Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fun with science (museum, not work), plus an ugly coyote

Took the kids to the science museum today.  My partner has been there several times with them, but I've never gone. We tend to divide up such trips rather than go as a whole family. It works for us, but I notice that most families have two parents attached at places like the museum.  Frankly, we just don't feel like we have the time--if we both went, the kids would go swimming or to the museum, etc less often.

Anyway, the museum is fabulous. My daughter is old enough to fully engage in it (instead of whine the whole time). And there is still enough there that interests my son.  Daughter keeps asking if we can go back soon, so it is a good thing I bought an annual family pass. 

We rushed home to get my son to baseball practice.  Then I  caulked the windows in the kids' rooms.  Partner had prepped the windows and bought all the stuff, but he really can't be trusted with the actual caulking (we found that out the hard way a few years ago).

On the way to pick up son from baseball, I noticed a coyote across the street from our house.  Just hanging out, no worries.  They've graduated from cats to small dogs lately, and our town has signs up warning of coyotes.  Great.  Our lab has been going after "something" when partner walks her at night.  Now we know what.  Good thing our dog is bigger than that bag-of-bones coyote.  The cat, however, would be a goner.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Untenured faculty should not accept administrative posts (and tenured faculty shouldn't ask them to)

An untenured woman in my department has been asked to fill in for a year as interim director for an area studies center while the director is on sabbatical.  She really wants to do it, that is clear.  I think she feels flattered to be asked.  And it would be a new title, new responsibility.  She gets a one-course release for the year, and (maybe) summer salary. 

BUT she is not tenured!  And she hasn't finished her book--she says she'll have it finished beginning of summer (but 6 months ago she thought she'd have it finished by this past winter break).  If her book was in-press or published, she'd be fine.  But the manuscript isn't even finished, much less out for review.

She knows that I think she should decline (I'm her mentor).  Her focus should be on research, publishing (her teaching evals are great--she's fine there).  There'll be plenty of time to run centers, etc after tenure.  Also, running the center will not get her any points toward tenure.  Though it will certainly be blamed if her publication record is borderline.

Will she listen to me? Probably not.  She's practically starry-eyed when she talks about it.  I'm not being heavy-handed with her about my advice.  But I just dread the idea of her not getting tenure.  Or even just squeaking by with tenure--I had two friends who turned into very sour and resentful academics when they got tenure with about 1/4 of the faculty voting against them.

Happier news:
I had a great ski week this week. Went 3 times!  On my ski days on the weekdays, I work from 5 or 5:30 to 8:00, then get ready and go skiing, and get back to work 1:30 until 5.  I always work a couple hours in the evenings, so it comes to at least 8 hours of work.  Plus, I get to ski!  Have I mentioned before that I think I'm addicted?  It really brings me joy, especially when I ski with my son.  Great exercise too.

No, I don't tell people at work.  They wouldn't understand. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Kids earning their keep, or at least picking up some of the slack, at last!

I'm pleased to report that my son has finally started to earn his keep!  Last week he helped me put together a desk (with cabinet and drawers) that I bought from World Market.  He was so enthusiastic about it.  He also set up the DVR that I bought my partner for xmas.  What a refreshing change for two overwhelmed, overworked parents. 

But he has also been very emotional (cranky, dramatic crying, etc) the last week or so. He is 10 1/2--maybe he is going through "the change." He already has pimples on his nose.  And he has had B.O. (body odor) at least once (I know this because he called me over to smell it. Very exciting.). 

He won't tell us what he was crying about.  Something that happened at school, and it does not involve an adult. And it doesn't involve his best friend.  That's all we know.

My daughter (5 yrs old) is also slowly becoming more independent.  She has severe eczema--not just on her ankles and wrists but full body.  It is a quality of life issue and so we monitor it closely.  When she has flare-ups, she cries and says, "I just want to be normal!"

