t somewhere in there. Unfortunately, you needed a specially signed note from one of the teachers to look in any of the restricted books, and he knew he’d never get one. These were the books containing powerful Dark Magic never taught at Hogwarts, and only read by older students studying advanced Defence Against the Dark Arts. (J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

Just imagine, wandering innocently into your library, in search of five books you need to check out for your class. You know they’re there. You check them out every year (it’s a small class of grad students – they can share the books over the last half of the term). But the books aren’t there. The whole circulating collection seemingly ends with the T classification for technology topics. But wander farther afield and there’s nothing. Not even a sign. I stumbled about the third floor for ten minutes, looking for where the books had gone to – I knew we had hundreds, if not thousands of titles in that range that had seemingly disappeared.

Only when I headed down to the circulation desk did I get an explanation – those books had been moved to the first floor, off limits to users – I’d have to ask a librarian to retrieve them for me. I presume (but I wasn’t told explicitly), that this was done to free up room upstairs in the circulating collection or ‘stacks’ – as new books are added, and a few are every year, they fill up the current ranges and threaten to overflow. Plus, goodness knows!, we can’t cut back on the study desks and comfy chairs that have filled in around the circulating books over the years.

Still, just wrap your heads around the situation with the books for a bit. Entire classifications of library books are gone. Sure, if you look at each individual catalogue listing, as I did later, you see a note after the call number that explains the book is located at the 1st Floor Depository. But imagine you’re an undergraduate – what does that mean? There’s no word of where that is or what you’ll need to do to see the book. How likely are you to go and ask for that? There’s not even a sign at the end of the range of books still available indicating that you need to go elsewhere and speak to someone. Even better: maybe you committed the call number to memory when you trotted off on your quick search after getting the information from the first page of the catalogue entries? If so, I bet you’ve forgotten it after a few minutes of fruitless searching.

Will you ask? will you wait? Or will you just give up? Remember, you’ve got to intuit that you have to ask someone specially for these books and then you have to wait for them to get them. We aren’t blessed with an overabundance of librarians – on weekends and into the evening, who’s going to be around to fulfil requests? Who’s going to ask if it seems even slightly daunting.

Now consider the role of shelf-browsing? How many of you have found wonderfully useful books just by running your fingers along the shelves, to see what’s there beside the book you came to get? How can you do that now that entire swathes of the library are off in storage. I’ll give you a hint – our catalogue doesn’t have that function anymore to browse a range of call numbers so you won’t.

90% of my students will give up if they think they might want one of these books. They’ll change their topic, make do with what’s online or simply pass the material by. And so the usage stats will drop even more and the library will feel justified in carting these and other books off to our local equivalent of the Restricted Section.

So much for consulting the bibliographies to direct you to other works in particular. Pay no attention to the vast scholarship in print on authorship, reading and publishing that also sits in this range – they’re all getting condemned to near uselessness by such a decision. So much for the many classic and current works of military history and scholarship – if they’re in the U category as opposed to particular national histories, they’re out of reach for ordinary library patrons at my institution.

I’m also afraid of what’s next – in any given year, for my teaching and research, I check out books from many different Library of Congress areas, particularly B, D, H, J, P and Z. What if they decide to shave off those lightly used A & B classifications into the depository next? How am I going to get my students to engage with the works of religious thinkers and the abundant scholarship we own in print of the same if the books are tucked away elsewhere.

Yes, this is a first world problem but it really irked me. I work hard enough to get our students to appreciate the range of books we have available at our library. When something like this happens, I’m filled with despair. What’s the point if our books are going to be consigned to the Restricted Section, willy-nilly?

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