Initial Comments for the July 2018 Session at DeVry University in San Antonio

To spite my earlier comments, I’ve been offered a section of ENGL 062: Introduction to Reading and Writing for the July 2018 session at DeVry University in San Antonio, Texas. I’ve even signed my contract for doing so, so I’ll take a bit to get my materials ready again.

The session runs from 9 July through 1 September 2018; the class meets Thursdays from 1800 to 2150 in Room 107 of the San Antonio campus. I am not yet certain when or if I will have office hours–the “if” because the class is something of an unusual situation. It is, at present, showing only one student enrolled, which would normally make for a threat of class cancellation. Circumstances are such, however, that the class has been authorized despite the low enrollment–although the campus is trying to get other students enrolled in the class. If more do not enroll, however, the class will function as an eight-week tutorial, and that might well eliminate the need for office-hour availability. Perhaps; it will remain to be seen.

Reflective Comments for the May 2018 Session at DeVry University in San Antonio

Continuing a practice I most recently iterated at the end of the March 2018 session at DeVry University in San Antonio, and following closely the patterns established in previous practice, comments below offer impressions of class performance among students enrolled in ENGL 216: Technical Writing during the May 2018 session at that institution. After a brief outline of the course and statistics about it, impressions and implications for further teaching are discussed.

Students enrolled in ENGL 216: Technical Writing during the May 2018 session were asked to complete a number of assignments in quick succession. Many, and the weightiest, related to the overall course project; others were homework meant to practice skills used in the workplace and in later stages of the course project. Those assignments and their prescribed point-values are below, with relative weights shown in the figure below:

Grade Breakdown

  • Course Project
    • Topic Proposal- 20 points
    • Annotated Sources- 50 points
    • Outline and Back Matter- 50 points
    • First Draft- 70 points
    • Front Matter- 40 points
    • Final Draft- 100 points
    • Presentation- 60 points
  • Online Discussions
    • Weeks 1-5, 20 points each
    • Weeks 6 and 7, 80 points each
  • Homework Assignments
    • Weeks 1-4, 50 points each
  • Final Exam- 150 points
  • Total- 1000 points

As before, most assignments were assessed by means of rubrics provided by the institution. Some few were assessed holistically, with assessment being conducted more gently in light of less formality.

The section met on Mondays from 1800-2150 in Room 111 of the San Antonio campus of DeVry University. Its overall data includes

  • End-of-term enrollment: 8
  • Average class score: 679.625/1000 (D)
    • Standard deviation: 208.849
  • Students earning a grade of A (900/1000 points or more): 2
  • Students earning a grade of F (below 600/1000 points): 2

Numbers of students receiving each of the traditional letter grades are indicated below:

Final Grades

As in my previous session teaching the course, attendance was assessed as part of classroom activities; a component of the discussion grading each week was given to in-class attendance and participation. Consequently, attendance data is available; on average, four students attended each class meeting, with 33 total absences noted. The absences, and their concomitant rate of non-submission, exerted negative influence on overall student performance.

Student Absences

On the whole, I think the session was reasonably good. I was fortunate enough to have returning students, which is always helpful; those who have been in classes with me know what to expect, and it is gratifying to see them build on skills I know they have rehearsed. (This is true with adult learners no less than with more traditional students–at least for me.) And I was lucky to have diligent, dedicated students, as well; those who apply themselves with a will are always better to teach than those who do not, even if the latter have more innate talent and better preparation than the former.

Carry-over from the previous session of teaching the class proved helpful. Continuing to use examples from practice not necessarily part of academe was advantageous for the students, and being able to employ materials from the earlier session made the job of preparing for class easier to do. More refinement needs to be done to the selection process–I want to align the examples more, although I am not sure in which direction I want to align them–but the general idea remains a good one.

As ever, concerns remain. I wish I had some better way to motivate attendance and assignment-submission (which were the major factors diminishing student grade-performance–and their more important but less valorized development as writers). How many assignments were missed is shows below:

Assignments Missing

Too, I would have liked to have seen more of my students apply themselves to the topic I had emphasized for the course project; I think they would have gotten more use out of it and done better on their work, overall. The problem, though, is that my students are adults at a for-profit institution; they are under no illusions that they are in their programs to earn credentials in the pursuit of better job prospects. That situation makes it difficult for them to take the time to consider options and delve into materials deeply–and it vitiates against doing anything more than the minimum to pass off the course. The matter bears more consideration.

