Friday, August 29, 2008

Politics

I normally don't get too involved in politics; for the most part I'm not that interested. I used to be more gung-ho and never missed an election, but the past couple of years I've let things slide and haven't voted (the most recent exception being the last presidential election. Let me begin by saying that while I am a registered Democrat and will be voting for Obama (now that Mike Gravel is out of the race), if I thought McCain were the better candidate, his being affiliated with the Republicans would not stop me from voting for him.

On McCain's Web site, it was noted that McCain would "encourage alternative certification methods that open the door for highly motivated teachers to enter the field...[and would] devote five percent of Title II funding to states to recruit teachers who graduate in the top 25 percent of their class or who participate in an alternative teacher recruitment program such as Teach for America, the New York City Teaching Fellowship Program, the New Teacher Project, or excellent university initiatives." I'm really not a fan of said programs; I think that it can be a very costly mistake (both in terms of finances and educational ramifications) for teachers to be put in classrooms without some serious preparation - not a couple of weeks' training, but several months or even years. My own experience in taking 4 extra classes, 100 hours of field work, 75 days of student teaching and an accompanying seminar, taking and passing 3 exams, sitting through 3 workshops, and getting fingerprinted meant that I had to do some serious introspection and evaluation of teaching methods, which, to put it mildly, gives me a distinct advantage over those who go through the TFA training. I'm not against recruiting those who otherwise had not considered teaching as a career, but I am concerned that there is not enough training being provided. (There's a blog I've been reading that attempts to "debunk the propaganda" behind TFA. It's strongly against TFA but it does seem to make some good points about training, lack of preparedness, and teacher retention.)

To be fair, Obama does say the following on his Website: "Obama will create new Teacher Service Scholarships that will cover four years of undergraduate or two years of graduate teacher education, including high-quality alternative programs for mid-career recruits in exchange for teaching for at least four years in a high-need field or location." I like the idea of scholarships that cover education, but again, I'd like to know the nature of those "alternate programs." Obama seems to have a bit more of a plan to "recruit, prepare, [and] retain" teachers, which I don't see McCain having. Both address the horror that is NCLB, but McCain believes that "choice is the best way to protect children against a failing bureaucracy. But parents must have more control over the money." Obama says a bit more, saying that he will "reform NCLB, which starts by funding the law. Obama believes teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests. He will improve the assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner. Obama will also improve NCLB's accountability system so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them." I wish McCain would say more, and I wish both would tell us specifically how he would reform NCLB.

As far as I'm concerned, McCain's stance on teacher education alone has lost him my vote. However, before I came definitively to that conclusion, I decided to peruse his Website and read his policies. There's a lot of throat clearing, being committed to "high standards and accountability" and "providing the resources needed to succeed. He believes we should invest in people, parents and reward achievement." Like what? And like how? I want details. He does get into more details in explaining other policies, but there are a few too many questions that don't get answered. Obama has provided, to my mind, more of an answer and giving us more specifics; I suppose a point-by-point plan isn't necessarily an option on a Website. 

I also noticed that on their respective Websites,  Obama addresses more than twice the policies that McCain. The educational policy is as much a hook for me as the abortion and gay marriage policies.  I agree with Obama that each religious denomination has the right to decide on recognizing gay marriage; I don't believe sexuality is a choice, and I don't believe marriage in any form should be illegal (and I have a difficult enough time following the church's teaching on the immorality of gay marriage). Similarly with anti-abortion politics; I believe strongly that abortion is immoral - I consider a human life to be present at the moment of conception and recognize few reasons to abort a child; however, I do recognize that there are times when that abortion is the only viable option (if both the mother and child were to die, for example). However, I also believe that if abortion were to be made illegal there would be serious consequences that could harm mother and baby. I believe in the freedom of choice, however strongly I disagree with those choices.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

College Rankings

This afternoon, I read an article about college rankings, in which McGuire questions the validity of college rankings, sums up many (if not most) of my issues I have with the system. How, exactly, would I have received a better education at (for example) Harvard than at Stony Brook University? Is it because Harvard is more expensive? I always felt (very slightly) miffed that someone might think I didn't get a good education because I went to a state school. (I'd oddly loyal that way.) I also never really grokked that notion of the "right college fit" until I went to SBU.

