On lecturing

I’m lecturing a lot this semester – about nine hours, all on the one course, all of them pre-scheduled (as opposed to my schtick in earlier years, racking up lecture hours by dint of a useful ability to knock together emergency lectures when other people were ill). For added interest, I’m lecturing on a history-leaning course (interdisciplinary medieval studies tends to ‘lean’ to history or literature or occasionally something else, at least around here), for which the students need different kinds of input compared to lit courses.

I’ve been reading some discussions and bloggy commentary on lectures, how and why to. I was particularly fond of Notorius PhD’s defense of the lecture format, here. In it, she makes the point that lectures should do something which a textbook can’t – she zones in on the ability to draw connections between apparently disparate ideas or processes. She also touches on the fact that she’s a *good speaker*: it’s worth remembering that some students will be aural learners who take in information better from people than from textbooks!

To add to that: I think there’s much to be said for a course in which the lectures are the textbook. That can be done well or badly, of course, but for senior level courses, lectures are the simplest way of delivering the background information you know students will need to navigate the texts you’ve set them. The course I’m teaching on, we’ve recommended a textbook as well – its job is to be a handy resource for applying the necessary theoretical concepts to the primary sources, more or less. We give them historical background and more specific examples of applied critical frameworks.

I spat out at a friend recently the five key things I aim to do in lectures – although not all at once. Typically I don’t try to do more than two of them in an hour.

Preparing students to navigate primary sources

– Introducing text, context, and cultural setting. Trying to ward off egregious history!fail by, for instance, stating at the outset that Shakespeare was not medieval and Protestants are not relevant to your essay on the medieval church.

– Modelling critical skills for working with primary sources (in lit courses, this often takes the form of devoting ten minutes or so to close-reading an illustrative passage)

– And, especially if the primary sources are diverse or dense, introducing a set of key themes we expect to talk about in more detail in tutorials or essays

Preparing students to navigate secondary sources

– Providing historical overviews, especially of things which academic secondary sources assume you know (eg: last week I devoted about 40 minutes to the history of early Christianity, covering such concepts as who St Paul was and why he’s often credited with ‘hellenising’ Christianity).

– Modelling the use of, or breaking down into simplified chunks, the most important theoretical or critical frameworks. This might come in a historiography-overview kind of fashion, as with the brutally short introduction to gender theory I delivered two weeks ago; or integrated with ‘modelling primary source analysis’, as with the lecture we had in Medieval Heroes and Heroines entitled ‘Amy does Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity in Half an Hour!’ My operative principle here is that I’m either explaining something you need to navigate the rest of the secondary lit (eg: you don’t have to read Judith Butler, but you need to be able to decode Bultler-inflected gender studies), or giving students a rough guide to work with the key critical framework despite its density (as with Donald Maddox)

No one could do all of these in a single lecture. I do think those five points cover most of what I’d expect to get out of lectures were I enrolled in a lecture-based course.

There is a certain amount of repetition (I tell you what they key points of Augustine’s writing on marriage are; then you read Augustine!), but ideally, by giving a synthesis (not a synopsis!) in advance, a lecturer is setting students up with some idea of what to expect and how to process the readings. My learnings as an ESL teacher tell me you should never set students to reading things without either having them predict the content (for elementary ESL, that might be “what do you find on a restaurant menu?”) or giving them a  table, a set of questions, or something else to fill out as they read. University level humanities students should need less structure than elementary ESL (should, she says, hopefully), but I see both lecturer input and ‘tutorial questions’ as filling the ‘preparing to read’ function.

Hey look, relevant content on the internets

Over at Jezebel, Anna North is talking about How Should Colleges Help Mentally Ill Students. She’s got links to an article in the Wall Street Journal, which I will freely admit I have not read, because of the high probability that mainstream media articles about mental illness will make me want to hit things.

This is a topic which concerns me, as you may have noticed.