As ever, I appreciate having had the chance to teach again, and I look forward to having others in sessions yet to come.

On Not Teaching

It should not be a surprise that I find myself without a teaching assignment at the moment; I normally post reports of my classroom activities (as witness this, this, and this, among many others), as well as various “Initial Comments” posts regarding my teaching assignments (as witness this, this, and this, among some others). The lack of them will be a giveaway for those of you (and I thank you!) who regularly read what I write here, a clear indication that I’m not in the classroom at the moment. And even for those who are not regular readers (which numbers will shrink, I hope), since I am in the US and it is the summer, it should not be a surprise that I am not teaching.

This would be the case, of course, were I a high school teacher, as I came out of my undergraduate curriculum trained to be. And it might well be the case were I tenure-line faculty, which I came out of my graduate curriculum trained to be. But since I am neither–and not for lack of trying, I promise–but an academic expatriate whose remaining ties to academe are contingent labor, it is a certainty there will be sessions when I am out of that work. (I’m not out of work, overall; I still have the day-job I’ve noted having.)

Yes, I still get to clean this toilet.

Experience teaches me that, did I not have the day-job, I’d be in a world of hurt–as many contingent academics are. In New York, for instance, an educational worker being out of work over the summer is not necessarily entitled to unemployment compensation; it is expected that teaching doesn’t happen, despite every institution of higher learning (or “higher learning,” as the case may be) with which I’ve ever been affiliated has offered summer classes. Similarly, because contingent academics–and I use that term because not every school calls them “adjuncts,” and some people get pissy about using “the wrong words” to describe situations–are on session-to-session or semester-to-semester contracts, gaps in employment aren’t firings, which limits the ability of such folks–myself among them–to get benefits from a system into which they pay from already-meager, often-below-poverty-level, salaries. And because–again, from experience–employers outside academe do not regard advanced degrees and experience teaching the skills employers purport to seek as having those skills, and because they tend to look at clusters of post-nominal letters and think that those who have them will seek other opportunities as soon as they become available,* those who will try to take up a summer job or a longer-term opportunity will find it more difficult than might otherwise be the case.

Again, experience. I hold a doctorate and have taught college since 2006. It took me close to 200 applications across a year and a half to get the job I’ve got now, and I was applying for entry-level jobs that ask for having graduated high school and being able to type at about half the rate I type. Two. Hundred. Maybe twenty called me back, and of those, fifteen were flat rejections. And I know I got lucky.

I know I still am lucky. The job I have is a good one (although I could wish for a higher hourly rate; still, the PTO benefit is nice, even if I’m still having to adjust to it). I can afford to not be teaching–at least for a while. But I know that many others cannot, and while I hope that one of them has the class that might otherwise have been mine, I hold little hope that the rest–that any of us–will see matters improve any time soon.

*Honestly, though, why should they not? If a business owner took advantage of a better economic opportunity, that owner would be lauded; since the only business most of us own is that of our labor, why should we not act similarly? Or why should we be disdained for acting in our economic interests to the extent that the prevailing systems allow us to do so–by those who do no more than that same thing?

Help me make it through the lean times?


Class Report: ENGL 216, 18 June 2018

Class time was given over to completing the University-assigned final exam. No other activities were conducted. For it, class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 111 of the San Antonio campus. The class roster listed eight students enrolled, unchanged from last session; one attended, assessed informally. No students attended the most recent office hour.

A series of summary comments for the session is forthcoming. It will post after grades are finalized and submitted and relevant data can be extracted.

A Rumination on “Political Correctness”

I should probably note that there’ll be some language in this post some readers will find markedly inappropriate.*

In classes I have taught, in my work for the substance abuse clinic, and elsewhere, the idea of “political correctness” has come up more than once–usually used as a term of derogation for those who worry about not offending others. For instance, not long ago at the clinic, a client made a mocking comment about my assuming the presented gender when I was retrieving information, a smirk plastered across the face when saying “How dare you presume my gender” in a drippingly unctuous tone. When I replied “You’re right, and I apologize; which gender would you prefer?” in my practiced professional tone, looking the client dead in the eye, the client stammered out a half-hearted justification of “making fun of those, you know, political correctness people.” But it is not always the case that I am able to make such a response, given the constraints of what I do and where.

