This is both a look-back and look-forward kind of post.
I’ve been thinking about 2011 a lot lately, for obvious reasons, but I’ve been surprised by how negative my feelings about 2011 have been, certainly more negative than my experience of 2011.
2011 wasn’t that bad: I was away from my grad institution the entire year; I made steady progress on the diss, I did a lot of baking, I got a kitten, I had a pretty great first semester of teaching, and most importantly, I FINISHED AND DEFENDED MY DAMN DISS!!!
So why, when looking back, did I feel so negatively toward what has clearly been a great year relative to the past several?
I’ve been in something of a funk lately. It’s not post-dissertation/grad school letdown. I’m still ecstatic and enormously proud of myself. I have a PhD, and nobody can take that from me. And I earned that PhD under circumstances and with an advisor that would have caused where most to give up. The problem is that I don’t have a clue about where my career’s going. For the first time ever, actually, I don’t have a plan other than wait for others to decide whether I have a career in this profession.
And I don’t do uncertainty well.
Actually, that’s an understatement. I go out of my way to avoid uncertainty. I don’t date because I can’t handle the uncertainty. Yes, I know that sounds awful, but I bring it up because it shows what kind of uncertainty paralyzes me. I can handle a fair amount of day-to-day uncertainty. I’m not at all rigid or regimented in my daily life. For the most part, I’m confident that I’ll get things done. But what I can’t handle is when things are completely out of my control and when those things have significant consequences for the shape of the rest of my life. In other words, things of utmost importance. Hence, my complete and utter inability to even think about dating. In fact, just typing and thinking about dating has turned on the panic, so I need to stop.
Up to this point, I’ve never panicked about my career. From fifth grade on, I’ve always known what I wanted to do. True, my chosen career changed twice, but each time it changed only once I had something else in mind. And once I made a decision, I did everything I could to make that goal a reality. But now, things are different. There is no next step, other than hoping that the gods of arbitrary smile down on me. But I’m a pessimist, so in practice that means waiting for the inevitable failure.
Fundamentally, I’m not cut out for the academic job market. Mentally, I can’t handle years of temporary gigs, because temporary means not permanent and not advancing the career. And while I’m not sneering at postdocs, ultimately they postpone what matters: getting a tenure-track job and focusing on the goal of getting tenure.
This post is a bit rambly and confused, a bit like my state of mind currently. But there’s a reason I find it so hard to sort out what I feel about academia: I like what I do. I like doing research. Well really, I like writing history, which means I tolerate the gathering of sources. I like writing. I like teaching. I think I do most of those things pretty well. I have distinct points of view about my field, my research, and teaching. In other words, I’m down with the raison d’etre of academia. But everything else? The socially awkward people. The not-so-liberal liberals who pat themselves on the back. The outrageous job market. The expectation that we’re supposed to indenture ourselves to adjunct work on the hopes that a few years down the line we might get a job. Or not. All of that makes me ill.
In fact, writing this post is making me ill. I’m stopping.
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I became Dr. Thefrogprincess, PhD. Will say more later, but for now, I offer this: my defense was everything I wanted graduate school to be. Intellectually rigorous while simultaneously generous and affirming. On both counts, grad school was a fail.
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Tomorrow I do something that, for at least a 9-month stretch between 2009 and 2010, looked impossible.
I defend my dissertation and become a woman with Dr. before her name and PhD after.
It’s pretty fucking amazing.
I have some thoughts about my journey through grad school and what this moment means, thoughts that I was planning to blog about tonight. But I want to do them justice, and right now my mind is too cluttered with teaching prep for Thursday (never fear people, tomorrow is completely teaching free) and with preparing some opening thoughts for the defense.
Suffice it to say, though, that this was the hardest thing I have ever done, not intellectually but in terms of the numerous obstacles that got placed in my way. And since it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I’m uncharacteristically proud of myself for having finished and just generally ecstatic.
Until the doctorate…
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This is not about my laptop ban.
So I’ve now been teaching for almost three months. For the most part, I really like my students. I think they’re smart and funny and, generally, willing to do the work. Whether their smarts actually make it onto the written page is one thing, but I still find myself mulling over what one student said in a review session I held last week. I’d asked them to think about big themes and to make connections, and one of them said something that I think is incredibly perceptive. So what follows is not a rant about how dumb my students are, because they’re not.
That said, what’s going on with them and technology? We hear so much about how these students are of the digital age. They grew up with computers, etc etc. They can tweet. They use facebook, blah blah blah. Well I’ve gotta say: I’m finding no evidence of special technological savvy amongst them.
Now granted, I’m in a different position vis-a-vis my students that most of those doing this kind of commentary. I’m young, only six years older than my oldest students. This means that, when it comes to tech, there isn’t that much of a gap between me and them. I was in college when Facebook came out, and my university was one of the first handful to which it was rolled out. I didn’t have my own computer at home, but my dad bought me a laptop for freshman year. All of this to say that while I did not grow up with computers in the same way that my current students did, they were around enough that there isn’t a significant gap between me and them when it comes to access.
But here’s what I’m finding interesting.
When I send students to the Chicago Manual of Style website, they report back that it was confusing.