Last year we spent over $3,000 on light therapy for her, which involved trips 3x/wk to the dermatologist for a medical-facility version of a tanning booth.  It was the only thing that has really worked, so we kept at it.  Now she is off the light therapy, but she still needs baths every day and a regimen of ointments  and medicines twice a day.  I do this almost every time, and it takes 10 minutes in the morning plus 30 minutes at night (including bath).  Think how much time that is over a year.

She is starting to help put the ointment on, and we've skipped baths every so often with no ill effects.  And even this little bit makes such a difference.  Her skin is gradually improving plus she's becoming more self-sufficient. 

She is pretty spunky.  She loves to swim, so I take her once a week to the indoor pool.  She will go up and down the giant slide 10-15 times.  This is a two-story slide.  Not only is she the littlest kid going up on her own, but think how many flights of stairs that adds up to!  She'd never agree to climb the stairs of a 20-story building.  But no problem if there's a slide to come down.

Today I was very relieved that she enjoyed skiing.  She took 14 runs!  She has a harness attached that Dad holds on to, running behind, because she can't stop on her own.  Or else I ski down holding on to her, with her skis between mine.  She likes that because we can go faster, but she's not really learning to ski that way.

Time to go.  Partner makes dinner on weekends.  My son is complaining about the food already. Attitude!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Critical reflections upon the apparent lack of critical reflection in college classrooms

News Flash!: Students now learn (almost) nothing in college!  In their book Academically Adrift, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa PROVE that academe is failing our kids!  More evidence, if you weren't already convinced, that the U.S. is sinking fast!  Ohhhhh when will it all end...?!

I'm being sarcastic, but that doesn't mean I'm not also concerned and perplexed.  I could SWEAR my students were learning something, including critical thinking skills.  Hmmmm.

Below are some bullet points posted on the Chronical of Higher Education website, followed by my comments:
  • “gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills (i.e., general collegiate skills) are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent for a large proportion of students”
OK, yikes! But I have to say I don't see it.  There are some dullards, yes.  But there are relatively few.  Of course, it is harder for me to tell about change over time.  Perhaps students have been becoming lamer and lamer at such a slow rate that I never noticed!  And now I am giving out As to students I would have given Cs to in the early 90s?!
  • less than one-half of seniors had completed over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester;
Ummmm.  OK, guilty on this one.  I have a 50-student class (a few years ago it would have been a 35-student class).  I am NOT going to grade 1,000 pages of student-generated writing.  Unless you count essay exams, in which case I guess I WILL grade close to 1,000 pages of student writing (and it will seem like 100,000 pages).  My other class has about 70 students--they write two 5-6 page papers plus an essay midterm and essay final.  But still not 20-pages really.  And I have a TA for that one.
  • scholarship from earlier decades suggest there has been a sharp decline in both academic work effort and learning;
In terms of effort spent, I have no idea.  But it is a scary thought.  Here is where I'd really need to see a specific school (like my university) compared over the years.  Are students at MY university significantly lazier compared to ten or twenty years ago?  Or can this trend be explained by the steady increase in numbers of students into higher education--more students, but on average less prepared students? Or....?

Inside Higher Ed's article summarizes some findings pointing to "best practices":
  • Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge -- while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
My hatred of study groups is finally validated!
  • Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
Geeeeez! OK, who is assigning less than 40 pages of reading per week?  I am embarrassed when there is a week on my syllabus that is less than 80, and I aim for 100 pages.   Of course, we all know that 40 pages in one book is the same as, say, 80 in another.  This especially true for big textbooks (those can sure take me a long time to read).  And who can't read contemporary fiction faster than, say, a calculus textbook?  I'm not sure I like this measure--danger of comparing apples to oranges across disciplines.
  • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)
As a professor in the liberal arts, I'm a bit relieved by that last finding.   I can't comment on those other majors, as I know very little about them.  Though anecdotally,  I can say that I sat on an MA committee in one of those schools/majors and watched them vote to approve an embarrassingly bad thesis, reinforced by an even worse defense.

