Monday, June 04, 2012

Academics behaving badly

In that last RBOC I mentioned how angry I've been lately - mostly at other academics. Experiencing this anger has made me wonder why I feel so annoyed by others, particularly when the things they are doing that I'm finding annoying are certainly understandable and forgivable.

From ardenswayoflife flickr stream
Then I realized that some of that anger is tied to the frustration of continually applying for permanent positions and continually being rejected from them. It's not so much the behaviours that are annoying me as the fact that the people exhibiting these behaviours have the kind of job security I wish I had and somehow it feels like their misdemeanours are out of line with their privileged position.

I'll let you decide if I'm out of line here - three examples:

ONE  I went to a keynote address at the conference I attended last week on reforming doctoral education where I found myself increasingly confused and then angry with the speaker. The session was to be a little over an hour long and at the 45 minute mark, she had yet to address the topic of the talk. The beginning of the talk rambled on about digital humanities and its connection to doctoral education was never made clear. Then she rushed through the primary claims she was making and entirely skipped over many potential solutions.

The one suggestion that she did give was that if we shortened the time to completion for doctoral students, we would have fewer sessionals. ?!  I think she was trying to make the point that fewer of those sessionals would be ABD, but getting them through faster isn't going to translate to them going anywhere - you'll just replace ABD sessionals with PhD holding sessionals. There's no jobs for them to be moving to.

I found myself angered at the simplicity of thinking behind this one suggestion and the poor organization of the talk which meant there was nothing substantial presented regarding changes to doctoral education. There was to be a short Q&A, and maybe she addressed these things then, but I was trying to get to a different keynote and I left.

TWO  Given how angered I was, I had high hopes for the next keynote which was to be on cinema, images and geography; at least, according to the title and abstract it should have been. It instead seemed to be mostly about medieval religious beliefs with a very short connection to a contemporary film at the end. The presenter had no visuals to supplement her soft-spoken voice and got lost in her notes three times - enough so that the audience started to murmur as she rifled through them. I found myself alternately bored and angered that the presenter was doing nothing to try to engage me as an audience member.

THREE  I get an email from a colleague from another department last week asking to meet for coffee. I have two students in my class that she knows and we might want to chat about them. I immediately suspect who these students are but I think it may be a talk about academic integrity because both have skirted the boundaries of what's proper and I've had to explain it to them.

No. It's about how these young men, both members of a visible minority, have had it rough trying to learn as ESL students and how we should not hold them to the same standards as our Canadian-born students. Because, you know, she was concerned that I might not be appropriately sensitive to the needs of ESL students.

When I told her I'd worked for one of the immigrant aid societies in town, she was shocked, stating that I certainly must know more about this population than she does from just encountering two members of it. Yes. I would. And I find it deeply insulting for her to assume that I do not know or am insensitive to the struggles of these two students (who are just two of a class of ESL students from a number of cultures). I also have difficulty agreeing with a change in standards just because of a student's position, but I didn't enter into that conversation because of the power relationship between us.

And that brings me to my anger. You see, the connection between all of these incidents is that each of these people is Associate or Full Professor somewhere. They are paid a decent salary and do not have to constantly worry about whether/how much they will work next semester. They are paid to research instead of trying to squeeze it into the gaps in a heavy teaching schedule.

The first two, having the support for their original research provided by their institution, as well as their costs for the conference as plenary speakers provided by the conference, phoned in their presentations. They did not practice them. They did not polish them. They did not attend to their audience. I can't help but read that as a kind of arrogance; they couldn't be bothered to worry about whether the audience was engaged or interested - they were invited speakers so they could do whatever they wanted in their presentation (including not planning it properly).

As a contractual sessional instructor, I don't have the luxury of phoning in a conference presentation. Anything less than my best could result in a lost interview if one of my future interviewees is in the audience. (Heck, even my best might still result in that loss, but that's something I have no control over.) I also squeeze my research and presentation preparation in between a very heavy teaching schedule, which means if I want to go to a conference, I'm putting in lots of hours on weekends and evenings.

I also thought it a bit arrogant to think that I needed to be educated on how to teach students with sensitivity. While I do realize there was no way for that professor to know who I am and what kind of teacher I am, she did make assumptions in asking to meet. And then she asked me to change my classroom practice.

