Discipline.

Because Viral said so.((current status = in severe pain + reworking lesson plans because they had me working off details for the wrong class. But I finally beat Dirge of Cerberus so maybe that makes it all okay?))

Despite being back from vacation it appears I’ve been on extended leave from this blog. Of course, now that I have to start working again–writing lesson plans, sorting through final portfolios, compiling exercises–I remembered this blog. Procrastination can be the mother of productivity, even if it’s not the kind of productivity that faces an immediate deadline. I mean, hey, at least I’m fighting the urge to start playing Dirge of Cerberus over again from the beginning.

The thing that’s been on my mind lately, as my nonprofit’s summer program grows nearer, is maintaining discipline in the classroom. I’ll be working with the rising 9th grade, i.e. our current 8th graders, one of the worst classes we have in our program. I’ve already had a metal folding chair thrown in my direction (which I managed to slightly sidestep, but really I’m shocked it didn’t hit me) and a student who refused to talk to me in anything but Spanish, which I don’t speak and which therefore became a source of hilarity for the whole class. I worked with them twice before on preparation or the English Language Arts exam, which all 8th graders are required to pass in order to enter high school, and both times it took over 40 minutes to get them to quiet down enough to go over the lesson. The thing is, though, these troublemakers are smart. It’s part of what makes them such good troublemakers. But once they were all paying attention, the worst students became the best ones, exhibiting memory skills and listening skills that were actually at their grade level.

As a college professor, I don’t have to deal with discipline issues in the classroom very often. My modus operandi is to treat my students like adults: they’re paying for the class; if they’re screwing around, it’s on them. If their behavior begins affecting the rest of the class, I give them a friendly warning, and if it continues I deduct points from their participation grade–the cushion for their final grade. Also, when they don’t pay attention it shows in their other work, resulting in lower grades. And because college is all about GPA, for the most part grades are a sufficient incentive to get students to sit down, shut up, and pay attention and participate. The worst problem I’ve encountered at the college level was when a student sitting front-row, dead center started reading a Spanish porn magazine in front of me. But after I took him outside, lectured him, and told him I would start taking points off his grade, he became a model student. Discipline in the college classroom? Easy as pie.

When it comes to inner-city high school classrooms, though, I have no idea where to begin. My nonprofit doesn’t offer discipline training for its employees. One of my former college students, who worked in a special needs school, talked about being trained in mediation techniques and holds to break up fighting. Last summer I had a fight practically break out in my classroom and almost broke down because I had no idea how to approach it. I’m still getting over the notion that kids aren’t so fragile you can’t grab them and pull them off of someone else, but I can’t shake the fear that I might be hurt as well… and, well, my insurance coverage is pretty much nil.

So, how do you effectively discipline students in secondary ed without losing their respect and making them antagonistic and resentful for the rest of the course? It’s more important to build up these kids’ self-esteem levels but at the same time, it’s important to let them know when they’re behaving inappropriately. Right now my program is working up a rewards system and a disciplinary system, but the latter still seems murky.

So, if anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them. It’d be nice to be able to prevent any more chairs from being thrown, rather than having to stay on my toes in order to dodge them.

Posted in For the classroom | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Vacation: how are we supposed to actually turn off?

Because Viral said so.((current status = on vacation for the first time in 2-3 years, in a beautiful old house in the Catskills with gorgeous furniture, 3 offices, and a giant flower and vegetable garden… so why can’t I fully turn off?))

As I’m on vacation, this will be brief, and probably garbled, as the 3 hours I’ve been on vacation so far feels very surreal to me. Like I’m occupying a borrowed body, as well as a borrowed home.

At any rate, I’ve arrived at my abode for the next week–a beautiful house in Margaretville–and I was just wondering why I seem to have such a hard time actually being on vacation. I slept for most of the 4-hour bus ride up here, but between dreams and drafting for the Graphic Engagement conference, I caught my academic brain trying to come up with exercises for HCZ’s summer program, and I wonder if  this has anything to do with the stay-cutting-edge-or-perish mindset of adjuncts in academia. I’ve heard horror stories from lecturers about how tenured faculty don’t do this kind of brainstorming, or at most do it only rarely, whereas adjuncts–who are constantly concerned about being rehired–are constantly trolling the Internet for lesson plan ideas and devising inventive exercises and lesson plans that look good for faculty observation and that garner strong student evaluations at the end of the semester. As such, I for one have developed the ability to constantly brainstorm for academia. I carry a teaching notebook with me everywhere (a handy, portable little thing I got at Muji for a couple of bucks) and a PDA in which I write cryptic memos to myself: “Airplane Ex.” or “Crumpled Paper Ball Ex.” or “What if writing relays actually = running across the room?” and so on. Most of my brainstorms revolve around discrete exercises that act as a hook for a lesson revolving around a given skill; a few are coherent lesson plans themselves. But being constantly on is not exactly my idea of a vacation. And yet, try as I might, I can’t seem to shut off my brain–even when I’m sleeping on a bus and dreaming about disciplinary actions I could successfully take into my rising-9th grade classroom. Because when it hits 107 degrees and the walls are melting inside the un-air-conditioned P.S. 194, we are all going to be very, very angry.

