Blasts from the Past

As I gather a stronger following, I want to share with readers some of the posts I am most proud of from the “early” days of my blog (before I was posting at University of Venus, before Blogger began keeping stats for me).

If Not the University, Where?” A very early post where I am still trying to figure out where I belong, if not teaching at a university. There has been much talk (most recently a hysterical video) about how students shouldn’t even bother getting a PhD in English/Humanities. I may have chosen my path naively, but looking back, even on the worst days, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

A Women’s Work in Higher Ed” and “Higher Ed’s Missing Women” Where I examine the effects of an entire generation of women who are off the tenure-track and thus excluded from the ranks of leaders in higher education, essentially silencing their voices in the quest to shape the university in the 21st Century.

Loyalty or Desperation?” When we are off the tenure-track, at what point does our loyalty to an institution become a form of desperation? One of my first University of Venus posts.

Who Will be our Future Teachers?” With the continued vilification of teachers in the media and much of the education reform debate (most recently with New York publishing the value-added scores of teachers), I wonder who is going to become the next generation(s) of K-12 teachers? I think one can start asking, too, who will be our future university professors, as well.

The Resilency of Trees” Possibly the post I am most proud of, if only because the image has stuck with me throughout the past eight months. For any of us who are going out on a limb for what we believe in, this is for you.

Thanks everyone for your support, your feedback, and thanks for reading.

Good Web Week for Me!

I’ve been featured over on EDleadernews.com in their Higher Education section. To quote my brief introduction (that I had no hand in writing):


It isn’t very often that you stumble upon an academic writer whose style captivates wildly and whose content informs greatly.  Such is the case with Lee Skallerup of collegereadywriting.

I’m very flattered, obviously. My recent post over on The University of Venus, “The Tenure-Track Position: No Longer the Brass Ring,” has generated quite a lot of interest. Paired with “How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless,” I seem to have become a sort of role model, at least according to Jo Van Every, a career coach who works with people in higher education.* My career trajectory seems to prove her point that doing what you are passionate about pays off
You can bet I’m going to be blogging about that one.
I teach, I write, I blog, I learn. And I am humbled. Thanks everyone for your continuing support.

*At the request of Sean Cook, founder of Higheredcareercoach.com, I have changed the wording of Jo Van Every’s job description. 

The Personal Is Political – Please Vote

We are well into the political season, gearing up to vote in a short number of days. By now, we are exhausted and probably disgusted by the negative ads and vacuous campaign rhetoric. No matter the collective cynicism we hold now for politics and politicians, please remember to vote. I can’t, and each election cycle that passes me by reminds me of how much I value the opportunity.
My first opportunity to vote was in the 1995 Quebec Referendum. I had just turned 18 that summer. Obviously, I was on the “No” side, the side that was not in favor of Quebec separating. I say obviously for a few reasons. The most important was that my mother’s family is from the same small Quebec town as the then-Prime Minister, Jean Chretien. My great-grandmother taught him English. My grandfather employed some of his younger sibling in his store. He was a hometown hero for our family, and thus there was never any question as to which way I would vote when the time came.
I was at the Unity Rally in downtown Montreal with tens of thousands of other Canadians who had come to show Quebec that they were loved. Three days later, on October 30, we voted. We watched all night as the numbers fluctuated between “Yes” and “No” being in the lead. In the end, Quebec remained a part of Canada by the slimmest of margins, a couple of thousand votes. Voter turnout was over 90%. Our votes, my vote, had clearly made a difference.
I was naïve then. The Unity Rally was a huge point of contention, with major corporations basically giving plane, train, and bus tickets away so people would attend. A large number of ballots in certain ridings were deemed spoiled, ridings where the “No” side was in the lead. Jean Chretien was implicated in what became known as the Sponsorship Scandal, directing huge amounts of Federal money to his supporters and inner-circle members, in the name of unity. Some in the rest of Canada were fed up with Quebec monopolizing federal politics and opposition parties from the Western provinces began to gain real strength; in 1997, the Reform Party became the Official Opposition in Parliament.
The real eye-opening experience for me, however, came a year later when I left to attend a French university in Quebec. Most of my classmates were “sovereignists,” or in favor of Quebec’s independence from Canada. Politics is as much about vilifying the opposing side, and while we were all burnt out from the previous year’s battle and avoided politics as much as possible, it was important that we met, became friends, and earned each other’s respect.  I’ll admit that I had never met and gotten to know a “real” separatist, while many of them told me that I was the first English person they had ever really known. Gradually, the certainty of my “No” vote wasn’t as easy as it had once been.
None of this shook my belief in democracy. Nor did living in California whose state government has lurched to a standstill, unable to pass a budget. I had the privilege of working at an HBCU when President Obama was elected and saw the same feeling of pride and wonder on these young students’ faces, many of whom had voted for the first time. I saw a little of myself in them. It broke my heart to hear so many of them discouraged and disillusioned less than a year after the historic event.
The cynicism and “dirty” politics we witness today is not a reason to give up on democracy and voting, but a reason to invest more fully in the process. I wish I had known more than the simple rhetoric of separatist politics, or been able to see the larger implications of the debate. As a professor, I believe it is part of my job to teach critical thinking, civility, and tolerance to my students, to try and inoculate them against a debilitating feeling of futility. My idealism was shattered; in its place, I rebuilt something much more meaningful and valuable.
I just can’t do anything about it.  Go out and vote.

