Panel for 2012 NeMLA Conference in Rochester

If you’re interested in the work of Jennifer Egan, intellectually invested in contemporary fiction, and/or engaged in studying the role/representation of technology in fiction, perhaps you’d like to send me an abstract?

PANEL: Jennifer Egan, Contemporary Fiction, and the Digital Age

This panel looks to examine the work of NeMLA 2012 Keynote Speaker Jennifer Egan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and other accolades for ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ in relation to that of other contemporary writers. Of special interest will be papers that explore the work of Egan and others in the context of the Digital Age, the role of experimentation in contemporary fiction, and the interplay of technology and the self in contemporary fiction. Please send 250-500 word abstracts to Stephen Brauer at sbrauer@sjfc.edu by 9/15/11.

For more on NeMLA’s conference next Spring, see http://www.nemla.org/convention/2012/index.html

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Practicing Diversity?

Diversity_Matters_photo_without_wording__

My school, like pretty much all educational institutions, is a place where “diversity and service to others is valued and practiced.”   It’s great that these elements are valued at this school and others: I believe they have much to offer in terms of broadening students’ educational experiences and enriching faculty and staff members’ work environment.

And I can see readily how service to others is practiced, both on campus and off, by a number of students, and hopefully by our staff and faculty as well.  This is a great thing for our community, and especially for our students, who I know learn so much through their service learning courses.

But in coming back to that phrase in our mission, I am left with a bit of a conundrum, because I am not exactly sure how diversity is practiced.  I’m not sure what it means, let alone what it looks like, when diversity is practiced.

Still, I’ve come think that I need to spend some time thinking about this topic.  I want to consider how diversity might be practiced, and in the end I want my students to not only consider this question but to go on to actually engage diversity in their practice (and practicing).

I’ll be working on this topic in the upcoming weeks, I suspect.  In the meanwhile, I’d appreciate hearing any thoughts you may have on what it means to practice diversity.

Perhaps You Know the Type

He’s a scholar arrived for a dinner party, an invited lecturer the next day at a well-respected university. The dinner has been arranged as a welcome and almost all of the attendees are themselves academics.

He’s friendly in his attempts to ask at least one question of everyone there and duly complimentary to the hosts for their fine meal and excellent after-dinner drinks. He is, in many ways, a charming dinner guest with impeccable table manners and an assured yet relaxed demeanor. In many ways, it’s a perfectly lovely evening.  In all good conscience, how could someone complain?

Well, for one, he tends to be more than just a bit of a name-dropper: “Ruth at the National Museum,” “Anne at Duke,” “Sam at Berkeley.” Perhaps you know the type: he’s apparently on a first-name basis with every major scholar you’ve heard of. Not only does he know them, it seems, but he feels comfortable delineating their character traits or professional situations, such as “she’s really difficult to work with, of course” or “It’s really not much of a situation to be in there. Things aren’t good overall at the university and they haven’t been very supportive.”

From how he talks, he is clearly an insider. He gives off the air of someone who went to school with this one, or was on that grant with that one, or spent that week at Dartmouth with so-and-so, and on and on…  But at some point in the evening, perhaps over those lovingly prepared tubers your hostess bought especially at the local farmer’s market in honor of his arrival, you ask of yourself, “An insider to whom, or to what?” Well, apparently, to pretty much everyone who is anyone, and to all of the key current debates in academia. With all the close relationships he has formed with so many important scholars, as well as with so many prominent institutions, it’s a wonder he has time to get any work done.

Oh, but he has, and he’s more than happy to tell you about it. “I started the first something-something program in the country”, “When I was at Yale…”, “When I was speaking at Champaign-Urbana…”, “I just spoke at Maryland…”, “My article on…”, “I was asked to be a consultant on…” and on it goes.

Some things he seems to get curiously wrong, such as the definition of irony, which apparently began in the 1950s (!), and some things he just doesn’t know, such as who A-Rod is.    Now, baseball can be a very boring game for those who never really played or who were never introduced to it in any real way, and certainly no one needs to be a baseball fan, or even passingly familiar with the game, to be honest.  But, I must say, the lack of cultural currency in not knowing who Alex Rodriguez is just seems to me to be a bit beyond the pale, even for the aesthete that he clearly is.  That’s just part of being tuned in to the broader culture in the most basic of ways.    Alex Rodriguez makes $25 million just playing baseball each year.  Even elitist academic snobs should know who he is.

