academy · PhD · syllabus · teaching

Syllabus Matters

Holy moley, has this semester snuck up on me. Since I administered a final exam for my Fall Composition course on Dec. 23, I was grading until the 24th (yep, I whipped through those suckers), and then I had a precious 2.5 weeks before diving back into teaching my new course. I mostly stayed in New York with the exception of a brief, cherished getaway to Philadelphia with my partner for a weekend, and because I did not have the relief (?) of family members being around, it was difficult for me to disengage in continually pressing dissertation and syllabus matters. Ohh, The Trap of Perpetual Productivity. (hence, love Aimee’s post on Down Time from last week!)

But it was a nice break nonetheless, and tbh, I tend to maintain a generally higher personal morale during the constantly moving and demanding semester; add that to the fact that I seem to have a mild form of reverse seasonal affective disorder (otherwise known as Summer-SAD), and I’d say I’m doing pretty okay, besides feeling the regular senses of apprehension and nervousness about the impending term.

This semester, I’m teaching a transhistorical course on Dreaming in Literature, which is actually the first Literature Proper course I have ever taught (after having taught five different Composition–or mandatory first-year writing–courses, ubiquitous in the American higher education system though perhaps some Canadian institutions have them as well?). My syllabus took a very long time to generate since I was building it entirely from scratch, and although I’m writing my dissertation on medieval dream visions and I’m excited about the broader temporal context this class will give me, I spent a lot of time seeking out dreamy things in other eras in a way that would offer the course both coherence and variety. Turns out there are a lot of texts that deal with dreams in some capacity! In this post, I’d like to A) sample a few points from my syllabus in order to share ideas and solicit feedback from more experienced professors; B) discuss a couple problems with the course that I can already anticipate; and C) crowd-source for more texts on dreaming, should you worthy readers have suggestions. While my reading list is pretty much set, I’m planning to build an additional Google Drive doc of other possible texts that students can sample from for their final papers and supplementary presentations. So if you can think of something major I’ve missed, toss it in the comments!

A) My course is split into broad (in one case very broad…) chronological units, and its main texts are:

  • Medieval Dreaming: “Caedmon’s Hymn,” “Dream of the Rood,” Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and the Anonymous Pearl poem
  • Romantic Dreaming (Renaissance to nineteenth-century): Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel, selections from John Keats and William Blake
  • Modernist Dreaming: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Hitchcock’s Spellbound (film), and selections from Freud and Jung
  • Postmodern/Contemporary Dreaming: Jack Kerouac’s Book of Dreams, Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), selections from Rosalind Krauss’s Optical Unconscious 

Of my various assignments (you can peruse the rest through the course website if you’d like), I’m perhaps most excited about the “Slow Looking” Museum Assignment, which I discovered through my medievalist Facebook friend Julie Orlemanski: in brief, this assignment requires students to visit a museum, gallery, or other public space, observe a piece of art relating to the themes of our course for at least 45 minutes (key), and then write a response in which they reflect upon their experience of “slow looking.” The idea comes from an article by Harvard Professor Jennifer L. Roberts, who observes that we professors should be thinking more about teaching pace and tempo alongside material and content, about encouraging practices of “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention,” especially as our current world constantly pushes students towards “immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity.” I LOVE THIS! My students are going to HATE it (many of them), but I LOVE it! One of my most transformative experiences as an undergrad was when my art class took a trip to a Rodin exhibit at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and I ended up sitting in front of a fallen caryatid statue for about an hour after other students had left, watching it shift and evolve and emerge in different meaningful ways the longer I chose to allow it. I hope my students derive some similarly surprising insights from this exercise. 

