Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Blogging Backlog

I don't know how people find time to blog everyday. I frequently find myself with a major backlog of things I would like to blog about. If I don't catch up on my posts within a week I usually let them drop since timeliness seems of the essence in blogging.

Upcoming posts...

1. Tips for professors on how to work with TAs. (If you treat your TAs nice, word will get around, people will want to work for you. Good TAs can do things for you, things you probably haven't realized you need someone to do for you.)
2. Ideas for how to grade papers/essay exams efficiently.
3. Reflections on Articulate Dad's comments on the insanity that is academia.
4. More on my PhD program dilemma.
5. Thoughts on the place of blogging in academia.

When these posts might happen is a mystery. The rest of this week will be filled with work and grading. Sunday I'm leaving town for a few days for a retreat. Yay!

Maybe spring break will be a time for blogging?


The gentle art of letter writing

On the grad school application front, I have now heard back from two universities besides Visitation U. "Great White North U." has made me a very nice offer, which would most likely involve Beorn and I applying for permanent resident status. Their program is excellent, but I'm not sure it's realistic for us to move to such an expensive city and try to emmigrate and all.

On the other hand, one of the top rated programs in the U.S. sent me a rather strange acceptance letter. It went something like this...

Dear Breena,

Thank you for your application to the graduate program of the "Head Studies" Department at "Top State". You are in the top third of the application pool. As a result, we are recommending to the Graduate School that you be admitted to the program. Congratulations! The fact that we let you in means you must have had a good application.

Although admission is good news, we haven't worked out a financial aid package for you. Although we have already made some TA and RA offers, it is unclear how many more admission-with-aid packages will be available. You are among a group of 20 students who didn't quite make the cut. In the next two or three weeks, I hope to contact you to make you the offer that you are undoubtedly waiting for!

We know you may have had good offers from "lesser" programs, but if you have independent funds to support tuition and living expenses, you are welcome to consider coming anyway. There is some chance that over the summer – or in subsequent semesters – we will be able to find an assistantship for you. But as of now, it is a case of wait-and-see. Thank you for your interest in
"Top State".

Dr. So-and-so
Chair, Graduate Admissions Committee

Jane Doe
Graduate Assistant

I modified the wording of the letter somewhat to protect the not-so-innocent, but not much. The tone is fairly true to the original. Notice that while the letter is officially signed my Dr. So-and-so, it was sent from the account of his graduate assistant. This letter has to be the worst acceptance letter of all time. It does not make me want to join their program, no matter how highly rated. In fact, I would like to email the chair and gently mention that I found the letter off-putting. Seriously, someone should learn how to write an acceptance letter. I know it isn't a good idea to go telling tenured professors in my discipline how to do their jobs, but really, I could write a much better letter than that.

More realistically, I would like to write them and let them know that I have firm offers from other places and if they would like me to consider their program, they should up their game, but I'm almost certain that email would come out sarcastic. In any case, I think I should contact Dr. So-and-so directly rather than his staff person. To me it seems very rude for him to not take the time to write himself, at least for the first contact. It would only take a few minutes to cut and paste the letters. And twenty students on the waiting list? Frak, how many students did the let in?

Any suggestions?


It's time to hate being a TA

Almost any term, there is a day, a moment maybe, in which I lose the will to go on working. I think the moment has arrived. Beorn's birth-daughter has been visiting all weekend, Saturday was a friend's 50th birthday party, and the grading load has been ridiculous. Last Thursday I gave a mini-lecture in the class I'm TAing and then Friday a presentation to faculty on how I use technology in the classes I TA.

Most days I like being a TA. I usually like the professors I work with. Often though, I'm frustrated with instructors that don't talk to their TAs about plans for the class or let us look over the assignment prompts before they hand them out.

I'm so tired of grading at this point it's not funny. Yesterday I read 20+ essays. I should read another 20+ tonight. By Saturday night I need to grade another 50+ take-home essay exams. The grading load for this course has been insane. Bleck!