Finally, as I touched on above, if we stick to this notion that everyone should go to college and continue to move in that direction, wouldn't that predictably lead to results like the one in this study?  One of my ex-grad students is now a professor at a university most people in the U.S. will have heard of.  State school, good football, but not exactly known for its academics.  He told me that he has had students who are mentally retarded--he clarified that it was beyond a learning disability; they were actually mildly mentally retarded.

Let's just leave it at that for now--at least on my end.  What do others think about this?

    Why I've been a bad blogger

    I haven't been a great blogger in the last few weeks.  There's a couple of reasons for that.

    First, I have a new course prep.  It takes a long time to write each lecture from scratch.   I teach Tues and Thurs and have been getting to sleep at 11:30pm the night before and then waking up the next morning at 5am to finish.  Yes, planning ahead, starting earlier would help.  But I feel like if I did that, I wouldn't get any of my own research and writing done.  So I let the adrenalin kick in and then power through at the last minute.

    Second, lately I'm not as stressed out about university budget cuts or about my kids or about finances (my usual three).  I'm sure that will change soon enough!  Lately, I've been most stressed about my publishing.  I've been concentrating on writing a book, that morphed into two books.  And then one of those two got so unwieldy that I had to split it in half also.  So I have hundreds of pages, but scattered across three book projects.  And then I sent off an article to the journal with the highest rejection rate. It is still on R & R there, but I'm not optimistic.  So, I have been spending more time writing up my research and less on blogging.

    Third, it is ski season!  Fall is a dud around here.  Summer and winter are where (that is, when) it's at!  So I bet Sept-mid-December will be my blogging season.  That said, now that I'm settling in to courses, I am getting back to more regular blogging.

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    Why, oh why, did I decide to teach a new class?!

    Problem: For some reason, I decided to teach a brand new class. 

    Actually, I know why I did it.  It will be good for my department and our majors.  But that doesn't mean it was a good career decision for me.  Now I am facing long long hours of new lecture prep. The syllabus alone already took a week of full-time work. Really. 

    But I have learned a thing or two about how not to be overwhelmed by a new class.  My plan:

    1. I am making sure to mix more discussion questions into the lectures.  I have a tendency to lecture too much if I don't reign myself in.  So I'm going to schedule in more discussion, even though it is a 50 person class.  Students tend to be most engaged during discussion.

    2. I am assigning 5 minute powerpoint-style class presentations.  I do this in one other class, and students are surprisingly good.  Public-speaking is an important skill to hone.  I wish I had done more of it in college.  The students are assigned a specific topic that they research and are to take an instructional approach, teaching us the main elements of that topic in 5 minutes.  These aren't big topics--they are small ones, something I'd only spend 5 minutes or less explaining if I lectured on it.  And they will be spread throughout the semester.

    So I woke up today thinking, Oh my god, I have to spend all day Monday prepping lecture for Tuesday. And then I remembered that we didn't get to discuss a series of questions last class, so we will start with those.  Then I have 5 students presenting that day, which will take at least 35-40 minutes.  So now, my challenge will be--how can I fit all I wanted to say in 15 minutes.  That is a problem I'd rather have.

    Saturday, January 8, 2011

    Preparing a syllabus produces brain-rot

    I'm still slogging through creating a new course.  I knew it would be time-consuming, but this is ridiculous.  The topic is nontraditional and interdisciplinary.  Thus, it is very hard to construct a syllabus--few model syllabi out there, no good textbook.  But there is high student interest, and I'll be excited about it again (I hope!) once this monster of a syllabus is done.  Almost there!

    Something about creating or even revising a course rots my brain.  It is both intellectually intense and tedious.  Earlier this week, after a long day of syllabus-preparing, I missed my bus stop by a few stops.  And then when I caught the bus going back the other way, I got off the bus too early!  In my defense, it was dark, which makes it nearly impossible to see one's location.  But still. 

    This would be a lot easier if I just used a textbook and then lectured on whatever I wanted.  But generally I shun textbooks and use my own selection of articles plus a few books.  I discuss the readings in class, weaving them in to lecture/discussion, so I really need them to be good. 


