Wednesday, April 18, 2007

More from the Virginia Tech English Department

I am reprinting from The Chronicle.

English Department Tries to Help Instructors and Students 'Get Their Bearings'

Blacksburg, Va. — Last semester, when Ross A. Alameddine came into Edward A. Weathers’s professional-writing class at Virginia Tech, Mr. Alameddine issued a challenge: “I’m going to be either an English major, business minor, or a French major, business minor,” he wrote in a note to the instructor the first day of class. “That decision depends on this class. No pressure.”

Mr. Alameddine liked the course enough to declare English his major earlier this semester. But when classes resume next week, he won’t be here to pursue that path. He was one of the 32 victims of Monday’s massacre.

Mr. Alameddine sat in the center of 12 students taking Kelly A. Pender’s technical-editing class this semester. Ms. Pender, an assistant professor of English, talked Wednesday morning about what would happen when her class resumes next Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.

“Ross was the kind of student who you wanted to be there every day because he made the class work,” said Ms. Pender, 32, sitting in her office in Shanks Hall. “I’ve dealt with grief in my life, but I don’t know how the class will proceed.”

Nick J. Kocz, a graduate teaching assistant in the English department, also lost a student, Emily Hilscher, in one of the classes he teaches. She died in West Ambler Johnston Hall on Monday morning.

Carolyn Rude, chair of the department, is trying to help young professors and graduate teaching assistants deal with the final weeks of classes. She has asked the university to send a counselor to talk to them.

“We teach 6,000 students in any semester,” she says. “That’s why it matters what English does. We have 33 dead, but we have 26,000 or more trying to get their bearings and reclaim their lives.”

Some English professors have decided to leave it up to students whether to take the grade they have earned thus far or finish their last assignments.

“My students had their final paper due on the 22nd,” said Carlos Evia, an assistant professor of English. “That’s not going to happen. I can’t push them.”

Mr. Weathers, the instructor who taught Mr. Alameddine’s professional-writing course, feels the same way: “I don’t know how after all of this I can ask someone to do a paper on the history of the American penny, or the role of peanut butter in the American diet.”

Mr. Weathers feels a particular loss, since it was his class that persuaded Mr. Alameddine to major in English. Mr. Weathers plans to send the note Mr. Alameddine wrote him on that first day of class, and all of his other writings, back to his parents. — Robin Wilson

Other links related to the English faculty:

Chronicle forum: "The English department should have done more to prevent the VT massacre"

CNN: Cho's [Playwriting] Professor to Classmates: Don't Feel Guilty

Chronicle: Poet Nikki Giovanni's Address (audio)

Meanwhile, let's not forget engineering:

Chronicle: Questions Abound for a Homeless Engineering Department

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Mourning After

I am still too stunned by yesterday's events to offer any insight into them. I think we are all waiting for more information to help us make sense of the tragedy -- realizing what little sense there is to "make" of it (i.e., no matter what details might emerge).

I respond to the event on many levels, and through several different lenses -- as a parent, as a prof, and, naturally, as a citizen on this planet where violence is all too common, everyday.

It's as a prof that I write this particular post, in that I have been wondering what support the faculty community might give to the community at Virginia Tech. The fingerpointing is already well underway, and we can only hope that the blame game leads to insight, and not mere calumny. What role can and should faculty play here? I wonder.

I was mulling over this question (i.e., what can *I do?), when I went to the Chronicle and discovered this item, which I reprint below. It is *not how I answer my own question, not at all, though it does narrow the "role of faculty" generally down to English professors in particular, and the relationship we have with our students viz. their writing.

Student Was 'Troubled,' Says English Department Chair

Blacksburg, Va. — Cho Seung-Hui, the student responsible for yesterday’s mass killing at Virginia Tech, was a “troubled” student, said Carolyn Rude, chair of the university’s English department, today.

Within the past two years, she said, faculty members repeatedly reported their concern about things the 23-year-old student had written in his creative-writing courses.

The chair of the English department at the time, Lucinda Roy, passed those concerns along to administrators, Ms. Rude said.

“Enough faculty called it to the attention of the then-chair,” Ms. Rude said. She would not elaborate about what Mr. Cho had written, nor would she describe his behavior, saying she did not know him. —Robin Wilson

Many "troubling" questions here -- no answers, certainly. Your thoughts are welcome, on any of the above, but certainly on the question of what faculty might do.

