Category Archives: teaching

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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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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On Again, Off Again Scheduling

This term I’m teaching three days a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That leaves the other two days a week for research, writing and editing.

It’s been a while since I’ve had two days in a term that were out of the classroom, especially in my heavy term which isn’t as heavy as some have been. Only three courses in my official workload but there’s also one graduate directed readings meeting at a timeslot still TBA. Usually I’ve been lucky to have one non-teaching day in a week and that usually gets further complicated by being on a day when I have regular committee obligations. This year? Not yet. All may change when the T&P committee ramps up for actual meetings but if they’re slow to get started, that might wait until next term. For now, my Tuesdays and Thursdays seem safe.

I must say that I’m enjoying the on again, off again nature of my work this term. The format helps me to recharge my introvert batteries after a long day of teaching, for one thing. For another, even though I know I can write in small timeslots set aside during a busy day, I write best when I have at least two or three hours to pour into one project. Uninterrupted time allows me to better see how what I’m adding fits into the bigger picture.

The schedule also only works by making sure that teaching prep or, in a few weeks!, marking doesn’t eat up my research and writing time. I’ve found that the weekend is the best time to finalize my visuals and class plans for Western Civ (so that the files can be uploaded to our CMS in advance of Monday’s class) and to review the readings for the Tudor seminar which meets on Wednesday mornings. The grad students meet on Friday so I’ll go back through my discussion notes on Wednesday evening (after a veeery long day). Tuesday and Thursday? They’ll stay free. They have to or all of my fall writing plans fall apart.

So yes, I’m eating into my weekends in a big way this fall. It’s unsustainable to work full-out seven days a week all through the academic year, yet somehow so many of us do just that, right? But for a few short weeks I know that I can keep it going and reap the benefits of focused, productive time to research, write and edit on some days while devoting myself fully to teaching and campus contact duties on others.

I’ll see how the rotation holds up once I’m at the midterm point, just around the time I hie off to Potterfest. That’s when a boatload of marking lands on my desk and even with the able assistance of my GTA, I suspect I’ll have to give up a Tuesday here or a Thursday there but don’t let it get to be a habit. I’m fully booked up with writing, editing, revising and researching right through the first of November. After that, it all might fall apart but I’ll hope to sustain the schedule through the end of classes in early December.

What’s your term schedule looking like? Thumbs up or fingers in ears?

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Observations on the Start of Another Term

  • I hate starting teaching in the middle of the week. I understand why we’re starting on a Wednesday. My OCD tendencies just don’t like it. Ditto for the last day of term, the first Wednesday in December, being taught as a Monday to compensate for the Monday we’ll miss on Canadian Thanksgiving. It’s logical. It just doesn’t feel right. It also means that my Wednesday morningsenior seminar will wrap up on November 30.
  • Speaking of the seminar, which I’ll do frequently this fall, we’re currently standing at 36 enrolled. I’m printing out fold-over name cards for each student to set on their desks in hopes that it will not only help me remember all of their names more readily, but also encourage them to use each others’ names in the lively discussions I hope will ensue.
  • Why is discussion so difficult to inspire and maintain? Ah, that’s the million dollar question of academia, isn’t it? If it was easy, everyone would do it. I love what Dr. Virago posted about encouraging discussion earlier this week: that feigning ignorance or error inspires students to attempt their own explanations. It’s not so much the “lying to student” part of not giving them the answer that’s important, it’s how avoiding giving them the answer helps them to generate answers on their own, sometimes even more than we’d be able to give them as the ‘sage on the stage’. Reminder to self: silence is golden, patience is a virtue and the Socratic method still is pretty awesome.
  • Tuesdays and Thursdays will be writing and editing days. I’ll also be devoting a chunk of Monday mornings to writing and editing. And, given the daunting number of projects I have on the go and due in the near future, most of the weekends. Of course, the challenge is to not let administrivia, errands and other issues fill up these blocks of time. Already there’s a service task which is in the process of blowing up in my face (not through any wrongdoing on anyone’s part, it’s just when this particular committee gets called upon, it means Work and lots of it). I’m pretty well-resigned to some of that writing and editing time getting eaten up by the service task from beyond the grave but I can hope that the only time we can tackle that problem is sometime on Friday afternoon instead, when I know I’m too tired to do a good job of writing and editing and focus, instead, on less demanding occupations such as filing, emails and blogging.