Anyway, this brings me to my reason for this post. As an adjunct, I live with the constant fear of unemployment and being too specialized to be hired anywhere else, and so I’ve made myself unable to stop brainstorming for work, no matter what else I’m doing. So, academics, office workers, friends, comrades, and human beings or otherwise: how the bloody hell do you turn off?

Posted in Brain food, Rant | Leave a comment

The glass isn’t bulletproof.

((current status = hear that? It’s the sound of my rationality flying out the window.))

Last Wednesday, there was a shoot-out at our site. A few coworkers, kids, and I had entered the center. I was starting to help a 9th grader with her resume. The fan was whirring in my ear. Then came the popping sound. One of my coworkers dove down immediately, sprawling, followed by another, who grabbed and shielded a kid as he fell, taking the impact on his shoulder. I dropped next to a man whose name I didn’t know. We were shouting for the kids to get down as they kept spinning on their swivel chairs, checking their email, working on homework. I heard 5 shots; some people, who were still in the foyer when the shooting began, heard up to 8. We phoned parents and asked them to come pick up their kids. We asked them to bring ID. (In retrospect I wonder if this might have been in case a gang member came to pick up someone in a mostly gang-affiliated family, since some of the kids spoke very loudly that day about having brothers who’d shot someone, or been shot, in gang shoot-outs before.) I helped a usually bubbly 12th grader arrange a ride home with a friend’s parents. I overheard kids muttering, “Man, they buggin’, I gotta go home, I can go myself, this shit happens all the time here.” I helped a 9th grader print his homework. I lent my phone to a 10th grader I’d helped the previous day; after I’d edited his essay, he exclaimed, “Oh man, I’m so happy!” and hugged me. He lived in a decent neighborhood and had never heard gunshots before. He asked me if I was scared: a loaded question. Other kids were listening. I hedged, “No, but it will probably seem more real to me later.” He seemed to respect that. He told me he was scared. That he didn’t quite understand what had been happening, and that to keep his mind off the fact that we were in danger he’d kept doing his homework. Then there was a strange moment of disjuncture where we both looked at his computer screen, which was left on the YouTube video he’d been watching when the shots began: a gameplay demo of an unreleased Xbox shooter game.

By 7:15 we’d gotten the kids out of the center. One of my coworkers had called the police. We found out that the shooter was a 16-year-old. A bullet had clipped the neck/ear region of a man involved in the altercation; he was arrested. Police tape was put up. A coworker’s car, parked directly in front of the center, had been hit and its windows were shattered. I kept thinking, This building is fronted with glass, facing the street. The glass is not bulletproof. Coworkers and I stood around for a while, talking to try to make sense of it. My immediate boss said she’d had to walk through the remains of a crime scene that morning, a stabbing around 125th St. She said the blood was still there; she could tell by the spatter pattern how the victims must have died. She said, “I don’t like the sound of a stray bullet hitting me.” We talked about the 90-degree weather, how conducive it is to violence, how when it gets hot the knuckleheads fill up the corners and want to flex their muscle, step to each other, play-fight or talk shit, and the moment shit goes bad someone pulls a gun and starts shooting. A coworker said, “At least in Brooklyn, you know when it’s coming. There’s an argument. You can hear it escalating. In Harlem, there’s no warning.” Another coworker added, “At least in Brooklyn, they don’t shoot in front of churches or schools. They know better than that.” They said that it was because these people just sat out on the corners and did nothing all day. I said it wasn’t necessarily on them, it could be something like learned helplessness, being repeatedly told that growing up in the projects means you amount to nothing, that gang banging is all you’re good for. It’s survival mode. Shoot before someone shoots you. The premise almost doesn’t even matter anymore. There doesn’t need to be any rhyme or reason to it. The moment you’ve pulled the trigger, you’ve earned your stripes; the moment you show fear, you’ve lost it all. Supposedly the shooter had chased the other man up the block–I don’t know if he was armed but we’d assumed both men were–and almost into the center where we were huddled on the floor. I remembered that the man beside me, whose name I didn’t know, had said to me: “If they come in here, we’re screwed. There’s no way out. Not even a window.”

The receptionist, who has worked at this site for 2 years, talked about previous shootouts and stabbings. Last summer, she said, wasn’t so bad. There’d been a stabbing on the corner in June. I worked in the school so I hadn’t directly experienced that, though in the fall I was about to leave work when shots rang out and a stray bullet killed the brother of a kid in our program. Incidentally, last summer was a mild one. The one before that, summer 2008, shootings happened regularly. A 7th grader was killed by a stray bullet. I taught his friends in 2009. They wrote about him, or doodled in the margins of their papers, RIP [Name].

There were so many names.

The next day, Thursday, I went to work. I didn’t wear my iPod. I talked on the phone to give myself the illusion of security. I thought about Sri Lanka. I thought about the boy who died in the fall. I thought about the gunshots. The 10th grader. The shot-up car. My coworkers. Myself. The fact that the center is fronted with glass, and this glass is not bullet-proof.