The Truth About Grading

I finally handed back all of the papers I had today. Last week, it was my developmental writers. This week, it’s my more advanced 200-level writers. They’re all decent writers, so grading becomes less about correcting grammar and more about how they fulfill the requirements of the specific essay assignment. This is much more art than science.

The students had to chose a piece of rhetoric (speech, op-ed, or advertisement) and break down the rhetorical “tricks” the author/speaker/creator used. They were limited to using the six essays we had discussed in class about rhetoric. I had approved their selected piece, seen an outline, and given feedback on their introductions. We had done a number of peer review and self-assessment exercises in class. The peer review questions addressed the exact questions I would be asking when grading, as well as the self-assessment exercise. I felt confident that if the students attended class and took the exercises seriously, they would produce decent essays. 
I was partially right. I neglected to include an assignment checklist, which I give to my developmental writers, wrongly assuming that the 200-level students didn’t need one. Essays are like a house of cards; take away one of the fundamental pieces, and the whole thing collapses. But how badly did it collapse? Was the roof missing or was it just a mess of cards? And what corresponding grade accompanies each unique deficiency?
Take the following example: I have one student whom I particularly get along with. We both lived in Southern California, and he’s tracked me down after class to talk about living in a place so completely different from the one where we currently find ourselves. He comes to class, does all the work, and does it well. He chose a particularly challenging piece of visual rhetoric: an illustration used pre-American Revolution that was intended to garner support for taking up arms against the British. We talked about how it would be a challenging, but possibly rewarding project. 
The end result was well-written and thorough, but poorly organized and neglected to refer to any of the rhetorical tricks we had discussed and they were required to use. So what grade does that earn? Complicating matter is that I like the kid and I know that he has worked hard on the paper. If I give him a C, am I being too harsh, but if I don’t, am I being too generous? It’s hard to compare the papers because each paper did different things well and poorly. If I didn’t know who this student was, what grade would I give the paper? 
I don’t know. I can never know, really. Built into my writing classes are lots of opportunities for feedback directly from me, meaning that submitting papers anonymously is practically impossible. Getting to know my students is my way of a) remembering who they are and b) knowing how best to give them feedback. I might not have the time or freedom to personalize how I deliver the courses I teach, but I do have complete power over how and what I say to my students to help them become better writers. The only way that works is if I get to know them as much as I get to know their writing. 
You could argue that I took the easy way out of the problem; I decided that each student would have an opportunity to revise and resubmit their essays for a new grade. I knew that the aforementioned student would be troubled by the grade that I gave him (he was) and would come to talk to me (he did) with the aim of rewriting and improving what he had done. I knew that all of the students who had worked hard but produced flawed papers would come and see me in order to be able to resubmit their revised papers. I also knew that a poor grade would serve as a wake-up call for the students who weren’t taking me seriously yet. 
Grading is, indeed, an art, but one I take very seriously. The feedback I give to justify that grade is as much an art and no less important. If getting to know my students makes the former job more difficult, so be it. The latter is more meaningful in the long run.

