A Bit More about My Own Writing

My writing is the subject of some of the writing I have already done, as will be obvious to any who have been reading what I post in this space. Some pieces of old wisdom suggest that it should be the case:

  • Writers are urged to write what they know, and I probably know more about my writing than anyone else does (I think I’m the only one who has seen every word); and
  • Those who teach writing are exhorted to frame the work of writing as a means to learn more, and I write about my writing either to expand upon subjects I have already considered or to try to figure out how I think and feel about things.

It will be no surprise, then, that this is another bit of writing in which I contemplate my own writing. Maybe it will be useful to others. I don’t know.

In any event, one thing that I face every time I sit down to write of my own volition is the worry that what I write will not be the kind of thing anyone wants to read. And there is some substance to such worries; I am able to see the readership statistics for this webspace and others I maintain, and I am not exactly going viral with any of my posts in any of them (again, for those I do for myself; those for which I am paid fare otherwise, which I appreciate). So I am concerned that I am screaming into the void rather than speaking into the ether.

The thing is, the low use numbers do allow me to see that more people look at what I’m doing when I do more (somewhat tautological and common-sensible, I’m sure–but how common is common sense?); I see more views when I put more writing out for others to see. And if I am trying to be seen in my writing–and I have the sense that all writers who write of their own volition do so are in some way trying to be seen–then it is to my benefit to do more writing, even if I am worried that few or none will read it. I can only make the attempt; that is all that is given me to control. How or if it will be received lies outside my power.

I continue to nurture the hope that what I write will be seen, and that, being seen, it may be of some help to some person or other. Whether that comes in the form of helping to flesh out corpora so that scholars in various areas can do the work they do, or in the form of some random reader stumbling across my writings and needing to read exactly the words I have written, I do not presume to forecast–or any other thing. But I do hope, as I perhaps should not, that the fact that I have written something will matter to someone–even though I worry, always, that it will not.

Help allay the worry. Throw me a bone.


In Response to Douglas Dowland

On 4 February 2018, Douglas Dowland’s “How Academe Breeds Resentment” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education (and I am aware that there is a delay in my comments about it coming out; I have to write about it when I see it). In the piece, Dowland investigates the question implied by the title, asking “What is it about academe that makes [academics] such experts of resentment?” He then suggests several answers: the structures of academia, the inherently skeptical nature of intellectual inquiry, the exposition of relative powerlessness that accompanies progress through academic structures. After, Dowland argues both that resentment needs to be set aside–insofar as it can–as a lazy substitute for actual thought and as a means to resist the extra-academic pressures that work against intellectual inquiry and the structures that support it.

There are some problems in the piece. (That I point them out may be a bit of irony, since Dowland discusses the slide from critiquing the objects of scholarly inquiry to critiquing the scholars themselves.) One that stands out is the relatively cliché nature of some of the examples and assertions made in the piece. For example, Dowland writes:

Consider some typical targets of academic resentment:

  • A professor has been given a lighter teaching load than others, and the rest of the department resents it. What they do not know is that the professor is an alcoholic in recovery.
  • The assistant dean for international affairs is late to every meeting–obviously not pulling her weight. She is also a mother whose work-life balance requires that she answer emails during her son’s soccer games and stay up for hours of late-night internet conferencing with recruiters from time zones across the world.
  • A student misses class frequently and asks his professors for notes. The student is also working overtime to pay his last tuition installment and save up for the next one.

The passage reads in a way that echoes motivational posters, which is other than optimal. Similarly, the repetition of an already-old call to come together smacks of long-help platitudes that are long-held because they have not been–and are not likely to be–enacted, and for the very reasons Dowland cites.

That said, the argument that resentment should be set aside because it is intellectually lazy is a compelling one. There is something of a prevailing assertion that intelligence and cynicism are yoked together, and resentment is often identified as an underpinning of cynicism. (If I may borrow something of a cliché, myself, I might make a note about sour grapes.) Because it is so often seen as such, the one becomes a stand-in for the other–and it is far easier to dismiss something out of a (real or affected) jaded weariness than to actually consider it. And while the consideration can lead to a negative view of the thing considered, it can, at times, lead to a greater and deeper love of that thing–but love is hard, and the academics I have known and been are not the less human for their intellectualism; they are as prone to taking the easy path because it is easy as most any other group.

As in any other group, it is a tendency to be resisted.