B) A couple problems/concerns:

  • One: you may have noticed, oh feminists. I only have two female authors: Virginia Woolf and contemporary psychoanalytical theorist Rosalind Krauss. I’m basically as bad as David Gilmour! (though, who knows, maybe Pearl was written by a woman…??)  I think a lot of this is the nature of the material, the male-driven canon of course but also the question of who is licensed to have access and agency over their own dreams (oh, Freud…), and I plan to make this problem a recurrent talking-point. But nevertheless I could have found more women authors, especially in the modern/contemporary periods, so I am ESPECIALLY eager for some suggestions in that arena in the comments below (women of color or LGBT writers esp. welcome). I have a little bit of leeway with juggling things around near the end of the term.  
  • Two: An introductory writing exercise yesterday during my first class has led me to believe that most of my students chose this course because they want to learn to interpret their own dreams. While I there is a creative/personal component to the syllabus, and self-exploration is one of the themes of the course, I need to figure out how to cultivate such eager, engaged attitudes while keeping the focus of the class on literature, sometimes literature that won’t initially seem very exciting or, cough, relatable
  •  Three: I’m worried I haven’t assigned enough reading. So many people cautioned me that I need to assign less than I deem possible that I may have overcompensated…hence, tomorrow, we’re examining a mere 15 pages of texts. We’ll see how things go, I guess. I really have no idea!

Lastly, as I think about my own syllabus and the endless tinkering that went on before I distributed it yesterday, I can’t sign off without boosting this article by Rebecca Schuman in Slate, on the question of why syllabi have sprouted in length to something akin to “exhaustive legal contracts that seek to cover every possible eventuality.” Yes, it’s the corporatization of the university system, the sense that students are now consumers who by following as many systematic guidelines possible can purchase rather than earn their grades. I love Schuman’s suggestion at the end that we should relegate all the “admin boilerplate” to the end of our documents, emphasizing through form and physical presentation which issues actually matter. 




Any suggestions or grains of wisdom from your own syllabi, readers? How are you approaching your syllabi this term?
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academy · advice · DIY · going public · grad school · job market · syllabus

Graduate Professionalization Seminar

I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I teach PhD students, in a department that admits LOTS of them, and wants to admit more. I think a PhD is a great job to hold for five or six years, and I think it can prepare you for lots of different outcomes. I want our grads to be more prepared for the academic, post academic, and alternative academic careers they can move into next, and so does my department: so I’m teaching our new, required PhD milestone seminar in professionalization.

My feminist intervention here is to materialize the PhD: it’s not just about abstract smarts and it never was. It’s also about street smarts, people skills, time management, work/life balance, and questions of identity and culture. I want to make all that explicit.

And since a lot of you have been asking about this, here’s my syllabus. The readings are not 100% settled–I’ll update as we go, but the topics are set and the contours of each meeting are laid out in hwat I hope are bullshit-free terms. Eight of the ten weeks feature guest experts from inside and outside of the academy, from this institution and others, but I’m leaving them anonymous here.

Use what you can, but if you do, please link back. And let me know what you think!

