Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Time flies when you're having whatever you call this thing we're having

It's the kind of day when people burst into the building shaking out their umbrellas and smoothing down their hair. High winds blew me all over the road this morning and I saw signs that tree limbs had already been removed from the road. The briefest foray out-of-doors results in rambunctious hair, so staying inside and grading seems like a good plan.

Students have papers due in the American Lit Survey this morning so naturally I'm fielding requests for extensions. I'm happy to give students until the end of the day if they think it will help, but I can't give longer extensions without a persuasive excuse because I need to grade these papers before midterm grades are due, which raises the question: how did we get to midterm so quickly?

They say time seems to speed up as we age and I can attest that it's true. Has it really been 20 years since we bought our house, 15 since our daughter got married, 10 since the birth of our first grandchild? Impossible! Two more years feels like a long time but when I look at how swiftly this semester is passing and how much I want to squeeze into the next four semesters of teaching, I fear that retirement will arrive before I'm ready.

And of course the recent campus cuts have resulted in frantic revisions to the General Education curriculum and the English major, which will affect what I'm able to do in these next two years. The Gen Ed revision means I'll never again teach two courses I took great care to design, losses that don't exactly break my heart. But I'm only slowly coming to learn what the changes to the English major will mean, and I wonder how many of my beloved courses I've taught for the last time without realizing it.

Next fall looks good, though, and my approaching retirement gives me an excuse to opt out of some heavy lifting. Yes, we'll need to appoint a task force to do a full overhaul of our General Education curriculum, but I don't intend to help design a curriculum that I won't be present to teach. Besides, I've already reached my career quota of new General Education curricula, and anyway, in ten years all our students will be Online Influencing majors taking courses taught by Artificial Intelligence, areas in which my expertise is hardly relevant.

And so I plod on, shaking out my umbrella and smoothing down my hair and responding to student emails demanding extensions. I'd like to request an extension on life, please, and make it ASAP. There's no time like the present to grapple with a diminishing future.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Peddling influence

I've been haunted by a disturbing article in the New York Times about parents who post their children's photos online and then attract sexual predators, which is appalling enough, but the detail I can't get out of my head is the claim that one-third of preteen girls want to pursue careers as online influencers.

I have questions! Most of them, though, place me firmly in the Old Fuddy-Duddy category, like "How do preteen girls even know what an online influencer is? Aren't their parents monitoring their internet usage?" But no, the article points out that at least some parents encourage their children's online presence, seeking to open doors to careers in modeling or acting or influencing.

But how can so many kids think online influencer is a viable career goal? It's like a pyramid scheme: the more influencers, the fewer people available to be influenced. And why don't the children aspire to be astronauts or doctors or writers or scientists or teachers?

All those careers can lead to immense influence. I mean, how many of us can point to a particular book that changed the way we think about the world, or a particular teacher who encouraged us to pursue a field of study? How many people my age watched the moon landing and were inspired to pursue careers in math or science? Maybe they didn't all become astronauts, but they may have learned a thing or two along the way and developed the skills to contribute something meaningful to society.

What will a child learn by pursuing a dream of being an online influencer? Maybe some marketing skills or effective camera angles? Help me out here! Is there really a crying need in our culture for even more young people excelling at the fine art of self-promotion?

I confess that I would like to have more influence than I do. If I could encourage more students to care deeply about the power of storytelling or the cultural value of poetry or even the effective use of the semicolon, I would feel that I've contributed something that might bear fruit long after I'm gone. But if online influencers keep influencing young girls to pursue careers as online influencers, we'll soon be so up to our eyeballs in influencers that we'll have no one left to be astronauts or doctors or writers or scientists or teachers.

But then I am an Old Fuddy-Duddy. Maybe someone can explain to me how to solve this problem, because I don't think I'm the right person to influence the influencers.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Leaving my ducks in the dust

So I'm sitting on the sofa in my pajamas, drinking a leisurely cup of tea and reading the morning news, when my husband says, "It's almost 7. Don't you need to be on the road?"

"No problem," I say. "I can go in a little later this morning because I'm staying late this afternoon and my first meeting isn't until 10."

Then, just to be sure, I check the calendar on my phone. Friends, my first meeting of the day was at 8. 