In my classroom, however, I am able to do a bit more to work against the expression of such views, if not the holding of them (although I know that language influences perception, so that changes to language do work to change minds, at least in some small way or another). Most of what I teach is writing, after all, and so explicitly and specifically concerned with choosing words carefully and arranging them precisely and considering topic and purpose and audience and desired effects and unintentional consequences–and I note, repeatedly, that every character on every page–and, indeed, every page–is a choice made and so carries meaning, whether it is wanted or not. My students, then, expect that I will or may well comment on every utterance–and they should, since it is at least part of my job to do so. (Even aside from grading, I am supposed to coach them along.)

I do not much censor myself in my classroom; I use the language that comes to mind when it comes to mind, for the most part, and that does sometimes run to what many might think obscene. Some of it is done as part of my work to reassure students that their own usage does not indicate that they are unintelligent–something about which I’ve expressed concern before (here and here, among others). Leaving aside at least one interesting study, if an English professor with a doctorate in the subject will drop a “fuck” in class, or point out that “shit” has been in English longer than “beautiful” (per the OED and Bosworth and Toller), then they can’t be too stupid for using such language, themselves. So it might be thought that I am not in favor of so-called PC culture, in which hyperattention to language and overwariness of the possibility of offense results in creeping euphemisms that appear to weaken rhetorical force through circumlocution and meandering neologism.

The thing is, though, that I follow the idea (not my own, although I do not recall its provenance) that most of what gets decried as “PC” is “people asking to be called by their right name,” and getting people’s names right is a simple matter of politeness and attention. (Yes, I know there are people who use PCness as a means of abusing others–just as there are people who use any and every human construct as a means of abusing others. There are words for such people. “Jerk” is a good one. So is “asshat.” So are others.) And I have found a means of addressing the issue that seems to resonate with students–at least, they are more careful about making complaints about “being PC” after I present it to them.

There are some background ideas involved in it. One is voiced prominently by a University of Toronto professor I’ll not name because I do not want to be perceived as endorsing such an idea–namely, that your choice of preferred address does not in any way compel me to alter my usage, that how you prefer to be addressed and referred to does not oblige me to do so. Another is that whatever words are used “are just words,” and that people “need to grow thicker skins and not be so easily offended.” And it was with those ideas in mind that, in a class I taught a while back, when a student (older amid a bunch of more traditional students) started to get onto the proverbial soapbox about PC culture being censorship, I hopped up onto my own; as its planks squeaked under my weight, I asked what I thought was a simple question:

“And if I decided to call all of my students ‘Shithead,’ would that be okay? After all, it’s just a word, right? So I could be all, ‘Hey, Shithead, did you remember to turn in your assignment?’ and that’d be okay?”*

(Or words to that effect. It’s been a while.)

As might be expected, the class went silent, including the student who had been about to rail against PC culture. After an awkwardly quiet moment, I took the opportunity to lay out my position, explaining that of course it’d be a problem for me to decide that all of my students’ names might as well be Shithead or Asshat or something equally insulting–not necessarily because of the word itself, but because the students’ names are theirs to determine, just as the “PC” labels that are often decried are the names of the people concerned to determine. It seemed to make sense to the students; at the very least, they did not try to argue to me that getting names of people and populations right was an infringement on their free expression (although I am sure some still thought it, and others cared not either way, but simply wanted to get through the class as they could).

I’ve taught since that class, obviously, and while it has not been the case that each section I’ve taught has had the PC issue come up, it has been one that has gotten addressed fairly often–more times than not. Each time, I use the model I stumbled onto in a bit of in-class pique, and, each time, the students seem to take the point–or fake it well enough that I can let it slide. So there is that much, at least, that I’m able to do.

*The language is, more or less, what I use and have used, and the language was calculated to shock–with the idea that the shock would help drive the lesson home. Then again, my teaching has been much reduced since I first went on this tack, so there may be something to various students’ condemnations of me.