Few kids came in that day. We talked to them about the experience, but many of those who were there hadn’t witnessed the shooting. They asked me with new respect, “Miss, you was there?” More loaded questions. Yes, I said, I was; no, no one was hurt. We told them that even if they were used to street violence, the center is a place where they should feel safe, and the sound of gunshots shouldn’t be a comfortable thing, that it’s okay to be afraid. Most of the kids said it didn’t affect them because they hadn’t been there. I thought, They should feel safe. The glass isn’t bulletproof. One of my coworkers, the first to hit the floor when the shots began, didn’t come into work. He’d mentioned Wednesday night, after we sent the kids home, what I’d been thinking dimly while keeping my face intact: “There are no safety measures here for us. We’re in that street all the time. We stand outside and make phone calls, eat our lunch. We cross the street to go to the school. We walk up and down the block. We go to the corner store. If we’d been five minutes later walking into the center, or chosen to walk out, go to the store, down the block, across the street, it could have been any of us bleeding, maybe dying, on the sidewalk. And that would have been that. An arrest was made, but no one “snitches” in this culture. By ourselves, we talked about the likelihood of retaliation by the other gang, about it happening on our block. My boss went across the street. I spent the whole day running back and forth up and down the block, listening to people talk and reenact the shooting, pretending that I didn’t feel a bullet boring through my ribs the moment I stepped out into the street. I went back to the center, sat down at my desk, began to make a handout for senior seminar. Any loud sound made me look up. I realized that the entire side were I was sitting was fronted in glass. That proper security measures, according to the site director, probably won’t happen. That here I am telling my kids that the center is a sanctuary, where they can escape the violence, when they know as well as I do that the glass isn’t bulletproof, and it isn’t humanly possible to save everyone.

It’s not the first time violence has broken out on our block. We’re situated in the worst neighborhood in the entire agency, between two avenues “run” by two warring gangs. The premise of these shoot-outs are often as ludicrous as “You’re not from around the way”–i.e., you don’t live where I live. It happens to kids who grew up together; one family moves to the wrong avenue, and suddenly these kids are at each other’s throats, when they used to behave like brothers. There was a fight in program between two boys, over a situation like this. Our block has seen shootings, stabbings; we lose roughly 5 kids a year to stray bullets and gang violence; and yet security wasn’t at the center when the shots began, there’s only one entrance and exit–both facing the street–and I’ve said enough about the glass.

I have thousands of questions in my head right now, some of them pertaining to my own decision to remain at the center and brace for the continued violence (it’s likely to be an intensely hot summer), some of them related to my slow realization of the fact that I, my coworkers, or my kids could have been seriously hurt or killed, the fact that this happened within walking distance of my apartment, the helplessness of knowing I can’t protect these kids, whose toughness is just a brittle cover for fear. But first and foremost, I’d like to ask this: Why isn’t the glass bulletproof?

Bulletproof glass (or bullet-resistant glass, as the industry calls it, since glass cannot be made thick enough to stop a bullet at point-blank range) ranges in cost from $3-$15 per square inch. For a nonprofit, perhaps this is pricey. Buying it for one site would require buying it for all ~10 sites. Ceiling-to-floor windows constitute several square inches. But our mission statement is about serving the community, protecting kids from the streets many of them inevitably have to go home to. How can we convince them that we can protect them, that the center is a safe place to relinquish their bravado, if we all know that there are no security measures to really protect any of us? If they see us, their advocates, tutors, teachers, counselors, mentors, and friends, afraid for our own lives, questioning the security measures in place, wanting more security, it might suggest that the reason they lack this security is because someone thinks they aren’t worth it. That this violence cannot be prevented. That all we can do is drop to the floor, hide under desks, wait for it to end, pray for it to pass us by.

On a larger scale, inner-city schools and nonprofit after-school program sites often lack the necessary security measures to make staff and children feel protected, and this makes it extremely difficult to work and learn. I thought of Frank Marrero’s speech about the crisis in inner-city education in Richmond, CA in 2006, which I’d recently stumbled across. The primary issue seems to be that there’s no money, not even for school supplies or functional plumbing, let alone bullet-resistant glass. And yet once a lawsuit was brought against the school, these problems were magically resolved.

Does it have to take a lawsuit to effect change?

This is my question: if there are available resources, why aren’t they being used to improve the flawed systems we’re working in? We need security personnel posted at the door. If not bulletproof glass, we need something that shows the kids that we are invested in their safety beyond just shouting for them to get down, which many of them are used to hearing, if they haven’t shouted it at others themselves.

I expect when I go into work tomorrow, it will be like it never happened. The kids will be outwardly fine. The staff will be outwardly fine. On Thursday, coworkers greeted me with odd sort of exchanges, such as “How’s it going, in spite of everything?” Well, it’s going, going, going, gone. Most of the kids already think our program is a joke due to our lack of real organization. They know we don’t know what it’s really like to live in those streets. I’m typing at my computer right now comparing my reality to theirs, and the comparison just can’t be made. The gap is too vast. I struggle on my adjunct’s pay to get by, but they’re afraid for their lives every goddamn day.

So the glass isn’t bulletproof. There was a shootout last week. Tomorrow it’s back to work as usual. I’ll walk up and down the block like I usually do. So will kids. We’ll all watch and listen for retaliation. We’ll rush them into the building if guns go off, where we’ll huddle in a corridor with no escape route and look out at the not-even-close-to-bulletproof glass and think, I don’t want to die; I don’t want to witness anyone die.