This morning I proved that if I put my mind to it, I can get from pajamas-on-the-sofa to fully-clothed-in-the-classroom in under an hour, as long as no one looks at me too closely. No makeup, no earrings, no frost to scrape off my windshield, no slow-moving school buses stopping to pick up students every 30 feet--made it in the nick of time, but one tiny delay would have been a disaster.

As it is, I feel as if I've been running to catch up with myself all morning long, cramming in my caffeine quota while rushing into meetings clutching handouts still warm from the printer. This is not the way I prefer to operate. I'm a planner, the first one to show up for a meeting with all my ducks in a row. This morning all my ducks are scattered in my wake in a chaotic cluster of panic.

Now my morning meetings are over so I can relax a bit. I have some papers to grade, emails to send, classes to prep, and two more meetings this afternoon, but for the first time since 7 a.m., I can sit and breathe for a few minutes and wait for the ducks to catch up.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

On driving and surviving

Nearly two weeks after getting pulled over and ridiculed by a police officer who didn't like my car's headlights, I still tense up every time I drive through that little river town, which is right smack in the middle of my shortest route to campus. I have adjusted my schedule so I can leave the house after the sun comes up, which means I encounter more traffic and more school buses loading and unloading, but I still get nervous every time I get close to the tiny town where the police officer promised that he'd be watching me. 

This morning I saw a police car taking radar at the edge of town, where the speed limit switches from 55 to 35. Just seeing the police car made me tense up--even though I've always been careful about slowing down there. I'll bet the impatient pickup-truck drivers who ride my bumper itching for a passing zone don't get tense when they drive through that dinky little town. Will I ever again drive through there without fear?

If the aftereffects of a minor chewing-out can linger so stubbornly, you can just imagine the lingering impacts of our recent campus bloodletting. Here we are in Inside Higher Ed, where our campus cuts are placed in the context of a bunch of other colleges facing similar problems. We're in pretty good company, but that doesn't do much to diminish the local impacts. Departments are scrambling to construct fall course schedules, proposing changes to majors to reduce dependence on classes we can no longer offer, and searching for adjuncts to teach courses formerly taught by full-time faculty members whose positions were cut.

This kind of struggle makes me even more tense than my encounter with a condescending traffic cop. It feels unjust to cut a position and then try to replace the instructor with a contingent faculty member who will be paid poorly, won't have access to benefits, and is unlikely to be invested in the future of the College or the education of students beyond the classroom.

In addition, it's not easy to find adjunct instructors qualified to teach in certain fields in the Appalachian part of the state. A few hours away in Columbus or Cleveland we could find a deeper talent pool, but who's going to drive two or three hours to teach here for the piddly amount we pay for adjunct labor? All we can offer is a decent office--because so many positions have been cut that we'll have empty offices on every floor of my building.

Emotions are raw and anger bubbles up everywhere. Worst of all, though, is the fear: If that position can be cut, why can't mine? Faculty members have confided that they are afraid their actions are being monitored, that some malign force is watching their every move in search of some excuse to pounce.

I've adjusted my daily commute in response to paranoia about one solitary traffic cop who promises he's watching me, but what happens when that kind of paranoia infests an entire campus? Trust is a fragile vessel and easily broken; how can those of us who remain put the pieces back together when so many have been lost?

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Caught on the trailcam

How many photos of my coffee table do I really need? The answer is none, but this morning I had to delete a bunch of them while downloading photos from the trailcam we got for Christmas. No, my coffee table has not been hitting the trail; it just happened to be in the frame while we were trying out different settings on the trailcam and getting it ready to go out to the woods. Apparently we hadn't yet figured out how to delete.

After a month in the woods, the trailcam this morning offered up many many photos of the same plot of ground from which a woodland creature had just departed, or maybe the motion sensor was set off by a gust of wind. It got plenty of photos of squirrels, which is not surprising given the abundant nut trees in that part of the woods. It also caught raccoons, a possum, several deer, and a mystery critter that looks like the back end of a beaver, except it's in a spot where beavers generally aren't.

Also lots of photos of the resident woodsman carrying a ladder or chainsaw up the hill to prune fruit trees or pulling fallen trees down the hill with the tractor. Probably we ought to move the trail-cam to a less tractor-friendly location. I'd like to put it down by the creek to see what critters visit, but it would probably take a shot of every passing car as well.