They don’t have the foggiest how to find information with a basic internet search.
So problem one: Whatever they’re doing with tech, they don’t know how to use the internet. They don’t know how to find information.
But the real reason I’m writing this post? It’s now becoming increasingly clear that students don’t know how to use word processing programs.
I’m reading papers in which font size shifts within a sentence. Multiple times.
I’m reading papers in which the footnotes are in a different font to the body of the text.
I have students who didn’t know how to insert footnotes into their text.
In other words, somehow students are entering (and leaving) one of the “best,” most elite schools in the country, and they don’t know the basics of making a word-processing program work for them. They are controlled by the whims of Microsoft Word’s default settings.
Now clearly, this is a failing of high school to insist that students learn these skills. It’s probably happening because overambitious parents don’t think their children have time to take a semester-long elective in middle school on basic computing. (It helps to have a mother who was a secretary in a former life.) But I think it’s also happening because we assume that increased contact with and early access to technology equals competence and familiarity with it. And I, for one, am finding that to not be the case.
(And, to be clear, I’m no tech guru. It’s now becoming a running joke in one of my classes that the projector setup will never work when I’m using it. I even got the projector to work and was discussing an image on the screen when it cut out on me mid-sentence.)
So what to do about this? I’m now thinking about it for my classes next semester. I’m certainly not getting paid enough to really care, but at the same time, I do feel like I can’t wonder what’s going on in other people’s classrooms if students in my classroom aren’t being exposed to these things either.
So how do you work on teaching these skills–and if we use the language of transferable skills, these would certainly count–within the context of a history course?
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update: I’m in the weeds, majorly, and should not be writing this blogpost.
update: I love teaching.
update: laptop ban’s working fine. Not a single complaint.
update: My diss is due in mere days, and I should not be writing this blogpost.
So a few weeks ago, a couple of posts went around about rigor in teaching. What is it? What does it look like? Does it involve being a bitch in your demeanor? Can you be fun in your demeanor and still rigorous? And when that conversation happened, I found myself wondering about why I turned out to be more relaxed and more fun in class than I thought I would be. And I wondered for a half a minute if I was just fooling myself when I claimed to be all about rigor.
Yesterday, I found myself laying down the law for the second time in a class where I shouldn’t have to lay down the law. It’s a seminar for majors, not the survey. But alas…
Over the past two class periods, we’ve been discussing this book, a well-written classic work of history. It’s long and narratively (but not theoretically) dense, but I scheduled this accordingly. The first class we discussed this was after fall break; the second class was after a weekend, so that in total, the students had 12 days to work through the book. The first day of discussion, we got sidetracked on a methodology issue, which meant that we only had yesterday’s discussion to lay out the chronology etc. I’d planned to work through the timeline in class…guide them through the narrative thicket of events.
So I’m going about this in class. I’m writing things on the board. And I start to notice a trend. I ask a question about major events from the reading, there’s silence from them, and then I answer the question.
A few times? Okay, it was narratively dense. But this starts to happen every time I ask a question, leading me to think that they had retained none of the material.
So I decide to take a stand. I ask them a question that was intimately tied to the very subject of the course; nay, the title. As in: they didn’t need to do anything more than read the title of the course to realize that this kind of question was fair game AND that they should have noted this information as they were reading. It would be as though this were a class on famines in world history, we read a book about the Irish famine, and I asked when the potato blight started. We’re at that level of basic.
So I asked the question. And nobody could answer me. And I stood in front of the classroom waiting and waiting. Minutes are ticking by. They start doing the very unconvincing paper shuffle. You know, the one where the professor asks a question that nobody knows the answer to, and so you try to deflect the professor’s attention by making a big show of trying to find the answer, but you aren’t actually looking for it? They were doing that…and I could tell they were waiting for me to swoop in with the answer. So I decide that we won’t move on until somebody produces an answer. I give them a clue, and announce that I’ll wait. The clue, which should have guided them towards at least the relevant section, didn’t work. More time passes by, perhaps as many as five more minutes. Still nothing. At this point, I remind them again that I’m not going to be answering this question, so maybe they should turn to the index. (Yes, people, nobody had yet turned to the index.) In total, at least ten minutes of silence went by, maybe as many as fifteen, before somebody produced the answer.
Yeah. One of the nation’s best institutions. Students aren’t retaining information, nor are they producing enough written or marginal notes to get them to the information with any speed.
Me, on the other hand? I’m not playing games.
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So thanks to all of you who commented on my last post about the potential laptop ban that I’m thinking about imposing in my two classes this fall.
I’ve got more to say on the subject.
So first, let me admit that I spent time today reading through Margaret Soltan‘s various posts in which she vigorously argues for laptop bans. So I haven’t exactly done the most unbiased extra reading. That said, through her I found a post Timothy Burke wrote a few years back in which a commenter made the point that laptop bans could be humiliating, i.e. someone confirming that my biggest concern could be an issue. So I take that seriously.