Where can we go from here? All I can think to do is ask if they have a grant writer. The government allocates a certain amount of grant money for nonprofit organizations. I’ll even do it for free. Bullet-resistant glass wouldn’t just a relief to staff and students, I think, but symbolic as well: of the fact that people outside their community are willing to make an investment in them, believe they are worth protecting, and that the buildings where they receive their education can be made safe, indicating that their education is worth it, too.

Posted in News, Rant | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Row, row, fight the powah follow-up.

Because Viral said so.((current status = still reeling from Wednesday’s shoot-out and trying to figure out the best approach to this Gurren Lagann paper. CFP deadline: June 14. Amount of research I’ve done thus far: nothing. Talk about awesome.))

Today I’m supposed to be figuring out how to frame an academic paper about the visual and text representations of trauma Gurren Lagann–how the two media interact with one another to create a more persistent sense of grief, despite the show’s ultimate message that we are more resilient than we think, and that absolute despair can be overcome–and so it seemed appropriate to post this follow-up to my last post on using formal elements in music to illustrate the importance of form as well as content in a literature course. In that post, I mentioned how the theme song of the show is revisited several times, set against a different background track each time. Here are the 3 tracks I would probably use, along with the lyrics (disclaimer: they are godawful. But I imagine this would make the exercise that much more fun for the class). It might be interesting to tell the class that the songs come from a mecha anime, and then have them free-write while listening to them, describing the scene they envision taking place to each track.

Take #1: Rap wa Kan no Tamashii da! Muri wo Toushite Douri wo Kettobasu! Ore Tachi dai Gurren Dan no Theme wo Mimi no Ana Kappo Jitte yo ~ Kukiki Yagare!!

Potential discussion points: The song opens with a strangely ominous swell of strings that breaks into an almost triumphal fanfare of brass instruments, possibly implying (temporary?) victory. After the fanfare the verses are punctuated with single trumpet notes that are at odds with the triumphant sound: these notes almost seem questioning, doubtful, or wondering. The chorus of “Row, row, fight the powah,” however, always lines up with the triumphal fanfare. The track is often played towards the end of episodes, after Team Dai-Gurren has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, or, significantly, after a character has overcome an inner struggle.

Listen on YouTube here or download here.

Take #2: Rap wa Kan no Tamashii…Datta…yo na…

Potential discussion points: This version is electronica: the vocals are slowed and drowned in synthesizer, and the most audible part of the track is the repetition of single piano notes, rising and falling in the same pattern. The chorus emerges loudly at times, especially towards the end of the track, when the music becomes more fully fleshed-out. The overall sound seems to suggest a scene of insistent, never-ending peril, or of difficult decisions that need to be or have just been made. This track is only played a few times (I think), in the second arc of the show, and generally follows some horrific realization the characters have come to, or an impossibly difficult situation from which there is seemingly no escape. The characters, however, are shown as determined, not hopeless, when this track plays.

Listen on YouTube here or download here.

Take #3: “Libera me” from Hell

The song opens with Latin from the Requiem Mass of the Romach Catholic Church, and its operatic quality immediately creates a sense of loss and grief. The repetitive piano riff that accompanies the verses suggests a sort of desperation move may be taking place, that something inevitable is looming; at the same time, its insistence and underlying beat may suggest a sense of determination: this is all there is left to do. The revisiting of the Reqiuem Mass to rising and falling trumpets and strings, and the orchestral swell of music between verses, also implies that, while the heroes may overcome, they can only do so at a price. The gradual addition of musical elements to the spare track create the illusion of it speeding up, building momentum. Towards the end of the track, the Requiem Mass and the rap lyrics intertwine and the music swells louder, creating a sense of urgency, the female vocals reaching its highest point and then crashing into silence and the shouted, “Fight the powah!” This moment is then followed by a crash of music as the piano riff, beat, and Requiem Mass resume, along with the rap chorus and the sound of insistently rising and falling strings. It ends with the repeated “Row, row, fight the powah” as the brass notes slowly begin a series of decrescendos and the Reqiuem Mass falls to its lowest note; the final music is simply the female vocals, so low it’s barely audible, one low brass note, and the twice-repeated “Row, row, fight the powah,” streaming into silence. This track dominates the end of the second season; it is first used to accompany a central character’s death, and then accompanies the idea of absolute despair, the manifestation of Heidegger’s notions of choice and Angst, and the reassertion of the human will to survive at whatever cost.

Listen on YouTube here or download here.

Here are basic lyrics for the songs, already in handout form. The lyrics to “Libera me,” which are somewhat different as they include the Latin Requiem Mass interspersed throughout the rap lyrics, can be found here, where I’ve broken up the Latin and a rough translation of the Latin alongside the English lyrics they’re juxtaposed with. Additionally, during class discussion it might be interesting to touch on the ways in which form can supersede content, as the lyrics themselves are mostly random and senseless (as Engrish often is), but the background music coupled with the parts that do make sense still manage to convey emotional resonance.

