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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The turd in the tureen--and a little bit of sweetness and sunshine

I confess that I get systemically annoyed with several of my colleagues who are gadflies--or, in some cases, metaphoric bomb throwers, the kind of people who like to say something explosive and watch the sparks fly--but I've discovered the issue where I might well turn into one of them, or, as I just said, I may become the turd in the tureen. The issue arises from the provision in our new contract that in some way, in lieu of teaching a fifth course, we in the English department need to clearly demonstrate to the administration that we're doing an equivalent course load. We are, we know we are--I'm not going to get into that argument here--but the ideas that have been floated regarding things we might do in order to put in those extra hours are absolutely not going to fly with me, and I will fight tooth and nail--and not stop fighting--to make sure what we do works for us and for our students.

Specifically, among the ideas that have been floated is that we could be conversation partners with the students who are in the pre-college ESL program (as I've been doing this semester), or that we could advise liberal arts students--and I refuse to consider such options, for two reasons. The first is that those are things for which we have always gotten promotion credit: they are service to the college, not our specific students, and if those become something that is required of us, it has just become much harder for English department faculty to get promoted, as things that other people get credit for doing, we won't. The second is that the whole point is we are supposed to have the same number of contact hours as our colleagues: that means contact with our students. Our students, not the general student body.

The tricky part is going to be to find a way to make sure A) we are serving our students in a way that actually helps them (and, incidentally, alleviates our paper-grading load), B) that how we do that is flexible enough that different professors can determine how best to go about it and C) that whatever we do is documented well enough to satisfy the administration.

As I write this, Paul is at his computer, writing up an e-mail to Kristin about how he does conferencing--and why it's important for him to be able to do his conferencing in two big chunks rather than in little bits throughout the semester. However, some professors may prefer to meet with students in a way that is spread out more evenly through the semester. But the point is, we meet with our students. We conference with them. The language in every contract up to this point has been that we have conference hours that are not scheduled but are nevertheless kept: what is now required is that we at least prove that we're keeping them.

I have to say, too, that I'm relatively pissed off by Bruce that he simply appointed one of his favorite faculty members to chair the committee--I don't necessarily have a problem with his choice, but I think at least P&B should have been involved in that decision--and he has determined by fiat who will be on the committee itself. I can't bitch too much about that, as I'm one of those people: those of us who worked up the rationale about why we need to keep our current work load are on the committee, plus one other faculty member who has been deeply involved in union issues.

We'll be meeting in June, and I'm not entirely thrilled about that, but this is too important to whine about too much. I'll give up my June--and more, if need be--to make sure we don't get fucked on this one. My little bulldog teeth are clamped onto this issue, and I ain't letting go.

Cleansing breath.

On a much different level--getting to the sweetness and sunshine part of this post's title--I had a lovely meeting with a student from the Nature in Lit class today. I don't think I've talked about him, or not much, but I truly see him as a success story. When the semester started, I'd have taken even money that he wouldn't make it to the end. He looked so dubious and borderline hostile about everything I said--but I've come to know that this is simply his expression when he's thinking hard, trying to make connections. He does challenge but in the best way: he is challenging in order to learn, genuinely working to understand. I remember the first time he smiled in class, and he has the sweetest, most lovely smile I've seen on a young man in a long time. I can't quite categorize his type: he's not exactly preppy, but he's definitely not a stereotypical Lawn Guyland "lunkhead" (and thank you, Paul, for the term)--and he's really learning this semester. Going over his paper ideas with him was great. When I pointed out to missing connections, or places where the ideas didn't quite add up, he saw what I meant, and I could hear the mental motors revving as he worked to reach the ideas he has almost but not quite nailed down. I'm truly looking forward to reading his final paper.

At the end of our conference, he expressed his surprise that no one else had shown up--but I wasn't surprised in the least. I said, "Well, it's early yet; someone might still show--but I doubt it." He laughed, but he also told me that the session had been very helpful.

I find it beautiful, there is no other word, beautiful to watch a young mind suddenly start to get a sense of the power of ideas, the difficult and rewarding work of finding something big and expressing it clearly. I'm not doing any of that very well at the moment, I feel--the language I'm using isn't quite capturing what it is I see happening in students when they suddenly latch on, but it's a lot like the coming of spring. Everything looks grey and lifeless--and then there is a little hint of life, and a little more, and suddenly everything is filled to overflowing with aliveness. Sometimes, in the best of cases, it happens in student minds, and when it does, it's literally awesome. I feel honored to witness it.

And that's essentially the note I'd like to leave on for tonight. I have collected all the papers from 102 students, but I won't start reading them until I'm absolutely sure no one wants comments. No one asked for them in writing, but they may have forgotten. I could simply tell them that it's too late to suddenly say, "Oh, yeah, and could you give me comments?" but if they want the comments, I want to give them. On the other hand, I really don't want to have to go back to re-read a paper I've already finished in order to provide comments. My sincere hope is that no one forgot, that no one wants comments--because then my life becomes infinitely easier over the next few days. I got through a couple of year-end evaluations today, too, and may get another done before I leave today. I'm still waiting for a few, but if I get one more done tonight, I'll be caught up with everything I have in hand, which would be sweet. Whether I'll have the energy to get to tango tonight is an open question, but I hope so. We'll see. And tomorrow is another day.

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