Lowering our standards is absolutely not acceptable. I realize these students are struggling to write in English and that the university does not have great support for ESL students. But if I send them out into the world unable to write with our school's degree in hand, I cheapen that degree for everyone else. A different standard, yes, I can understand. I often accept work from ESL students that has non-conventional phrasing or expressions that from English speakers I might correct and question. I view their idiosyncratic use of language as evidence of that writer's voice, which emerges from their experiences as ESL learners. But it still needs to make sense to a reader, even if it doesn't always fulfill expectations regarding conventional ways of writing. But suggesting they should not be held to the same standards suggests that I robotically apply the rules of English grammar to all writing. Me. A writing teacher. From someone who is not a writing teacher.

So that's why I'm so pissed. I'm realizing that I'm being held to as high (or higher) standard than these people, that I'm just as good at presenting or teaching as they (perhaps better in the case of the presenters) and yet I have no job security and work more than they do for less money. Wouldn't you be a bit pissed too?

Thursday, May 31, 2012


Two months without posting. That's a probably a record. There are reasons, but they're mostly dull and slightly depressing. In other news, however:
  • I realized during my run today that I will need new shoes soon. This does not fill me with the same happiness at acquiring a shiny new pair of runners that it used to. Mostly it just feels like one more thing that I need to find time to do. I sigh at the thought.
  • I also am becoming increasingly frustrated with my phone and wanting to replace it. But that's just one more thing to go shopping for.
  • I'm also really angry these days. It might be one of those stages of grief, though grief for what, I'm not sure. But I find myself increasingly annoyed at other people. Though, come to think of it, I've mostly been annoyed at other academics.
  • Four conferences in 10 weeks. That might be why I'm annoyed and angry. 
  • Then again, only three of those conferences required papers presented and the panels I was on were good (well, except for the one where I was the only presenter who showed up; then again, it was obviously fantastic because the presenter was so awesome!) 
  • The fourth only required administrative/organizational work and a roundtable participation. 
  • Three more weeks of spring term. I cannot wait for the end. Then again, the next three weeks will be the busiest ones, and I'm a little worried about how I'll keep up with the marking and prep.
  • I won't if I keep blogging, now, will I?
May it be sooner than July when you next hear from me.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Learning Space/Teaching Space

This spring, I will teach for the first time at the same university where I did my undergraduate work (Big U). I'm sure other people have made this transition before; I actually have as well. But it got me thinking about the difference between learning spaces and teaching spaces.

I actually took one class at the university I currently work at (Little U) and had it accepted as transfer credit in my BSc program, so I'd been on campus before I was hired to work there. But it was still a bit of a shock to find myself teaching in the very same room that I had taken that one solitary class.

This room in Little U was very distinctive in that it had a pillar right in the middle of it. As a student, I never wanted to be behind that pillar because you were always shifting trying to see around it to the front of the class and the board. As an instructor, I also disliked that pillar because if I moved around at the front of the class, students at the back would pop in and out of my line of sight as I moved.

It was odd that I taught in that very room in my first semester there, and nine semesters later, I have yet to be scheduled back into that room.

I find myself wondering what it will be like teaching at Big U; I just found out which room my class will be held in, and it's one that I sat in as a student for multiple classes. In the same room, I had a physical anthropology class (which was my inspiration for pursuing a biology degree in the first place), an introductory psychology class (not the one where I first met my current husband; we actually were together in that weird pillar-room class at the other school), and seventeenth-century literature (I don't remember much about that class, but I loved the prof).

As you can see from my asides, there are a lot of memories of being a student in that classroom, including sitting in it with the rest of my classmates as we waited to begin our final exam for psychology only to find out as the time ticked away and no one showed up that the prof had slept in. The exam was delayed by almost an hour and a half, and I can you tell that by then, many of us were just big balls of nerves. I ended up with a good grade, but I suspect that was probably more a result of the professor feeling guilty than me being particularly brilliant.

As a teacher, I don't think the spaces that I teach in develop as many strong memories. There is one room at my current university that when I was assigned it the second time, I requested a room change because I remembered how uncomfortable I was in it and didn't want to subject the students to that as well. (The back wall of the room was all mirror and I was terribly distracted by my own image moving back and forth as I lectured; I imagined the students would be too for their presentations, hence the request for the room change.)

But when I think of other institutions I've taught in, I can barely remember the rooms. There's only one that really stands out, and that's not because of the room as much as the previous occupants, or at least one of them, because I'd nearly gag walking up to the front of the room because of the terrible body odour that lingered there for the first few minutes of our class. But that has little to do with the room itself (though I remember that room being very sunny, which helped offset the unpleasantness of the small).

So I find myself wondering what this room in which I have so many student memories will feel like as I walk into it as a teacher. Will those student memories impinge? Will I form more teacher memories about this space because of so many existing student memories? Or will I be unable to remember the space as a teacher and only retain the student memories? I suppose I'll just have to wait for the spring term to see.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Do you ever get used to this?