Imma gonna quote some bits of the Jezebel article at you:

Says David Cozzens, dean of students at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, “There’s the danger that we take too much care and when they hit the real world that same kind of support isn’t there.”
How to support young people while still preparing them for adulthood is a perennial question, whether the youth involved have mental health problems or not. And we should certainly be considering how to extend the kinds of resources that exist in college settings to the so-called “real world” so that people with mental illness can continue to lead fulfilling lives after they graduate. Like many articles on the subject, Petersen’s piece points out that better treatment and support services have made it possible for more people with mental illness to attend college — these same people deserve the chance to participate and excel in the working world as well. But therapists sometimes talk about balancing supportive care with challenging a patient to attain new levels of functioning. Universities need to figure out to what extent they can help students by accommodating their differing needs, and to what extent they need to train them to meet the challenges of adulthood.

OK. I will freely admit that I spent too much time in the Brownie Guides and have a compulsive urge to “lend a hand” (within the bounds of what’s appropriate/allowable for my role as tutor). I just plain feel better about myself if, say, when Student Jane Doe emails me asking what she can do about her late work, as well as telling her “apply for Special Consideration”, I slap in a linkspam with links to the extension system and the counselors and the doctors and disability services and the webpage about how to Discontinue Not Fail for medical reasons. Currently I’m wasting time making that list up every time I send it, but one day I’ll remember to save it as a template email, and it won’t cost me anything at all thereafter.

But. Let’s imagine Student Jane Doe.* Student Jane Doe is at university to get an Education. And she has some Problems. Problems aside, it is our job to teach Student Jane Doe various things, including but not limited to:
– how to write coherently and present her thoughts in a logical order
– how to present her thoughts, in a logical order, in a public presentation
– how to research things, critique what she finds, and turn it into coherent information or just plain Knowing Stuff
– how to manage her time and juggle deadlines without going kersplat.

Anyone noticed that item four is not built into many courses? Some, yes. I’ve had classes where you submit a research proposal or draft halfway through semester, have another opportunity to have a draft critiqued later on, and submit a final essay at the end. I’ve been in classes where weekly “journals” on the readings have to be submitted. I’m not sure that either of these are the most effective way of teaching that skill. I know you can take Learning Centre courses on how to not procrastinate all the damn time.** The Learning Centre and the Writing Centre both run short courses on managing essay preparation.

But by and large, the skill of “keeping all the balls in the air without breaking anything or going kersplat” is a skill you really have to learn by practice. Nevertheless, if you get yourself a generalist degree, that’s one of the most useful skills you can walk out saying you have. Yes, I can do this office job which involves writing one long problem paper, helping out with two other people’s jobs, and doing random bits of editing. I have a BA! I can juggle multiple tasks without going kersplat! And avoid using the passive voice while I’m at it!

Teaching students that deadlines are endlessly malleable doesn’t really assist in teaching this particular skill.*** But, on the other hand, asking for help when you need it is also a solid gold skill. Let’s say someone wants to pay Student Jane Doe to write policy documents in the future. That’s awesome for Student Jane Doe. Have we really done her any services if she comes out of university knowing that her superiors are God Kings of Deadlines; that last-minute panic jobs are better than talking realistically to your boss about what you can feasibly achieve; that her superiors are going to care more about immediate deadlines than having a long-term productive employee? This might be true of some employers, but if she’s got ongoing Problems that’s not going to be a good workplace for her, and maybe, just maybe, if she’s used to approaching her Problems like an adult and asking for accommodations when she needs them at uni, she might come out knowing she deserves better in the Real World too.


* Who is a mishmash of students I’ve seen, taught, and been, not anyone in particular, btw.
** Skill #1: stop writing your blog at work! Oh, wait…
*** As I think Kath was saying in an earlier comment.

Teaching reflections, sem II 2011, or: some battles you can never win

So. I survived a semester without having a single undergraduate cry on me!1 I’m really not sure that that’s cause for celebration, though.

