My life as a Sagittarius is no longer. I am now, alas, an Ophiuchus.

I went to bed thinking I was driven, stubborn, good natured, not entirely reliable, passionate, adventurous,  dedicated to learning, fiery, honest to the point of bluntness, and that  my sign was  the fabulously strong, masculine this:

And I woke up learning that I am poetical, wise, a seeker of fame, a beloved of authority and fathers, a builder, one whom others envy, who likes to wear—plaid?–and  my sign is a weird this:

Yes, there are certain overlapping qualities between the two signs, seems those born between Nov 29 and Jan 20 in general are potentially brilliant and self absorbed leaders, but “wears plaid”? Really?

It’s disconcerting.

Especially since I was going to lean on that “unreliable” Sagittarius trait as an excuse for the lazy blogging.  It seems, my fellow bloggers, I’ve been kidnapped by the Tweeters.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Well, I wish it were a jet plane, but I fear it may be a propeller plane for at least the first part of my travels to MLA 2011 in Los Angeles.

I’m done complaining about the date change (and yes, I know not everyone is complaining, but at least some others concur) and I’m ready to leave the icy chill of winter and experience the relative warmth of L.A.

Instead of an MLA blog this year, you can follow along with what’s happening via Tweets. And no, you don’t have to enter the Twitter world to follow. Just go to the MLA home page  or to the #MLA11 Daily  to see what’s happening at least amongst the Twitter elite.

Or just read Inside Higher Ed. Or the Chronicle. Though I’ll be curious to see if the change of dates means less media converage: the MLA is no longer going to provide titillating humor for a slow news week not that the world is back on schedule post holiday.

Since I’ll be missing classes while gallivanting in LA, I’ll probably use my free time to say many Hail Mary’s, bury myself in the prep and committee work I would be doing if I were staying home, and attending as many sessions as possible to justify to all my colleagues why I must miss the first week of classes.

Besides, it seems a cab to the beach costs $57.00 and a bus ride can take several hours for the 15 mile trip.

Instead, I believe there are some Starbucks near the Evil Hotel That Still Charges A Ridiculous Price for Wi-Fi, in which I can nurse my non fat chai latte for as long as it takes.

And while I may not be blogging the MLA this year (well, unless I hear/see something really juicy), I certainly will attend all those social media sessions that seem to have taken over the MLA Program Committee this year (you can see a non password protected program here). I’m so looking forward to meeting Roxie’s Typist!

A Little End of Year Film Nostalgia

My college friends and I have two touchstone films–those films that we watched again and again (thanks to that newfangled thing called HBO) and that resonated with us. We still, today, quote lines from these two films to each other, effectively alienating those spouses, children, friends who have no idea what we are talking about, and warmly embracing those that get it.

Which films? Can you guess? I’ve quoted from them both several times on this here blog.

One film is The Big Chill, a 1983 film that was repeated, almost nightly, on HBO by the spring of 1985, the year we graduated. And, somehow, we English, Soc and Psych majors had time to watch the film repeatedly (Kevin Carey, who graduated from the same college a mere 3 years later, has some ideas about while we were able to relax through much of our coursework).  In case you were living under a rock on the 1980s, it’s a film about a group of 30 something friends from college are get together for the funeral of a classmate.  Clearly, in our fears for the future,  my college roomies and I were feeling nostalgic for our college years before we even graduated because we simply loved this film. We had a ritual: we’d all get in our pjs, make some brownies or cookies, famously humming as they got closer to being cooked, partook in some recreational enjoyments, and then sat in our usual spots in the small living area waiting for the movie to begin. 

What was it about this film that moved us so?  The characters didn’t necessarily reflect us since we were a good 12  years younger and had no idea what we were going to BE in our 30s.  I suppose one of us was on her way to becoming the Nick/William Hurt character: a brilliant drug dealer with some issues with sex, but really those issues were a Jamesian wound from Vietnam, and we certainly weren’t facing any possible war in 1985.  And maybe one of us, admittedly me, was definitely on track to becoming the powerhouse professional Meg, but I was quite clear, even then, that I didn’t want kids, and all the women characters either had kids or, like Meg, desperately wanted kids. 