My hope is that somehow I can make a lesson plan out of these ideas, perhaps to begin the Fall 2010 semester (thankfully some months away). Just thought I would share some of my initial planning. Feel free to post comments and feedback if you have any or have done something similar in your classrooms.

Oh yeah, and “Rap wa Kan no Tamashii da!” means “Rap is a Man’s Soul”…right in keeping with the show’s aesthetic.

Posted in Deconstruction, For the classroom | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Once upon a time, adjuncts were treated fairly. Except that we never were.

May as well practice my macros, no?((current status = raging against the machine. That is, the academic hiring machine. Yeah. I just went there.))

I’d read “Confessions of a Tenured Professor” in Inside Higher Ed a while back, but it left me too incensed to coherently think–not because of Prof. Brown’s views on the situation (which I think is commendable, as there’s so little published on the subject in widely-viewed forums, let alone in such a nuanced manner)–but because the subject itself is one that fills me with homicidal rage. Obviously. I mean, it’s the reason this blog exists.

Today my friend C. forwarded me this article in The Atlantic, which compounded my rage by asking the impossible-to-answer question: “Why Does Academia Treat Its Workforce So Badly?” After frothing at the mouth for a moment, I thought that maybe I should attempt to think about the issue beyond just “OMG RAWR,” a reaction probably prompted by the impossibility of reducing it to one (or even three, or five) reasons why academia treats its adjunct workforce so poorly. So here I go, take one, from the top.

Adjuncts today comprise “73% of the nearly 1.6 million-employee instructional workforce in higher education and teach over half of all undergraduate classes at public institutions of higher education. Their number has now swollen to more than a million teachers and growing” (Brown). Where in the general labor market, roughly 5ish workers per job opening, in academia there are hundreds of potential adjuncts competing for a single job opening (McArdle, mphillips57). As I may have mentioned before, adjuncts who speak up about their working conditions, difficulties their students pose, or departmental issues, they quickly find themselves out of a job. Tenured professors are viewed as superior to adjuncts both by faculty members and by students, regardless of the quality of teaching. And yet there is recognition of the fact that adjuncts, out of desperation to retain their jobs, self-assess and reinvent their pedagogical practices more regularly than tenured faculty, who have less incentive to do so. This certainly isn’t true of all institutions, but it seems to be the rule rather than the exception. At one of my current institutions, I was told after my faculty observation that my self-assessment practices and willingness to rework ineffective class exercises was “impressive” and that this was something that “sadly [she had] found lacking in older tenured faculty.” And yet this doesn’t mean anything, no matter how good you are. Maybe you have a higher chance of being retained for the following year, but the moment budget cuts begin, your number’s up. Which brings us to Possible Reason #1: Money.

As pointed out in many of the comments in McArdle’s article, money, the lack of it, or the lack of desire to redistribute it seems to be a central cause of the current treatment of adjuncts. Tenured and tenure-track faculty don’t want to lose large chunks of their salary, and the administration doesn’t want to reallocate funds to create you-can-live-on-this salaries for adjuncts. I can almost hear them griping, “Where would the money come from?” After all, the reason adjuncts make up such a large part of the workforce is because we’re so damn cheap and yet we remain motivated (read: terrified of being fired) to constantly work at what we do. How many jobs would be eliminated simply because the administration doesn’t want to appropriately fund the current number of positions? How much more competitive, and/or precarious, would employment opportunities become? How much more responsibility would be heaped on us? As Anonymous Adjunct points out in Brown’s article, “We [already] have all of the responsibilities of teaching but few of the privileges. If someone could take even one or two of my (five or six) classes a term and pay me release time, I would strive to do significant reseach [sic] even at the $20,000 I earn in a good year” (Brown).

Which brings me to the meritocracy model of academic hiring practices. Universities want instructors with strong records of research, publication, and demonstration not only of teaching excellence but also of being committed to your field of instruction. In Comp & Rhetoric, this spans creative writing and academic writing–good old “publish or perish.” I’ve waited 5 years for enough time to sit down and research and write a paper on something, anything, just to get it on my resume, but it dawned on me this year that, as an adjunct, I’d never have enough time. Therefore I churned out my first paper on graphic novels in a week, during which time I neglected almost everything else, then submitted it (and yes, it was accepted, thank God). As for creative writing, it’s next to impossible to work on your novel when you’ve got 75 papers/week hanging over your head. If I had the privilege of research time, I’d use it, as would thousands of other adjuncts. We’d produce the kind of work and publishing record that universities want. But how can we be expected to do that when teaching a total 4,5, or 6/2 course load? It reminds me of a Columbia professor, not tenured, who chaired a summer program and was one of the warmest, most effective professors I’d ever met and hoped to work with (though it didn’t work out that way). Despite her astounding record of teaching excellence, evidenced in observations and student evals from what I hear, she was let go a couple of years ago. The reason? She had only published one book. Her responsibilities during her time at Columbia? Immense.