However you feel about “being PC,” I hope you’ll feel like sending a bit of help my way.

Reflective Comments about the Third Year

It has been three years since the first post to this webspace went up, three years that I have been working on Elliott RWI. As I write this, I have made 596 posts to the blogroll (this will be post 597), and I have posted many individual pages, collecting 17,411 views from 5,463 visitors. In the last year, therefore, I have made 121 posts and collected 1,774 views from 1,065 visitors (based on “Reflective Comments about the Second Year”). Performance seems to be down from last year (see the figures below), which I ascribe to teaching less; I have the sense that most of my viewership was students needing homework help, and I don’t have nearly so many of those at this point as I once did. I feel better about the quality of my work, though, so that much is to the good.

Posts per Year 2018
Figure 1: Posts per Year
Views per Year 2018
Figure 2: Views per Year
Visitors per Year 2018
Figure 3: Visitors per Year

My employment situation seems to have stabilized. I still work as contingent faculty, teaching classes at DeVry University in San Antonio as they are offered to me. Most of my working time is spent at the Hill Country Council on Alcohol & Drug Abuse, Inc., however, where I am a member of the full-time staff. It is a decent enough job, and one I am fortunate to have; I certainly had to struggle through enough to land it.

I also continue to work on my writing, as this webspace and others attest. Work on the Tales after Tolkien Society blog still presses on, and I get the occasional more formal piece put out where others can see it.

Contributions remain welcome and may be made here.

In Response to Brian Rosenberg

On 29 May 2018, Brian Rosenberg’s “Are You in a ‘BS Job’? Thank You for Your Work. No, Really” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article opens with a summary of common complaints about administration and the remark that the Chronicle hosts no few such–including David Graeber’s “Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone” (about which my comments appear here and here)–before rehearsing Rosenberg’s own experience on both sides of such complaints. The author then asserts a position contrary to the tendency to badmouth administration and staff, grounding the assertion in staff:student ratios and anecdotal commentary from Rosenberg’s own situation and background. After, the article turns to a reflection on administrative burdens, usefully citing Adm. William H. McRaven and the Vietnam War era before offering a Swiftian passage and concluding on a variation of the oft-rehearsed teacher’s protestation that those who actually come and try to do the work will have a markedly different view afterward.

The note must be made that Rosenberg is president at Macalester College. As such, he is in the kind of position against which Graeber rails, so it is understandable that he would rail against Graeber and those like him, in turn. And that position might well make readers somewhat suspicious of claims Rosenberg makes; he has a vested interest in the opinions of others about the validity of his job, so arguing against those who would question that validity is to be expected–and it is easy to overreach in such an argument.

That it is easy, however, does not mean that it happens. Rosenberg admits to his own culpability in propagating the myths he decries in the article. He also admits to the limitations of his data sets, acknowledging likely causes for the observations made from them (although they are themselves problematic, the more in that he is in a position to vitiate against them at his own institution), as well as the anecdotal nature of much of his discussion. While the Swiftian passage in the penultimate paragraph might come off as somewhat excessive, it is both brief and rooted in a long polemical tradition, and it is done in service to what is an essentially sound central point: if there are more administrators, it is because 1) more administration is demanded by even the compassionate, student-centered university towards which institutions ostensibly strive (let alone the technological and regulatory realities of higher education) and 2) more people are classified as administration than their job duties would normally prescribe. It is a point worth making.

And I have to add my own comments to Rosenberg’s here. I have seen no few poor administrators and staff, to be sure, just as I have seen no few poor instructors–and any other set of professionals that could be named. But I have also seen college deans teaching introductory classes at eminently undesirable times (5 to 9 or 10pm on Fridays. for example), and I’ve had others who’ve back me wholly when the inevitable complaints from students have arisen. At the same time, I have complained about “the management” as “the enemy,” and I have railed against administrators who have not taught the classes they oversee in years, if ever. The truth, I think, lies somewhere between Graeber (in this regard, although not in others, as I’ve noted) and Rosenberg–and finding it, finding any truth, is something worth doing.

Care to support these endeavors? Send a little help my way!