I was thinking of a few things when I was looking at grad schools. To the extent of my knowledge, not one Ivy League university has the program in which I am interested. Does that mean that I'm getting a sub par education? I hope not. When I talked to people during my search, I was asked (often enough) whether I would stay at SBU, and my reasons for choosing not to even apply. Many students seem to stay at the same university for graduate studies; for example, I've known quite a few students both at SBU and at LIU who did both undergrad and grad degrees at the same school, within the same department. I think this is a mistake. (This obviously is a personal decision. I think it tends to be a mistake because if a student stays at the same university for both undergraduate and graduate degrees, often they are learning the same material. SBU, for example, did not have different concentrations at different levels; one chose one of or several of the literature concentrations that are ensconced in the English department. I thought the professors at SBU very good, but I think one of the benefits of going to another university is to become exposed to different teaching styles and different course offerings. Go learn what professors at different institutions have to say about American Lit; go learn about different research that's being done in British Lit; etc.)

The students I know who stay at the same school, both at SBU and at LIU, are all bright students and do well, in some cases better than I. (For the record, I graduated with a 2.93 overall G.P.A. at SBU, while within my major my G.P.A. was about a 3.23. My G.P.A. at LIU at the moment is hovering just above 3.835.) Their undergraduate G.P.A.s are often higher than mine, but I'm often doing better in grad school. SBU is, I think, probably a better school than LIU (which is not to say LIU is bad; apparently in pharmacy we're in the Top 10). Who's the better student, the one who got a higher G.P.A., or the one who went to a higher-ranked (for that department) university? Who would you hire?

I also realize that I don't know if any of my non-teacher friends are in careers in which their G.P.A.s are outright questioned, which is perhaps why I'm so uptight about maintaining mine. (This is not that my grad school cronies aren't, concerned but I suspect fewer of them have careers riding on it).

When I was in high school, Mom and I briefly took Arabic lessons. It was an interesting experience. The teacher wasn't too good, really, but he tried hard and he was nice (and I learned how to count like nobody's business, must better than anyone else in the class, I must say). One of the other students (who later showed up teaching at LCCC, which is where I got my two-year degree right after high school) told me she thought I'd do really well at a SUNY school, and even found me some information; I, of course, wasn't too keen on the idea (too far from home; I wasn't ready for college even though I knew it, but I couldn't have verbalized it). I don't know or remember why she said that, and I wish I had a way of asking her, and telling her she was right.

I suppose one of the reasons I'm into teaching is because I like talking to students about their future life. I wish parents knew that if their kid doesn't go to college right away, the kid's life isn't going to fall to pieces. And that's true if the kid doesn't go to college period, or goes to a "lesser college" because there are so many factors that go into "the right school." And I get uppity when someone - even a magazine - tries to tell me that Harvard or any other Ivy League university is better than any other university based on random criteria.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Governors Island

Chris and I have been very busy today; we spent at least half the day at Governors Island, which is turned out to be a very cool way to spend much of our Sunday. We packed a picnic, put our sandwiches and macaroni salad in a cooler, took the very short (maybe 5-minute) ferry ride from the southern tip of Manhattan, and walked until our feet were about ready to fall off. It was a gorgeous day out - sunny and warm and a bit breezy; and I took lots of pictures. There are buildings all over the place - various living quarters (including the rather impressive Admiral's House), Saint Cornelius Church, Castle Williams, and Fort Jay, of which I took a short (and not terribly good, but good enough) video.

We wandered around New York City for a couple more hours, stopping at McNulty's Tea & Coffee Company, where I scored two different (decaffeinated) blends: chocolate mint, and lemon spice; then we stopped in at the Aphrodisia Herb Shoppe, which has a pretty good selection of spices. We weren't really ready to go home, but unmotivated in finding anything else to do (by this time we were hot, and tired, but didn't really want to head home), so we wandered around a bit aimlessly until dinner: Hill Country Barbecue, which was amazingly delicious. Chris had just been there this past Friday, but was easily convinced to take me tonight. I've never had brisket so good.