Working Smarter, Not Harder (Take 2)

You can find the first version of the post here.
Why a second draft? You can read about that here.
Growing up, I wasn’t good at a lot of things; I was hopeless with a ball, or worse, a stick and a ball, completely useless as a runner, climber, or any sort of movement on land. But put me in the water, and I was a fish or a dolphin, a clear natural. My mom put me in swimming lessons before I could even walk, and, since then, I had always been told, because swimming seemed to come easily to me, that I was destined for great things. 
When I was fourteen, however, I hit a wall; my times stopped improving and even started to get slower. I tried to push myself in training, swimming until my lungs burned and my muscles failed. I was in the pool at 5:30 AM every day for two hours, back again in the evenings for three more. And yet, at the end of every race, I would look up and see a time that was stagnant.
I continued swimming competitively until I was nineteen. Five years is a long time to kill yourself in the water for little gain. I couldn’t understand why my times weren’t improving. Was it because I had hit puberty and my body was no longer “built” for swimming? This was a time before Dara Torres, and female swimmers were believed to peak at fourteen or fifteen. Most girls quit, but I stubbornly stuck with it. Perhaps “greatness” was no longer in the cards, but I was going to get a best time, even if it killed me. Day in and day out, I lifted weights and worked out in the pool. It didn’t kill me, but it did kill my knees and shoulders. Although I had planned to swim in college, after one semester, my body and spirit had had enough. It was too hard to balance the demands of college and swimming. I quit and focused instead on my education. 
Looking back now, I may have worked hard in the pool, but I didn’t take very good care of myself outside of the pool. My eating habits were atrocious, and my sleeping habits weren’t very much better. I would kill myself in the pool and leave my body little to no support in the recovery. It was no coincidence that not only did I hit puberty at fourteen, but my parents also got divorced. Everyday, I swam distracted; swimming was easy and an escape for me, so my mind was never really focused at the task at hand. It wasn’t until I began training as a Master’s swimmer that I realized how important that focus is.
Five years and twenty pounds later, I began to train again. I was in the middled of my PhD, teaching college students, and well on my way to fulfilling my goal of becoming a university professor. Something was still missing, however. I missed the water, the camaraderie, and the physical challenge that swimming provided. I joined a Master’s swim team. We only trained an hour a day, five days a week. Many weeks, I couldn’t even make all five practices. It felt so good to be in the water again. My shoulders weren’t an issue anymore. And while my lungs still burned and my muscles just about failed at the end of a workout, I could finally see the effort paying off. Despite my extra weight and age, on top of the severely reduced training time, at the end of the year, my times were almost as fast as they were when I had left competitive swimming.
My coaches preached swimming and training smarter, not harder. We had a limited amount of time to train, so every moment had to be as close to excellence as possible. Every stroke, every turn, every push off the wall should be nearly perfect. This took an incredible amount of mental discipline, someting I didn’t have when I was swimming as a teen. It was doubly important for me because if I let up my concentration on my stroke, my shoulders would start to complain loudly. I started to understand how just simply mindlessly going through the motions, no matter how much effort I had put into those motions, had lead me to peak at such an early age.
Now that I am university instructor, when I teach writing, I try to get my students to understand that effort is important, but they need to work hard at doing the right things and doing things right. It doesn’t necessarily make the work any easier, but it does make the work more meaningful and rewarding.

Practicing What I Preach

In my developmental writing class, the students just turned in their narrative essay assignment. The topic was to describe an event in their lives that shaped their attitude towards school or education. Initially, I asked them to write on the topic as a “free write” during the first ten minutes of class. When I handed it back to them, I congratulated them on having written a first draft of their essay.