Graduate Professionalization Course
Prof. Aimée Morrison
a h m [at] uwaterloo.ca
@digiwonk
Hagey Hall 269
Office hours: Monday and Wednesday, 2:00-3:00
The course addresses professionalization across a number of fronts: it will prepare you to complete your doctorate with grace, aplomb, and skill; it will allow you to prepare yourself for the job you will have after the degree, whether this job is inside the academy, or, more likely, without; it will suggest to you the skills required to do all this in relative calm and steady effort, and with a minimum of panic or maladaptive work habits or counterproductive coping strategies. 
The course is skill-based and culture-based. It is chock full of practical how-tos and opportunities to practice these skills. It also aims to explicitly describe what might seem to be hard-to-decode implicit rules by which the degree and the academy work, as well as the “real world” beyond.
We will learn how to write effectively, copiously, and professionally. We will learn to give conference papers, write abstracts, do peer reviews–and receive peer reviews. We will also learn how to master other oral presentation contexts. We will learn how to build and manage a dissertation committee with the aim of timely and stress-free dissertation writing and completion. We will learn how to locate, interview for, and succeed in such academic jobs as occasionally make themselves available. We will learn how to secure meaningful and interesting work in universities beyond the tenure-track or sessional streams. We will learn how to find meaningful and interesting work “post-academic” style, and how to translate all the hard-won academic skills for non-academic hiring managers.
Attendance
Class meets weekly, for ten weeks, Monday mornings from 9:30 until noon, in the department library. Bring coffee. Bring your readings. Bring your writing. Bring your laptop / tablet / really big-screened phone. Bring pens and paper. I expect you to have the assigned readings completed, and to be ready to engage in discussion and activity, in writing, in class.
This course is a degree milestone. By registering, you undertake the professional responsibility of attending diligently and participating fully. This is not a drop-in. Please take this course as seriously as you take the other elements of your degree and your future career.
Time management, goal-setting, and the determination of priorities are major topics in this course. The time you spend making this course a priority is going to pay vast dividends in time you no longer fritter away in the future. Commit.
Required Texts
Order these from Amazon or Chapters-Indigo or your favorite online retailer. You’ll be down about $30 if you buy them new, but they’re worth every penny. We’ll be reading these two books cover to cover.
  • Basalla, Susan and Maggie Debelius, So What Are You Going to Do with That? Finding Careers Outside Academia. Rev. Ed. Chicago: U Chicago P, 2007.
  • Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1998.
These texts will be supplemented with further required readings drawn from the web, as well as photocopies of chapters from other books, as made available in the dedicated mailbox in the department mailroom.
If you’re really super keen, and are looking for supplementary materials to read, the department has begun to amass and make available to graduate students a growing library of professionalization texts on writing, job hunting, time management, and more. These books are available to borrow from the graduate office.
Schedule
Careers Thinking (September 9)
Guest: Jen Woodside, Career Services
To read: Basalla and Debelius, chapters 1 and 2.
To do: Myers-Briggs Type Inventory
Jen Woodside (Career Services) and I have been consulting over the summer: she’s customized her careers for graduate students workshop for this group in particular, and she and I are going to get you to do some work right now today to advance your future career: what are your goals and aptitudes? how can you chart your course to happiness and solvency? if you’re an ENTJ, can you ever learn to stop trying to run the whole world? The upshot of today’s work is this: you have a lot of options. The main thing is to begin the process of planning the next stage of your life, through careful self-enquiry and a clear-eyed look at how the world of work actually functions.
Managing the PhD (September 16)
Special Guests: XXX
To read: Bolker, chapters 1, 2, and 6; Graduate Studies Office, “A Guide to Graduate Research and Supervision at the University of Waterloo”
To do: write out all your program milestones, find all the forms you need to graduate
I know someone whose supervisor died in a scuba accident a month before her defense. Three of my own committee members left the U of A while I was writing my dissertation. My dad died the day I won my SSHRC! One of my friends got married, another divorced. One friend had her supervisor stand up in the middle of her PhD oral exam and quit the committee in a huff. All of us finished, and not too terribly behind. The PhD is an endurance event: milestones, paperwork, balancing teaching and research, trying to get chapters written and then trying to get your committee to read them. Over and above subject area knowledge, it requires surprising amounts of people skills and political savvy, and sometimes more than a little strategy. Even though a whole university worth of bureaucracy and many, many authority figures structure your degree, ultimately, you are the only one who can move the ball forward. Meet your milestones, get your papers signed, create your own motivation to write. We’ll discuss how.
Grantsmanship and Other Professional Writing (September 23)
Special Guests: XXX
To read: SSHRC Web Site, description and instructions for Doctoral Fellowship Awards; Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities, description and instructions for Ontario Graduate Scholarships, Basalla and Debelius ch 4
To do: find another funding source you can apply to
You know what I hate? Applying for grants. Only six pages to describe my entire research? And what do they mean “methodology,” dammit, I’m a literary scholar?! Everyone knows it’s a total crapshoot, and I’m just wasting my time on this. The government should fund all research. Jerks. Except, when I took two tries in grad school, I won a doctoral fellowship that funded me for two years. And I got some travel funding, and tuition waivers, too. Then as a prof, I’ve won one internal grant. Then I got two “miss congeniality” also-ran awards at one SSHRC program before winning a Standard Research Grant for nearly $60,000. I am never going to prepare my own bibliographies again. Guess what? The rest of your life, inside the academy or out, is going to feature long-form bureaucratic writing like grant apps: budgets, rationales, descriptions, structured data like CVs, prescribed formatting, etc. Get good at this. It matters.
How to Read a Book: Learning Skills (September 30)
To read: Paul Edwards, “How to Read a Book”
To do: contact your exam committee; bring something to take notes from; find old exams; talk to past exam-takers