Except for the 20 something Chloe/Meg Tilly, who found the suicidal Alex/Kevin Kostner’s body in the bathtub, and eventually went to bed with Nick/William Hurt.  We all wanted to be her, but she was a bit too new agey and lithe–we were none of us her.

So what I think we liked the most about the film were the lines.  This was definitely a common conversation in our rented house on weekend mornings:

Michael: [Michael enters the kitchen, sees Sarah standing in front of the open refrigerator] You know, that’s the problem with these things. You have to watch them every minute.
[Takes a small carton of milk from the refrigerator]
Michael: Oh, hey, did I miss Karen and Richard?
Sarah: No, just Richard; Karen’s staying for the weekend.
Michael: But not Richard?
Sarah: Went back to be with the kids.
Michael: Oohhhh, interesting. What did Richard have to say about that?
Sarah: Michael, if you’re going to sleep this late, you’re going to miss a few minidramas.
Michael: I just hope you’ll wake me for anything really ugly.

And, as several of us were English majors, we cracked up easily over this one:

Sam Weber: [Sam enters a room where Nick is up late watching TV] What’s this?
Nick: I’m not sure.
Sam Weber: What’s it about?
Nick: I don’t know.
Sam Weber: [Sam shakes his head, pats Nick on the shoulder, then sits in a nearby chair] Who’s that?
Nick: I think the guy in the hat did something terrible.
[shot of TV shows a man being thrown through the glass window of a door]
Sam Weber: Like what?
Nick: You’re so analytical! Sometimes you just have to let art… flow… over you.
[Sam rolls his eyes]

But this one made us nervous:

Sam Weber: Hey, Nick? You know, we go back a long way, and I’m not gonna piss that away ’cause you’re higher than a kite.
Nick: Wrong, a long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time; you don’t know anything about me. It was easy back then. No one had a cushier berth than we did. It’s not surprising our friendship could survive that. It’s only out there in the real world that it gets tough.

Several years later, when we were all in the midst of graduate school, we’d still watch the film together, and by then our favorite lines reflected that reality:

          Nick: [on not completing his PhD at the University of Michigan]: I could have. I chose not to. I’m not hung up on this completion thing.

But the film I’m thinking of this week, as it gets closer to New Year’s Eve is When Harry Met Sally (1989).  My college friends and I also watched this movie many times, even though by the 1990s, when it was available as a video, we no longer lived together. Two of us were married, two of us were living with boyfriends, three of us were living within a few miles of each other in Brooklyn.  My favorite visual scene in this movie, one that I reenacted each December, was when Harry and Sally buy a Christmas tree and drag it along the streets of New York to their apartment.  The Woody Allen-esque autumn in Central Park scenes are lovely also. Now that I live thousands of miles away, where the trees are always the same damned green color, watching that scene has become a tear jerker for me.

But in the early 90s, the film’s power in its depiction of the struggles between men and women, friendship and marriage, for professionals in their 20s and 30s–the same age we were, going through similar issues. 

I’m thinking of it this week because it’s almost new year’s eve, and the party we were so looking forward to attending has been cancelled because of a death in our host’s family–an issue not really addressed in either movie, neither of which shows mothers, fathers, grandfathers, siblings, or any other family tie but spouse or friend.  The pivotal scene is when Harry finally confesses his love for Sally during a  New Year’s Eve party:

Harry Burns: I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

It was so romantic then, and it still is. But I am thinking of those two films, and their contexts for me, because I’m feeling somewhat edgy, nostalgic, at a loss this new year’s. Grumpy even. Old.  Not entirely content. 

Happy New Year?  Yes, it will be.  An end of year self reflection isn’t a bad thing especially with images from these two films to accompany my thoughts, films that I know are now dated, that no longer have the same impact on me except in retrospect.

Deconstructing A Calendar Change

It’s a big deal, this change from late December to early January.