In a similar vein, the comments in the McArdle article raise the idea of prestige: that is, we want to be academics so badly, just to have that professional prestige on our resumes, that we’re willing to put in the work for abominably low pay. Perhaps this is why we are willing to settle for part-time adjuncting if we can’t find employment as full-timers. With regards to this, I take issue with McArdle’s indifference to the plight of part-timers (though I agree with her position on graduate students). I think something that’s being overlooked here is the fact that, because adjuncts are underpaid and are not always fortunate enough to receive full-time adjunct positions, they are often forced to work part-time at 2 (or more) institutions in order to survive. Here’s an example. In 2008 I taught a 2/2 course load (35 students/semester) as a part-time adjunct at a fairly prestigious university in NYC for roughly $7K/yr, and a 2/2 load (40 students/semester) in a similar capacity at an out-of-state university for roughly $7K including commuting costs, for a total of approximately $14K for 75 students and thus 75 drafts to read, comment on, and grade per week: meaning that I had to have papers back within two days of receiving them. Because I’m a ridiculously neurotic perfectionist, and still green in terms of my idealism, I did what most of my fellow part-timers did not do: I stopped having a life, slept little, spoke to no one, and did nothing but read drafts and grade. But most people don’t do this, either because they have other commitments that can’t be ignored (domestic partners, children, other jobs, their own artistic work & research, health conditions, etc.) or because they think it isn’t worth it. Money, then, is largely the issue with the quality of adjunct teaching as well; chances are that adjuncts who come from wealthy families and/or some other form of money will teach well, because they have more free time, energy, and mental space to do so, whereas adjuncts who are holding down multiple part-time jobs are often too exhausted to do more than the bare minimum. $14K, especially in New York, pays your rent (assuming you have a roommate, rent control, or have lucked out in below-$900 rent bills), some groceries, possibly 2-3 loan repayments, maybe insurance. And that’ll probably leave your bank balance at $0. Now that I’ve become a full-time adjunct, I marvel at the backbreaking work I had to do just to make ends meet. And I’ve accepted that, should budget cuts relieve me of my job, I’ll be forced to do something similar in the academic year of 2010-11. Either that, or starve, since I’m too specialized & overqualified–the winning combo–to be considered employable in any other field. As ghrossman commented, “this [people willing to work for nothing just to be an academic] is especially so in the humanities which faces the double whammy of a romantic ideology and almost no demand outside of academia so you have people who place intense weight in non-pecuniary compensation and have highly specific human capital so they have neither the capacity nor inclination to leave academia” (McArdle, ghrossman).

Essentially, we’re fucked.

Thus, my question is this: How do we get un-fucked? That is, once we’ve figured out why academia kicks its adjuncts to the curb (and not in the good way), what can we do to remedy the problem? Anything? Who do we take this to, and how can we do it in a way that doesn’t get us all fired?

I realize it’s far too early to be asking these questions, and I’m being somewhat cynical in pretending to be practical-minded about it. Really what I mean is that, in the current economy, I’m not sure we can get un-fucked. But it’s a great step forward for these articles have been catching people’s attention and making the issue a more visible one, and both authors, particularly Prof. Brown, are to be applauded for that. (I mean, a tenured professor rallying to our cause; how much more legitimate can it get?)

So I’m going to stop ranting here. Instead, I’ll leave you with this comment, which oddly enough stuck out to me most: “‘Why Does Academia Treat Its Workforce So Badly?’ Because they can, and since they are morally superior to everyone else, it’s OK. The same is true for left-wing nonprofit organizations, which are notorious for treating their employees badly…’ (McArdle, reaalistx). I wouldn’t include this here as it’s quite the generalization, but it pretty much sums up my feelings about the nonprofit where I work as well. Though that’s a story for another post, another time.

Posted in News, Rant | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Email etiquette: I like you, but I’m not your friend.

May as well practice my macros, no?((current status = lesson planning for HCZ and marveling at the state of my apartment, which is slowly becoming unable to support human life))

Email etiquette, particularly when students are emailing their professors, is more of an issue than you may think. While it often does not make its way onto course syllabi, behind closed doors we freely gripe about student emails that a) are written as though we are a close friend of the student, b) lack any sort of recognizable syntax or are written entirely in Internet/133t sp33k, and/or c) lack a signature or other indication of who is actually emailing us. For instance:

From: mrt55@school.mail.edu

Time: 5 minutes before class begins

im running late lol whats the hw again???? bts

Sent from Blackberry.

There is a lot wrong with this picture.

Now, I try hard to befriend my students. I want to know about their majors, their interests, their thoughts about other subjects as well as Comp & Rhetoric. I believe that this establishes an exceptional student rapport, as students then feel more comfortable talking about the sorts of uncomfortable issues that often arise in my courses, such as racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, to name a few. That said, when I open emails like the one above, I want to murder the student who sent it (if I could just figure out who it was).

I’m starting to think that a lesson on email etiquette is in order, perhaps a mini-lesson or exercise early in the semester, with brief dos & don’ts. Do include a greeting and a signature; do punctuate; do use correct capitalization and grammar (for God’s sake, you’re emailing your writing professor); do make clear what exactly you’re emailing me about and why. Don’t email me from your Blackberry (and DO NOT send assignments and essays from your Blackberry!); don’t email me 5 minutes before class (or even a couple of hours before class), as I may not be around to check my email; don’t use Internet slang, for the love of God. I like you, and I want you to feel that you can approach me, but I am not your friend. Ultimately, I am your professor, and I don’t email you in this way; it wouldn’t take much effort for you to respond in kind.