We read other narrative essays, talked about pacing and organization, making sure your story has a point, as well as including vivid details, or showing instead of telling. We did outlines, different peer review exercises, as well as turning it into a more familiar looking grammar exercise (pressing enter at the end of every sentence). The assignment was only 750 words long, which most students cleared without problem. I saw students beginning to gain confidence in their own ideas and their own writing. 
And then came time to grade them. It was frustrating for me to go through the papers that I knew the student had worked so hard on but still came up short. How do I give feedback on these papers while making sure that the students didn’t get discouraged or give out, without it sounding like empty encouragement? It inspired me to write my latest blog post on working smarter, not harder, but it also gave me an idea on how to let the kids know that all writing can be improved, as well as putting into practice (again) their critical reading skills. 
I printed out copies of my blog post and after I had handed back the students their essays, I passed them out and told the students to have at my writing. They read the essays by themselves, but paired off to talk about how I could improve the essay. They spent almost 30 minutes tearing my writing a new one. I was filled with incredible pride when my words were coming back to me, directed at my own work; they had really got it. 
My conclusion was too abrupt. I was missing important pieces of information (who was Dara Torres? When did you decide to be a teacher? When did you start swimming? What does swimming smarter even mean?), as well as jumping to far forward in time (you told me that I couldn’t do that!). I had sentence fragments, muddled syntax (although they didn’t call it that), and missing words. They looked at the story as a whole, as well as the individual word choices (you use the same word a lot) and grammar issues. 
The students seemed to really enjoy it. It helped that I sat there with a smile on my face the entire time. All it took was for that first student to speak up and offer their (tentative) advice and for me to acknowledge and accept it. I tried to show them that all writing can be improved and that feedback isn’t personal, it’s made in order to make your writing better. The message, found in the post itself, is that we all need to find a way to channel our effort in order to get the best results. 
Writing has always come easy for me, but it can always be better. For my students, here is the end result of their hard work on my writing. 

Lessons in Working Smarter, not Harder

Growing up, I wasn’t good at a lot of things; I was hopeless with a ball, or worse, a stick and a ball, completely useless as a runner, climber, or any sort of movement on land. But put me in the water, and I was a fish. A dolphin. A natural. I had always been told that I was destined for great things as a swimmer. When I was fourteen, however, I hit a wall; my times stopped improving and even started to  get slower. I tried to push myself in training, swimming until my lungs burned and my muscles failed. I was in the pool at 5:30 AM every day for two hours, back again in the evenings for three more. And yet, at the end of every race, I would look up and see a time that was stagnant.

I continued swimming competitively until I was nineteen. Five years is a long time to kill yourself in the water for little gain. I couldn’t understand why my times weren’t improving. Was it because I had hit puberty and my body was no longer “built” for swimming? This was a time before Dara Torres, and female swimmers were believed to peak at fourteen or fifteen. Most girls quit. But I stubbornly stuck with it. Perhaps “greatness” was not longer in the cards, but I was going to get a best time, even if it killed me. Day in and day out, I lifted weights and worked out in the pool. It didn’t kill me, but it did kill my knees and shoulders. Although I had planned to swim in college, after one semester, my body and spirit had had enough. I quit.

Looking back, I may have worked hard in the pool, but I didn’t take very good care of myself outside of the pool. My eating habits were atrocious, and my sleeping habits weren’t very much better. I would kill myself in the pool and leave my body little to no support in the recovery. It was also no coincidence that not only did puberty hit at fourteen, but my parents’ divorce as well. Everyday, I swam distracted; swimming was easy and an escape for me, so my mind was never really focused at the task at hand. It wasn’t until I began training as a Master’s swimmer that I realized how important that focus is.

Five years and twenty pounds later, I began to train again. I missed the water, the camaraderie, and the physical challenge. I joined a Master’s swim team. We only trained an hour a day, five days a week. Many weeks, I couldn’t even make all five practices. It felt so good to be in the water again. My shoulders weren’t an issue anymore. And while my lungs still burned and my muscles just about failed at the end of a workout, I could finally see the effort paying off. Despite my extra weight and age, on top of the severely reduced training time, at the end of the year, my times were almost as fast as they were when I had left competitive swimming.

My coaches preached swimming and training smarter, not harder. We had a limited amount of time to train, so every moment had to be as close to excellence as possible. Every stroke, every turn, every push off the wall should be nearly perfect. This took an incredible amount of mental discipline, someting I didn’t have when I was swimming as a teen. It was doubly important for me because if I let up my concentration on my stroke, my shoulders would start to complain loudly. I started to understand how just simply mindlessly going through the motions, no matter how much effort I had put into those motions, had lead me to peak at such an early age.

When I teach writing, I try to get my students to understand that effort is important, but they need to work hard at doing the right things and doing things right. It doesn’t necessarily make the work any easier, but it does make the work more meaningful and rewarding.

