Homework! Oh, Homework!

It’s a necessary component of learning and teaching: homework. Oh, the dreaded word! The painful obligation! It must be the world’s leading cause of procrastination. Oh, that most delicious of clichéd doggy treats! The Jack Prelutsky poem sums up how most people feel about homework pretty succinctly.

But it isn’t just for students, is it?

I’ve taught French language and literature classes as well as English conversation classes over the years, but for some reason, now that I am a bona fide “professor,” I realize that the homework I labored over as a student is not a thing of the past. If anything, it is ever more present and pressing, only it has changed form. Granted, as Dr. Gina, I get to decide what the homework is and how much of it there is to do, but it is easy to forget that I must also do the much of the homework I assign to my students. It’s a great built-in system of checks and balances: never assign more homework than you care to do yourself!

Students are routinely told to expect to do two to three hours of work outside of class for every hour spent in class. This is extremely difficult to measure depending on the type of work assigned as well as the amount of concentration, motivation, and thoroughness with which students approach the homework. I wonder what the rule is for the instructor? My students may well spend two to three hours outside of class for every hour in class. All I know for sure is that for every time they read an article or novel, chances are I have read it two or three times, if not more.

I am teaching a brand new class this semester, as I have written about previously, and I read everything I put on the syllabus as I was designing the class. I didn’t want any surprises. But June and July were ages ago. I have also forgotten a lot since I was not taking very good notes as I tried to wade through piles of material as quickly as possible, so now I am re-reading everything as I teach it. It’s almost like the first reading doesn’t count as a real reading because so much gets lost in the newness of it all. I can only hold onto so much in my brain with each read through. A very few of the works I am using were already familiar to me from my dissertation or my course work in grad school and still I re-read the ones I practically know by heart for a refresher. One of the great “pleasures of the text” is re-reading anyway, right?

The more complex, theoretical articles, however, I could probably read four or five times and still not feel sufficiently secure about my understanding of them, let alone my ability to help students understand them. But as Nelle points out in a previous post, one of the best ways to cement your own knowledge of a subject is to teach it.

Anecdotal supporting evidence: this week, I had two relatively tough articles to discuss in class, one left over from last week and another one that was new on Monday. I had read them, taken notes and felt I understood the arguments they were making at the moment I was reading them. As soon as I took my eyes off them though, I seemed to lose my grasp on them, not forget exactly, but their complexity made it difficult for me to feel like I had a secure overall view of the important points being made and especially, what I needed my students would come to understand in class. I can make all the outlines and underline as many passages as I like, one crucial detail tends to slip away from me while I am busy trying to get my head around another.

I generally go to class with a vague sense of foreboding. My students always have at least some notion of what is going on in a given text, but as soon as they start to ask me to clarify or explain this or that, things can go horribly wrong, and sometimes do! I am not one to believe I ought to know all the answers, or worse, that I do know all the answers, but I strive to know as many as I can or, failing that, to know how to seek them out and bring them back with me the next time. So far this semester, as I muddle through my own, self-imposed homework, often with the nagging worry that I am not ready, possibly not smart enough to teach these texts, I am happy to report that it’s been going pretty well. In fact, this is one of the moments when teaching can be quite a rush, for me at least.

Something really interesting, almost magical happens when I am up in front of my students teaching these difficult, scary texts. If I have done my homework, even though I feel unsure of myself, I somehow manage to articulate the take-home message to my students in a way I feel totally incapable of doing when I am sitting at my desk writing my lesson plan. Is it because the classroom situation makes the material more “real” than when it is just me staring at it alone? Is it because the pressure to perform actually suits me and propels me into action, stripping away the fear and insecurity so I can focus on the task at hand? Am I delusional and blurting out utter nonsense like a partygoer who swears she speaks German perfectly when she’s drunk? A little of each, perhaps?

All I can say for sure is that it feels like an out of body experience. A student asks a tricky question or points out a difficult passage. Suddenly, I hear a voice speaking clearly and confidently, saying things that sound reasonable and coherent. But wait! The voice is mine and it is coming from my mouth. I am the reasonable and coherent one, explaining the “thing” in a way I have never heard myself do before, what with this being a new class and all… Whereas I had expected to stutter and nervously flip pages of notes to bide time, I hardly look at my notes except to verify numbers and dates. I have read, I have re-read, I have taken notes and planned my lesson. I have learned this stuff and now, I am teaching it.

I am the professor!