At the same time, I don’t blame the students entirely. Their version of Internet culture is based on slang, lowercase letters, and stream-of-consciousness writing. It’s almost as though they use email not just to convey or request information, but to record a specific moment in their lives and communicate it (e.g., I don’t need to know that you’re running late, especially since I won’t see your email 5 minutes before class, and I make it quite clear that I don’t want excuses, but you apparently want to tell me anyway). And it isn’t like they don’t recognize the need for formality–it always comes out when they’re asking me for an estimate of a grade, if they want a reason for a grade, or if they’re contesting something or other. So perhaps a mini-lesson is in order, just to tell them or remind them that this formality is expected in all emails, and not just the ones where they’re stepping into potentially uncomfortable or upsetting territory.

I imagine this lesson would involve drafting an email as they would to a friend, and then “translating” it into a formal email to a professor. We could discuss how to make formal writing a little more casual; I may even use my own pre-class emails as models, where I straddle the formal and the casual. (That is, contractions are okay, as are parentheses, dashes, and even an occasional fragment for effect.) In partners, students could role-play “student” and “professor,” where the “professor” emails a request to the “student,” who has to appropriately respond, and then vice-versa. It would be good practice, to say the least.

Some of my colleagues in the past have simply said they will not respond to “incorrect” or “inappropriate” emails, however they define those two words. I’m wondering if it would give me less of a headache to make this announcement after the mini-lesson on email etiquette. At the same time, I know that, no matter how much I strive to be a hard-ass, I’m kind of softhearted and wouldn’t be able to ignore a panicky request from a student about a paper or assignment, even in the face of atrocious grammar. It’s clear they’re pleading with us, and I can’t turn them away. I just want them to plead in a more structured, coherent way.  I mean, this is Comp & Rhetoric, after all.

Posted in Brain food, For the classroom, Rant | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

We analyze things every day. Seriously.

Because Viral said so.((current status = if you go deep enough into the grading cave you’ll discover that it isn’t a cave at all, but the dank maw of a giant carnivorous beast. I’ve just hit the tonsils and am hanging on for dear life.))

Let me tell you a story: yesterday, I was working with 10th-12th grade at the Harlem Children’s Zone, attempting to get them to draft personal statements for college. It was a beautiful day, and the senioritis in the air was so contagious even 10th & 11th graders were susceptible. One girl woke up from a nap and shouted to a girl at the other end of the table, “Oh my ga~wd, I had the wei~rdest dream, I’m gonna write you about it.” She then proceeded to write a note to her friend, which an advocate confiscated, to her shrill complaint of “But MISTER, I wanna know what she think it meant, ain’t that like doing work?”

Huh.

Dream analysis is fairly common in our every-day lives. I think most of us have, at some point or another, had an acid-trip dream that we could not parse ourselves, and then recounted said dream to a friend for an outside perspective. In my college classrooms I’ve overheard students dissecting their dreams before class–unpacking signifiers and symbols fairly adeptly–only to then balk once class starts and I ask them to unpack a sentence of academic writing, dissect pop culture, or analyze signifiers and symbols in literature.

Perhaps this could be utilized as a thinking exercise at the beginning of the semester, as a way to prove that we do analyze things every day (and thus preempt the inevitable question, “Why do I have to take this apart??”) and to give them a familiar referent and model for the kind of analysis that is expected of them. This could be accomplished by first posing the question as a free-write: “Describe the weirdest/most memorable dream you’ve ever had.” Have them write for ~5 minutes, focusing solely on detailed description and not their own analysis of the dream. Then, on a separate sheet of paper, they could analyze their dream themselves; following this, they could swap dream descriptions with a partner for an outside perspective. Finally, they could compare analyses to see whether or not they line up, and to use both perspectives to come up with a solid claim about what the dream could mean. And there you have it: the process of analysis and of coming up with a central argument.

To workshop my own idea, I imagine the swapping process would entail minor interviewing, since dreams often speak to who we are as people, so this exercise may be most effective in the 3rd or so week of the semester, once students have gotten comfortable with each other and with sharing their work. Also, I could see it getting out of hand since people tend to get very caught up in retelling their dreams, so it might require closer monitoring on the instructor’s part to keep the class on task. Assigned partners may work better in this situation as well, rather than letting them choose for themselves.

I’d thought of a similar thinking exercise as well, focusing on Facebook. I was stalking people as a way to procrastinate and realized that someone I was barely acquainted with had defriended me, and my immediate response was: “But what does that mean?” Not like it has to mean anything, but Facebook and other social networking sites encourage this kind of thinking; since the whole point is the ability to author your own identity in a particular way, even the slightest changes to that identity–whether it’s accepting or rejecting a friend request, joining or leaving a certain group, conducting conversations on Walls instead of over private messages, framing your relationship status in a certain way, or (especially) wording your status to generate curiosity, “likes,” and comments–suddenly acquire significant meaning. And students, who are very wired creatures, are aware of this, if not consciously.

