Tag Archives: pedagogy

Planning My First Brit Lit Survey

At my university, the opportunities to teach an upper-level course are present but few. After passing comprehensive exams, you can apply to teach a survey course corresponding to your area of specialty. The second-half of British literature is particularly hard to come by, and typically a PhD candidate gets to teach it once before graduating. This is my semester, and I am thrilled!

I have been teaching general education classes for six years. I can count the number of English majors I have taught on one hand. But now, I have two full classes of English majors or minors, who ask me questions like, “Percy Shelley? Any relation to Mary Shelley?” (Isn’t it crazy to remember a time when we didn’t know every intimate detail of the Shelleys’ marriage?).

I am two days in. And here’s what I can report so far: I love my job.
Continue reading Planning My First Brit Lit Survey

From Jane Austen to Quentin Tarantino: How Movies Can Help Us Teach Literature

You don’t want to watch a movie with me. No, really. I consider it a test of true friendship if someone can sit through two hours of me constantly pausing, rewinding and talking over the figures on screen. It’s a bad habit I cannot break. After helping teach a film and media class this semester however, I don’t think I should.

While my near constant commentary might be distracting to say the least, it isn’t meaningless. I am often pointing out how camera angles, body language, costumes, set design, lighting all come together to hint at a future plot point or reveal some sort of narrative truth. I can often predict the ending to a movie, which never ceases to be a sort of useless party trick for my friends and family, but underneath that novelty however, lies real critical thinking. Continue reading From Jane Austen to Quentin Tarantino: How Movies Can Help Us Teach Literature

Back to School: Time to Learn

School season is here!  Many of us are returning to the classroom in the next few weeks.  Some already have.  Freshmen will start their first classes right out of high school.  College seniors are prepping for the working world.  Businesses cash in on the hype, as well, having “back to school” sales.  And it will become impossible to find an apartment.  For Americans, education starts in the fall.  The season runs until spring.

But those poles say very little about when we learn.  The larger epistemological questions I’m thinking of are, “when do we learn what we learn?” and “when do we know what we know?”  There are multiple adaptations to these question, for instance, when should we know what we know; how long should we take to learn what we learn; or even, when is it best to admit we don’t know?  These questions steer us away from those that focus exclusively on identification (“what do I know?”), and they are modifications of the epistemological standard, “how do I know what I know?”  I like thinking about “how” in terms of “when” and “how long” because it allows us to critique established and perhaps arbitrary temporal designations.  For instance, why do most students begin college at eighteen, or why does college lasts for four years?  For some, these designations feel like law.  For others, they were meant to be broken.

King James I, despite being the most powerful person in the country, still had more to learn, at least according to his most brightest servant, Francis Bacon.  If dedicating his The Advancement of Learning (1605) to the sovereign was not a big enough clue, mid-chapter Bacon nudges his audience by inserting an apostrophe to the chief, claiming that even kings need to strive for evermore learning.[i]   He warns his royal highness of learning’s various diseases (not to be confused with our contemporary “crises” of education).  One disease concerns knowing how to discern old, worthy information from new, transient information.  But Bacon also wants good kings and princes to know when modern thought has simply superseded the available knowledge of previous generations.  When knowledge loses its flavor, it must be thrown out and trampled on.  Perhaps most interesting is Bacon’s insistence that knowledge is at its most profound at the axiomatic stage—when it is confusing, disorganized, turbulent, and it can shoot in manifold directions.  The observation comes off in this context more as a suggestion.  You want to be a brilliant king, James?  Enter a re-birth: Write aphorisms!

Perhaps you can teach an old king new tricks, but according to Rousseau’s Emile (1762), education begins as soon as someone wraps the infant in a blanket.[ii]  The slightest imposition on the child’s temperature teaches the human body to rely on prosthetic implements rather than its natural resistance to inclement weather.  No blankets, caps, or swaddling (60).  Let the child’s body adapt to the cold air: “It has a powerful effect on these newborn bodies; it makes on them impressions which are never effaced” (59).  Exposure to air is its own kind of learning.  It is difficult to leave the child exposed when the nurse insists on its being “well-garroted.” The nurse must then be ordered to let the child be, because “where education begins with life, the child is at birth already a disciple, not of the governor, but of nature” (61).  So if you want to educate your children right, Rousseau says begin from day one, pick the right teacher, and just let the children play-ay-ay.

Organizing her book according to themes and not a chronological sequence like Rousseau’s, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) presents an arbitrary sequence in girls’ learning.[iii]  There seems to be no priority over when girls should learn about “Benevolence” or “Card Playing.”  Of course, that is with the exception of the main event, “Matrimony.”  In Austen’s novels, weddings appear at the beginning and the end; in Wollstonecraft they are dead center (chapter 11 out of 21). It is as if marriage engenders the gravity holding the rest of the woman’s life in order.  However, form is deceptive.  Wollstonecraft opines, “Early marriages are…a stop to improvement” (31).  If the girl has not already had a thorough education she will forgo it on account of how much work marriage requires.  And quite frankly, Wollstonecraft says, “many women…marry a man before they are twenty, whom they would have rejected some years after.”  If anything, Wollstonecraft’s organization, or brilliant lack thereof, says that learning can happen in isolated bursts and need not follow any necessary sequence.

I do not know if anyone would disagree in saying that learning is a productive process, but that we have these false notions with regards to “when” we learn results in some serious runoff.  While working on my teaching philosophy this spring, I kept pushing this idea of “learning as a mode of living.”  Part of this mode means doing what you always do but looking at one’s daily activity as a subject for thought.  Too often have I heard phrases like, “when I come home I just want to watch something I don’t have to think about.”  But it is not the object that requires no thinking; the viewer merely judges the object as a thing for which no thought is required.  What I do not understand is why as humans we are so impatient with things that waste our time, but so willing to dedicate our time to things we find so unworthy of our thoughts.  Anything can be a subject for thought.