It’s kind of euphoric.

How do you prepare to teach new or challenging topics? Do you ever feel ready?

turning down ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunities

A ‘postdoc’ is basically the next step in academia after completing the “doc.” It is further training before you become a principal investigator. Finding a postdoctoral position or getting funding for one is no easy task. I will devote an entire post to finding a postdoc another time. Finding a great postdoc on the exact research you want to do is even harder, and, of course, you then have to get an offer. So once you have done all of that, why in the world would you pass it up? I can tell you my story, and hopefully there are some broader truths to be drawn from it or, at least, it may resonate with you.
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7 ways to manage when your spouse goes out of town

In general, feel very good about the routine that my husband and I have set up. We have divided responsibilities of the household and parenting so that we can both conquer our professional obligations. In fact, I will write a whole separate post on partnership and support systems to manage academic work and parenting. For now though, I want to address how I get by during those times that my husband’s job requires travel – for up to a week at a time. Suddenly becoming a single parent, even as temporary as it is, throws everything off kilter. In the past before my son came along, I would spend most of his time away sulking. My work productivity would go down even though technically I had more time without the distraction of a husband. You may have already guessed that things have changed since our son, Miles came along – which also coincided with the final year of my PhD. I no longer have the luxury of a good sulk. Instead I have come up with some creative strategies to keep life moving along, if only hopping on one foot!
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The high physical toll of intellectual work

Originally posted on Overstretchable:

Image from page 177 of %22A treatise on orthopedic surgery%22 (1910)

Image from p. 177 of A Treatise on orthopedic surgery (1910)

I’m back in the classroom this semester teaching a brand new course! That means I’ll be standing in front of my students during class, but every hour of class time represents several hours of prep time, most of it done sitting in a chair. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much it hurts to sit in a chair for such long periods. 

Several years ago, a grad school friend and I were comparing notes about the extent to which our bodies had fallen apart while in our respective programs – and that was before either of us had had a baby. It’s counterintuitive to think that sitting around all day, flipping pages in books, and typing papers, or performing any intensive desk work, could be so hard on a body, but it’s true. This 2011 NPR story, Sitting…

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Teaching toddlers the Montessori way

This year miles joined a Montessori toddler community. I am sure there are many parents familiar with Montessori principles and philosophy but my husband and I were not among them when he started. In general, we take a laissez-faire approach to parenting, which perhaps makes us more reactive than active parents. I like to think that despite our chronic procrastination when it comes to deciding how to parent won’t keep us (or Miles) from getting a passing grade in the end.

The toddler curriculum consists of “practical life.” I kind of get the concept. The children ‘work’ for most of the morning rather than playing. I’ve noticed that work and play indistinguishable for Miles right now, because everything is new and exciting. Even the most mundane task of pouring milk into his cereal is a delight. He gets starry eyed at the prospect of sweeping with his little broom. He literally wets himself in the joy of washing dishes. I know the novelty will pass. I think ‘practical life’ is about capitalizing on this and channeling all that curiosity toward skills that will serve children well later on in life…and if it serves me well right now, so much the better! Continue reading

When your graduate students have babies

When I became pregnant as graduate student, it was juicy gossip in our program, I’m sure of it. And there isn’t anything wrong with that. Graduate students and gossip – they go together like a horse and carriage. Congratulations were offered in the lunch room, hallways, and lots of questions about life plans, academic plans, etc. If there were mutterings that I would drop out, well, I never heard them. By that time I was closer to the end than the beginning – quitting was not an option. Thank goodness, my adviser agreed!

That is part of my story – my narrative of what it means to have a baby in graduate school. I hadn’t stopped to think about flipping this script to consider what it means to advise a graduate student having a baby. To that end, here is an article (sent to me by my adviser), called, “When your graduate students have babies,” by Leonard Cassuto at Fordham University. What an interesting window in the mind of an academic adviser! This article raises the question of whether advisoes should openly discuss the possibility from the start. I find the comments at the end as interesting as the article itself. Here is the link to the original article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Continue reading

Add/Drop and the first day: on the mysterious intentions of students

As a student, I never ever missed the first day of class. It was unthinkable for me. I almost never missed a class period, but especially not the first day. That’s when you get the revered, all important document – the syllabus! It’s when you meet the professor, get a feel for the class, and hear about assignments. For me, eternal nerd that I am, this day was not to be missed. This is not the philosophy of many students today.  Continue reading