Teaching as Coaching

When I was young, my dream was to become a lifeguard. I also wanted to be in a rock band and be a marine biologist, but lifeguarding was a real, tangible goal with a clear path that could be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. Also, I didn’t know any rock stars or marine biologists personally, but I was in awe of the lifeguards who coached and taught me every summer. That dream came true; at 16, I was lifeguarding, coaching swim team and water polo, and teaching swimming lessons. I did that for four summers, as well as coaching beginner swimmers part-time over the winters. I loved every minute of it. Over the years, even as I turned away from swimming as a full-time occupation/obsession, I always seemed to come back to coaching.

I see a lot of similarities between what I used to do as a coach and what I now do as a writing instructor. I’ve written before about how writing is a lot like sports in that you need to practice the basics, but I see my role as a coach rather than how we traditionally understand the role of a teacher. 
With beginner swimmers, who were always my favorite to coach, you spend a lot of time building skills through short instruction followed by putting it into immediate practice. Especially with my developmental writers, they need to immediately put into practice, and in as many ways as possible, the skills or concepts they are learning. As a coach, it was easy to show swimmers how the drills we were relentlessly practicing fit into when they swam regularly. My students grumble, but understand that the grammar drills or writing exercises they are forced to do reinforce the lessons they need to know when they write a paper.

When you coach, much of the hard work (for you) takes place before and after practice. You plan the season, develop your long-term work-out strategy, write out individual practices, and modify those plans as the season progresses while observing how the athletes are doing within the program. During practice, you implement the plan, paying close attention to what is happening, adding feedback when necessary. Especially for a sport like swimming, the coach doesn’t seem to be doing much while you are killing yourself in the water.

In many ways, teaching often looks the same. You teach a brief lesson, based on the larger goals and aims of the class that you prepared in advance, and then let the students practice or work on their own/in small groups. You get their work at the end of the class, bringing it with you outside of class to evaluate it. Sometimes, this leads you to modify your next lesson. You are always listening and watching as they work in class, offering feedback, encouragement, or direction as needed. But students often don’t see all of the work you do as a teacher outside of class, or even the very subtle work you are doing in class while they kill themselves doing whatever assignment you have given them.

In sports, the athlete knows that there will be a game day or competition where the hard work will pay off. Often, students don’t connect the work they are doing in class with their own game day: the test(s) or essay(s) they will inevitable have to write. I struggle all the time as a teacher in a way that I never did as a coach: how to make my students understand the big picture that informs and drives everything they do in the classroom. My swimmers understood that there was a swim meet, a goal time, a cut or place that they were aiming to achieve. Swimming is an easy sport to drift off and fall into autopilot, but they always knew when the next competition was taking place, leading to a focus on the task at hand. My students complain about the work, forgetting that there will be a test or an essay, and what we are doing in class will be important when “game time” comes around.

But I think one of the most important lessons I’ve taken from coaching into teaching is that I can’t do the work for my students. There were always a few swimmers in the pool who would go through the motions without much thought or effort. They didn’t take care of themselves outside of the pool, and that reflected in their performance. They were swimming out of habit, I guess, or because their friends were all on the team, too. I’ve always coached on teams that if you showed up to practice, you’d get to swim. But those swimmers’ times would never improve, or would get slower. You can yell, cajole, remind, nag, bribe, and every and any other motivational technique, but at the end of the day, only the individual swimmer can decide if they are going to do the work, take it seriously, and see the results.

My students are the same. They come to class, but they’re not really present. They do the work, but put little effort in it. School in general, or perhaps my course in particular, falls low on the list of their priorities. A good teacher finds a way to inspire everyone, I know, but sometimes, that bad grade, the explanation of how the class will benefit them in college and beyond, the engaging and relevant exercises you’ve painstakingly developed do nothing to shake certain students out of their complacency. I can’t write their papers for them. I can just be there for them when they are ready to do better.

Michael Vick is an interesting study in this phenomenon. He has recently come out and said that when he was the starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, he was lazy and only did the minimum because it was “good enough.” In an interview with his old coach, he admitted that he didn’t try and lied, not to mention distracted; football wasn’t his first priority. But now, after a stint in jail, he’s become a student of the game, becoming a more effective quarterback at an age where many are beginning a steep decline. The coaches indeed have made a difference, but so too has the individual’s situation and dedication to the task at hand.

In sport and in school, you have to be willing to do the work and do the work to the best of your abilities. In sports and in school, I’m here to help.