Maybe, though, giving me a hand is something to be embraced?

Class Report: ENGL 216, 14 February 2018

For the Valentine’s Day edition of the class, discussion opened with questions from the previous class meeting and before. It continued with notes about style and mechanics before examining an example of student work and a professional example. Further, assignments were discussed, such as

  • Course Project: Final Draft, to be submitted online as a Word document before 0059 on 19 February 2018
  • Course Project: Presentation, to be submitted as a PowerPoint file before 0059 on 19 February 2018
  • Discussion posts, to be completed online before 0059 on 19 February 2018

Students were afforded time to complete class surveys, as requested by administration. Students were also reminded that the Final Exam will take up class next week; the classroom will be open at the regular class time, although it may be closed early if no students attend on-site.

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Rm. 107 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster listed seven students enrolled, unchanged since the last meeting; two attended, assessed informally. Student participation was reasonably good. No students attended office hours Monday from approx. 1800 to approx. 1900 online (office hours are scheduled to 2000, but an hour in, with no attendees, they were ended).

Students are advised that office hours for Week 8, which would have occurred on 19 February 2018 at 1800, are cancelled in favor of the instructor’s daughter’s birthday.

On Staying Late

In a recent post, I write my lament about a game coming to an end. What I did not note in that post is that I lingered in that game long after my action in it was done, not just to distill out major notes from it (because I mean to play again, and in that same game-world if not with that very character), but to hold onto the magic of it just a little bit longer. And I was able to do that in some ways; there was a lovely question-and-answer exchange as the game wound down, and I appreciate the comments those left who told me that my part in the game made their play better. I have been more accustomed to receiving negative comment than positive (and I acknowledge that I have had many negative remarks coming), so to have learned that I have helped people enjoy themselves is a rare treat, and one I treasure. (Obviously, since I talk about it when it happens.)

I often do such things, hanging onto events as long as I can. When I have gone to conferences in the past, for example, I have usually been among the last to leave, staying on-site after the event has concluded, my footsteps echoing hollowly in the conference site. (This has been particularly true for me in my attendance at the International Congress on Medieval Studies; the event runs Thursday through Sunday, and I have typically not flown out until Monday morning. I’ve gotten to see a fair number of movies as a result, but still…) And attending the conferences themselves represent something of a hanging-on for me, since I know that I am not going to be a full-time member of academe at any point. Hell, I remember staying on the campus of my high school after my last bit of contest there and walking across the quiet golf course under the light of a full moon on a cloudless night–alone, the last to leave at nearly the last time I had to leave.

That I do so is a result of my fear of missing out on things. I am usually among the first to be on site for events, if not the first, and I know that I am prone to tiring before things are complete–but the ends of things are among the most fun parts, or so I am told. All of the interesting things happen as last call approaches, and I rarely make it so far into the night. But what usually happens is that I am left with an unsatisfying denouement; the climax happens, the action falls, and the resolution is that I am alone or nearly so as things end not with a bang but with a dwindling to nothing. I become witness to the attenuated ends of things, ends otherwise unmarked and whose comings, though heralded and known, are not valued.

It becomes hard not to be depressed by such things, especially since I can rarely if ever make the easy answer–leave earlier–happen for myself. But I am trying to do better. This year, for example, I’ll only be staying at the Congress for a couple of days, rather than the most-of-a-week I’ve done in the past. I can hope that it will help me to go out on a high note, Holst’s “Mars” rather than “Uranus.”

On a Game Recently Ended

I have mentioned that I have been a fan of things at many points in my life, but far less so now than in the past. One of the things of which I have been a fan, and perhaps the closest I come to still being one, is the tabletop role-playing game, particularly Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) in its earlier incarnations. The game is one about which I have written before (notably here), and it is one with which I have been involved since the beginning of my undergraduate years–so for quite some time, now. I have a lot of good memories bound up in playing that game; I had a lot of good times at its tables, and I have made no few excellent friends from them (even if I am not nearly so good at keeping up with them as I ought to be–but that is wholly on me).

When a couple of those friends flagged to my attention a play-by-post L5R game using the older rules-set with which I am familiar, I jumped at the opportunity. It had been quite some time since I was able to take part in such a game, and longer since I was able to do so as a player, responsible only for my one character and her part of interacting with the world rather than for the whole rest of the world (because I have run many games, singly and as part of a team). And I think I did well enough at it; my character found her way into a slow-moving romance that worked out well, as well as distinguishing herself in interesting ways throughout the game, and I, as player, am told that I made the gaming experience better for the people with whom I played. I have to consider it a successful endeavor.