Really, the only downside of the day (aside from being tired and a bit overheated) was having to carry around the cooler all day. We concluded that picnics are better when they're had in parks that are closer to home.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Summer Vacation

This is the last week of tutoring for the summer; and to be more precise, tomorrow is the very last day of tutoring for the summer. (That last day coincides with the last day of classes during the second summer session.) It's been an odd week; I've been "tutoring" Monday through Thursday in the sense that I've been going into school, but most of my students haven't been showing up, so I've been spending more time traveling to and from school than I have been actually staying at school. I don't mind because I get paid for a certain number of students' absences, but it's a bit frustrating to spend 2-3 hours a day traveling to and from Brooklyn if I'm only spending half an hour or an hour on campus.

Tomorrow I have two students over the course of three hours. But whether or not they arrive, it's my last day of tutoring until next semester, and I won't be coming into Brooklyn much over the next couple of weeks. I have an Omicron Zeta meeting on Friday, and I need to visit the Department of Education to get my ID card replaced, but those are the only two matters of business I need to attend to. I would put off the ID card replacement but I should head in to ask about getting my substitute teacher certificate renewed for the upcoming academic year; the one I have now expires at the end of the month and I haven't received a replacement yet. I ahven't committed to anything yet, but what I may do is call the DOE first to see if I can get a straight answer from someone, and if I can't, I'll go in to see them in person.

Aside from that, Chris and I may be going to Governors Island this weekend (I really hope so - I've been wanting to go for quite a while now), and we may decide to head into Manhattan the following weekend for dinner. But the next two weeks I plan on reading and tweaking my syllabus. I suppose I can only fine-tune it so much but I'm really getting excited about teaeching next semester.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A "Real" Graduate Student

When I was an undergrad, I did something that few, if any, other undergrads did: I traveled to and became involved with professional conferences within the field of education. While it is fairly common to find undergrads attending and presenting at regional writing center conferences, not once did I meet another undergrad at the 4Cs conference I've been attending for the past several years, nor the two MLA conferences in Philadelphia that I've attended (although in the case of the MLA conference, I attended only as a participant, not as someone who chaired panels or attended workshops; in short, I didn't meet much of anyone, especially because I was only there for a day; at the 4Cs conferences I was there for the entire conference, went to sessions multiple days, and ran into more people I knew). It was always a bit lonely attending 4Cs because, even though I knew several people and often hung out, went to dinner, or even did some sightseeing (usually alone), the undergraduate community is not really felt because it's assumed that undergrads simply aren't going, don't have the professional interest, aren't even really specifically encouraged to submit proposals. (I did anyway. Only at NEWCA have my proposals ever been accepted, although I have chaired several sessions at 4Cs.) There are, however, such wonderful things are Graduate Student Lounges, where at least theoretically grad students could go sit down for a while, relax, perhaps even network and meet other grad students. I thought things might shift a little when I entered grad school and I would feel more like someone advancing my career and becoming involved in "the academy." I was only partly right.

As it turns out, a "grad student" is more often defined as someone who is actually a doctoral student. There are grad students who are, like me, getting their Master's degrees, but I can't think of more than a handful - if that - of those whom I've met. I noticed almost immediately that grad students define their status in the year they're getting their doctoral degrees (i.e., first year, second year, etc.). Most Master's degree programs are designed to be done in a year or two (if one goes full-time, where "full-time" equals about 3 classes/9 credits a year). (In the past year, since I've begun my M.A., I've taken 8 classes/24 credits of the 12 classes/36 credits I need for my program, which is significantly faster than anyone else currently enrolled is the department.) If one is an M.A. student, it's a bit silly to identify oneself as a first year or second year student, since most students may only take a class or two at a time, and the programs tend to be a lot shorter, class/credit-wise, than the doctoral programs. One is in the process of getting one's M.A., and that's the end of it.