Enjoy studying for your Area Exams. You are never going to ever have this much time and scope again for “learning” as your number one task. Ever. Are you wondering how you can somehow accomplish the reading on the list with the six months you are allotted? Many students develop huge anxiety around THE EXAMS: we’ll work on how to get through this with style and verve, to make the process both useful, and enjoyable. True story: I did my PhD exams in 2000, and I’m still using notes from my readings in my teaching and research. Because it feels like nearly the last time I was able to read a whole academic book all the way through, just to hear what it had to say.
Networking (ALSO ON September 30)
Special guest: XXX
To read: me, Melonie Fullick, LSE Impact blog Twitter guide–will be posted, Basalla and Debelius ch 3
To do: identify members of your academic and extended public. 
If a dissertation lands on a library shelf, and no one ever picks it up, did any research get done? If a degree is conferred on a bright young scholar and no one tweets it, will she ever get a job? Here’s a truth: you have to do good work and be smart to succeed in life. But those things are not enough. People have to know about your good work, and know who you are, too. The work can only speak for itself if it lands in someone’s hands, and that person has somehow become disposed to consider it with his or her full attention amid myriad of other demands. Networking, in person and online, are increasingly important to all kinds of careers. Let’s think about how and why, and then let’s do it.
How to Write a Dissertation (October 7)
Special guest: XXX
To read: Lamott, “Shitty First Drafts,” “Perfectionism,” “Letter”; Bolker, chapter 3 and 4; Davis, Parker, and Straub, chapter 10
To do: read some dissertations; find some model proposals
Invariably, graduate students tell me, when they start the program, that they fully intend to finish in year 4. And yet hardly any of them do. Why? You’ve probably never been asked to write something so long, with such high stakes, of such originality, with so little direction, and so few meaningful deadlines or milestones. After you hand your proposal in in December of your 3rd year … you are apparently all on your own. You know, with your neuroses and your demons and your insecurities and your toilet that really needs scrubbing and your procrastination and your full-run of Breaking Bad / Gilmore Girls / Jersey Shore that ain’t gonna watch itself. Then your panic and your shame and your despair. Let’s just not go through that this time, okay?
Academic Identity (October 21)
Special guests: XXX
To read: stuff from Chronicle?  I’ll get back to you on that …
Most people are smart enough to get a PhD. But the degree and the profession are a culture as much as a big-brain competition: there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of doing and ways of knowing, mostly transmitted implicitly or by acculturation, that can make the difference between success and failure, between fit and alienation. It will probably not surprise you to discover that some aspirants fit themselves more or less easily, with more or less effort, with more or less emotional difficulty to the role of Graduate Student or Junior Professor. We will aim to uncover and name the ‘hidden’ or implicit rules that structure the academy, and consider the challenges of meeting / thwarting / changing /subverting these norms, as well as how our own racial, gender, national, family-status, and class identities complicate or ease our academic work.
Pedagogy / Writing Pedagogy (October 27)
Special guests: XXX
To read: find a Twitter hashtag for writing instructors; read stuff
To do: bring your syllabi, or someone else’s; bring some lesson plans; create a course!
It may seem natural to you by this point, but it is a profoundly unusual thing to spend so much of your work life standing at the front of a classroom teaching stuff to people. You have to master the content! Design syllabi! Do public speaking! Answer questions! Write lectures! Grade! Manage deadlines / personalities / people! It can be very easy to let the excitement of teaching overwhelm your whole work life–but you shouldn’t do this. It can be very easy to try to improve you teaching by spending more time on it–this is also dangerous. We will consider how to teach smarter, not harder, to secure better outcomes for both our students and our dissertations/books. And we will consider the “transferable skills” conferred by our teaching experiences in the academy, and how these can lead into other jobs. 
Conferencing (November 4)
To read: Paul Edwards, “How to Give an Academic Talk”
To do: write an abstract, dress for success, give the first page of a paper!
Pro tip: do not write the paper on the airplane! Conferences are an integral part of academic careers, and of grad school. Conferencing effectively involves many skills, most of which no one is going to teach you, except maybe the University of Tryandtryagain. But no one ever seems to graduate from there. We will consider: how to write an effective proposal, how to craft a compelling oral presentation, how to read like a movie star, how to use PowerPoint to save the world, and how to leverage the networking opportunities of travel, using the limited budget you have at your disposal. How many grad conferences should you go to? How many should you organize? Is the MLA worth it? Is midnight really the deadline for proposal or can it be tomorrow? Stay tuned …
Jobs in the academy (November 11)
Special guests: XXXX
To read: excerpts from terrifying books, and from Salon, and from Katina Rogers
To do: find jobs listings in your fields, and in the alt-academy
Have you heard? The academy is falling apart! Tenure track jobs are disappearing in the mass adjunctification of higher education! The whole thing is run on the ground-up dreams and aspirations of PhD candidates who take 11 years to finish their degrees while running up mortgage-level debt as their reproductive chances diminish and their number of cats increases. It’s bad, frankly. But not impossible, not in all ways, and not for everyone. When post-industrial capitalism closes a door, it opens a window. We will discuss the (very competitive, highly professionalized) tenure track job market in English, concentrating on Canada and the US. We will discuss job hunt and interview strategies and pragmatics. We will also enumerate and consider the various kinds of alt-academic jobs, of which many more are available: these are alternative academic jobs–that is, inside the university system, but off the tenure- or teaching track. These include work in administration, in communications, in libraries, in computing centres and research institution, in alumni relations, and in fundraising, particularly.
Writing an Article (November 18)
To read: de Silva, from how to write a lot, Bolker on writing articles
To do: investigate submission requirements from target journal, rewrite one intro paragraph
How is an article different from a dissertation chapter, or, God help me, a coursework paper? Reviewers can tell the difference right away, but it seems that junior authors cannot. I can and will happily let you in on the secret. And also show you how to go from idea to submission in about three months. Of course, submission of a proto-article for consideration by a journal involves inviting the dread Double-Blind Peer Review: everyone has some scary stories about that. We will investigate strategies for dealing effectively with peer reviews without turning to elaborate hexes or to alcohol, by looking at some of my first-attempt submissions, the peer reviews that resulted, and the subsequent chain of events leading to eventual (hooray!) publication.
ideas for change · learning · syllabus · teaching · video