Saturday, March 08, 2008

My visit might be unbloggable

Damn, I'm tired. I was so nervous/excited the entire trip that I could hardly sleep. I hate not being able to sleep. Also, I grit my teeth. Usually just a little, but now my jaw hurts.

I'm never sure how to disguise my identity or the identities of those I blog about. It's one of the most frustrating things about blogging. I'm not good at office/departmental politics and so I want to blog about those things to get advice.
The situation at Visitation U. is extremely interesting. It's the kind of the thing that confuses me and makes me nervous.

In my previous career, I did something that people either envied, or were repulsed by. I consider teaching a calling. (Interesting, I just realized I that.) My friend, who is a nurse, said to me one time, after I had talked to her about my thought process, in deciding whether or not to go to nursing school, that nursing is a calling. Her view was that people who get into nursing for the wrong reasons grow to resent their patients. Teachers who don't love teaching, I believe, experience something similar.

When I taught outdoor ed, I had to wrangle the energy of 20+ elementary students all day. I had to keep them safe and entertained and learning. This was a lot of work, but something I really enjoyed. I liked being outside and talking about science and nature and trying to show students how learning can be fun. I miss my old job.

Many people, on the other hand, did not want my job. They didn't like the idea of herding large groups of children, of teaching the same lessons, over and over. I got sick teaching elementary students, over and over. I got paid very, very little, because there was a constant stream of young college grads willing to take my job. Never mind that they didn't know how to teach like I did, that I had worked years to learn how to teach well, that wasn't important.

My point is, my previous career wasn't competitive. I worked hard because I wanted to be an excellent teacher. I always hoped to move up, to run my own program and make enough money to pay off my loans and buy a house. When it became clear that it might be years before that happened, I realized I would have to go back to school and get some training. Maybe it was my naivety, I didn't think of being competitive, I just wanted to do my job well.

Academia is competitive. Visitation U. is very interested in me, at least by the standards of my discipline and their middle level status. I'm not used to people paying attention to me. Frankly, it made me nervous. It's all well and good to be a star student in a small department, but then you have to keep that up. You have to be smart and say the right things and kiss up to the right people. I'm more of the say what's on your mind type.

That's one reason I think it might be a good idea for me to change programs. I wasn't very circumspect when I started the program here a B.A.U. I didn't act respectful towards profs who I thought were "phoning it in" or just plain wrong. As an experienced teacher it was frustrating to see people who I wanted to admire, act as if they didn't care, as if teaching was the least thing to them, as if their ideas must be the best and everyone else wasn't worth listening to.

When I started the program at B.A.U., I didn't understand the need to "look smart" and my friends who were nervous to speak up and ask questions confused me. I didn't have something to prove. Now, with this new department, I feel I have to prove that I'm worthy of their esteem. I know it's weird. Who wouldn't be happy to get into a supportive department? They even offered a small scholarship, which I think will continue as long as I'm there.

I have to suppress my desire to tell them I'm not who they think I am.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Why did I sign up for this crap?

I have finally caught the illness that has been going around. When I'm sick I just want to sleep and tend to get depressed. As a recovering workaholic, not being able to work is difficult. Getting behind in numerous types of work is frustrating. My thesis is progressing, but far from complete. I'm treading water at my "research assistant" job. And I haven't managed to finish grading the latest batch of papers, partly because I found two cases of plagerism.

Tomorrow I'm going to visit the one PhD program I have heard from, which won't help me catch up. I'm excited, but nervous.

What has made me extra tired today is my students. They aren't reading. I tried to lead them through constructing an argument for their next paper, which is due Monday, but since they haven't read most of the case studies, there wasn't much for them to say. They are tired, it's near the end of the term, and this is just a Gen Ed class, but their apathy discourages me. I'm tired of making an effort, when they are doing the bare minimum.