Slightly twitchy star - Ursula VernonWhat I’m telling myself instead is that this semester, I talked one of my friends-and-former-students into applying for an extension when it was needed. I talked one of my current students through Special Consideration applications which she’d started. I’ve had a couple of honest conversations with undergrads about Ye Olde Mental Health Problemes and academia – some in a teachery capacity and some in the context of less formal relationships built up through extra-curricular CMS activities. I’m starting to get a sense of how much I’m happy to say and in what contexts.2

I think can be pretty happy both with the coping skills demonstrated by some of my students, and with my own behaviour/example/wossname. But. But. I’m still not used to the fact that every semester it seems like I have to watch some kids slip through the cracks.

There’s the ones who come to you at the end of semester in despair because of problems that have been going on all semester, maybe longer, and say “what can I do, I can’t afford to fail anymore courses?” There’s some who turn up to most classes and suddenly stop handing in work. There’s some who have every right to special considerations, alternative assessments, whatever, and just… never asked for them.

It breaks my heart, every time. It’s also a good case study of Professional Boundaries and all that: there is help I must give (according to the institution’s rules and my immediate supervisor’s policys); and there is help I can give, mostly advice, because I am basically a nice person, or perhaps I spent too long in the Brownie Guides and ended up with a compulsive urge to ‘lend a hand’. But there’s also a whole range of stuff clearly outside of my power, like the extension system and so on (we have a faculty-wide policy and system here, which is great for uniform practice, but intimidating to use as a student). And regardless of how much concrete help and practical advice I give, first, the student has to ask for it and then the student has to use it.

Reward for information leading to the return of lost marblesI have to get used to the fact that some kids will never ask, and others won’t put into action the advice they get. That might be their own silly fault, or it might be because whatever their problem is, they’re kind of drowning in it and can’t get the logical-thinking thing together to fix it.3 It may not be the student’s fault, and I really wish the university’s support systems were less confusing to find and use, but there’s still nothing I can do about it.

But. When students do talk to me, y’know what I keep seeing? Students with actualfax perfectly legit problems are afraid of talking to their teachers, and of using the support systems available. Because they:
– are ashamed of themselves
– are scared of disappointing their teachers
– think the support systems aren’t for people like them, they’re for people with real problems
– don’t want people to know they have real problems.

I haven’t had any of my students say as much to me, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fear that People In Positions Of Power would dismiss/laugh at/be unwilling to help students, especially those with invisible illnesses of the mental-health type. I like and trust my supervisors, but I’ve also seen other faculty members laugh off, or gripe about, students requesting help for mental health problems.

I can’t fix all the problems in the world, but if I could wave a magic wand and make all my students not afraid to talk to me I would be a very happy person. (My second wish, mind you, would be that this not-afraidness come with a sensible concept of the difference between ‘asking for advice on coping with study and personal crises’ and ‘telling me waaaaay too much about your personal problems on the first day of class’; but if I only get one wish, then I’d rather enforce that boundary myself.)

A rainbow-coloured small fluffy creature thingIn some parts of the world – not here, so far as I know – there are whole programs set up to train staff and faculty in being aware of the particular problems faced by queer students, and how to help them. Such programs, I am given to understand, also have ways of identifying “this staffmember is not an arseface” for students who need to seek advice. Last year (wow, was it only last year?), in the aftermath of a spate of campus suicides, the internet was awash with advice on how to be a visibly-queer friendly academic.4

Have any of you encountered such a program for training academics to deal with students who have legit life and health problems? Is anyone running programs like that? Sometimes I think teachers ought to get basic… pastoral care training, or whatever the term is for the secular equivalent. Or possibly everyone should line up to be administered a dose of the Cluebat, that’d also be nice.

Paranoia/Social Anxiety = OTPWhat does one do to make it as safe as possible for students to talk to you when they need to? I mean, I have my personal toolkit – I have and keep office hours and tell the class that I’ll be horribly bored if no one comes to talk to me during that time. I try to remind them a couple of times per semester about a. where the extension system is and b. that really, I promise, they’re entitled to use it. This semester I also added in some personal comments, letting them know that I don’t see the applications or the reasons, and that the course co-ordinator, who makes the decisions, is an understanding and fair person and I ought to know, she’s my supervisor. I specifically mentioned mental health problems as legit reasons for special considerations.