This week has been tough. It's only Wednesday and I've had four rejections already. Two job applications, a funding application, and an article.

At least they're varied...

While I've certainly gotten better at taking the disappointment of rejection over the years, they still sting, and when they come in clusters like this, they make me afraid to open my email or look in the mailbox because I just don't know how many more I can take.

At least when they're spread out, I'm bummed out for a while but then the quotidian intrudes and I forget, at least until the next one. But when they cluster like this, there's no recovery time between them and I find myself doubting the advisability of all kinds of things I'd otherwise never question.

So I'm wondering, does it get easier? Or do I just look forward to periods of disappointment interspersed with periods of normalcy? Just thinking I should prepare myself or something...

Sunday, March 04, 2012

If only my students had the problems I'm having

Source: CAPL Creative Commons License
This has been the week of serious editing to convert chapter and article length pieces of writing into conference length. And, boy, has it been hard.

Both conference papers are presentations of large bodies of work, which means I've got 20-25 pages that have to be trimmed down to less than 10. That's hard. My students complain it's hard to meet the minimum page requirements on assignments, but right now I wish I had that problem.

Cutting all those words and all that argument (which is, of course, brilliant) is a challenge. Cut too much and suddenly you don't make sense. Cut too little and you have to deliver the paper at machine-gun pace so that both you and your audience are exhausted by the end of it and didn't understand a word.

I think I've done it, but the only way to know for sure after hours upon hours of editing is to stick both in the proverbial desk drawer for a week and then look at them again. Here's hoping a week from now I won't be panicking because they didn't turn out as well as I think!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Advertising-free cities... what a concept

In an entirely unrelated student post discussing the Superbowl advertising and the huge stakes that attain to it (which I'm not linking to since the students have made it a private blog), a student mentioned advertising-free spaces.

Apparently, in 2006, the city of Sao Paulo banned all outdoor advertising. 'Fascinating idea', I thought. Being interested in urban planning in an amateur's kind of fashion and having lived in Sao Paulo many years ago, I was particularly interested in the experiment. I was a child when I lived there, so I don't recall anything particular about advertising, but I do remember being surprised by the density of everything in the city, particularly as it compared to the prairie city that I'd grown up in. But then of course my next thought was, 'I wonder if it lasted?'

It appears it has if The Cranbrook Guardian Blog is to be believed.To me, that's even more interesting. I spent some time virtually wandering the streets of Sao Paulo via Google maps and the city is indeed devoid of advertising, though one can find what appear to be sanctioned murals on some of the spaces.

Tony DeMarco's flickr stream documents some of the changes to the city immediately after removing the billboards. As he says, the city feels cleaner now that so much of the advertising (much of it illegal) has been removed. The only problem of course is that the empty signs are ugly while being less distracting. Today, it seems like many of those empty billboards have been removed.

Looking at DeMarco's flickr stream reminds me a bit of that advertisement that shows all the blank billboards waiting to be filled (I can't find it, but I believe it was for a design school). I've always thought they looked really nice as just white space.... Apparently I have to go to Sao Paulo to see something like that, though.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Classroom Etiquette

Every semester I get an email forwarded to me about classroom etiquette. The bulk of the email is just common sense:
Just a reminder that classrooms should be cleaned up at the end of each class in preparation for the next class.
Please ensure that all desks with their chairs are replaced in the proper rows, any additional equipment being used is returned to its original location and when necessary remove any writing from the chalk or dry erase boards.
I actually don't mind erasing chalkboards as long as it's just a small piece, though when someone covers all 4 (or 6) and then doesn't erase, that gets onerous. And it would be nice if there was actually a mention of not shutting down the computer but logging off instead, since the entire start-up routine for the classroom computers is slow and can often take the bulk of the 10 minutes between classes.

But there's one thing the email doesn't address that I wish it could. I don't see how it could do so politely, but what's bothered me most in my teaching, more so than chalkboards, desks and computers, is lingering odours when I take over a classroom.

There have been at least three semesters over the last nine years where I have entered a classroom that smelled unpleasantly of body odour, at least at the front of the classroom (I don't think it's a coincidence that these classes have also tended to be ones that left chalk unerased on the board.) It usually dissipates after the first 10 or 15 minutes, but those first breaths as I set up for class have sometimes been downright awful.

I don't see much of a solution other than plugging my nose, and I'm not advocating that the semesterly email include a line about personal hygiene, but the contamination problem is just as vexing as erasing four boards of calculus equations. Just sayin'.