None of this, by the way, is meant to impugn the quality of his work. To give him his due, he seems to be an accomplished scholar who has earned a number of prestigious fellowships and different positions at two highly prestigious universities. About the quality of his work, I cannot speak, for it is not in a field that I’m particularly familiar with; nor was I able to attend his lunchtime seminar nor his late-afternoon lecture.  I was a guest at the welcome dinner and pleased to be included in the evening. This is really meant to address how he interacted with other scholars in his field at the institution to which he had been invited to speak.

I am writing this some time afterward.  The lecture went off smoothly, the visit was a success with the department and the university.  Things have changed in his professional situation, but I have never really forgotten this evening, which our host and hostess worked hard to pull off and in many ways went quite very nicely.

How much of it was insecurity? Although he had secured a series of fellowships for a number of years and he had published a number of articles, he had not produced a book and, at the time, did not have a university position. Not that he wasn’t sure to let us know that he was “in conversations with University A and University B.”  No, he was sure to drop that in to the conversation, but after a few hours, one was left wondering:

Most academics have all been in this situation, to varying degrees.  Was his behavior, his bravado, a way to shield a sense of inadequacy? Or was he just something of a jerk?

An Open Letter to Stanley Fish

Dear Professor Fish –

I have very much enjoyed reading your recent three-part piece in the online version of the NY Times entitled, “What Should Colleges Teach?”:

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/what-should-colleges-teach/

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/what-should-colleges-teach-part-2/

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/07/what-should-colleges-teach-part-3/

I recognize that it is part of your role as an opinion columnist for the Times to provoke response, and based on the number of responses to these pieces – numbering over a thousand at last count – you have certainly succeeded in generating conversation and controversy.

I find myself mostly sympathetic to your argument that in too many undergraduate writing courses the emphasis is on teaching specific content that is of interest to the person teaching the students, and not enough on the skills involved in successful writing.   In my experience teaching as a graduate student at a major research university, much of the teaching of writing there focused on issues of content over issues of writing.  Further, I can add that, based on my ten years teaching composition at a liberal arts college, including six years of experience overseeing the freshmen writing program here, it is a challenge to convince faculty members – both from the English Department as well as from other departments – that the concepts that they are introducing to students in composition courses are secondary to the writing skills that they are meant to help students develop further.

However, my overall experiences over the last sixteen years have also taught me something else that you do not account for in any way: the teaching of writing at a research university has very little to do with the teaching of writing at most colleges.  The primary teachers of composition at research universities are graduate students who tend to focus their teaching on their research interests. While I commend you and those colleagues of yours at the prestigious research universities where you have taught for taking on the difficult work of teaching composition, I would point out that the great majority of your colleagues at those universities, and the great majority of professors at virtually all research universities, do not actually teach composition courses.

You are right that graduate students should pay more attention to the teaching of writing and less to their research interests in those courses, but surely we should recognize that there are systematic reasons for them to do so.  It can help them to continue to focus on their research and continue to work on their dissertations, helping them make progress on their Ph.D. while gaining valuable teaching experience.  This positions them better for the brutal job market they will soon enter.  Moreover, there is no incentive for them to change – after all, their advisors aren’t teaching writing anyway!  You seem to want them to change because it would be better for the undergraduates, but it certainly wouldn’t be better for the graduate students, and the universities are offering them no reason to change (especially because universities won’t allow graduate students to unionize and join forces for more equitable pay, benefits, and security).  Generally speaking, I think it is fair to say that the system at these types of institutions, at least in relation to the teaching of undergraduates, is broken.

But what about the teaching of writing at other schools?  At most colleges (or even universities) that are not research-focused – that is to say, at the great majority of institutions of higher learning in the United States – graduate students are not the primary composition instructors.

While there are some adjunct professors at these institutions who teach composition who have not yet completed their dissertation, most graduate students locate teaching positions at their research universities.  The majority of instructors are full-time or part-time professors who are dedicated to teaching as a profession.

This dedication means a different type of schedule than for those professors at research universities, where the production of knowledge or critical perspectives is central to the mission of the institution and the teaching load is primarily two courses each semester.  While there are some professors who teach at colleges with a two-course teaching load, the large majority teach at least three classes, or even four or five.  And at most colleges, teaching composition is one of the expectations for an English professor, sometimes more than once class a semester.  (While this can lead to less prep time, it also means double the papers to respond to.)  At most colleges, demonstrated excellence in teaching is a primary requirement for tenure and promotion.  It is valued certainly more than original scholarship, though that is expected as well, and service to the college is another major area of focus for faculty at such schools.  Time expectations are enormous, in other words, for junior faculty especially, but really for most of the faculty teaching composition courses.

