Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Deep Breath Before the Plunge

Now that this seemingly never-ending semester is over and finals are done and Christmas has been celebrated, comes the existential dread: my tenure dossier. 

After 15 years of teaching, I am finally in the last stage of my attempt to remain gainfully employed without having to worry about a semester-to-semester contract, as I did when I was an adjunct.   My office is the only one occupied in my building; the rest of my colleagues are a) tenured, b)working from home, or c) adjunct and as such exempt from this exercise. It's so quiet that hours pass unnoticed as I toggle back and forth between documents, collecting evidence from my 6 years on this campus that will show my department colleagues that I am worthy to remain one of them. The material is there--but the process of getting it in order is very time-consuming. I'd say I'm a little more than halfway done, and the thing is due next week.

The Executive Committee of my department meets during the third weekend in January to make its retention and promotion decisions. If the vote is positive, it is then up to my campus Tenure Retention and Promotion committee to vote. If the vote from the department is negative (and this is a possibility), I will have a "terminal year" during which to look for other jobs; I will also get a chance to appeal the decision. 

This whole process has taught me a lot about myself. It's taught me that I have more energy and enthusiasm than I thought possible, even while dealing with first one, then a second child. It's taught me that I am just as dogged now [at nearly 40]  as I was in my early 20s when I pursued a double major in philosophy and English and darn near had a minor in writing before I graduated (while also on work/study and as an athlete all 3 quarters of an academic year: water polo in Fall and Spring, and swim team in Winter). 

Twenty years ago as an undergrad at Hiram College, I told my mentor, Hale Chatfield, that I wanted to become an English professor. I honestly could think of no better life than one in which I would spend my time reading, thinking, and talking to students (I hadn't really thought about grading papers...).  Though he died 10 years ago, I have thought of him often as I've moved along this path. He was a poet who was interested in computers and technology, and he probably would have loved the explosion of writing that has taken place on the interwebs. In some ways I think of my reaching tenure as a way of repaying the faith that he and my other professors have had in me and in my abilities. Their knowledge continues to be passed along--because every day, I use what I learned as student to help my own students learn. I am thankful to have had wonderful professors, and it has been my honor to follow in their footsteps.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Not.

Though I really do love most aspects of my job, grading is not one of them. In fact, it ranks lowest on the list, as it does for almost all of my colleagues, I'd imagine. Find me a professor who loves grading research papers, and I will show you someone who is certifiable.

I will admit to almost liking grading these papers, because at the end of the semester it is really easy to see who has been paying attention during my lectures on MLA style and thesis-drafting, and audience awareness. It is also gratifying to see the students who really put their all into the work; the well-written papers are a breeze to grade, and there are more that are well-written than not (at least this semester).

Then there's the opposite end of the spectrum: the students who missed too many classes, or were on Facebook during class, whose papers are poorly cited and raddled with enough grammar errors to put a professional editor into a coma. On the one hand, I could just slap a "D" on those papers and move on. On the other, I still--God[dess] help me--feel like I have to teach. So I spend some time marking them up, wondering if the students will even bother to read the comments before sticking the paper back into their portfolios.

I have such a student in my early American Lit course. He came for help early in the semester, but it was clear that he had no business being in a 200-level course. He can barely write a simple sentence. I did what I could to help him--gave him advice, told him to use the tutoring services on campus, and come to me during office hours. He came once or twice before the midterm. He failed the midterm miserably (half of it was blank, and the other half--the essay--was both incomprehensible and totally off-base). He came to see me about his midterm grade, and I told him plainly that he would have to attain an 85 B average on the remaining assignments to eke out a C. I don't know if he knew what "eke" meant. His second paper was mostly biographical notes with very little analysis. What little analysis was in the paper came from Sparknotes, without attribution. Since using the Internet for this paper was strictly verboten on the assignment sheet, his grade is a 0 F (out of 150 points). 

For some reason, this pains me. The recent Chronicle of Higher Education article about failing one's students really bothered me. Its tone was needlessly mean. Though I am a newly-dedicated  reader of College Misery, I am not nearly as bitter as CHE's Alice Fenton. 

I teach at a two-year college in a system that has 12 other 2-years and 13 four-years, as well as an online campus "presence." We are the "feeder" schools for the four-years, and from what I have heard from my former students, they come out of our school better prepared than their classmates who've been at the four-year since they were freshmen. Perhaps it is because they were not subjected to pit classes and TAs, but instead had classes whose maximum size topped out at 38 students (24 for composition and Comm/Arts speech courses). I have also been told by these same students that my colleagues and I are better teachers, but that's neither here nor there for the purposes of this post. 

The simple fact is that most of our students are underprepared (or not prepared at all). Many are first-generation; most hadn't considered college as an option until very late, and so did not take advantage of whatever preparation might have been available to them in their high school. "Biography Barry" is just such a student, and I felt compelled to try to help him. He stopped trying to get help, though, and I have had to squash whatever altruistic feelings I had. I cannot pass him. I will be clear about why--the note at the bottom of his "F" paper is about a half-page. I will not, as Alice Fenton suggests, feel good about it. I don't feel good when I catch a student willfully (as opposed to ignorantly) plagiarizing. No frisson of detective-like pleasure at catching a cheater. Just a pang in my nearly-40 year old heart, even after 15 years of teaching and seeing it all, that yet another student thinks either I'm (a) too stupid or (b) too busy to check their writing. (The ignorant plagiarists are those who do so because they do not understand or have never been taught the citation system. I can tell the difference--the willful plagiarizers don't seem to believe me when I tell everyone this in the class where we go over MLA and plagiarism.)

I still love my job. Especially when I get an email, as I did earlier this week, thanking me for helping her straighten out her research paper. I've met with this student multiple times over the semester, and she's improved immensely. It was nice of her to take the time to thank me. 

I love my job when I have a student tell me as she turns in her research paper: "This paper was the hardest thing I've ever done, but while I was doing an interview at ______ for my research, I realized what I want to do with my life." 

I will admit that when she said this, I got misty. 

So I guess I will take back the title of this post. In spite of having 35 papers (out of 70 that came in by Friday at 2pm) to grade before Tuesday, I still love my job. I have been terribly cranky in past weeks (which is partly why I have not posted, as vitriolic ranting has the potential to come back to bite one in the arse, especially in the Interweb Era). 

But today, after grading 23 research papers of varying quality, I am celebrating my life choice. Because this is my life, chosen freely of my own accord. 

And it is a good life.