Post-script, April 18: I understand that there are sites on Facebook to pay one's respects. I created a site, but found that while people visited, they were not posting, which I wholly understand; it did not feel right to leave the site up, though. We're all responding in our own ways.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Monday Mourning

Immense sadness at what has occurred at Virginia Tech today. Warmest thoughts to all of those affected by this grievous tragedy.

I am inescapably alarmed at how our nation's students are under perpetual attack.

April is the cruelest month.


Friday, April 06, 2007

"Tony" Scott, Renaissance Scholar

Perusing the news a little more leisurely this morning (see below), I had to chuckle at A.O. Scott's review of the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse, in which Scott purrs that "I could listen to Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Tracie Thoms, two of the movie’s motor-mouthed heroines, talk through the whole three hours of 'Grindhouse,' read the phone book or recite 'The Faerie Queene' on tape in my Volvo in the middle of a traffic jam."

I trust you're familiar with the phone book. But if you don't know Edmund Spenser's epic The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), and would like to be in on the joke, allow me to introduce you to the Red Crosse Knight . . .

A gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many' a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full iolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.

But on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead as liuing euer him ador'd:
Vpon his shield the like was also scor'd,
For soueraine hope, which in his helpe he had:
Right faithfull true he was in deede and word,
But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad;
Yet nothing did he dread, but euer was ydrad.

Vpon a great aduenture he was bond,
That greatest Gloriana to him gaue,
That greatest Glorious Queene of Faerie lond,
To winne him worship, and her grace to haue,
Which of all earthly things he most did craue;
And euer as he rode, his hart did earne
To proue his puissance in battell braue
Vpon his foe, and his new force to learne;
Vpon his foe, a Dragon horrible and stearne.

A louely Ladie rode him faire beside,
Vpon a lowly Asse more white then snow,
Yet she much whiter, but the same did hide
Vnder a vele, that wimpled was full low,
And ouer all a blacke stole she did throw,
As one that inly mournd: so was she sad,
And heauie sat vpon her palfrey slow:
Seemed in heart some hidden care she had,
And by her in a line a milke white lambe she lad.

So pure and innocent, as that same lambe,
She was in life and euery vertuous lore,
And by descent from Royall lynage came
Of ancient Kings and Queenes, that had of yore
Their scepters stretcht from East to Westerne shore,
And all the world in their subiection held;
Till that infernall feend with foule vprore
Forwasted all their land, and them expeld:
Whom to auenge, she had this Knight from far compeld.

Behind her farre away a Dwarfe did lag,
That lasie seemd in being euer last,
Or wearied with bearing of her bag
Of needments at his backe. Thus as they past,
The day with cloudes was suddeine ouercast,
And angry Ioue an hideous storme of raine
Did poure into his Lemans lap so fast,
That euery wight to shrowd it did constrain,
And this faire couple eke to shroud themselues were fain.

. . .

Dead sexy.

To follow the RCK, Una, and the lowly Dwarfe on their adventures through Faerie lond, click here. . .

Rodriguez-Tarantino double-feature gore-fest? Pfft. Wander ahead to Errour's den, a couple of stanzas away, and you'll be reaching for the popcorn.

One for the Record Books, One from the Archives

Yesterday I delivered the last lecture of my first year as a tenure-track professor in Renaissance Poetry and Prose at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

My metaphor for teaching the past couple of weeks has been the Wolfe Island ferry, the vessel that takes passengers and vehicles from Kingston to Wolfe Island, one of the many residential islets in the Thousand Island region. Every day -- indeed the highlight of my day, every day -- I drive over the Rideau Canal across the Lasalle Causeway, the low-lying bridge connecting the "east side" of Kingston, the rural district on the St. Lawrence where I live, to the city's historic downtown. As Kingston Harbor lies next to the Causeway, I frequently witness the ferry making its way into the docks.

Heading into the final weeks of the course, I knew my job was to bring the ferry in, both squarely (i.e., coherently) and on time (i.e., having effectively covered Paradise Lost). Loading the single passengers (all those lyric poems and individual prose texts spanning the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries), the passenger vehicles (e.g., the sonnet sequences, epyllia), and the heavy-lifting equipment (the epics, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost) on to the vessel -- the syllabus -- is relatively easy compared to the day-to-day work of navigating the craft.

As I told Jim Lang at the Chronicle at the end of fall term, I fell behind schedule often enough to worry about my credibility when it came to the syllabus, even though I felt we typically fell behind for good reason -- that is, to pursue ideas that helped advance and fulfill the intellectual objectives of the course. This term (my courses are year-long), I knew I had to stay on schedule and help students hunt down those ideas ("since in a net I seek to hold the wind" -- Thomas Wyatt), and captain the ship a little more firmly.

