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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Week one: complete. Fifteen to go.

Very interesting that the two sections of 101 almost did a complete role reversal today. Both classes actually went pretty well, but in the first section, a good 80% of the students completely missed the point of the essay they'd read, a piece of old gold entitled "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words," by Paul Roberts--but we got into a pretty good discussion about how errors in reading happen, and what "too much information" means (it actually means, "I got distracted and bored"), and why we were reading the piece in the first place. The second section was much better: everyone who'd been there on Tuesday and who had done the reading absolutely got it--and got some excellent points within the overall argument Roberts makes. Terrific discussion again.

There were four students in the earlier group who hadn't been there on Tuesday: two were newly registered, two had been AWOL. Three new faces in the second section: one AWOL, two newly registered. In each class, I was delighted that one of the new faces belongs to a student who seems very intelligent and right on the ball. And in both classes, today revealed some pretty good potential for intellectual wattage in the room.

All in all, the week is ending on a very positive note.

I'll get back to the positive note in a minute, but I also want to think a bit about the meeting that started the day. It was a bit of a bumpy meeting: we'd confidently chosen the date believing no one would have any meetings that day--and it turns out several key members had meetings they couldn't miss; one is home ill (my dear Kristin: she's having a rough time); one was dealing with a rather epic crisis involving one of his students (a long and truly horrific story: the student is in a situation in which she's afraid she may become a victim of an "honor" killing and who turned to my colleague in terror and desperation); two could only be there for half the meeting.... And on top of all that, we didn't really accomplish much, except to realize that we have a lot of "meta" thinking to do before we can get into the nuts and bolts. One particularly unhappy moment was when the chair of the committee reported on her meetings with some of the powers-that-be over the summer. Essentially we were told that, despite the ostensible pedagogic purpose of the seminar hours, which is to help our own students become better writers, in fact, we have to "serve a larger cohort." In other words, Paul's hours in conference with his own students, for example, will not be considered appropriate for seminar hours. Word was, we can do that if we want--we can fight the demand that we "serve a larger cohort--but if we do, in our next contract, we'll be teaching a 5/5 load, period. I imagine the only way around that is to stage a complete and total coup, eliminate the entire Board of Trustees, half the administration, and a good number of people on the state level, and replace them with people who actually give a rat's ass about education. As long as we're dealing with the current gang of idiots, nothing, nothing, nothing matters but numbers.

But that raised the question of what defines success. The contract language doesn't say anything about assessing our results, or what we're actually being held accountable to do (other than put in time in the particular areas stipulated). The one piece of good news was that we can spread the hours out evenly over the semester or do them in several more intensive chunks, but to accomplish what is still utterly unclear. If we're not helping our students succeed in our individual classes, what the fuck are we doing?

In working to recast this so we didn't all get out the torches and pitchforks and go on a rampage, one of the committee members suggested that we ourselves determine what our specific goals are. I suggested that we consider what we, as professionals in our particular field, have to offer, what our particular strengths are, and use those to determine our goals. In a way, it seems we are being held solely accountable for "retention and persistence" among students who are general liberal arts majors--the vast majority of the students at NCC, in fact. The subtext seemed to be that, if enrollment numbers go down, it's the English department's fault because we're not teaching a 5/5 load--though how that logic works is beyond me. (What the "logic" really is, is that the college would save money through making us work 5/5--more students to fewer faculty--and that would make up for the financial shortfall we experience when students drop out or don't enroll in the first place.)

Jesus, what a goat fuck. Those of us on the committee are working like mad to try to turn our being press-ganged into this kind of "service" into something we can find useful and feel good about, but right at the moment, it's just a horrific morass of conflicting goals, agendas, requirements, and desires.

I do, however, love some of my colleagues: these people are wicked smart and articulate as all hell. (Oh, side note: fascinating little piece of gossip. My buddy Sara, who runs Women's Studies, has a mole in the Honors office, and the new Honors coordinator apparently was bitching that English faculty feel compelled to "use their vocabulary." It seems we are facile with language that he finds daunting, and he thinks we're showing off or trying to make him feel stupid. No, Honey, that's just how we talk: we're word people.)

I had to take a quick break there and jot down some notes: that comment started a train of thought that I realized might be useful for the upcoming intellectual jam-session with my colleagues from Bio and Psych. That is, I know, a radical shift of gears, but maybe that will lead me back to a truly positive frame on the day. We have a hell of a challenge in front of us in terms of the seminar hours thing, but we've got some damned fine minds on the task, and I bet we can figure out a way to make it work--or at least work well enough that we can live with it and, please god, satisfy the administration so they don't shove a fifth course at us. And no matter what happens, I work with amazingly cool people and get to spend my time thinking about stuff that I truly, deeply care about and find fascinating. It can get incredibly messy and frequently is brutally stressful, but I am beyond grateful that this is how I make my living. Beats hell out of 9-5 doing scut work.

And on that happy note--no really, it is happy--I will leave here and turn my attention to the rest of my life, which is also rewarding and by which I am truly blessed.

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