Not that you’d think it was a big deal if you read  this article, which, while fun to read,  is more of a tongue in cheek series of quips about the biggest change to happen within the MLA since, well, ever.

The annual convention is now held during the first week of January, rather than right after Christmas. This is a fabulous change for the vast majority of MLAers who, on a traditional semester system have most of the month of January off anyway; however, for those of us on the quarter  or early starting semester systems, the convention happens during the first week of classes. 

The article quotes one person, a graduate student, as dismissing this as a minor inconvenience:  “the first week is probably the best week to have to attend a major academic conference.”

Well, perhaps that’s true if you are a graduate student and perhaps your professor cancels the class because she, too, is at the MLA, but if you are the professor? And if you are a non tenure track professor working quarter by quarter at the will of the college that pays you?

I’ve arranged for experienced instructors to sub for me during the classes I will miss, but I still will have to deal with the fallout of missing the second day of classes for three sections.  The first week of the term is when we are required to take attendance, drop non attendees,then  deal with the wait list of students who want to add the class: administratively, the first week is a mess. The colleagues subbing for me know how to deal with the pressure we get from students during week one, and they are not at all looking forward to dealing with MY student pressures, as much as they care for me. 

Then there is the need to establish a tone for the class, create a class “culture”: this is what happens during that very important first week, especially when the term is only 10 weeks long. 

And about those 10 short weeks (not including Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, and the inevitable snow day): in a composition class, and I have three winter quarter, I need to get students started on the work that leads up to their first major assignment, the challenging rhetorical analysis, argument evaluation essay.  Because I did not want to make my subs lecture, I’ve created an in class group assignment that at least moves students in the direction of analyzing and evaluating an article they will read for day 2: the subs will facilitate (in some ways much more exhausting than lecturing). 

Now at my college, getting a sub requires begging other full time colleagues in my department (and the sub needs to be someone who has the credentials to “teach” the class) to sub for me with bribes of wine, cookies or return subbing. Sometimes, especially when I teach at a prime time, getting a sub within my department is impossible and I just cancel the class (something I simply cannot do during week one). 

But, I still get paid.  

For part time and adjunct faculty, missing classes means missing the pay check. And, unless they can get a full timer to sub for them, that’s what happens because if a part timer subs for anyone, that part time is required to be paid by the department, which, of course, is not encouraged, especially in a department that is usually overbudget by November.

This has led to a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” system where we sub for each other under the radar.  It has been working, but for those off the tenure track, it’s a risk. 

Should my college make allowances so that part timers/adjuncts/all faculty can attend the national convention of our discipline as part of our professional improvement? Well, that would be nice. But, there are other conferences we can attend, conferences that do not happen during the first week of a quarter: it’s difficult to argue that attendance at THIS particular convention is vitally important. 

But, you ask, what about those faculty members, TT or NTT, with job interviews at the MLA?

Oh, that’s right, there aren’t any.

There are other changes that I’m all for: sessions at the annual convention this year will now end by 6:30, allowing us all more time to get inebriated, and, presumably, more time to change the stereotype of MLAers as more interested in scotch drinking than sexcapading.

So there’s that.

Community Colleges: Canaries in the Coal Mine

MLA’s president Sidonie Smith has posted an article to the MLA blog titled “One MLA Serving All Faculty” in which she explains why the MLA should encourage more community college members to join the organization (there are currently about 800 out of the 30,000+ members). 

She begins by acknowledging the need to articulate with those colleges where the majority of students begin their college educations.  Then she warns her readers that community colleges are the canaries in the coal mine–they foreshadow the horrors that will trickle up to the more illustrious institutions of higher education. At the same time, those community colleges actually have, you know, jobs, so “our” graduate students need them. 

The MLA has been reaching out to community college faculty member since the 1980s;  in the 1990s I was invited to a breakfast for community college faculty. The Committee on Community Colleges was established to provide a forum for our members to become involved in the work of the MLA. In recognition of our minority status, the Delegate Assembly has special interest slots for two community college members so that our perspectives are represented within the governance structure.  The MLA offers incentives for local community college faculty to attend certain convention sessions for free, recognizing that many of us do not get professional development funds. Two years ago, there was a pre-convention workshop for community college faculty members.