There is a problem, of course–the game ended.

Oh, it needed to do so. It was time. The story that the game was set to tell was told, and the side-stories that the players brought into the game and developed through it concluded–most of them well. There are seeds of more stories to come, of course, and the game itself is but one part of a sprawling narrative into which all of us who took part are, at least in theory, invited. (That I know the person who runs the overall project–and had him playing at my own table for quite a while–helps my chances, I think.) But, as with a good book or a good movie, the fact that the game has ended is something of a sadness. I grew to love the characters even as my character grew to love her peers–some more than others, and one in particular–and I will miss them and the people whose words gave them life on my computer screen and in my mind.

Having read many, many books, though, and seen no few movies, I think I am in position to say that the sense of loss is greater with the game than with those media. For, much as I love any one novel or poem, or as immersed as I get into any movie, or as thoroughly as I have explored the expanded intellectual properties that have emerged from no few of them, or as far into scholarship and study of any of them as I have gone, with none of them have I been as immersed in the narrative as I nearly always am in the RPG–L5R, in particular. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Daniel Mackay writes eloquently and at length about the phenomenon, as does Gary Alan Fine; I think they both have good points to make about the peculiarly interactive story-making of gaming communities and the bonds that form thereby.

Those bonds, more than anything else, I will miss. I can only hope that I can maintain some of them and forge yet more in the times to come.

Class Report: ENGL 216, 7 February 2018

After addressing some few procedural notes and questions from the previous class meeting, discussion turned to concerns of front matter, order of composition, and review. An example of earlier student work was treated at some length. Assignments were discussed, such as

  • Course Project: Front Matter, to be submitted online as a Word document before 0059 on 12 February 2018
  • Discussion posts, to be completed online before 0059 on 12 February 2018

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Rm. 107 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster listed seven students enrolled, unchanged since the last meeting; three attended, assessed informally. Student participation was reasonably good. No students attended office hours Monday from approx. 1800 to approx. 1900 online. (Office hours are scheduled to approx. 2000, but after an hour without student attendance, they were closed.)

In Response to Barbara J. King

On 1 February 2018, Barbara J. King’s “Would College Students Retain More if Professors Dialed back the Pace” appeared on NPR.org. In the piece, King asks whether or not “slow teaching”–described in the text as spending a full course on a single text, concept, or small set of concepts–would allow students to engage more deeply with materials and thereby learn them better. She arrives at the question–and something of an answer to it–through reflecting on her own experience of reading and not retaining what is read, of reading an Atlantic piece by Julie Beck and stumbling onto a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Paula Marantz Cohen shortly thereafter, and reading a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber that discusses a phenomenon similar to that King herself addressed in 2016. Her regard for the practice is clear throughout, although she cites Cohen and presents herself as having questions about how broadly applicable the technique is.

The idea of slow teaching is a good one, and one that has informed seminars in which I have participated. In some ways, it is at the root of dissertation writing, at least in my field, where spending months and years with a single text is not at all uncommon. Yet I know that my experience as a student has not been the norm, and that in the teaching I have done, I have not had the luxury of orienting my classrooms around such a framework. As part of the precariate faculty, usually lacking full-time status and always absent tenure protections, I have in almost all my classes been obliged to follow specific assignment sequences. That is, I have had to have my students write æ number of papers or cover ð years of literature, or þ works in ƿ genres, and not seldom with the demand that the assignments come in at specified points in the term. And I know I am not alone in facing those demands; I was one of many who labored under them at a Big 12 school, and I am one who faces such things again at the for-profit for which I currently teach.

The practice, then, comes off as do many that get discussed by those secure in tenure or in retirement. The idea is a good one, but it is one that demands certain luxuries of position to be able to enact. I and my peers at the margins of academe do not have those luxuries; we are not the masters of our classrooms, the determiners of our curricula. And I and my colleagues–presently, at the for-profit, and previously, at a land-grant school that explicitly claims workplace readiness as part of its mandate, cannot avoid the “corporate-style focus on rush-rush productivity” King is not wrong to decry. Nor can we reasonably expect that our students, most of whom claim job placement as their reason for going to college, will welcome something that does not seem to help them get jobs–and the productivity model seems more likely to help with that getting than the slow teaching model King prizes. (Insofar as any teaching is helpful to that end, about which there is no shortage of disagreement, albeit not all well informed.) Perhaps with the kind of students who can afford, or believe they can afford (rightly or wrongly), to slow down from the rush of trying to survive the present to get to a better future, taught by faculty who have the support of their institutions to do such things, slow teaching would be a good thing–but my students are not in that position, and neither am I.