The more I thought about it and the more I thought through the comments many of you made, the more determined I got to impose a laptop ban. And here’s why:
1. I think we can say that students are adults (which is something I wholeheartedly believe, actually, which is why the various inspection and “lids down” schemes feel uncomfortable to me), but I still believe professors have the right, indeed responsibility, to create the kind of classroom environment they believe works best for the students in their class. My job is not to cater to every student’s whim just ’cause: it’s to teach them. (And note: I’m not making an argument for university-wide laptop bans, but each professor knows the kind of classroom environment they’re aiming for.) I’m not banning laptops because I believe I can force everybody to pay attention in class. But there are ways of not paying attention that hurt the student alone and there are ways of not paying attention that are rude to everybody else. And surfing the internet, watching porn, watching music videos, checking your stocks, checking your bank account, and the potential noise and flashing lights inherent to those activities are rude.
2. Tanya points out that it can be good to teach students the appropriate methods of technology use and that technology can be an incredible aid to learning. I agree fully. But I think technology in and of itself is not inherently an aid to learning. Students will only learn more with technology if I, as the professor, incorporate technology or technological methods into my classroom. Not saying I won’t in future, but in the two courses I’m preparing for this upcoming semester, there’s no technology component that requires students to have their laptops. They’d simply be typing notes and getting distracted. Also, it’s just as important for students to learn that there are times when using technology isn’t appropriate.
3. A lot of the stuff I read today, stuff that was both pro- and anti-laptops in the classroom, talked about students looking things up and correcting their professors in class. Well, I’ve got several problems here. First, the time they’re looking things up is time they’re missing the next point I’m making or the next great comment from a colleague. Second, what is the quality of the sources they’re looking up in so short a time? I’ve got nothing against Wikipedia, I use it all the time, but when you’re deploying the facts from it in a history course, it has to be verified with other sources. There’s not time for that kind of research in the 30 seconds they’re trying to trip me up. (Now I know not all students are trying to trip up their professors, but as a woman of color, I don’t want to open that door.) On a related point, I’ve got no problems with students asking questions about what I’m saying or checking what I’m saying, but that needs to be an intentional process of research that they do on their own time and then mention the next class period, or that they get the class to engage in by raising a question. And most importantly, if students spend their time fact-checking, they’re missing the point: that history at the college level is not about a collection of facts. It’s about analysis and critical thinking about change over time based upon a foundation of information. Facts are relatively easily verified outside class; learning to think critically is not.
So for these reasons, I’m going to impose a ban, in all likelihood. The question of disability accommodation is still a big one, and if it came down to it, I might revise my policy over it. But I’m hoping that if there is a student who needs accommodation, an assigned notetaker would do the job. (That I have had experience, as has Dr. Virago, and I found that that could be handled very discreetly.)
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So I’ve got a question for those in my readership who have done more teaching than I: what do you all do about laptops? I’m planning to ban them, but I’m having some difficulty committing to it.
Pro the ban:
1. I’m old school, even though I’m young. I think we all managed to learn just fine taking notes by hand, and I don’t feel like the ability to take notes on a laptop enhances actual learning (as opposed to enhancing the volume of dictation-style notes that don’t correlate to actual learning).
2. I think professors have the right to insist that students pay attention, or at least put on a show of paying attention. And while in theory, checking your email is no different than doing the crossword, I can’t help but think that the internet provides too many opportunities to distract others with your constant typing, the inappropriate laugh, or flashing images.
3. I generally work with the idea that college students are adults (which could be one argument towards letting them use their laptops). The absolute last thing I want to do is walk around the classroom trying to catch people browsing the internet; I don’t want to check the quality of people’s notes. For some reason, it feels a violation of their privacy to demand that I look through their notes. I’d say the same about the “lids up”/”lids down” approaches I’ve seen mentioned on various forums; it just seems like it uses up class time and focus on something I don’t want to deal with. These aren’t kindergarteners.
4. Back to that dictation issue: even those students who are taking notes should learn that notetaking isn’t transcription.
5. I intend to use my laptop (or whatever computer equipment is in the classroom) as needed to show images and clips and the like. Not sure why they need theirs as well.
6. And while I’ve seen many suggest the good uses of laptops and ways to incorporate students’ use of their laptops into your teaching, I can’t help but wonder about that one student who doesn’t have a laptop. Sure, I’m going to be teaching at one of the country’s most elite universities, but that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to have their own laptop.
Con the ban:
1. I’m not really a Luddite.
2. I feel like I could be too young to pull this off. As in, I’m just a year or three shy of the people who grew up almost exclusively with computers and internet.
3. This is the big one. Although my ban would come with the stipulation that students who need special accommodation for disabilities would be able to use laptops if that was the arrangement they made with the disabilities office, I also feel like having a ban could create a situation in which one student gets to use their laptop for the obvious reason: they need special accommodation. Correct me if I’m wrong, those of you more in the know, but it doesn’t quite feel right to have someone’s potentially unseen disability announced so publicly. Also, at my graduate institution, I had a student who had a student take notes for hir. Now granted, it could be that ze’s disability prevented hir from typing as well; but that’s one possibility, unless of course the student needed typed notes.
So that’s my dilemma, folks. I’m pretty anti-laptops, but I don’t want to create a situation in which it’s made clear to everyone in class who has a disability that they might not wish to be disclosed.
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