I know that, no matter what I do, I can’t actually make all my students get their shit together. Perhaps I’ll develop a thicker skin with time, or when I’m no longer teaching in my own undergraduate institution. I don’t think I want to lose this concern entirely, though. Even if there’s a limited amount or nothing at all that I can do, I don’t want to turn into the person who doesn’t care.

Advices, O Internets?


1. I did make a student cry, but she left the room to do so. Pretty sure that wasn’t because of my unusual meanness, just a matter of straw, meet camel’s back, in the form of midsemester results.
2. Case in point, apparently I’m telling the internet that I’m both not-straight and not-entirely-mentally-well. Interesting. For reference, anyone who deals with me IRL, neither of these are secrets, but nor are they things I go around shouting from rooftops in professional contexts. I have no problem with people knowing but I don’t necessarily want to talk about it.
3. I have seen this student, and I have been this student.
4. A lot of this advice actually upset me a lot, and did not make me feel very comfortable. I strongly resist the idea that anyone is obliged to Come Out, even for the sake of the Yoof of Today. What of teachers who are just figuring this out? Who don’t feel safe themselves in their classrooms or workplaces? When it comes down to it, too, if you expect of me certain behaviours or public declarations in a classroom that you wouldn’t expect of my straight best friend (who’s just as down with queer theory and rights and whatnot as I am), then you have a sexuality-based double standard, and I don’t wanna play. I much preferred Lesboprof’s very concrete, curriculum and policy oriented advice.

Writing, writing, bane of my life

I know, me and everyone else, ever. As I was saying earlier, though, I ran into more writer’s block than I was prepared for. Like that post, this one is also a post about teaching.

Useful thing I have discovered: I write better when I’m teaching.

There are a few factors to this:

  • Perversely, I’m more productive when I have more demands on my time. Particularly if the demand, on top of my regular courseload, is a people-oriented job; if it gives me structure to my week and short-term deadlines which might otherwise be lacking.
  • Said people-oriented jobs often keep me feeling good about myself.  They give me plenty of small ways to feel effective and efficient. Retail worked well for this; front office work wasn’t too bad either; and teaching is brilliant.
  • Marking is the best writing training anyone ever invented.

Let’s talk about the last one a bit more.

Lesser Known Editing and Proofreading Marks - a list of silly/snarky proofreading marksFirstly, marking is similar to editing. And editing is excellent writing training. I edited my friends’ essays and had my friends edit mine all the way through undergrad; and I had the boon – or bane – of a merciless copy-editor in my teacher/mentor M. Eventually, I learned to look at things and think what would M. say about this?* I in turn subject my (un)fortunate undergrads to this treatment. And one upside of turning my editor-brain back on is that am critically reviewing my own work as I go. Bonus!

The second thing is that I’ve been sick. And when sick, I seem to end up in a state of semi-functionality where I can take information in, but find it hard to put it back out again in a hierarchical or analytical fashion. Everything I wrote between, oh, January and April and to be completely rewritten because it had no structure at all.

You know who else has trouble putting out information in a hierarchical and analytical fashion? Undergrads. If I benefited from the copy-editing side of marking most from the outstanding students, the decent-but-not-brilliant students gave me something useful, too. In the course of figuring out Simple Steps To Improving Your Structure/Paragraphs/Introductions* * For Second Years, I accidentally taught myself how to fix problems even when my brain is coated in cotton wool.

Practice non-random punctuation and sensible acts of grammarThere was that one spectacular week when I ran a tutorial on “common structural errors and how to fix them”. I used a hypothetical essay question, so as not to pick on anyone in particular; and that  hypothetical question just happened to relate to the chapter I was writing. Not a single mistake covered in that tutorial was absent from my draft at the time! That was depressing.