Class Report: ENGL 216, 11 June 2018

After treating questions from last meeting and before, discussion turned to concerns of review and revision in advance of the final written assignments coming due. Discussed also was preparation of an online presentation, one of the components of the final written assignment, and motion was made towards next week’s final exam.

Students were reminded of upcoming assignments:

  • Discussions (four posts per graded thread), due online before 0059 on 18 June 2018
  • Course Project: Final Paper, due online as a Word document before 0059 on 18 June 2018
  • Course Project: Presentation, due online before 0059 on 18 June 2018
  • Final Exam: due online before 2359 on 23 June 2018 (earlier is better)

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 111 of the San Antonio campus. The class roster listed eight students enrolled, unchanged from last session; three attended, assessed informally. Student participation was good. No students attended the most recent office hour.

In Response to Adam Kirk Edgerton

On 25 May 2018, Adam Kirk Edgerton’s “What’s Wrong with Being from the South? Just Ask an Academic in the North” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article opens with an anecdote from Edgerton’s undergraduate life in which the idea of escaping his upbringing is voiced, leading to an explication of prevailing academic presumptions against the rural South. Edgerton moves on to treat the mutually reinforcing effects of those presumptions on both academic populations and those who inhabit the rural South before decrying the reactionary impulses on both sides–including their historical grounding. The author also notes that the historical grounding that is typically presented serves to oversimplify matters, and that academics tend not to question that particular oversimplification, which situates geographical identity in much the same way that racial/ethnic and gender identities are by those populations academics would decry. Edgerton offers a gentle rebuke of the mental laziness involved in accepting the oversimplification and returns, at last, to the idea of the contradictory identities of displaced Southerners in (Northern) academe.

I cannot claim to come from the same circumstances as Edgerton, to be sure. I am from the South, true, but the Southernness of Texas is not the same as the Southernness of the Carolinas (and that of San Antonio, in the shadow of which I grew up, is more different still)–and my family is Midwestern, so that I never was as immersed in the South as were those around whom I grew up. Too, I am a cisgendered heterosexual white man of British descent, raised ostensibly Protestant by two veterans of the US military, so that I occupy quite a few positions of privilege. I am I cannot speak on the matter with Edgerton’s force. But I can speak to it, because I am also a Southern man who has been involved in academe elsewhere than the South (in New York City and in Oklahoma–and the latter is not the South, despite its strange desire to be so), and the…disdain in which the overwhelming majority of the South is held (Austin and New Orleans seem to be the exceptions), of which Edgerton writes, is not unknown to me.

This is not to say the South does not have its share of problems, of course, and even Texas. There is too damned much of each of racism, homophobia, sexism, and religious discrimination, there is too damned much jingoism, and there is too damned little regard for reflection and thought. But that is also true of other parts of the country. I have had to have pointed conversations with Midwesterners who made comments about “knowing how those Mexicans are” more often than with Texans, and to rebuke locker-room talk of certain epithets in New York City more than even in Lafayette, Louisiana. I have heard comments about “you people” from passengers on New Jersey Transit trains more than on VIA buses–all while being told that “racism is a Southern problem; we don’t have that up here [in the Mid-Atlantic].” And I’ve heard no few times the disbelief that I do not (normally) carry the accent/s around which I grew up from people alongside whom I’ve taught, or who hear me talk at Kalamazoo or elsewhere, when they learn that I’m from where I’m from.

I’m glad, therefore, to see Edgerton’s piece and to see the issues it raises get some attention. I’m less so that the issues are there to get the attention, but if they have to be, then, as Edgerton puts it, they ought to push all of us “to ask how academe might better speak to all regions of the country.”

Help me keep these responses coming! Send a little bit my way!

Poems after the Styles of Others: An Epic Entry

Sing, O, Muse, of the ire of Helios, who looks
With burning eye upon the hills that rise where once
Did Ocean flow and from what that flow bore are made,
Which now excites the metal Hermes to those heights
Again where it has danced before, as all look on
And shade themselves with hat and bough of tree, and long
For other days when they despised the cold now fled
And shivered in their coats and by their fires and thought
That they would fain again tempt Theia’s child’s rebuke!

I wonder if you’d help me avoid the wrath of Hyperion’s son.