And that reminds me, it’s off to Dame Eleanor’s for the weekly writing group check-in!

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The Importance of Being Kempt

Early modernist here so I can legitimately use the term “kempt” whereas those poor folks who don’t at least mentally reside for a good chunk of the year in premodern texts are stuck with only the inelegant “unkempt”. (Check out this fun explanation of the shift in the decline of kempt and the rise of unkempt.)

Bardiac posted about pre-semester rituals – hers include a hair cut which is top of my to-do list for Tuesday. Shaggy and Scooby I fail to get hair cuts during term time so if I don’t do this now, I’ll look a lot like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo within a month or two, minus the stubble, of course!

I don’t aspire to the fashionista heights of blogworthy professorial fashion but I do believe in the power of kempt. Whether you’re rocking the jeans and turtlenecks in the manner of the late Steve Jobs or something a bit more fashion-forward, it behooves a professor to have clothes that are clean and relatively tidy. I’ve culled the wardrobe this summer, ditching the threadbare jeans and shirts along with the items that just never worked (why did I think that pale tan was ever a good colour on me? It isn’t!). I added a few new tops and a skirt or two.

But the number one rule of being kempt? Forgoing those messy condiments during term-time lunches. No more soy sauce, ketchup or, heaven forbid!, mustard. Because there’s nothing more guaranteed to mess up your look than a mustard stain on your shirtfront.

How do you keep it together when in front of the classroom or out in the field?

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Preparing for the Unprepared

Fewer than a third of the thirty-five students enrolled in my senior seminar for the fall have taken what I’d consider to be the closest thing to a prerequisite. (We don’t actually ‘do’ prerequisites here in our department but I’m careful to offer courses in sequence so that students will have an opportunity to take a second or third-year course on a topic before enrolling in the seminar.) More of the students have taken another survey that might sound relevant as that particular class has been offered multiple times in the past three years but courses that begin after 1700 won’t give students much useful background for a class that wraps up circa 1600.

A bit over two-thirds are veterans of Western Civ but that’s not a big help. At best, if they were in class on the right days, they would have had about half an hour of class time that touched on our seminar’s subject of Tudor Britain. A little bit of class time and reading two or three years earlier hardly constitutes a sound basis to tackle the range of Tudor-era topics we’ll study over an entire term.

Knowing this, I’m paying careful attention to the background readings that I suggest. I’ll put two copies of the survey textbook (Newton & Key, 2e) on reserve in the library and point them to an array of other possibilities they can purchase if they so wish. However, given that I’m expecting them to read a hundred or more pages each week just for the class itself, I’m going to have to really push hard to get them to read even a couple of dozen more for background on a regular basis.

How do you encourage under-prepared students to catch up on the background? My first plan is to circulate the course outline and suggested background texts this week, along with the advice that if they haven’t taken the early modern British survey, they’ll really need to pay attention to the background readings.

I’m thinking of also preparing a one paragraph summary to post to the online discussion board each week. The post would highlight cool themes about that week’s background alongside links to a few amusing videos and intriguing primary sources. The thought is that this would be enough to ‘hook’ the students to read that little bit more which will help them to understand the assigned readings.

I’m wary, though. I don’t want to do a lot of extra preparation for this class if it will likely be wasted. I’m facing another very busy fall with three regular classes as well as two grad students to supervise and all of my writing to move along. So if anyone has a bright idea on how else I might get students lacking background courses up to speed, leave some advice in the comments, please!

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I Love Course Planning

I have to confess, I love to prepare for my courses. It’s probably one of my favourite parts of working as a professor and, sadly, it’s a pleasure I’ve been denying myself for months as I focused on pressing issues of writing and editing.