    Sunday, January 2, 2011

    The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Talented and the Gifted

    My son's "talented and gifted" (TAG) test results have finally come back (actually, they've been sitting undiscovered in his backpack for 2 wks).  He indeed qualifies--by a long shot. 

    I've grumbled and agonized about 1) why it took his school so long to agree with me that he is possibly smart (much less TAG); and 2) whether and how identifying him as TAG will actually make a positive difference for him.

    On the first point, the kids at his school that have stereotypical Aspergers symptoms are tested right away. I'm not saying that the kids are actually diagnosed with Aspergers.  Rather, at his school, those traits (problems in social interaction, motor clumsiness, encyclopedic of a narrow subject, etc) are equated with TAG more readily than any other signs.  The other factor ensuring that a child is tested early is parent request.  According to the TAG coordinator, a fair number of kids tested do not qualify. 

    Like my son, our neighbor was not tested until 4th or 5th grade (at mother's request, not teacher's)--she tested practically off the charts.  Who knows how many TAG kids are missed.  I imagine kids who are English as a second language and kids of lower economic strata are most harmed by this faulty system.  In sum, our teachers do not seem effective at identifying TAG students.  This, in itself, is a big mark against the TAG program.

    My other issue concerns the benefits of TAG.  The TAG handbook notes that TAG students can take more advanced classes.  But my son qualified for that anyway, without TAG.  TAG students can also skip a grade, but I don't think my son would benefit much from that.  He'd be removed from his social circle and also would have a much harder time qualifying for sports teams, as he'd be a year younger than everyone else.  He likes playing sports.

    I'm sure my anxiety and resistance to TAG has to do with my own experiences in school.  I skipped 4th grade, and when I entered middle school (6th grade), my mission was to hide my intellect and socially succeed through mastering "normative femininity."  I didn't advertise my gpa to classmates.  Through I.Q. testing, I was placed in the "academically talented" class--but I never told my friends what I did in 4th period.  That 4th period class included me and maybe 8-9 other kids--I was a cheerleader, most of the rest socialized over playing Dungeons and Dragons.  We all got along well, but I wasn't close with them.

    I felt a forced choice at my school--one was either "academically talented" OR popular.  Interestingly, this was NOT directly enforced by the popular kids.  Indeed, the cruel harassment that I recall now came through other academically talented kids.  I remember on the 7-hour bus ride transporting the entire district's "academically talented" juniors and seniors to the Shakespeare Festival, a group kept kept jeering me for my letter jacket (I was on a couple teams, not just cheerleading).  They were surprisingly aggressive about it.

    Another time, my summer cheerleading camp shared a campus with an academically talented program of some sort.  My friend and I thought we had befriended two foreign students with strong accents, who kept asking us to tell them all about cheerleading in America.  On the last day, in front of a lunch table full of their "intellectually-gifted" friends, these "foreign" students (now minus the accents) told us, "Did you know that the word 'gullible' is not in the dictionary?'"  Howls of laughter erupted at the expense of the stupid cheerleaders.  Ironically, my 5-member squad produced a medical doctor, a corporate lawyer, a teacher, a professor, and a stay-at-home mom (perhaps not too far off from that lunch table of geniuses).

    The popular kids, in contrast, were mostly unaware of the kids in the academically-talented program. They certainly didn't spend time constructing a week-long ruse to humiliate them, much less even look their way on the bus.  The anti-intellectual pressure was more quotidian, if less creative: pressure to not use an advanced vocabulary; laughs when one of the guys acted stupid; positive attention from boys when a girl performed what we might call "airheaded femininity" (I like to believe that I never succumbed to that).

    As usual, this is a series of reflections with no specific conclusion.  I am working to separate my issues from my child's.  I don't think he has any issues--except that problem with horrific spelling. But as the TAG handbook tells me, that is not an uncommon trait for TAG kids.  Horray!