You have delineated how you have taught writing throughout your teaching career, often taking on extra loads, asking the faculty at the great majority of colleges and universities to take on extra seems problematic, to say the least.  With their teaching loads, most of them are already overworked, and at a fraction of the salary that their colleagues at research universities receive, colleagues who do not have to teach these time-consuming composition courses.  Adjunct faculty members tend to have to shuttle back and forth from school to school and have no time to take on more work, especially at the pay scale that most colleges and universities offer them.  In what you write about teaching composition, you don’t account for the role of adjunct faculty, a striking omission considering just how many adjuncts are actually the ones who teach composition classes throughout the country.

So while I don’t actually disagree that much with you about a pedagogical approach to composition classes that privileges writing skills over specific content, I have serious reservations about your recognition of who teaches the majority of composition courses to undergraduates in this country.  Your focus is almost exclusively on the pedagogy of teaching writing at elite research universities – Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, etc.  But in doing so, you do not consider where most of the students who are seeking an undergraduate degree attend school: community colleges, regional colleges and universities, online universities such as the University of Phoenix.  The economics of teaching at these institutions – and here I use economics to refer to issues of salary, teaching load, and time – is radically different than those of most research universities.  It is emboldening to hear about the choices you have made to teach writing as part of your commitment to undergraduate education.  But it should be noted that for the vast majority of professors out there, choice doesn’t have anything to do with it.

The Function of School Uniforms

It’s back to school time, and that means it’s time for some serious shopping, at least in our house.  Each year our kids grow bigger and it’s new everything – shoes, pants, socks, shirts, sweaters, you name it.

At this time of year, and when the credit card bill comes due in a few weeks, I always wonder about school uniforms.

Some people love it for their children, for a variety of reasons: cost, simplicity, discipline, minimizing peer pressure when it comes to what kids wear and what is deemed cool (or not), minimizing the ways that students signal allegiances with others in a particular group (as in a gang).

Some people reject the sense of uniformity that it imparts.

I went to a private high school that had what we might call a limited dress code: no jeans, all shirts must have collars – kind of a country club feel.  It was fine and not something I thought much about.  Others I know had uniforms and didn’t mind them at all.

Both positions have some valid points, and I don’t really have a side in the fight when it comes down to it, seeing plusses and minuses on each.

I wonder about uniforms for students who are beyond high school, though.  What about dress codes for college students, or even postgraduate students?  Does the idea of a school uniform take on a different slant, in your opinion, once the students are 18 and therefore are of the age when certain rights kick in?

At my institution, a private institution, we have a professional school that instituted a policy that requires students to wear certain clothes to class (collared shirts, no jeans – something very similar to my high school). The logic of this is that the school was seeking to “professionalize” the students by demonstrating what they will be expected to do and wear once they enter the workforce in this particular profession. The dean who instituted the policy explained it to me by saying that customers will expect them to dress this way, and therefore it was the school’s responsibility as part of its preparation of the students for the profession to teach them the proper way to present themselves.

I should add that the policy also forbid men to wear earrings and for anyone (male or female) to have a visible tattoo, let alone a pierced naval.  (I don’t remember such a policy at my rather stuffy high school.)  I’m pretty sure the Dean also frowned on facial hair – especially goatees.

Now, on one level, I understand the dean’s argument – professional graduate programs are indeed designed to help students move into a profession and are focused on helping students succeed in that profession. But I wonder about institutionalizing such a policy for students who are of legal age – these aren’t children, after all, and indeed many of them are older than 21.  This isn’t the armed forces, after all.  How much uniformity is sought?  (Let alone what rights, or lack thereof, are we implying when we institute such a policy?

I also wonder about the assumptions of what customers will want and expect, and how much it matters to them how the individual is dressed, whether he has an earring, or whether she has a tattoo on her ankle or arm.  It seems to me that what customers value is competence, skill, and ability. Aren’t these what they trust far more than appearances?

Don’t get me wrong – I recognize that appearances matter, but as a requirement of the program itself, the school is privileging appearances above skill and knowledge.

Are we going too far when we say that dressing a certain way, a way that establishes a corporate uniformity on students, should be part of our curriculum?  I recognize that this is a professional school that I am referring to, but this seems like another barrier broken in the long and steady march toward the corporatization of academia.