Looking at my own work in relation to the work that comes across my desk from students has another benefit, too: it’s helps snap me out of perfectionism. I could run myself in circles trying to make something perfect; or I could look at it and think how would I tell the second-years to fix this? If it’s fixed sufficiently that I could show it to a bright student as an example of “writing problem: fixed”, that will do for a first draft! And then we can rinse and repeat this process on subsequent drafts.


* I had the great satisfaction of sharing workspace with two MDST undergrads one afternoon, while one of them edited the other’s essay. I’m not sure there’s any more gratifying words to hear than “would you rather hear this from me, or Amy?”
** I promised someone a workshop on conclusions. However, I’m still not sure I know how to write a conclusion! Problematic.

In which Highly tells you about her favourite manuscript

A monk, writing; caption 'geekery pokery'Or my favourite local manuscript, anyway. LET ME TELL YOU, O internets, about MS University of Sydney RB Add.Ms. 358!* Today I am almost certainly going to get to see Add. MS 358 again, because I’m taking my tutorial group on an excursion to the Rare Books collection.

Add.MS 358, folks, contains the first European picture of a turkey. Or, at least, a picture of a turkey which the Rare Books librarian tells us is the first but which the catalogue more conservatively calls “certainly one of the earliest illustrations of a turkey”. I don’t suppose anyone’s done a thorough comparative dating of early European pictures of turkeys, which is what we’d need to confirm that.

We do have some pretty nifty manuscripts in the Rare Books room here – there are a couple of gorgeous Hebrew texts, including Ms. Nicholson 37, a 13th c. Yemeni Pentetuech scroll, which the Rare Books Librarian brought out to show my class (no touching!) last semester. And, y’know, we have lots of exciting and important Australian stuff, one of the largest Handel collections outside of the UK, the Chadwick collection (interesting Celtic stuff), and the Deane Erotica Collection (aka. quite lot of Victorian porn)**.

Add. Ms 358 is my favouritest, though, because it’s both very pretty, and yet the kind of thing you only find exciting when you can’t wander into a local church and find the oldest codex in your area just lurking around in a basement.

It’s a processional – a songbook for choristers to carry when processing about, in this case, at Christmas time (and the Feast of the Crown of Thorns, apparently). The catalogue tells me it’s from Spain, ca. 1535-1540; in person, though, Neil Boness (the Rare Books Librarian and indeed, compiler of the MS catalogue) said it was from the Spanish Netherlands. *shrugs* SPANIARDS, anyway. Thus, the turkey. Our friend the turkey is tucked into the corner of the first leaf, along with other christmas-y type images. Which tells you not only that turkeys were known, but they were associated pretty quickly with Christmas! Exciting.

Sheer Geekiness - I just think this stuff is really cool (XKCD)And this is why, when explaining to my students about the expedition – find out about manuscript production, maybe handle some manuscripts, no we don’t have originals or even facsimiles of manuscripts of anything you’re studying, but hey, some of the stuff down there’s pretty cool – I also tell them, with great enthusiasm, that we might get to see a picture of a turkey! And they think I’m a bit weird, but, by this stage in semester, they know to expect that from me.


* Is that how one forms the citation for Sydney MSS? Should ‘Fisher’ (the name of the actual library) be in there somewhere?

** Is it just me, or would it be completely awesome to have that digitised? I’ve only ever seen a few pieces, which they put on display as part of a mini-exhibition on Victorian eroticism, which was mostly taken up with novels and other things which wouldn’t shock people walking past. Geez, why aren’t I doing a thesis on Victorian-era smut, that’d be a brilliant resource to have around!

A post about writing, and being ill, and teaching

Hello, intertubes! I disappeared again. My doctor and I were fucking around with my medication again – which has been to my net benefit, but gave me a month or so of reduced coping capacity. I’m facing the fact that I need an extension on this thesis, which feels silly for what was supposed to  be just a filler degree before moving on to bigger and better things. But fact is, I like it, I want to do it justice, and perhaps the most important things I’m learning out of this degree are not the things I thought they were.