Since I Have It to Do Again–For at least One It…

Not too long ago, I made a post to this webspace in which I noted the perils of “If I had it to do again” and laid out what I might do if ever I did. Also not too long ago, I made a post noting that I received another teaching assignment from the small bit of academe in which I remain. As I thought about the latter, the former came to mind, and, since I have it to do again in at least one small area, I figured I ought to give some thought to how I would do it.

Now, for some context: the class that I was assigned is a second-semester composition class. Students enrolled in it are supposed to have completed the first-semester class, so they should have some introduction both to the college environment and to how college-level writing (a term which is nebulous at best) or academic writing works. The second-semester class is supposed to build upon that introduction, traditionally culminating in a conference-length paper (i.e., eight to ten pages of double-spaced, 12-point text, or some 2,600 to 3,250 words, plus references). At the school where I am assigned the class, the paper emerges from a series of assignments that center around a set of general topics from which the students are asked to select one–and therein lies the problem.

The issue is not necessarily n the assignment sequence itself. While it could be improved upon (as everything can), it is reasonable and seems to work decently. What the issue is is the selection of topics. For one, they are too broad, requiring students to do more work to narrow their focus than most who sit for the class are equipped to do–even with explicit, targeted coaching and prompting. For another, they are supposed “high interest” topics such as dieting and gun control, topics which have been exhaustively detailed and on which no real progress in discussion has been made in the United States that I have seen. Worse, they are topics with which most of my students–adults who already have formed and largely set opinions–do not engage with, having little stake in them. They end up parroting media talking points rather than actually generating new thoughts and trying to create new knowledge, largely because they do not feel they are in a position to do so.

Because the topics are promulgated by the school as standards, I shall continue to accept them, of course. I can hardly not. But what I will do, since I do have it to do again, is suggest to my students, strongly, that they take up an alternative topic, one in which they have some investment and engagement–and one with which I have had success with students in the past (such as here). In effect, I will ask my students to look at their curricula, identify one major change that needs to be made, and argue why that change is the change that needs to be made. As such, the students will have a topic with which they have direct involvement, which is a motivating factor; they will have a narrow topic, which allows for detailed work and more sustained argument; and they will have a directly discernible audience, which will allow both for analysis of that audience and more effective address thereof.

I’ll be working up materials in more detail, of course, but I know that the students will have easy recourse to primary source material (their own course catalogs and other schools’), secondary source materials (the contents of ERIC come to mind, as does the Occupational Outlook Handbook, particularly since most or all of my students seek their degrees specifically for job prospects and career advancement), and tertiary/critical sources (namely accreditation requirements and theories of education both academic and popular). And I know that at least one student will argue that the composition course requirements should be lightened or eliminated–there always is at least one–and I have a wealth of information about that particular line of inquiry for reasons that I think are obvious.

Not many people get the chance to do things again, I know. I have been lucky in that I have been given the opportunity, and more than once. (I am less lucky in that I have also blown it more than once, but that’s another matter, entirely.) I mean to seize upon this opportunity; I hope that it will lead to a good end.

More Early Comments for the March 2018 Session at DeVry University in San Antonio

Not long ago, I made a few comments about the March 2018 session at DeVry University in San Antonio, noting with appreciation that I had been offered a section of ENGL 135: Advanced Composition. I have been at work developing materials for that class, and I am happy with how things are proceeding in that line.

I am also happy to note that I have been offered another class, one I have not yet taught at the institution, although it is similar to one that I have taught elsewhere–namely SPCH 217: Public Speaking. From what I have seen of the course so far, it is similar to the HUM 110 class I taught at the now-defunct Technical Career Institutes, so that while it has been some time since I taught such a class, I am not coming into it all unaware of what I need to do and what I need the students to do. Materials are on their way to me now, so that much is to the good, and I look forward to seeing how I can make things better.