I already know your grade: an argument for shorter writing assignments

Here’s a secret: in 99% of the cases, whenever I grade a writing assignment, I know the grade within the first page. It doesn’t matter if the assignment calls for 400 or 4000 words. The page one judgement is usually just reinforced by the other 1-20 pages.

Yes, that’s right. I read page one, a grade forms itself in my head, I read the rest of the paper, and the page one grade is the one I use. Some asking around indicates that I’m not the only one who experiences the page one effect while grading.

So my suggestion to you is this: why don’t we just create shorter writing assignments for our students? If the quality of writing and thinking (because that’s what a grade measures) manifests itself by the end of the first page, why drag it out for nine more, particularly in junior courses?

I’ve dramatically reduced the length of writing assignments I give to students. I figure if I want to help them write and think better or more clearly, they need to write more carefully, more often, and revise and rework more substantively. If I want to teach careful writing, assign more frequent writing, and make rewriting integral to the course, well, the assignments have to be shorter.

In my experience, shorter writing assignments expose both writing skill and thinking skill more clearly: you can’t hide in six or 12 or 25 pages of simple endurance. You either had an idea and wrote it up well, or you didn’t. When a student comes to my office with a two page response paper that earned a 74, we can go over the entire paper, in detail, in about five minutes. Then the student, for the next assignment, rewrites that first one. Can you do this with a 10 page paper? In short writing, it’s all right there in front of you: it’s quality, not quantity, people.

