what we major in when we major in english

I’m teaching our senior seminar this semester, a capstone course for the English major. Here’s my description:

This semester you should conduct the most thorough research and engage in the most challenging thinking of your college career so far. There are two threads to this class. First, you will reflect on and synthesize what you’ve learned over the last four years about literature and culture, theory and research. You will also fill a gap you identify in your undergraduate education. Second, you will think and talk about what comes next for you, after you graduate. Most of our class sessions will be devoted to (and most of your grade will be based on) the research required for your Capstone Paper, which is the first thread. However, we will also discuss topics relevant to the second thread in class and in individual conferences in my office.

Because this is a seminar, the content of class meetings will be shaped and driven by you, the students. You are responsible for presenting your research as well as for responding to others’ presentations. Come to class fully prepared each and every time the class meets.

Here’s what we did for today as we started thinking about ways to imagine what an English degree looks like:

  • Print a copy of your college transcripts and separately list all of your English courses. Make some notes (from memory, if necessary) on the readings and assignments you completed for these courses.
  • Read our U’s academic catalog description of the English major and familiarize yourself with the department’s offerings and the major’s requirements.
  • Conduct the same research at other schools by reading the catalogs of at least 10 other colleges and universities. Your selection strategy should be threefold. First, choose some nearby schools: Clemson, USC Columbia, Furman, Wofford, Converse. Next, pick a mixture of the “flagship” institutions of nearby states and private schools in those state: for example, the University of Georgia, Emory University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Davidson, the University of Virginia, the University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt University. Finally, look at schools from some other parts of the United States: for example, the University of Kansas, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the University of Washington. How do their offerings and requirements differ from ours? Be prepared for this research process to take a few hours.

This turned out to be a pretty interesting discussion, though I’m too pooped right now to provide much detail. I will suggest that you go look at Emory’s requirements and UGA’s requirements. These are pretty significantly different ways of designing a degree.

For Tuesday, I’ve assigned these essays:

I think I’m really going to like this class.

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why johnny still can’t read or write

I meant to publish this entry a long time ago, but life intervened.

Way back in March of this year, Mark Bauerlein took aim at rhetoric and composition specialists by mocking the titles of a few of the panels and papers at the 2006 meeting of CCCC. Many, many commenters, myself included, called him on the logical problems with his assertions about the general tenor of rhet/comp scholarship. What’s at stake in the conversation is not only the issue of how we teach students to write (about which more below), but also what kind of standards we should expect from academics who blog. Typically if you want to take part in a scholarly conversation about a topic–whether through print in a journal, through speaking at a conference, or through online participation in a listserv–one of the qualifying steps is that you familiarize yourself with what has already been said in that conversation. You cannot merely pick up on the titles of a handful of things and then generalize about an entire field of study. To do so is to violate basic standards of academic discourse, and in any of those venues–journal, conference, or listserv–you would be called on it if you did so. I’ll go even further: if you were to commit this error in an assignment for a first-year writing course–of which the blog entry in question is highly critical–you would probably fail that assignment. Imagine, for example, a response to a collection of essays in which the student only discussed the essays’ titles.

Academia and academic blogs need more pointed disagreements over professional and disciplinary issues because, as I tell my students, disagreements sharpen arguments and they force participants to develop more fully the logic behind their positions. Bauerlein made much the same point about academia in general in a widely linked essay (titled “Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual”) in the Chronicle of Higher Education awhile ago. However, we should expect a certain level of civility and respect in these disagreements. I’m not arguing that we should treat blogs so seriously that they become undifferentiated from other forms of professional communication; the playfulness that characterizes much academic blogging and the intersection of the private with the professional are unique and valuable characteristics that should not be lost. However, when academics blog about disciplinary questions, they should not throw out the window their ability–their responsibility–to bring the same intellectual rigor to the subject in a blog that they would if they were communicating through more traditional means. Bauerlein is an eloquent and persuasive speaker and writer. What would the conversation that ensued at the Valve have looked like if he had used that eloquence and persuasion in his original blog entry?

I’d like to add two short comments to the (now expired, I realize) conversation, one about what happens before students enter the composition classroom, and one about what happens afterwards.

College professors have no control over what students do or do not learn before they come to college. Upon graduation from high school, students should at minimum be functionally literate and know how to write a coherent paragraph. If they enter college without these skills, then they will only experience minimal improvement as writers and readers over the next four years. One or two courses in composition are not going to make up for what they didn’t learn in their previous twelve years of education. Those who are upset because they believe that college graduates lack essential basic skills should focus their attention on what happens before those students ever enter college, in the years when those basic skills should have been acquired.

Additionally, college professors have no control over what students do after they finish a college course. It’s entirely possible for students to learn a skill and then let that skill atrophy. In their composition courses, they should learn fairly advanced writing skills that will allow them to fulfill the assignments they encounter in a wide variety of subsequent courses. If those other courses–in history, in economics, in physics–are not challenging them in their reading and writing, then students are likely to lose whatever they may have gained in their first-year writing courses. In other words, while it is the responsibility of first-year writing courses to teach skillful reading and writing, it is every discipline’s responsibility to continue to require students to flex those reading and writing muscles. To the extent that it exists, the failure to graduate students with basic reading and writing skills is every discipline’s failure. It makes no sense to single out compositionists for blame.

We could have a very interesting and productive blog-based conversation about reading and writing skills and the college classroom, but that conversation will not be initiated by snarky drive-by comments that make fun of the annual meeting of this or that professional organization.

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asecs 2006: women’s caucus roundtable: mentoring

I spent last weekend in Montreal, at the 2006 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. I thoroughly enjoyed the Saturday morning panel where I presented my paper, “Evangelicalism, Periodicals, and the Public Sphere.” I also caught several other interesting panels, including a roundtable discussion on the topic of mentoring, sponsored by the ASECS Women’s Caucus.