We are certainly not being ignored. In fact, we are being courted.

I’ve enjoyed attending conventions for the last 18 years, and have  felt included in the professional organization in which I’ve chosen to invest my time, energy,  and money.  I’ve presented papers, I’ve participated in roundtable discussions, and each year, I take pages (pre-netbook) of notes on new books, new ideas, new classroom activities that I learn at this annual convention.

So, this article surprised and disturbed me.

Professor Smith does attempt to seek common ground with her first reason: we need to work together for the sake of all students.   However, after that,  the article is clearly addressed only to the 29, 200 members who are NOT community college instructors.  It sets a tone that is, unfortunately, not inclusive.  It was written ABOUT us, as if we weren’t in the club.

This is undoubtedly not intentional.  And perhaps, silly me, I shouldn’t have read it until after I finished grading final essays and dealing with stressed out students.  I may, admittedly, have my own inferiority complex.  But this article from the President of my professional organization seems unfortunately condescending when that is not at all her intention.

I need to craft a detailed response with specifics (the article is posted on a blog after all) after I’ve finished dealing with the essay that is 71% plagiarized; after I finished grading the remaining 45 essays on my desk; after I finish some work I have to do for the MLA Convention in LA.  A rational response, that doesn’t ooze with the angst from that chip on my shoulder.

Finals Week Funny

So this student walks into the final yesterday and immediately launches into a story about how the printer (you know, THE printer, the only one in the known universe) doesn’t work, so s/he can’t submit the final revision of the final essay the class has been working on for 3 weeks, due at that very moment. I let hir ramble for a bit, before asking, very politely mind you: “And you are?”

You see, this student is a familiar creature at colleges across the nation, and is particularly visible fall term, when newly hatched high school students who seemed to have been given passing grades for breathing enter our fair, open admissions, hallways and continue to use what must seem to them to be a very successful strategy:  Show up to class regularly at first, then begin to strategically miss those classes where the bigger assignments are due, and finally stop showing up at all for the last two weeks only to show up at the final with a fabulous tale of woe.  Then, when reality strikes in the form of the Angry Pissed Off Professor (A-POP), who says that, as per the syllabus, only students completing, and passing, ALL the major essay assignments can actually pass the course, whether or not they hand in the final essay, the creature responds with a look of total miscomprehension and surprise:

“But, I’m HERE for the final,” it says woefully.

 “Didn’t you check your grades, posted religiously online each week with an e-mail sent from me to you telling you that grades have been updated, and those students who are failing should consider dropping the course?” 

“Uh, no.” 

Of course not. 

And yes, I know, this really isn’t very funny at all.  I’m thinking she is a theatre major, and a damned good one, because that look of stunned surprise was just so real.

Professor Student

The first day of class is always a bit stressful. I couldn’t decide what to wear exactly (Is this suit too flashy? Do I have the right cap?). I was worried I wouldn’t find a parking spot, so I left a good 30 minutes earlier than I should have, forcing me to wait in the room by myself. I found a seat, and then tried to figure out what to do with my big winter coat and all my stuff: should I shove it all under the chair? Leave it in the aisle?

People started to walk into the room. I looked around nervously trying to decide which person was my instructor. Oh, yes, the instructor must be the one with the clipboard even though she looks 12. And it became increasingly obvious which students were joining me in the kindly titled “Advanced Beginner” class and which were there for the Masters class: we were the ones who had the new bathing suits, caps and goggles, and a certain cluelessness about where to sit.

Finally, the charming (but so young!) instructor called us together and swimming class began.