And the same goes for grading: when I have less quantity, I find I can bring more quality. I give clearer, more detailed, better feedback to students when I’m not exhausted from marathon reading sessions of backbreaking stacks of papers.  I try to create (more numerous) short assignments that explicitly aim to help students write clearly and to think clearly: we write thesis statements, we do annotated bibliographies, we write response papers and the rewrite them, we do drafts of the research paper, and peer editing. I give detailed, lengthy feedback on everything.

I find this works with graduate students as well: I love to assign 400 word response papers, but the students who really struggle with this complain there isn’t “enough room” to argue a point. I tell them, truthfully, that if you can’t make one point in 400 words, you can’t produce a sensible 20 page paper, and that discipline in this regard is worth kingdoms.

Writing in university–and in the profession–is not an endurance event, where the simple feat of managing to produce a lengthy term paper for several courses at the same time is worthy of great applause. And yet if you ask your undergrads how they write a six or eight or 12 page paper, they’ll tell you they start at page one and keep going until they manage to fill the required number of pages, usually in the face of severe deadline pressure at the end of term: they treat academic writing like a sleep-deprived endurance event. I say instead: write me something shorter, something more pointed, something we can work on in proposal, in draft, in redraft, something I can read as closely and carefully as I want without giving up a month of sleep. Something you can rewrite completely without giving up a month of your sleep. Let’s think about the process of creating something good, not just something long enough.

There’s nothing heroic, I think, in writing or grading 10 or 15 or 20 page papers if the goal is simply to make it long enough or to make students “work hard enough,” and the grade makes itself manifest on the first page. It’s wasted time and effort all round.

Writing of all kinds requires skill at fundamental things: sentence construction, grammar, audience. Academic writing requires subject and research competence. In my view, shorter assignments help me teach these skills as fundamentals, as steps to be mastered before the culminating or more synthetic activity of the full-on Major Research Paper too thick for a staple that marshals original thinking with persuasive writing with careful research diligently cited and creatively organized. We will all work up to longer writing–which is a skill in itself to master, but one you can’t really get to with people who cannot form sensible paragraphs–because longer writing is important. But not right away, and not in every course, at every level.

You? Do you know by the end of page one what the grade will be? What are your grading or assignment strategies?

classrooms · syllabus

Change it up!

Well, we’ve made it!


Congratulations, you’ve survived September. Its been difficult, what with the inevitable topsy-turvyness of beginning classes and the seventh-circle-of-hellmouthness of online grant applications. I myself have just flown back to Halifax from a weekend conference in Edmonton. I’m jetlagged and preparing to finish tomorrow’s lecture. This of course has me thinking about my school wardrobe. No, not (only) this kind. In addition to wondering how I’ll patch together a swelter-worthy-yet-professional-and-slightly-edgy ensemble, I find myself thinking more seriously about that other kind of academic fashion: the syllabus. I mean, I remember shopping for courses based wholly on how exciting/scandalous/unusual the syllabus looked.

Am I alone in that?

I have the good fortune to be teaching, among other things, a contemporary theory course. I’ve taught a version of it several times, at two different universities, but this year I’ve given the reading list a huge makeover. Each time I teach this course I find that the students are both excited and a bit apprehensive. They seem to think that the reading material is going to be duller than unsweetened oatmeal (though oatmeal is anything but dull). Some of the time they are right. After all, while intellectually stimulating, sure, the structural anthropologists are don’t generally pop into my mind as paragons of stylish writing.

Obviously the use of theory has been debated over and again and that isn’t what I’m interested in here. Nope. I’m wondering how many of us out there give our syllabi new school outfits. It has crossed my mind that, given I’m on a 3/3 teaching load I might consider recycling some material—and don’t get me wrong, I do (though actually quite rarely…)! But I find myself continually working to pull the reading list together into a kind of cutting edge meets classic whole.

I’ll go out on a limb and say: changing one’s syllabus is as important as changing up one’s style. It gives you a chance to see how you fit your own thinking into, alongside, or against whatever is au courant in your field. And its our job to remain engaged with our respective fields. So despite the fact that I’m wishing I had an old lecture to pull out of my archives for tomorrow, I know its worth the effort.

How often do you change your syllabus?