Monday, August 29, 2011

New Semester

I've only had one class so far, but a few thoughts on the first day of a new semester at a new school, especially as a new faculty member:

  • It would be helpful if there were signs on the roads pointing to each building. Only a few of the more important buildings (like the administration building) are pointed out. On the map I can find the building in which one of my afternoon classes is held, but I'll be darned if I can actually find it: I drove around for an hour trying to figure out which building it is. At the moment I'm parked (figuratively speaking) into the student center because I got overheated walking around. I'm presuming at least some of the new students (and there are millions of them) may be equally confused.
  • I never did get my code for the English department copy machine. I was told last Monday that the department was "working on" getting the codes to us by the first day of the semester, but when I checked my mailbox this morning, no code.
  • I inadvertently managed to hound the secretary with all my questions, like getting the code for the copy machine, finding out where the mailboxes were (in the same room as the copy machine), why one of the two computers in the department office didn't work (it had no power source, but they're working on fixing that), which printer I should choose so the things I wanted to print from the one working computer would actually print. They're not good at volunteering this kind of information, or getting it to us in a timely manner, which is frustrating.
  • If I were a shyer person, I'd probably be mortified at having so many questions, but I need to know this stuff. I ask as politely as possible, but I will ask.
  • They weren't kidding when they said parking would be difficult. I would guess that there are approximately 50,000 more cars than there are parking spaces. Fortunately I have a faculty parking permit, but even then, faculty lots were pretty full.
  • In Utah, it's the law to yield right of way to pedestrians in a crosswalk. This isn't the first time I've encountered this law, but it is the first time I've encountered it when there was a seemingly unending stream of students crossing the street. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Teaching Marriage, Family, and Culture

I was talking to Ed earlier this week about my syllabus and what I was planning on doing in class. My focus this semester is culture, namely why we should study it, how we define it, and what aspects are included in that definition. (I plan on incoporating short stories, a couple movies, newspaper articles, academic articles, and poems.) I had decided to include disability, gender, education, and family, but then realized I didn't have enough material for the second half of the semester, so I decided to include a few classes on the cultural aspects of marriage and religion. Ed thought this was a terrible idea, and I began to wonder if maybe he was right, but then I started thinking about this some more.

Utah is homogeneous; it's (mostly) Mormon; it's (mostly) white; the kids do not travel. I realize I had a different upbringing, living in the northeast; cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C. were much more accessible. Getting to Europe was easier, too: shorter flight times; easy access to JFK and EWR; direct flights as opposed to changing planes in Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, or New York. And I had the advantage of going to college and grad school - and teaching - in Long Island and New York City, which is nothing if not eye-opening.

However, I was really astonished to learn how few of my former students had even left the state. I mean, California is right there. Hell, even Las Vegas is only about 500 miles away (although one could argue whether a middle schooler should be going to Vegas). The kids here are simply not exposed to other cultures in any meaningful way. I want to get them thinking about how things are done and defined in other parts of the world.

I'm not planning on being confrontational, and I do need to find more readings that address how family and marriage is defined in other parts of the world. So far, I've found a couple articles on LDS and family (apropos, since the whole Warren Jeffs thing recently went down) and same-sex marriage (again, apropos, since New York recently legalized same-sex marriage). But I could find out more about how families are defined in different Asian and European countries, for example, and differences between families that are religious, and those who practice different religions, and those that don't practice any religion.

I certainly wouldn't dare teach these lessons even to high school kids; I would be afraid to do so. Parents want to control what their kids are exposed to, and to give them their own (religious or secular) background, and I can't say I fault them for that. That's reasonable. But once they get to college, it's time for them to see the outside world, to learn, and to make some comparisons. They don't have to change their own minds about how they define family, but they do need to see that family and culture and acceptability are defined in a different ways.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Class Assignment: Mini-Lessons

I've been working on my syllabus for next semester, finding readings (short stories, poems, academic articles, newspaper articles, etc.), hashing out due dates, all that good stuff. I'm enjoying it, partly because it's been about a year since I've had my own classroom and had to put some serious thought into something I enjoy, and partly because it's nice to be thinking about something other than planning dinner or when I should empty the dishwasher.

Of course, it's taking me awhile to hash out these details partly because it's been a year since I've had my own classroom; it's also a good idea to update one's class readings, even if you wind up using some of the same things (Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl" is short and easy to incorporate when talking about gender and culture, especially when paired with a writing activity). 