Learning as a mode of living also means that learning does not end.  Learning does not end after class, when we arrive home; in some sense, learning does not sleep, or wait until we’ve had our coffee.  The body takes in information nonstop.  The question is what are we going to do with that information. The more conscious I have become of thought the more I realize that the brain produces an infinite quantity of images, movements, feelings, ideas, colors, memories and so on throughout the course of a day.  Part of the challenge is to resign to them.  Admit to the idea.  Give it room or space.  Record it in some way.  Then forget it.  They come back, anyway (who knows when?).  But now you have the first bit of an idea, and it is ready to shoot in another direction.  The trick is to admit that learning can happen anywhere and at anytime.

So in answer to the question, “when do we learn what we learn” or “know what we know,” there is no designated time for learning and knowing.  Knowing is not an identifiable position from which one can declare his or her knowledge.  Knowledge is stretchy, turbulent stuff like the time in which we declare it.  Stretch it far enough and suddenly we don’t know what we thought we did.  In the classroom then, it is perfectly acceptable that students feel confused about a subject matter, because when are they not confused?  Confusion ends only when we choose to cease thinking about an object, a world, or ourselves.  Confusion is the process of thinking; comfort is its absence.  Learn to be uncomfortable!  I tell my students that by the end of the term, they still might not understand some of the concepts we will have discussed.  Rather, like my high school English teacher, Mr. Weiss, used to say (I’ve tweaked the phrasing): we’re planting seeds in class and there is no way to know when they will sprout, bloom, dehisce, scatter, and so on.

[i] Bacon, Francis.  The Advancement of Learning.  Ed. Michael Kiernan.  Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.  Print.

[ii] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  Emile or On Education.  Trans. Allan Bloom.  New York: Basic Books, 1979.  Print.

[iii] Wollstonecraft, Mary.  The Works Of Mary Wollstonecraft.  Ed. Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler.  Vol. 4.  London: Pickering, 1989.  Print.

Reflections on NASSR 2012

I’m on the train, heading in the direction of Germany, with Lake Neuchâtel slipping by in gray-blue early morning light. The experience of “Romantic Prospects” has been saturated by landscape. From the window of our student housing accommodation each morning the Swiss Alps marched sharply around the lake, appearing to advance and retreat with the shimmering heat. Last night at the closing dinner, held at the picturesque house in which once Rousseau lived, rows of verdant grapevines crawl up steep slopes and crumbling stone-walls demarcate historical pathways. I watched swallows like scraps of silver wheel in flight.

I won’t pretend that this is a comprehensive overview of the conference because in actual fact it’s quite personal and particular. I attended many sessions, and I even chaired one for the first time. Of the sessions I attended, the conversations, debates and experiences I had, and the people I met, the very best part was prospective: thinking about a future filled with more conversation, debate, learning, language and poetry. A romantic prospect, to be sure.

Best represented at NASSR 2012 were the fields Digital Humanities, Book History, and German Romanticism, though it seemed the most popular sessions were DH and Book History. Beginning with the DH Workshop on the first day, the idea of books containing “data” (words) to be text-mined and topic-modeled took hold of many of our imaginations. The general mood about DH seemed both skeptical and intrigued, with many scholars having already implemented these fairly new (to the study of the humanities, anyway) technologies in their research.

DH also has major pedagogical implications. Using DH as a teaching tool, according to Neil Fraistat, “won’t be optional in the next 10-15 years.” Probably sooner, I’d say, as class blogs become more commonplace and Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees (required reading) has launched a generation of graduate students interested in “distant reading.”

The words “Book History” appeared in the title of three different sessions and the topic was a major theme in many more. From a special session organized by Alex Dick and Nicholas Halmi about “Textual Prospects: Poetry, Bibliography, and Book History,” to the “Prospects for Book History” panels 1 and 2, and evident in panels on Media Studies, “Varieties of the Novel,” and Genre Theory, the study of books as historical objects has truly permeated Romantic scholarship. Taken over, perhaps. I was interested to see how the broadening of the definition of “books” has lead to the inclusion of scrapbooks, collections of letters, keepsakes and “Books in Pieces” as Michael Macovski puts it, under the auspices of Book History. Thus the physical manipulation of books (with scissors, as Deirdre Lynch illustrated) played an important role in this conference, by providing insight into the Romantic-era readers, writers, and literary participants.

Books as nooks took center stage after Robert Darnton’s plenary lecture, “Blogging: Now and Then,” in which he illustrated the ways in which scraps of information embed themselves in the cracks and crannies opened up by communications technologies. Darnton described how printed information in the early modern and Romantic periods created places to organize their fragmentary materials—such as in the tell-all books about public figures’ private lives, in early newspapers, and in the scandalous dailies. You can read my live-blogging during the reactions and responses seminar to Darnton’s lecture HERE.

German Romanticism was also represented in multiple specific sessions. My own special research interest, the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, got more attention than is usual in North American conferences and in fact, the special session on Hölderlins Ströme (Hölderlin’s Rivers), organized by the Bernhard Böschenstein was completely German-language. I don’t know if non-English panels have been done before at NASSR, but it was a fitting addition to the conference’s Swiss iteration. In addition, on the panel I chaired, I very much enjoyed Elena Pnevmonidou’s paper on Hölderlin’s Hyperion and questions of language, landscape and the body.

Overall, the two academic experiences that stood out for me at NASSR 2012 were the “Romantic Media Studies” session and Thomas Pfau’s seminar “After Sentimentalism: Liberalism and the Discontents of Modern Autonomy.”

For “Romantic Media Studies,” Lauren Neefe from SUNY Stony Brook read her paper “General Indistressible: Towards a Theory of Romantic Epistolarity,” with charm, panache and sharp insight. Her paper was fascinating and her dissertation sounds even more so. Yohei Igarashi from Colgate University discussed DH pedagogies alongside ideas of Romantic perception in his timely presentation, and Celeste Langan brought an inspired reading of the efficacy of news reports in her paper “The Future of Propaganda.” This session stood out for me because it both recognized the materiality of books (in the broad sense described above) and treated texts as particular sites for close reading and critique. I found Lauren’s characterization of Coleridge’s letter to himself in the Biographica Literaria to be unique as well as creative of openings in which more questions, more avenues for investigation, and more texts to read and re-read arose. I have so many excitedly scribbled notes from that session.

Thomas Pfau’s special session was so necessary and deserves the highest praise. It was totally en point, the kind of session that is a call for change, a meta-analysis of the state not only of Romantic scholarship but of our most pressing current philosophical and political issues, and that makes a strong argument for more wide-ranging, philosophically-sophisticated and responsible. To complain of Romantic scholarship’s irrelevance to practical contemporary concerns is not to have read Pfau.

The sun is now past noon. We’ve already sped through the Black Forest and the landscape is flattening out, dotted with farms and polka-dot Austrian flower boxes. I’m left with a feeling of satisfaction and fatigue, as well as a deep gratitude for the conference organizers, Angela Esterhammer of the University of Zürich (soon to be of the University of Toronto) and Patrick Vincent of the University of Neuchâtel. Merci beaucoup, Vielen Dank, and thanks.

Romanticism: Periodization and Teaching

A Professor working outside of the period that scholars have come to call Romantic recently said to me, “You identify as a Romanticist? Cool.” Yes, it is indeed cool. The language that he chose to use, however, raised several questions in my mind. Defining Romanticism is a difficult task that has been productively addressed by numerous scholars. For a current and thought provoking definition, here is Michael Ferber’s “Romanticism” from the aptly titled Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction.

“Romanticism was a European cultural movement, or set of kindred movements, which found in a symbolic and internalized romance plot a vehicle for exploring one’s self and its relationship to others and to nature, which privileged the imagination as a faculty higher and more inclusive than reason, which sought solace in or reconciliation with the natural world, which ‘detranscendentalized’ religion by taking God or the divine as inherent in nature or in the soul and replaced theological doctrine with metaphor and feeling, which honored poetry and all the arts as the highest human creations, and which rebelled against the established canons of neoclassical aesthetics and against both aristocratic and bourgeois social and political norms in favor of values more individual, inward, and emotional.”

This definition is indeed a very useful one. I encourage my compatriots to engage with, laud, and/or put pressure on this definition.

For the purpose of this post, I want to examine the two important implications that loom behind defining Romanticism. The debate over what Romanticism means has clear implications for those of us who “identify” as “Romanticists.” In other words, locating the definition of the era/period/movement/ -ism changes what it means when I assert with confidence that I am Romanticist. What is a Romanticist an expert in?

For those pursuing graduate degrees, there is a bizarre bifurcation taking place. In my own work, in conversations with colleagues, and in response to contemporary critics, I often put pressure on Romanticism and the Romantic. When I teach, however, Romanticism is something with clear temporal, aesthetic, and political boundaries. To what extent should our scholarly debates influence the manner in which we teach Romanticism? Do we not participate in the debate when we choose to teach Romanticism in a certain way?

In order to get the conversation started, I have included a few charts that I use to teach Romanticism. Are these images similar to / different from / at odds with the way you have taught Romanticism?

Romanticism Charts


Spring Planning (before November!): Selecting Works for Teaching Intro. to Women’s Lit.

Isabella Bird in Tibet

I just received my spring teaching assignment in my mailbox, and am delighted to find that I’m teaching “Intro. to Women’s Lit.” for the first time. I am a little kid in a candy store (or a rock climber in a gear shop) when it’s time to select possible works to teach for the next semester’s course. I’ve also noticed a trend in romanticists’ online communities, in that we enjoy suggesting works to teach on a certain theme. For example, on Romantic Circles’ Teaching Romanticism blog, Katherine Harris requested suggestions for her Gustatory Romanticism graduate course, and Roger Whitson did the same for his Visualizing Nineteenth Century Poetry course. In addition, the NASSR-L recently saw a flurry of responses to Diane Hoeveler’s call for suggestions for her Romanticism and Religion graduate seminar, and she very generously collected all of the responses in this Word doc. I’m going to use our forum for a similar kind of request–please help me decide what to teach. And following Katherine Harris’ example, I plan to post my final reading list and course description to our blog as a follow-up discussion.

I’m especially interested in your suggestions for American authors and works to teach from earlier periods, within the romantic-era, and post-romantic periods. To date, I have been transatlantically challenged, so to speak, as far as including American texts in my teaching and scholarship. (Well, I’ve been specifically assigned to teach Shakespeare and surveys of British literature for the past 3 years.) Though I have chosen to specialize mostly in British romantic works for my dissertation, I see this course as a great opportunity to begin to fill in a gap or two in my reading.

Course theme: “Adventure.” I envision the theme of “adventure,” broadly, as one that will include the genres of travel literature, the gothic, experiments with form like those found in Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, as well as experiments with media, like Shelley Jackson’s electronic literary work Patchwork Girl. Namely, I’m interested in drawing attention to women writers over time who have ventured beyond society’s prescribed boundaries and who have taken risks that they convey one way or another in their authorship.

The CU catalog description requires that this course “[introduce] literature by women in England and America. Covers both poetry and fiction and varying historical periods. Acquaints students with the contribution of women writers to the English literary tradition and investigates the nature of this contribution.”

Initial brainstorming: I’m thinking of including the following authors/works (listed early to late): Sappho’s fragments (ed. Ann Carson), Julian of Norwich (med.), Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative (17th c.), Eliza Haywood (18th c.), Mary Shelley (rom.), Joanna Baillie (rom.), Ann Radcliffe (rom), Mary Wollstonecraft (rom), Isabella Bird (Vict.), Dickinson (Vict.), Woolf (mod.), Angela Carter (contemp.), Annie Dillard (contemp.), Jeannette Winterson (contemp.)

All reading and assignment suggestions are welcome, and I’m especially interested in your ideas for:

  • 18th and 19th c. American authors and works–drama, fiction, poetry, essays
  • I work on the gothic quite a bit — any American women gothic writers or works to recommend?
  • 17th c works
  • If you’ve taught this course, have you used a particular anthology that you would recommend?
  • Assignment recommendations: I have been experimenting with my British Literature survey course with putting together student-made collections or exhibits that relate to works we’re studying in class. Any ideas how we could put together an adventure-themed exhibit for this course? (I’m thinking digital exhibit.)

Thanks in advance!

This Little Graddie Went to Market…

Preparing for and Navigating the Job Market: Roundtable from NASSR Conference, August 2011

If you were at the NASSR conference last month, and happened to attend the job-market roundtable organized by the NGSC, then this post will be old news…but we figured there are at least some of you who want to know all the good advice!  For all their wisdom, pragmatic counsel, and encouragement, special thanks again goes to all our panelists: Alan Bewell, Julie Carlson, Frances Ferguson, William Galperin, Jonathan Mulrooney, and Juan Sanchez.  To protect the innocent, I’ve detached their names from the information below; please note that these are MY interpretations of what was said, edited and rearranged for your convenience.  May they prove useful to all those currently preparing to go on the job market, and to all of us hoping to get there soon!


Choosing between a postdoc and the job market

The Postdoc offers certain advantages over the job market.  It is generally much easier to get than a tenure-track position.  However, there are many kinds of postdocs, and you might find yourself with a kind of postdoc that you don’t really want; some will help you more than others to prepare for jobs.  The best kinds of postdocs are the ones that allow you to do research and get out some publications (these are generally 2-3 year postdocs).

Postdocs are also more difficult to apply for than jobs.  The job letter can describe your research and experience very broadly and can be used on several applications; postdocs tend to have very specified requirements that often result in more time and effort invested; you have to write several very different applications, rather than one that can be tailored to many.  Second, postdocs often want you to describe a NEW project: they don’t want you to go and finish your book; they want you to work on producing something new.  This means you will be pitching two book ideas.  Of course, when you go into the job market, you CAN say that you used the postdoc to develop a second book project, and you will have something to show for it…and this puts you in a really great position.

With the postdoc market, you may have more success because host institutions are interested in you developing new ideas and projects however you want to.  In a job situation, you have to fit in to the department, and you will need to fit your projects to the departmental needs.

Format of the Job Letter and the Dissertation Abstract

These are THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS YOU WILL EVER PRODUCE IN YOUR CAREER!  They will absorb hours and hours of your time, but you should recognize that time as a worthwhile investment.  Nothing will affect your future prospects so much as these two documents.  There is a standard tripartite form in the job letter, and you should adhere to it.  You don’t want anything quirky or grandstanding.  The entire letter should NEVER, under any circumstances, be longer than two pages.

Part 1: Announce your application to the job, and make clear your suitability for the position advertised.  Show that you can operate from the center, rather than the periphery.  Show that you are aware of their needs, and indicate your suitability to meet those needs.

Part 2: Describe your dissertation.  This will naturally be the most difficult paragraph, and you should be prepared to make 8-10 revisions!

Part 3: Indicate your teaching experience.  Every school, whether they are a research university or a teaching university, will employ you as a teacher, and they want to know that you have experience and enthusiasm for it.  (see “Teaching,” below.)

To conclude, your last few sentences should declare your availability for an interview.

Getting Help and Guidance with the Letter, Abstract, and Interviews

The placement committee at your university can help a lot by giving practice interviews, mentoring, pairing a job candidate with a faculty member who is NOT on their committee (who can thus see with fresh eyes, like the people on hiring committees).  If you can arrange such a pairing, you should meet with this person on multiple occasions.  From a student’s perspective, this can be a very irritating experience, and may seem pointless, and it might feel infantilizing.  It’s alienating labor for everyone involved, but everyone needs to be cheerful and grateful for it… and it can make a HUGE difference!

When to go on the job market

When to go on the market depends on where you are with your dissertation.  For the most part, you should NOT go on the market unless you are done with your dissertation, or very nearly done.  If you are an exception to this, let your advisor tell you that you are!  You need to be at a point when you can talk about your work with confidence, both in the broadest terms, and in the 11-second elevator conversation.  It’s up to you to figure out whether you want to do a “trial year;” but recognize that this will take lots of time that can feel slightly arbitrary, and it might be a better use of your time to move forward with your dissertation.  It is indeed a useful exercise, but it is more useful at certain times than at others.  Be discriminate.

How to interview and give a job talk (at MLA, or a campus visit)

Interviews are formal moments, and you should dress up – but you should also be comfortable!  You should not be distracted by your clothing, and neither should others.  Poise is also important; sustain it as best you can through all events, but especially make sure you have at least 15-30 minutes alone before your talk to gather yourself and your thoughts.

Clarity and conciseness are your best friends. You must learn to articulate quickly and clearly what you are “about.”  Learn who you will be speaking to, what the format is, and what will be expected of you (your advisor can help you find these things out.)  Keep in mind that you will be talking to non-specialists in your field.  You don’t need to dilute yourself and open yourself up to super-broad questions you can’t handle, but you want to give the broadest possible range of your work and its relevance.  Show that you know the specifics, but that you can participate in the larger conversation.   Your originality is most apparent in the CLARITY with which you articulate your ideas, NOT that you are the first person ever to think about them.  Avoid vague sloppy verbs like “negotiate”, “through the lens of,” or “this is a moment where…”

The quality of your research will probably be much like that of other candidates.  In the interview, the committee will probably not ask you much about your dissertation itself; they will want to know how it fits in with the larger academic conversation, the limits of your project, etc.  Also, the committee won’t know anything you haven’t told them in your application letter, and in the interview they will want to know about your wider academic interests.

Have Fun!!  We all got into this profession because we enjoy it!  That’s not to say that you don’t act rigorously professional, but in an interview you should communicate not only what you know, but HOW you know!  The people who are interviewing you want you to succeed; you don’t have to convince them that you have the intellectual goods; they already think you do because they invited you!  You are a colleague.  Keep in mind that it is a conversation!  The more it becomes a conversation, the less it becomes an interrogation…you win!  If the committee is having fun, it will make a difference.  Be human.  Respond to questions as they occur, but keep it natural.  This isn’t Trivial Pursuit.  It’s okay to acknowledge when you don’t know something; keep in mind that such times are opportunities that demonstrate how you think about new ideas.  Don’t be afraid to risk some intellectual playfulness.  You can go out on a limb and have conversations, and be willing to stretch yourself.

It’s not always all about you.  There is a good chance that at least one person on the committee will be crazy, and not necessarily liked by their colleagues… there are dynamics going on, like when you go to Thanksgiving with your in-laws. J  Not everything that goes on between the people there has to do with you.

Both research and teaching are important.  Don’t assume too much about what a school wants, based on its reputation as a research institution or liberal arts college.  Always be prepared to talk about both your teaching and your research, and how they integrate.  This will serve you well no matter what kind of institution you apply to.

Teaching – It is SO important! 

Different universities may have different degrees of emphasis on research, but they ALL will emphasize teaching!  In order to get an interview, you do have to have a strong letter and strong research; that is,  teaching will not get you the interview.  However, once you GET the interview, your teaching experience will often get you the job.  Make teaching matter to you as a graduate student, and make sure you get experience with it.  Don’t treat it simply as a part-time side job that you put second to your research. Make sure someone writes a letter of reference that can say something about your teaching.  Invite a faculty advisor to observe you, so they can write with real knowledge.

Make teaching important to you in the interview.  YOU can bring it up!  Ask questions about teaching.  Take time to find out about the kinds of courses offered at the university.  Put together some sample syllabi, and be prepared (and excited) to talk about them.  When you are talking to the director of undergraduate studies, teaching will be particularly important.

At this point in your career, a teaching portfolio is not really necessary, but you may want to leave some samples of courses you have taught or would like to teach with the committee.  However, don’t make the mistake of giving the committee too many papers before or during the interview…. You want them looking at YOU, not at the six syllabi that you have constructed.  Try to focus on perhaps one course that you might teach, and talk about it.

How to demonstrate your teaching skills at a campus visit

The job talk will likely be your most important teaching moment.  Approach it like a teacher.  Imagine the talk like a seminar, in which a lot of ideas are discussed, and everyone feels they’ve been engaged in an important exploration.  Then, think of the Q&A as a class about your paper, with you as the teacher!  Keep in mind that many search committees are new to the process too, and they sometimes fumble.  So, YOU are the teacher.  Find ways to let them know the important things about you.  Take control in a diplomatic way to make it work; find creative ways to engage with difficult people.  You’re at the beginning of your career, and no committee is under the impression that you aren’t!  They are looking for potential, for how you organize your thoughts and think on your feet, and how much you respect the ideas of others, and yourself.

It sometimes happens that interviewers set up a sort of artificial class in which to observe you.  IF this happens, discuss interesting and relevant things, listen to and interact with students, and finish on time.

How to act once you might have an offer.

Don’t get ahead of yourself.  A job offer is just a gleam in the eye of a department and a candidate until an official letter arrives from the university.  Until then, sit tight and be patient; don’t start asking questions about employment benefits and all those details.  You can do that later.

Once you have your official offer (and if you have only one), you should feel free to ask for some time to deliberate.  This is the time to inquire about various policies, money issues, and to make it known that taking the job might complicate your family situation.  Through all the discussions, stay focused on the most important goal: a good situation over the long future.  Don’t compromise your future relationship with your colleagues by being a tough negotiator.

If you have more than one offer, you should inform the chairs of both departments, so they can talk to each other.

If you don’t get a job offer, makes notes about the process while your memory is fresh.  Review your experiences and your materials.  Take a little time to remind yourself that jobs are hard to come by, and that it may not be your fault…then read something fabulous to cheer yourself up. 🙂


How is the job situation in Romanticism particularly?

Sometimes, Romanticism can get swallowed up by scholars of 18th or 19th centuries… romanticism does seem still to be regarded as its own “thing,” and as a component of an expertise, it still has a lot of traction.  The field seems to have been quite agile in adapting itself to academic categories, without losing its identity.

Should Romanticists spin themselves for 18th-century or Victorian jobs?  And if so, how?

Most importantly, you should make your own intellectual center very clear and honest.  You can speculate out loud in your letter about ways that you might pedagogically fulfill the university’s needs, but don’t fake it.  Be yourself, and be honest.  If the university wants 100 years, that’s probably a teaching mandate, not a research mandate. They just want to know if you can teach stuff from a full century.  As long as your research is interesting and worthwhile, and you can teach about a century of stuff, you’ll probably be fine.

Do interviews really sometimes happen in hotel bedrooms at MLA? 

There are some regulations trying to be put in place, but you may have to be creatively professional.  Don’t underestimate search committees’ bad behavior; awkward things may happen!  Make sure that you have enough time between interviews, even if they are in the same hotel, or in the same city.  If you are late, the committee won’t adjust their whole schedule for you.

Some departments are shifting to phone interviews, skype interviews, or interviews that happen even before MLA?

For better or worse, MLA is losing its centrality and control over the hiring process, and this does make expectations much less clear.  The “rules” set up by the MLA are voluntary, and universities can choose whether to participate.  Videoconferencing offers many advantages: not everyone can go to the MLA, you can reach internationally much more easily, and whole committees can be present.  We are moving into an era in which this will be more and more common, and more important to think about.  Check into what videoconferencing  options are available to you, and learn how to use them!

For those interviews/offers that occur before MLA, you can ask for some time to consider, at least until after MLA.

Skype interviews and phone interviews present a different set of challenges from in-person interviews, and you should definitely practice for them.   Especially practice when to know you should STOP talking.  Practice pausing 30 seconds into a response, to watch/listen for cues that others might want to redirect or jump in.  Practice putting your thoughts in order, so that if you get cut off, you have communicated the important information!   In a phone interview, it might be good to talk explicitly about the process, and invite the interviewee to break in, or to expect pauses from you.   It might be good to call your own voice mail, and practice talking to a machine for a limited amount of time!

In Skype interviews, be aware of the background you set up in your screen shot…there are lots of possibilities, and you can give people insight into the kind of person you are (both good and bad).  This is risky, though, and a neutral environment is probably best.

Should we devote our greatest energies toward publishing, or toward finishing and polishing our dissertation?

There’s no question that having a well-placed article will speak well for you.   However, the main decision is based on a very careful and scrupulous reading of the writing sample that you send in.  The published article can be very powerful window-dressing, and it puts you into a different echelon of candidates…but your submitted writing sample will be most important.

If your dissertation project is under revision, and you think of it more as a manuscript than as a dissertation, how do you talk about it – as your book, or your dissertation?

Committees want to know how close you are to finishing; they don’t want to see that your project is continually evolving into nowhere.  Be specific about what parts are truly finished.  (Did you finish the dissertation, and now you are beginning the book manuscript?)  The committee might ask “what are your plans for your dissertation”?  You have two options; you can turn it into a book, or chop it up into 3-4 essays.    Once you graduate, your dissertation is finished and done.  If you’re at that stage, talk about your book project, not your dissertation.   Talking about the book project allows you to talk about the dissertation without actually saying it. Committees aren’t expecting you to have your book already accepted by a press, and even having a book may not always work to you advantage.  It is just one of many, many factors.  Just do the best you can to present yourself as honestly as possible.  Keep in mind that when a university hires someone to tenure-track, they’re imagining hiring you for 40 years.  The big picture is the most important.  Keep your perspective.

If you’ve been NOT getting hired for a long time, and you’ve been adjuncting for ever, is there a point when you should cut your losses and consider other careers?  Is there a point when you’re just going to look stale, compared to other candidates?

Because the job market is tough, you are not going to look stale as fast as perhaps in the past…but you should be honest with yourself, and decide what your own psychological stamina is up for.  It is tough, and you will need to look inside yourself and decide what’s right for you.  BUT, don’t make a quick decision and get down on yourself too easily; be realistic about the fact that it may take 2-3 years to find a tenure-track position.  Recognize that such delays don’t necessarily mean that your work is not up to par.  Stay focused on what matters, and what makes you happy about your work – the research, the teaching, etc.

What other sorts of academic jobs are available?  And if you get an “alternate” kind of academic job, does it hurt your chances of going back on the market for a job as a professor?

In some ways, it depends on what you’re doing.  Some “alternate” jobs are perfect fits for the particular professorship.  And it IS important to think about alternate jobs too.  We are multiply talented people, despite being very focused…and sometimes developing ourselves on other disciplines can make our minds more fluid and mobile in terms of how we envision ourselves.

Reflections on the First Weeks of Teaching Art History

At the midpoint of the spring quarter, my first term as a graduate teaching fellow (the ‘classy’ University of Oregon term for a TA), I thought it’d be wise to use my third piece as a way to reflect on my first weeks teaching Art History, detail an icebreaker that I will most likely be using in the future (having found it pretty effective), and to speak a bit to how I’ve experienced teaching primarily from images. I’m happy to report that from the beginning, while teaching has certainly been as—if not more—challenging than I thought it’d be going in, the experience has proved even more gratifying than I could have imagined. Playing the role of initiating many of my students into the humanities has been incredibly fulfilling.

Generally, I’ve attempted to proceed from what I’ve realized is a similarly student-centered course organization and teaching strategy to that which I think Teresa expressed so well in her most recent piece, albeit on a bit smaller scale since my first-year teaching is limited to discussion sections in support of the main History of Western Art: Baroque to Contemporary survey lectures.  Walking into the classroom for the first time committed from the beginning to a occupying a sort of headspace where I’d be completely open to the direction my students wish to take the discussion in relation to the materials explored in lecture really helped to alleviate the nerves I felt before teaching for the very first time.

Given the broad transnational and transhistorical nature of the course, its pace is totally relentless. As a result, I recognized pretty early the necessity of setting up my discussion sections as contraries to the lectures, meaning to promote my students’ progression in ways that connect the material to their own personal interests—given that only a handful are actually Art History majors, with the majority coming from History, English, Philosophy, Environmental Studies, and Graphic Design. It was important to me, as I’m sure it is for most teachers, that I craft a classroom experience in which information could be engaged and connected to in ways students would find pragmatically applicable to their other passions and meaningfully relevant, generally.

To establish this from the start, I decided on an ice breaker exercise that would encourage students to both personally identify with the art they’d been lectured on and with one another. Knowing that I’d have to be creative in devising a good icebreaker—since in my own experience they’ve tended to be haphazardly thought out and ineffective—two days before our first discussion section (after about two weeks worth of lecture meetings) I sent my students an email asking them to select and print their favorite image encountered in lecture to date and to bring it to class. To begin the first class discussion, after being pleasantly surprised that the vast majority of my students actually completed the assignment, I asked them to take a moment to reflect on their individual selections and think about how it might exhibit one aspect of their personalities and/or interests in order to introduce themselves and share with the class. To my excitement, the students seemed generally thrilled by the prospect of connecting to the lecture’s material they had been all too rapidly moving through in a more personal way. Thereafter, my classes rarely have had extended moments of silence, and students usually arrive eager to actively engage with the art and each other in discussion. I’d like to think taking the time to craft an unusual icebreaker might have helped, in this regard.

All in all, teaching’s been an enjoyable experience and I have to say, while I hope to be in a better position to bring literary texts into dialogue with visual art in future classes I’ll design and execute on my own as I continue to progress through the trajectory of my graduate studies and—optimistically—beyond, I’ve really enjoyed the immediacy that seems to accompany teaching primarily from images. While in my own scholarship I’m still navigating what constitutes substantive differences between verbal and visual artistic media, I’ve become taken by the way I can throw an image into one of my powerpoints that the students have yet to see previously, and have them become quickly able to engage with and describe its formalistic qualities in comparison to other paintings, sculptures, or architectural examples. I’m wondering if this can occur as easily/spontaneously when working with texts. To cite one example, when we were looking at Baroque art, one of my students brought up a contemporary American artist who she’s particularly interested in, which I was able to locate on a Google image search projected in front of the class in real time, and catalyze a fabulous discussion where we used her artist as a means to draw out some of the germane characteristics of Italian art from the 1600s. Perhaps I’m essentializing my own experience as an art historian, but I’m wondering if this is one area where classroom experience in an Art History/Visual Culture program might differ from that of an English one. As a result, I’m interested in knowing whether or not you all think there is more of a sense of immediacy in play when teaching visual art as opposed to literature (since I know that some of you do use images in your classes, as well)?

At any rate, I’ve definitely enjoyed reading everyone’s posts over these last few months and am looking forward to meeting many of you in Park City in August. The NASSR conference schedule looks really fantastic.

Legitimacy and the Graduate Student

We’ve all heard it:  “I don’t feel like I belong here”—the clarion call of English graduate students and the hyper-obsession of meta-conversations within Literature departments at the highest level.  What is this obsession, and who really does belong in graduate programs or the academy, if not those who are there already?  This problem has been my preoccupation for some time now, so much so that it has crept into my dissertation, in an attempt to unravel the problems of legitimacy, sovereignty, authorship, etc. embedded in Romanticism and Romantic studies.

Trying to tackle these problems as a total framework, or as a problem even at the level of pedagogy, has been met with lots of resistance.  My upcoming Fall course on “Banned Books and Novel Ideas” will look at illegitimate textual problems in Ossian’s Tales of Fingal, Byron’s issues with piracy, the thorny controversies in Shakespeare and Defoe, as well as the whole regime of intellectual property surrounding Scott and Coleridge.  To inaugurate this course, I began my description with the famous quote from Foucault’s famous essay which he “borrowed” from Beckett: “What matters who’s speaking?”  Quite a moment of reflexivity, where Foucault not only questions the regime of authorship, but also uses a phrase that is syntactically tangled and, apparently, illegitimate.  I say this because my proposal, after explanation and several revisions, was greeted with disapproval from the legitimizing force of the English department heads; Beckett and Foucault have non-standard English and tangled syntax, it was said—students will be confused and find the course doesn’t have authority!  Hmmm….  I have my own responses to this line of argument, but I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the subject.  That is, how does one negotiate teaching texts that are non-standard, taboo, illegitimate etc. while still telling them that plagiarism is naughty-naughty and they must write in standard, syntactically clear English?  One easy explanation is making the distinction between discursive and non-discursive texts but, in keeping with truth-telling, even that distinction breaks down with enough interrogation.

Within this same matrix of problems, I have often asked the question of how one can really integrate radical politics into a classroom space?  How can one develop a quasi-democratic, anarchic pedagogy when all available models have some basis in logics of sovereignty and authority, delegitimizing certain ways of learning and production of scholarship?  Your thoughts are very much appreciated, particularly in relation to your experiences of teaching problematic Romantic texts.

Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes

Organizing 2,350 Minutes

For every single 3-credit course I teach each semester I spend approximately 2,350 minutes in front of the classroom. Like most of you, before I even step foot in the classroom or meet a single student,  I sit down with an assortment of desk copies—anthologies, novels and the like—and try to decide on the content of those 2,350 minutes. Before I meet my students, learn anything about their interests or goals, I must guess at what materials will interest them and help maintain active thinking and discussion throughout the 16-week semester. As the end of the spring semester approaches and I prepare for my fall course assignment, I find myself once again asking, “What does it take to plan a course? What principles guide the choices we make? How do we, as educators and students, decide what to include and what must be forsaken in the interest of time, depth and focus?”

When I received my Spring 2011 course assignment in November 2010, I was utterly elated; my assignment was English 262: British Literature II (1789-present), the latter portion of two British literature surveys taught at West Virginia University. I was wrapping up the last few weeks of English 261 (beginnings-1789), which had gone better than I expected: the texts I selected were of interest to my students and a narrative about performance and “Englishness” emerged through the texts creating thought-provoking, intellectually invigorating discussions for my students and me. (My students claimed to love the metaphysical poets…I was shocked!) The text selections for 261 successfully produced a dialogue amongst my students in ways that I could not have anticipated. (I can’t take credit for this; I had a group of students who were willing to challenge one another’s ideas in the interest of a deeper, more detailed understanding of the texts. If not for this attitude in my students, the course might have been an entirely different experience for all of us.) Because of the successes (and lessons learned) in 261, I felt confident in my ability to plan a successful version of 262; plus, I had an organizing principle: selfhood! I could not wait for the calm of winter break to organize a syllabus bursting with texts in which my soon-to-be students and I could trace the construction of the self (a national self, a Seigelian self, etc.) in Romantic, Victorian, and Modern British literatures.

As I flipped through the pages of various anthologies in mid-December, I realized I had an unexpected problem (a desirable problem, I’d say): teaching 262 meant that I was more familiar with the vast selection of texts. I hadn’t felt this way when planning most of English 261, particularly the Middle Ages unit which began the course (as the Romantic unit would in 262). I was less connected to the texts in 261, unlike the texts for 262 which are on my mind regularly. Wollstonecraft, Hemans, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge (to name just a few) all have a place in what makes me passionate about Romantic literature. I glanced through the list of names and works in the anthology’s table of contents and wondered how I could possibly give my students everything they’d need to be “good” English scholars in a single semester. Could I, in good conscience, skip Lord Byron in favor of Joanna Baillie? The part of me which reacts against the traditional canon screamed, “Yes! Of course!” while undergraduate me, who ached for knowledge of “the classics” and sought out courses which prepared for me the GREs (since I had hopes for graduate school) urged me to keep Byron. All of a sudden, the weight of literary history was on my shoulders; I felt like it was my responsibility to show my students why the Romantic, Victorian and Modern periods were worthy of their attention and reflection. I created one reading list and then another but found myself asking the same question each time: How can I select (and ignore) particular texts for a course which claims to survey the Romantic, Victorian, and Modern periods? What makes for a “good” survey course? I began to question selfhood as my course theme and considered abandoning the project.

I learned the hard way (while teaching 261) that many of the undergraduate students find British literature un-relatable and prefer the offerings focused on American literature. I was baffled by this division—how could students write-off an entire literary canon? Then, I realized: American literature is more popular because students are better able to connect with it! They view American literature as part of their selfhood—whether they articulate it in such a way or not, reading the literary history of their nation means something to them. It helps them understand who they are (as Americans, as future fiction/poetry/nonfiction writers, as American literary scholars). I had to find a way to make British literature relevant in the same ways without devaluing the separate (yet connected) British identity it helps to articulate. It seemed that “selfhood” might be a way in after all– a way to make the connections I was so desperately seeking.  I returned to the anthology’s table of contents and selected a list of texts I thought would help place American and British literatures in dialogue with one another–hoping to show my students that understanding one aids your understanding of the other. I then narrowed that list with “selfhood” in mind. As I stared at that list I again began to question my choices: Are these the texts that students want to read? Am I selecting texts that I am comfortable and familiar with because I am comfortable and familiar with them? Does this reading list prepare my classroom of English and English education majors for the exams many of them will take to continue on their career paths (PRAXIS, GRE)?

As teachers (and lovers of literature) we want to give our students all we can but sometimes doing so is just overwhelming (for them and us). If I forced Coleridge and Wordsworth into the same 50 minute class meeting, students would be introduced to both authors but would likely miss the depth each author’s works have to offer. In organizing our courses each semester we are forced to decide whose interests will shape the course. If we choose our own interests and the texts we prefer, then our students are likely to learn more about those particular authors and texts; our familiarity with the texts means we bring a deeper understanding to the classroom (as we will 10 years from now with a vast selection of texts [after we’ve taught a few surveys]). If we select texts that are only of interest to students then it is likely that we’ll overlook cornerstones of English literature; for example, few of my students would choose Felicia Hemans (if they’ve even heard of her). Most of us seem to find a middle ground; we teach the authors we love alongside the authors we wish we could skip right over in order to provide exposure to the various voices which compose the British literary canon and to allow our students to form their own opinions about the value(s) of such voices (politically, historically, aesthetically, etc.).

By using selfhood as an organizing theme for English 262, I made a decision about the focus of the course; there is a plethora of other themes (or lack of themes) which I could have selected. However, this particular theme fit my goals for the semester (which included showing students that British and American literatures are connected and can offer them insight into understanding themselves). Not only do we have to select which texts we’ll teach, but we must also decide which themes (or theoretical framing devices) will shape the way we teach those texts. No matter what we wish we could do, it is impossible to do it all; in a single semester we can’t offer all there is to know about genre, psychoanalysis, feminism, queerness, narrative, form, etc. in relation to the texts we finally decide to include in a syllabus. Oftentimes, class discussion in English 262 ignores selfhood entirely in favor of debate about how much we trust a narrative voice or what a particular lines or phrase “means.” More often, my students begin discussion with their ideas about the role of class, nationality, race, religion, gender, and so on in a text and by the end of said discussion, they’ve linked those ideas to selfhood. Theming English 262 has not limited how my students read literature; instead, it has enabled them to connect the various ideas their peers have about a text to a concept they are all comfortable with. It has allowed them to see literature as multi-faceted and empowered them to bring their own readings to the classroom. Our best hope as educators, as course planners, is to spend 2,350 minutes inciting our students’ desire to know more, to read closer, to take risks, and to learn to love various literatures and voices!