I delivered, as best I could; a little shaky, but we pulled in. There was one more point I wanted to make about Adam, but come 12:50 yesterday, I knew where we had to be, with Adam and Eve, exiting Paradise:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through EDEN took thir solitarie way.

At the end, I thanked the students for their attention, for their hard work, and, most of all, for their ideas. They applauded -- loudly, vehemently, for some time.

I confess I felt unworthy, even embarrassed.

At this point, it's true that all I can see now are ideas for classroom activities that I didn't follow through on; the fact that I didn't stay up-to-date on my course website, as I'd hoped (and promised); the points I should have made in class, and didn't, or feel I didn't make well enough. Sure, I'm writing it all down, so as to revise for next year -- and yes, I am now wedded to the idea of syllabus as thesis, not contract.

And I'm also trying my best to take in my students' appreciation and acclaim, which was genuine and heartfelt, and which I would be a fool to disrespect. Queen's students are Canada's brightest, and they work damn hard, harder than I ever worked as an undergrad.

Rising this morning -- after little sleep tending to my feverish daughter all night -- I nonetheless had the leisure to spend a little more time reading the headlines than I usually would. Plugging through my "news and mags" bookmarks, I usually skip over the link to Harper's, which, until recently, has been a mere shell of a site, barely an ad for the current issue on newsstands.

Digital shell no more: the new online Harper's is fantastic, with links and archives going back to 1850, and I've been whiling away the morning hopping back and forth arbitrarily on the absurdly complete and user-friendly time line.

One of my first finds? The following piece, from February 1965, from the editor's column -- "The Editor's Easy Chair"; John Fischer then seated -- titled "Is there a teacher on the faculty?" As it speaks not only to the assessment of teaching in higher education (what I've been musing on for the past day, if not the past twenty-four weeks in my classroom), but also to concepts of academic labor and measures of our work (related to the academic blog discussion, recently reprised), I present an excerpt from Fischer's column here. . .

. . .

First, however, it may be useful to take a look at the reasons why so much college teaching is so poor.

The main reason, I am persuaded, is that we do not now have any objective, impersonal method to measure the quality of teaching. It is true that nearly everybody on the campus knows who are the good teachers and who the bad ones; but this information is acquired by a process of hearsay, student gossip, and osmosis. There is no solid, safe yardstick that a dean or department head can use to justify raising the pay of a good instructor, or firing a poor one. He dares not depend on his personal judgment, however sound it may be. That way lie recriminations, accusations of favoritism and injustice, and probably a fight with the American Association of University Professors, one of the most powerful of trade unions.

Consequently, in doling out rewards and punishments the administrator falls back on something that can be measured: research and publication. The number of column inches in learned journals, the pounds of books published, the foundation grants awarded, the prizes won -- Nobel, Bancroft, Guggenheim, or a dozen others -- these are tangible, indisputable tokens of some kind of academic achievement. (The quality of the research is hardly relevant. After all, an administrator isn't expected to be able to judge whether a finding in biochemistry is really significant, or whether yet another critical evaluation of Henry James adds anything to those already on the shelf.)

Now everybody will agree that research ought to be an important part of academic life. Ideally, we are told, research and teaching go hand-in-hand; the good professor adds to the store of knowledge at the same time he is dispensing it. In practice, alas, things seldom work out that way. So long as research alone pays off, in cash and fame, the temptation to scamp on teaching is almost irresistible. Hence the lectures delivered year after year from notes compiled a generation ago . . . the section men who conduct their classes with unconcealed distaste, begrudging every minute stolen from the lab. . . the perfunctory seminar, the brushed-off questions, the impatient stifling of a student's bothersome zeal. Indeed, human nature being what it is, we should be amazed that so many academics do sweat to teach the very best they can, ignoring self-interest for the sake of the young and their own sense of mission. These rare souls are the saving leaven which can make the college experience worthwhile (sometimes) in spite of everything. But they are bound to dwindle like the whooping crane if (in Dr. Logan Wilson's words) "the faculty itself regards relief from teaching as the chief reward for accomplishment, or as the highest status symbol."

It is idle, however, to rail against the publish-or-perish syndrome, with all its baleful effects, so long as publication itself is the only acceptable measure of achievement. A healthy balance between scholarship and teaching probably can never be restored until a reasonably objective yardstick is devised for testing -- and rewarding -- performance as a teacher. The difficulties are obvious; but, as we shall see, they may not be insuperable.

. . .

February 1965. . . plus ça change?