Now “mentoring” is an interesting process. If a person is your mentor, then they are something more than your teacher or your boss or your colleague, but they are something less than your friend. It’s a professional relationship, but one that goes beyond what the profession requires or encourages. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if the profession were all it’s cracked up to be, then mentoring would be unnecessary because the already existing professional relationships would be fulfilling the needs of members of the profession. Is it wrong for me to think of mentoring as something that fills in the gaps created by a flawed profession? I’m still thinking these things through.

All six roundtable participants made interesting contributions, but two in particular have stuck in my head. And keep in mind that I may have missed key points in some of the discussion, so if anything below seems particularly wrongheaded, be kind and blame me rather than anyone I’m paraphrasing.

Laura Brown spoke specifically about the transition from graduate student to colleague and discussed the role that faculty play in teaching their graduate students about the responsibilities of “intellectual citizenship,” helping to maintain the intellectual culture of the department and the discipline. PhD students become responsible intellectual citizens by attending talks, asking good questions, actively participating in their graduate seminars, becoming engaged with the field. What I found striking was the emphasis Brown gave to graduate student responsibilities, rather than just, say, opportunities. This is, after all, what is expected of us by the larger profession of which we are a part. I always tell my graduate students to think beyond the boundaries of the university; it’s fine to want to please those of us who teach the classes they take, but once they graduate, pleasing us should be the last thing on their minds. I encourage them to attend some conferences, make contacts with people at other institutions, become aware of what’s going on profession-wide.

Kristina Straub addressed the issue of “horizontal mentoring,” the guidance that peers give one another in their careers. For example, one aspect of an academic professional’s job is to review grant applications or manuscripts for publication, and we should think of these as “horizontal” mentoring opportunities. The audience you address in such a review includes not only the editor or grant awarding agency who must make a decision about how to proceed, but also the person who has written the article, book, or grant application. The feedback that you provide can be highly critical, if necessary, while still providing that person with the guidance they need to continue to improve. You’re not just performing a gatekeeping function in which you merely say “don’t publish this” or “don’t award this grant”; you are also functioning in a way that helps the person make it through the gate. In short, mentoring need not be something you add to your already busy schedule. Rather, you can begin to think of the responsibilities you already have as opportunities for mentoring, for helping others get to where they need to be. As some of my acquaintances know, I’ve had some less-than-satisfying experiences with feedback on grant applications and article submissions, and I can’t help but think I’d be farther along if I had been given advice on how to move forward instead of just reasons for denial. The upside of those experiences is that as a result, I believe that I have become a very responsible reviewer of other people’s material.

Some relatively rough thoughts sparked by the discussion:

Sometimes a significant gap develops between the vision of an institution’s administrators and the vision of the faculty members, or between the vision of newer faculty members and the vision of longtime faculty members.

The first kind of gap, to take one example, develops at those colleges and universities where a corporate model of management has gradually taken hold at administrative levels while many, if not most, of the faculty have resisted such a model. The pro-institution rhetoric that administrators sometimes deliver can be incompatible with an honest discussion regarding the challenges, limitations, and problematic traditions that still linger at a given institution. And effective mentoring, by contrast, would require such honest discussion.

The second kind of gap can occur as a result of newly heightened tenure requirements for junior faculty. How can tenured faculty mentor their junior colleagues on publishing an academic monograph, for example, if no one in the department with tenure has ever done so?

What happens when faculty members think of their relationship to their institution, or to their colleagues, as somewhat adversarial? How does this affect the mentoring provided by those in power at such an institution?

Professional competence is an issue, too. Seeking a mentor can be accompanied by a feeling of anxiety. Who wants to appear ignorant, clueless, unprofessional. “Why don’t you already know how to do your job?” I wonder what the best way is to resolve this anxiety.

And we shouldn’t assume that mentors always know what they’re doing. “Who mentors the mentors?” Newly tenured faculty members may not be the most knowledgable or best positioned to provide effective advice. Yet junior faculty will often seek these newly tenured faculty for advice because they are less threatening advisors. Junior faculty need to be careful of shopping for the kind of advice they’re seeking while ignoring the advice that they don’t want to hear from those more experienced.

I’m curious, dear reader, about your experience with mentoring. Answer anonymously, if you like. Are you a professor or student? Do you have a mentor now? If not, why not? If so, has mentoring been helpful? Have you been a mentor to someone else? Has it gone well? What have been the most remarkable risks and rewards of mentoring?

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happiness is a warm blog

It’s a sunny, cool Sunday morning here in Manchester. The weather up north is not as warm as it was down in London, and that’s just fine with me. I’m working on fulfilling Laura’s suggestion regarding local pix. A local coffee shop features a free, 30-day trial of their WiFi service, allowing me to check in periodically. I had ethernet in my room in London, which is why I was blogging (and reading online) more.

Yesterday I became the last person in the world to buy a copy of the (so far very enjoyable) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. I also saw Batman Begins. My verdict? Best. Batman. Ever.

You know what? I feel good. Although L is currently several thousand miles away, and we will have spent a total of eight weeks apart this summer, I am made quite happy by being in the archives, reading otherwise inaccessible materials, and writing rough drafts that will (with any luck) appear as articles and/or as a book.

Happiness is not something I’ve blogged about a great deal. And happiness runs the risk of being boring. I believe it was Tolstoy who first observed that “Happy bloggers are all alike; every unhappy blogger is unhappy in his or her own way.”

Continue reading

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ASECS 2006

The 2006 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies will take place in Montreal. (Or is that, …will take place in Montreal, eh?) The calls for paper are now online.

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