I’ve learned a lot of gender theory. I’ve learned some Latin, and sharpened my Old French, and learned that I love teaching.

I’m learning, again, how to write a long project. But this time, I’m consciously thinking about how to do that work while sick; without screwing over my other responsibilities; while doing what I can to preserve my health. I’m learning not to pin my entire functionality – “I might be sick but goddamn it I will write this thesis and everything else can go jump”, aka, Highly During Honours – on one piece of work. It worked during Honours; it’s not going to work for the rest of my life, and I might as well get out of the habit now.

A few weeks ago ADM talked to the writing group (in which I am just scraping by, checking in most weeks and not engaging much, but it’s helping me structure thing sin my head) about pacing. I quote:

Add those things together, and then the somewhat insane sort of schedule that many of us have, plus the fact that my body has been rebelling against my life in a fairly serious way since the end of July, and you get a very different reading of “pace yourself.” Where some people got sort of Bolshie and focused on the part where they thought they were being told to work according to a certain pattern, I only saw the metaphor of the race, and the physical connection to what it is we are doing. Because for me, pacing myself isn’t just about making sure I get things done on time, or organize my schedule in a way that I don’t have to play catch-up. It’s that if I don’t pace myself, there seem to be very real and very bad physical consequences. And those physical consequences can snowball and then create a vicious cycle of bad, overused metaphors being too ill to work, getting too stressed because I’m not accomplishing anything, and then doing really unhealthy things to my body in order to try to catch up.

To which I only have to say: yes, this. I’m pretty shit at this self-management lark right now, but I know now this is something I really need to learn; I expect to come good, healthwise, sooner or later, but I don’t expect to stay that way forever.

So one thing I’ve had to do recently is talk to my superiors and sort out extensions: because I could tunnel-vision and finish this fast, but that wouldn’t be good for me, the work, or this process of learning how to manage my time and health.

Teaching comes in handy here.  I make a big deal out of telling my students to apply for extensions and assistance when they need them. To talk to me before they absent fail their way out of the course. I make a big deal out of telling them that very few people, faculty or administration, are out to be mean to them, and by and large, if you have reasonable justification and can figure your way through the extension system, you’re going to get some kind of concessions.

I can’t exactly stand up in front of a class and tell it’s silly to be too ashamed to apply for help you actually need if I don’t take my own advice, can I?

Other things done in lectures, or, Highly should not be allowed to improvise

After the somewhat dismal topic of my last couple of teaching posts, I feel something sillier is in order. When I gave the Roland lecture the other week, I didn’t end up doing a spiel about presentation methodology at the beginning, because I was sure I was going to go overtime. Instead, I ran undertime!

And then I decided that a good thing to do would be to educate the students, firstly, about the oft-discussed differences between epic and romance; and secondly, about how these differences are often overstated, esp.  as pertains to their chronological relationship (ie, they were actually synchronous genres, not consecutive).

A bath ducky with the text 'Silly Duck'I may have improvised the Epic Versus Romance Interpretive Dance. It goes something like this: “Over here we have EPICs! They are all about MANLY THINGS! And over here – *Jump, flourish* we have romance! They’re all about LADIES! *jump, flourish* KILL MEN! *jump, flourish* FUCK LADIES!” And so on, for a while.

It worked, for a given value of work – two weeks later they remembered the epic/romance binary when I asked them. Apparently one of my colleagues was told by a student that student liked my lecturing because I say “fuck”.

Really, I think all this needed to be a really excellent educational experience would be a set of elastics.* ‘Epic’ and ‘Romance’ are both nice trochaic words which would go well in a skipping chant…


* Apparently elastics is an antipodean quirk. There’s a good explanation here – the rhyme and sequence down the bottom is the one I remember; and a video of some NZ girls playing a variant here.