Photo quality is uneven, which is not surprising since the trailcam has no sense of composition. Night photos look like something out of a horror movie, with glowing eyes atop blurry shapes that could be mistaken for space aliens or hoofed fiends though they're probably just raccoons.

We've been hearing a lot of coyotes in the night but apparently they're not visiting the vicinity of the trailcam. No sign of foxes or turkeys either. I keep hearing that bobcats are getting more common in Ohio and I'd really love to see one, but dream on. In 20 years living in these woods, we've seen a bobcat exactly once, and it had disappeared before we could get the word "bobcat!" out of our mouths.

But still we hope. Whatever passes by, the trailcam will be ready.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Morale-boosting on a budget

I've been tasked with coming up with some activities to boost faculty morale, but I do not intend to pursue the suggestion that we offer a hatchet-tossing event. In times of stress and change, it's probably not a great  idea for faculty members to be armed--one errant toss could shift our campus bloodletting out of the metaphorical realm.

But what can we do? A case of Xanax might make a dent in our current stress levels, but nobody's going to approve the expense. The HR office brought in massage chairs, but appointments are limited and the massages don't last long enough to loosen up the deep-seated sources of our pain. Yesterday at an all-campus event we were urged to stand and sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" (because the academic year has reached the seventh-inning stretch). Participation was spotty and enthusiasm was low, and it seems that some of my colleagues didn't know the words. We need to get out more!

Okay, baseball season is coming up soon so let's get out there! Last year I attended a bunch of home games but never saw more than two other faculty members in attendance. Apparently we're not big baseball fans?

How about a guided wildflower hike? A long walk along the river trail? What will it take to help people relax: a fleet of kayaks, a pen of puppies, a coloring sheet and a big ol' box o' crayons?

Everything I come up with feels lame when juxtaposed with the losses we've been suffering, but on the other hand, maybe some small but meaningful activity could help distract us from those losses and think about the future more effectively. 

When I moped around the house as a kid, my mom would open the door, point toward the yard, and command, "Go out and play!" Sometimes a change of venue provokes a change of perspective. The problem, though, is that wherever we go out to play, we can't seem to escape the problems that had us moping around the house to begin with.

So I don't know what to do. What are some effective methods for improving morale on a budget when everywhere we go we see signs of the very problems that depress morale? 

I'm happy to open the door and point the way--but I don't intend to hand out any hatchets.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Bending to the breaking point

Old buzzwords never die; they just get repurposed to meet new challenges. I give you nimble, agile, flexible, and resilient, the buzzwords trotted out in 2020 to inspire the heroic efforts required to shift quickly from face-to-face teaching to pandemic mode. We nimbly flexed and demonstrated resilient agility, and if the effort wore us out, at least we knew that when push comes to shove, we can be as nimble as the next guy.

Now the same old buzzwords are pushing and shoving their way into meetings called to respond to staffing issues caused by cuts in positions. Departments, I've been told, will need to be nimble, agile, flexible, and resilient to find creative ways to staff essential courses, and that might require some of us to teach outside our areas of expertise.

Which, sure, is a nice idea. My primary area of expertise is post-Civil-War American Literature, but when I first started teaching here, I spent a significant amount of time developing new expertise in postcolonial literature because we felt our students needed exposure--but this was feasible only because I was building on a foundation of study and research from grad school. And I suppose that if it were necessary I could teach an introductory-level survey of early American literature, but I haven't taught or thought about most of those texts for 30 years! And forget about upper-level courses outside my area. I always include a Shakespeare play in my Comedy class, but only a fool would expect me to teach an upper-level Shakespeare seminar. May as well ask me to teach organic chemistry.

No one would be foolish enough to ask me to flex that far outside my field, but recently I heard a suggestion that we could offer a little training to equip faculty members from other departments to teach first-year composition. No one would suggest that a little training would equip an English professor to teach chemistry, but apparently teaching first-year composition is so simple that a little training could equip anyone to do it. I'll bet my colleagues with degrees in Rhetoric and Composition are just kicking themselves for wasting all that time and money on grad school.

Like many of my colleagues, I am willing to flex--but flex too far and something's bound to break. Then we'll need nimble people agile enough to pick up the pieces.