There are only 4 of us in this class and we do make an interesting group. Two of us are middle aged women: we know how to stay above water, and can sort of do a crawl, but not at all well enough to do more than a lap or two without total exhaustion and excess water inhalation. One of the men is also middle aged: he has a bit more experience but is trying to wean himself off the fins and kick board. And then there is the younger guy—though not as young as the 12-year-old looking instructor. He claimed, oh so modestly, to have little experience in swimming, but when the instructor asked us to show us how/if we could swim a lap, he powered easily and quickly. It took me a jealous minute or two to realize that he held his breadth the entire time, which is not exactly sustainable lap swimming. But he became my pacer: the guy I was going to learn to beat. By the end of the three weeks, by golly, I was going to lap him.

Because of this overarching goal of mine, the instructor asked me several times to slow it down so she could look at my form—and correct it.

So it seems that my motivation as a student was, and is, and will always be, competition. Undoubtedly I transmit that to my students in some way, although I tell them that it’s not a competition, and I use rubrics to prove to them that I’m grading based on very specific criteria (though admittedly, one criterion is the indefinable “wow factor”). I know I attract competitive students (I’m the honors advisor, too, so I’m basically surrounded by them), but I also have many mellow students who continue to take my classes, and who are not at all interested in the “A”.

Maybe they just like learning to swim with me?

Our swimming instructor is actually quite good: she learned our names easily (I know, there are only 4 of us, but I don’t remember the name of that youngish guy, and no I wasn’t distracted by his shirtlessness at all); she gave us concrete feedback on the way we kicked, stroked, held our heads. I thanked her at the end of the session, hopefully not in a kiss assy sort of way (not that she’s actually grading us or anything). By the end of the first hour I felt like I had worked out, and the tight quads and calves that I felt when I crawled out of bed the next morning are definitely going to make running the upcoming Xmas 5K challenging.

I’m a little envious of this young instructor, teaching a class of students who are highly motivated and who really want to learn to swim. It’s the last week of the quarter here at Ivory Coast Community College, and it’s been a week of excuses, but also a week of triumphs, as students practically yell “Aha! I think I’ve got it!” But most, admittedly, didn’t take my required classes because they really wanted to learn something new. I had to implant that desire into them or drag it out of them, depending on your teaching philosophy, which is, as most of you know, exhausting.

I’m so looking forward to being the student over the next few weeks: I will gladly take off the professorial glasses and neck scarves, put on my swimming beanie (and yes, you can wear such a thing backwards), and enjoy being in charge of only my own learning.

Academic Job Search: Cover Letter Humor

Our humble community college, with a regional airport that only recently opened a bar in the post-screening area, is planning to once again hire a slew of new tenure track faculty–including at least one, maybe two,  English positions.  Since the number of full timers in our department has remained fairly stagnant in the last decade despite losing several faculty members to retirement, advancement, and greener pastures, it seems likely that I’ll once again get to review the hundreds of applications, and giggle over the various non-intentional cover letter mishaps. 

But it seems only fair to at least try to get the word out ahead of time so that perhaps maybe, just maybe, I’ll be giggling less this time around.  Consider this the son of the Times Higher Education annual list of “exam howlers“–academic job search cover letter edition.  But, maybe not as funny.

  1. “Hello! How are you?”   (Just peachy! Next….)
  2. “I’ve always wanted to live on the coast…”  (We are hours from the coast, however.)
  3. “I’m excited about the opportunity to teach at Ivory Coast Community College…” (Uh, that’s not us)
  4. “I look forward to teaching courses in “Gobbly Gook Theoretical Deconstruction Post Colonial Mixed Genres”  (Really? To lower division students? At a college where  you are being asked to teach mostly composition and introductory literature courses?)
  5. “I am willing to teach remedial English….”   (Willing? How sweet of you. Remedial? Read up on the lingo.)
  6. “I am a people person, which, I believe will help me relate to young, working class junior college students. My experiences working with young people include the following: I was a star basketball player in high school, I tend bar on the weekends, and also teach Yoga to children at the Boys and Girls Club.”  (How very interesting….next…)
  7. “Thanks so much for reading my file!!!” (That third exclamation point sold me. Really!)
  8. “I am a devoted MLA member.”  (I, too,  am hopelessly devoted to the MLA: Sing it, Olivia!)