Thursday, I finally broke down and opened up my word processor to get down to business. I’m starting with my senior seminar – I’m using three “new to teaching” monographs and one that I’ve taught with before (students will love/hate that book because it’s really engaging and opinionated but it’s also over 500 pages long). It was fun to pour out on paper the thoughts I’d been mulling over in my free time over the past few months: how many weeks for each subject area? What kinds of discussion questions to pose? Then I move onto the assignments and that opens up a new round of options. Will I be able to shoehorn in an essay proposal along with the essay itself? Do I ask for the essay in the second-to-last class meeting or at the very end of term?

A well-planned course is a thing of beauty. It clearly plays into the overall curriculum of the program, helping to build needed skills and guiding students clearly along their path to mastery. It lays out expectations for the overall class as well as each individual. It answers their questions about process and asks them questions about what they’ve learned.

A well-planned course is an awesome creation and even the best course can get better. That’s why, each year I toss my notes on what worked well and what didn’t into my course planning folder so that they’re right at hand when I’m back to teaching the course again. (Thank you, fabulous notes I left for myself in 2008 and 2011 to guide this fall’s revisions.) I eliminated some questions that weren’t really fruitful for my senior seminar and broke up another subtopic differently in light of how difficult it was to jump-start discussion the last go-round.

That’s the part I love about course-planning: playing with the possibilities of topics, readings, assignments and questions. A bit less fun, but just as engrossing? Tweaking the flow of the course over the meeting dates. It’s a lot of work to track exactly which days we meet in the term when the university’s calendar only shows start/end dates for the term along with holidays. (I’d kill for a calendar that included, you know, an actual calendar so I could see the dates each class is meeting instead of having to remember that if my class is a Wednesday-only class that we don’t meet the final Wednesday of term which is, instead, a make-up date for Thanksgiving Monday.)

I’ve put the planning aside again after this initial rough-in. Why? Because I know I’d spend too much valuable writing and editing time on the course planning work, tweaking and testing and twiddling some more. I don’t have to have the outlines ready for reproduction until very late in August so I will keep my hands off, as much as possible, in order to focus on the other work that needs to be done now.

But it’s soooo tempting. Ah well!

Please tell me I’m not the only one who likes some aspect of course-planning and, if you enjoy some part of it, what’s your favourite?

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Out with the Old

Ding, dong, the term is dead. Well, except for one last grad course assignment to wrangle. I have to get the chair to sign off on the big survey class’s marks tomorrow morning, as well, but, really, it’s done. I taught two undergraduate classes, one graduate directed readings for two students (so two separate classes but we kind of mushed them up by finding common ground for this past term) and yet one other graduate class that actually integrated in with my senior seminar. Officially four classes on my plate with just over a hundred students between them all.

This term, I’ve also written two short chapters (well, solo-written one, and co-written the other) as well as prepared and submitted a research grant. I’ve edited so many chapters, I’m no longer able to keep count of those!

No time to rest: I’m already knee-deep in the thick of other projects. We’re copy-editing STar Wars and History (which is a fascinating process in and of itself), I’m back to draft-editing chapters for The Hobbit and History and putting in a few hours on my regular research agenda, each week until our July vacation.

Oh, and there are book orders for the fall. And a personnel committee meeting. Oh, and I need to follow up on that research grant application. And get working on the next one. And there’s the conference paper for the end of the month, I need to pull that together, too!

Oh, lordie. I’d better stop thinking right now. I promised Mike I’d take off a day or two. Maybe Friday?

How’s your May shaping up? Crazily busy with conference trips, grading galore and classes still to meet? Or are any of you wrapping matters up already. Take a break from the grind and let us know!

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A Window Opens

A brief grading window, that is – I just finished marking the last of the tutorials (and recording marks from the oral presentations) in my super-huge class of 80. My TA, bless her heart, is tackling a bunch of the other discussion portfolio material.

Tomorrow, at 9, the same class writes their final exam and the entire pile should be ready to claim at noon.

*headdesk*

Then the marking begins anew!

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