The thinking exercise, I imagine, would involve creating a fake Facebook exchange: recounting a story, or maybe modifying screencaps as a handout or for the overhead projector, where students a series of cryptic status updates. Students would be told to imagine that the anonymous Facebook person is a real-life ex-friend of theirs, or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend; they would then be asked to analyze what these status changes or Wall comments “mean.”  I would allow initial responses and then refine the question, possibly into “Why would the person frame it this way and not another way?” or “What response is this person going for?” This could provide a familiar referent for literature analysis, where both of those questions commonly arise.

To workshop this exercise, I usually teach a segment on cyberculture and identity construction, so for me, a thinking exercise re: Facebook would tie in very nicely. It may seem irrelevant or thrown-in if cyberculture isn’t a component of your course. Also, I imagine the preparation for the exercise would be a lot of work–i.e., screencapping, modifying those screencaps to make them anonymous, and creating statuses that generate the right levels of mystery, intrigue, and drama. Finally, this exercise could also get out of hand, so I imagine close monitoring would be essential.

I’d be interested to hear how this works out if you decide to try these exercises, as well as if/how you would modify them for your classroom. These exercises would probably also work well in secondary ed classrooms, with a little tweaking.

((current status = if you go deep enough into the grading cave you’ll discover that it isn’t a cave at all, but the dank maw of a giant carnivorous beast. I’ve just hit the tonsils and am hanging on for dear life.))

Let me tell you a story: yesterday, I was working with 10th-12th grade at the Harlem Children’s Zone yesterday, attempting to get them to draft personal statements for college. It was a beautiful day, and the senioritis in the air was so contagious even 10th & 11th graders were susceptible. One girl woke up from a nap and shouted to a girl at the other end of the table, “Oh my ga~wd, I had the wei~rdest dream, I’m gonna write you about it.” She then proceeded to write a note to her friend, which an advocate confiscated, to her shrill complaint of “But MISTER, I wanna know what she think it meant, ain’t that like doing work?”

Huh.

Dream analysis is fairly common in our every-day lives. I think most of us have, at some point or another, had an acid-trip dream that we could not parse ourselves, and then recounted said dream to a friend for an outside perspective. In my college classrooms I’ve overheard students dissecting their dreams before class–unpacking signifiers and symbols fairly adeptly–only to then balk once class starts and I ask them to unpack a sentence of academic writing, dissect pop culture, or analyze signifiers and symbols in literature.

Again: huh.

Perhaps this could be utilized as a thinking exercise at the beginning of the semester, as a way to prove that we do analyze things every day (and thus preempt the inevitable question, “Why do I have to take this apart??”) and to give them a familiar referent and model for the kind of analysis that is expected of them. This could be accomplished by first posing the question as a free-write: “Describe the weirdest/most memorable dream you’ve ever had.” Have them write for ~5 minutes, focusing solely on detailed description and not their own analysis of the dream. Then, on a separate sheet of paper, they could analyze their dream themselves; following this, they could swap dream descriptions with a partner for an outside perspective. Finally, they could compare analyses to see whether or not they line up, and to use both perspectives to come up with a solid claim about what the dream could mean. And there you have it: the process of analysis and of coming up with a central argument.

To workshop my own idea, I imagine the swapping process would entail minor interviewing, since dreams often speak to who we are as people, so this exercise may be most effective in the 3rd or so week of the semester, once students have gotten comfortable with each other and with sharing their work. Also, I could see it getting out of hand since people tend to get very caught up in retelling their dreams, so it might require closer monitoring on the instructor’s part to keep the class on task. Assigned partners may work better in this situation as well, rather than letting them choose for themselves.

I’d thought of a similar thinking exercise as well, focusing on Facebook. I was stalking people as a way to procrastinate and realized that someone I was barely acquainted with had defriended me, and my immediate response was: “But what does that mean?” Not like it has to mean anything, but Facebook and other social networking sites encourage this kind of thinking; since the whole point is the ability to author your own identity in a particular way, even the slightest changes to that identity–whether it’s accepting or rejecting a friend request, joining or leaving a certain group, conducting conversations on Walls instead of over private messages, framing your relationship status in a certain way, or (especially) wording your status to generate curiosity, “likes,” and comments–suddenly acquire significant meaning. And students, who are very wired creatures, are aware of this, if not consciously.

The thinking exercise, I imagine, would involve creating a fake Facebook exchange: recounting a story, or maybe modifying screencaps as a handout or for the overhead projector, where students a series of cryptic status updates. Students would be told to imagine that the anonymous Facebook person is a real-life ex-friend of theirs, or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend; they would then be asked to analyze what these status changes or Wall comments “mean.”  I would allow initial responses and then refine the question, possibly into “Why would the person frame it this way and not another way?” or “What response is this person going for?” This could provide a familiar referent for literature analysis, where both of those questions commonly arise.

To workshop this exercise, I usually teach a segment on cyberculture and identity construction, so for me, a thinking exercise re: Facebook would tie in very nicely. It may seem irrelevant or thrown-in if cyberculture isn’t a component of your course. Also, I imagine the preparation for the exercise would be a lot of work–i.e., screencapping, modifying those screencaps to make them anonymous, and creating statuses that generate the right levels of mystery, intrigue, and drama. Finally, this exercise could also get out of hand, so I imagine close monitoring would be essential.

And now (drum roll) back to grading.

Posted in Brain food, Deconstruction, For the classroom | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments