If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Back In The Fray

The first week of classes is over and I must say it felt like a long one. The really good news is that someone has dropped a bit of funding into my lap. My university has a faculty training grant that supports research directly related to my area. The grant was written the year before I came to SouthLite so I was not able to be included. However this year there is some extra money so they were looking for a junior faculty member (this is the last year I can claim that title) to fund and found me.

What does it mean, you ask? I will have 30% of my salary funded this year; 15-20 hours of an RA to help me with grants; and access to statistical and grant/paper writing consultants. Basically whatever help I need getting grants written and out (short of writing them for me) will be supported by this program. Pretty cool, eh? The salary funding means I will only have to teach one course next semester.

I also get an RA from my department because I'm still junior faculty. On top of that I have 2 undergraduate research assistant this semester from internal grants that the students and I wrote last year (our university has a really great program for funding undergraduate research, which is one of the things I love about being here). So I have A LOT of paid help from students this year. This is great but also not-so-great as it means a lot of training and supervision on my part. There is a real trade-off when working with students and it can be hard to find the right balance. Next week starts the meetings with my various student teams so I'll have a better sense of how the balance will work this semester.

I'm teaching two classes this semester: one undergraduate and one doctoral. I was really excited about the undergraduate class over the summer but after the first week I'm beginning to have some doubts. I taught it last year for the first time and it took a lot of prep time. This year I've changed it a bit but mostly to make it easier on me. It also happens that my department is also offering the same course (an elective) online. As I watched the numbers over the summer, it seemed the online course was filling up and my course was at a nice reasonable size (about two thirds full). My theory was that the students who were just looking for an easy elective were opting for the online course (most students feel they are easier; this is not always the case but I fear it is in my department). This idea made me very happy because I teach the course with a very strong feminist bent (it is cross-listed with the Women & Gender Studies program) and people looking for an easy elective often don't mix well with the students who are taking it because they know it is a feminist course.

What did I find when I started teaching this week? Well to start the numbers jumped to almost maximum a day or two before the class started. This seems to be going on all over the university as we are getting a record number of late enrollments and new students are searching for any open course. It also seems that due to cut-backs other courses are closing at the last minute and students need to fill their schedules. This is not a course that is well-suited for a gap-fill. Throughout the week, students have been adding and dropping like crazy. We are also stuck in a room that is way to small so I literally feel like they are on top of me and each other. I now have 36 students, half of whom I believe are deadweight; a quarter who are conscientious students but have never been introduced to anything remotely feminist; and a quarter who are totally psyched about the course and bring strong feminist analytic abilities. To pull the class off successfully I'm going to have to keep the feminists excited and challenged; excite the conscientious without scaring them; and get at least half of the deadweight interested enough that they'll at least complete the work and engage in discussion. But what of the other half, you ask? I'm hoping one or two drop (or get dropped from excessive absence) and the rest sleep.

Mmmm. I just reread the above paragraph and realize it sounds way more pessimistic and bitter than I really feel. I do love this course and I think it will be a great experience for both me and the students but I am disappointed that what I thought was going to be an easy and fun class for me, is now going to be a major challenge. Of course students have a right to take whatever elective interests them but I hate when they take it because it fills a gap and they think it will be easy ("its about women and I'm a woman so..."). My department is struggling to move from a last chance major ("I couldn't cut it in X or Y major and this major will help me graduate the fastest") and while we're making some strides it is still prevalent.

My doctoral class is a methods class--which is really a strength for me. Teaching research methods is something I enjoy and it comes fairly easy. I co-taught this course 2 years ago with a colleague. It is really his course but he is overfunded this year, so I got to drop my large graduate intro class for this very small (8 students) methods course--major win. They're a fun and chatty group from diverse fields and I have nothing but positive expectations.

This week also brought our first faculty meeting (during which I strongly objected to something that the department chair had proposed--probably NOT the smartest thing to do the week before I put my packet in for tenure review--but it really needed an objection and everyone else was acting like they were asleep) and grading of the written half of comprehensive exams. Yesterday we did one of the oral exams for a student that has been part of my research team--she did very well and will be defending her proposal within a month--so I was very happy. I have two more oral exams in the next two weeks.

It is going to be a very busy semester.


drax said...

1 "Congrats," 1 "Condolences," and 1 "Relax, shweetheart, you can do it."

Annie K said...

It sounds like both a challenging, and hopefully, an ultimately rewarding term. And the motivated students will make it all worthwhile.

Julie said...

Hi, Brigindo. It does sound like a busy semester is coming your way! Congratulations on the funding. That's great news.

When I read your description of your class, I didn't think it was pessimistic. It's just realistic. I did chuckle at the dead weight description, though. It's so true!!

But it's obvious that you know what to do to motivate the class. I think paragraph five should be in a teaching manual. I like the approach you will use.

I hope this week is a good one for you.