In my last year at SUNY Stony Brook, I began to look around at graduate schools and thought that I might like to get a Ph.D. or D.A. I applied to a bunch of schools' Ph.D./D.A. programs and, not really surprisingly or even disappointingly, got rejected. My GRE scores were pretty bad (not surprising), and my G.P.A. was right on the border (and in fact very slightly lower than "required" G.P.A.s). I did get accepted to two master's degree programs, though: Long Island University in Brooklyn, and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which quite frankly has a better program, and which is a bit more highly thought of. But LIU, aside from being much more local (and therefore closer to Chris), offered me various teaching and research assistantships, which so far have paid for six of my classes, and looks like will be paying for three or four more of my classes, thanks to this teaching fellowship I was awarded. (Most graduate programs tend not to offer assistantships or fellowships to their lower level graduate students - certainly I heard nothing from IUP about the possibility - so this is a good thing. I'm very glad to have the chance to be teaching a freshman writing class.) 

But because I've burned my way through the program so quickly, I'll be graduating this May, and once again am considering whether or not I want to apply to doctoral programs. There are a couple reasons why I'm hesitating, not any one of which is more or less important than another (and are therefore not in any specific order of importance):
  1. I'm getting tired of school, and feeling a bit burned out (despite a good G.P.A.; my grades haven't suffered because of my getting mentally tired).
  2. It's really a process, applying to a bunch of schools. And it costs a lot of money, depending on how many different programs to which I apply. Application fees add up really quickly.
  3. If I were to be accepted to a doctoral program, there's a good chance it would be out of state. And not only out of state, but either several states away or on the other side of the country.
  4. There are few doctoral programs in my field, so it's not really possible to just confine myself to one part of the country. Although I could, there might only be 2 or 3 programs in any one part of the country worth applying to. 
  5. It takes a long damn time. Even if I were to go at full blast, which I'm not sure I have in me at the moment, it would be 125% effort, which is about the amount of effort I've been putting into my studies since 2003. Adding another 5-7 years on that isn't really appealing right now.
  6. Grad school is expensive. (School period is expensive.) I may  or may not get funding. My teaching certification is only good for New York State. If I were not to receive funding, and if I weren't about to get a full-time job, I wouldn't be able to go, which would make the process even slower.  There is also the possibility that I would also have to convert my teaching certification to another state's, which may require more testing and/or classwork. 
  7. I'm tired of school; I'm tired of being poor. I want a job, one with a decent salary, benefits, and all of that. I've worked really hard since going back to school, and now I want something to show for it. Yet...
  8. "I don't know what I want to be/do when I grow up." This is a non-trivial issue. If I were certain that I wanted to teach at the university level, or if I were absolutely certain that I had enough interest in composition and rhetoric and would want the degree for myself because I wanted to be an actual expert in the field, then I would have less hesitancy. But I'm not convinced in either case, which gives me pause. But I feel I should try teaching at the secondary level for a few years (and if for no other reason than to see if I like it, as well as NYS requiring teachers to teach for two years, full-time, to get permanent certification) before moving on anyway.
  9. And one of the biggest factors is that I don't want to go somewhere without Chris, who has a job and career of his own. We're in a rather strange limbo; we've been dating 8 years, so there's a sense of responsibility. We're not married, so we're not tied to each other in that fashion, nor have we been only dating a few months. I would want his moral support, and his presence. Picking up and going out of state would be really difficult as it is, let alone if we both had to find work.
Last April, when I was at the 4Cs conference in New Orleans, I waylaid Harry and asked him for his input, attempting to explain (badly) my hesitancy in applying to doctoral programs. Since we happened to be out at dinner with a number of other doctoral students, we opened it up for discussion, and although everyone said that of course it was my decision, almost universally I was told that I most certainly should not put my career on hold for any one - not Chris, not anyone - and that I should apply and go get the doctorate. I tried to emphasize that I feel a sense of responsibility to Chris, but that got brushed aside. I'm not sure that any of them, Harry aside, is in any long-term relationship, which may have affected their response. 

Earlier this evening I read this article, which sums up the issue nicely: "The two-body problem in academe is absolutely brutal. For reasons I still don’t understand, it’s seldom addressed directly in graduate programs, so each new cohort discovers it anew. If the two halves of the couple are both academics in evergreen disciplines, and neither is a superstar, then the odds of them getting satisfying jobs within live-together distance are vanishingly small."

Right now, I'm inclined to apply to see what happens. There are two programs in the NYC-area that offer doctorates in my field, but only one that I'd consider applying to, but if I'm not entirely sure I'd actually attend if I were accepted.