I forget which of my former Stony Brook University professors it was who noted that he had gotten to planning half semesters at a time; he would plan until about halfway through the semester, distributing half the course schedule at the beginning of the semester; the remaining schedule would be distributed later. When I started teaching I started doing the same thing: I work out due dates (including first and second drafts) for the papers, since those tend to be how students earn 60% or more of their final grades; I also don't want to get halfway through the semester before realizing I've only assigned one paper, meaning the poor students would have four more papers to write for their portfolios in six weeks.

All this means that my big goal before classes begin was to assign due dates for the students' papers, and create a course schedule to go until the end of October. (Most of the syllabus itself had been taken from previous classes taught, although there was some necessary rethinking and rewriting.) I have one more class to plan for, but for the most part, I'm done. But I was a bit at a loss as what to do with the remainder of the semester. Until I had the idea of having the students teaching mini-lessons on culture.

Obviously this would need to be modelled for them; I'd have at least one class in which we would discuss appropriate topics and resources, how to effectively teach, what activities would be pertinent, how much time could be spent on each activity, etc. I found a good resource that includes a handful of teaching prompts I could tweak and give them. I would still need to find textbook-related readings and some short writing assignments, but we could also have a class discussion afterwards that incorporates some of those necessities. I'll already have incorporated a semester-long 10-15-minute journaling prompt at the end of each class, so a combination of writing, critical response, and reflection would be easy enough to integrate.

This may go terribly, but the assignment will require my students to research and write, which definitely needs emphasizing. I also want them to pay attention to their other professors and begin thinking about what makes effective and interesting teaching, something they're likely to be required to do at some point.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Semester Planning

With the beginning of the semester coming up quickly (classes begin the last week of August), I've finally begun working on my syllabus. I'm teaching three sections of the same class (English 1010 - Introduction to Writing); two sections meet twice a week and one section meets three times a week, so I'm in the process of creating two schedules. I've already filled in when the papers are due (including first and second drafts). At this point I'm just filling in the holes and researching possible readings.

I've developed an interest in cultural perceptions as they pertain to education, gender, disability, and family, so I've been looking for and finding readings that examine how those in different parts of the world and those with different religious traditions respond to disability, etc. So far I've found essays on disability and Islam and disability and Christianity, and brochures that explore culture and disabililty in Korea, India, Japan, the Phillipines, Vietnam, and China. The New York Times and the Salt Lake Tribune are available on campus as well, and I plan in integrating those newspapers into our class time as well.

From a thematic standpoint there's a lot of overlap, since culture and cultural perceptions embody so many of these topics simultaneously (a child's gender can affect her culturally permitted level of education, which affects the family and community both socially and economically). As such, while specific class periods may require a focus on disability, education or religion or any one of a number of other culturally-relevant topics come into play as well at some point. I can focus more on a specific topic in any given class, but eventually we get into how education or gender or disability influences culture on multiple levels.

A lot of students in Utah are culturally insulated; they don't travel as much as the students I've taught in New York or Pennsylvania, and there aren't as many immigrants who settle here (aside from those coming from Mexico), and I'm relishing having some uncomfortable conversations, as odd as that may sound. I want to get my students thinking about how we define our own culture and how we decide what's culturally relevant.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Runaway Bride

A few interesting statements from this article about women who get engaged but call off their weddings before they happened:

  • "The 2007 U.S. census showed that 41 percent of women aged 25 to 29 and 24 percent of women aged 30 to 34 had never been married...Through interviews with women who've called it off, [Milford and Gauvain] found that many women have an arbitrary timeline for the age by which they should be married. '30 tends to be a milestone, like a random deadline that women mentally set for themselves.'"
  • "I'd just like to know whether other women who are clearly excited about their wedding plans are equally as excited about their married lives."
  • "As a result [of women realizing there may be reasons for calling off their weddings, and doing so, women often ignore their own misgivings about their impending marriages. Between the book research and [therapist Jennifer] Gauvain's 15 years spent practicing as a therapist, the two estimate they've encountered about 1,000 divorced women, 30 percent of who [sic] said they knew they were making a mistake when they were walking down the aisle."
  • One woman mentioned in the article "got engaged after knowing her fiance for just eight months."

A few thoughts:

I never felt pressured, or even all that interested, in getting married. (It wasn't until I met Ed that I really thought about marraige.) I don't recall ever being asked why I wasn't married, unless you count the people who wanted to know why the man I had previously dated for nine years and I hadn't gotten married. (I'm not sure I would have said yes.) I was always ambiguous about marriage: I felt it was a wonderful thing, but never felt an internal clock.

I was certainly more interested in our married life than our wedding plans. Ed can attest to my really not wanting to wear a wedding gown, and aside from my wanting to get married in a Catholic church, I didn't really care too much about the rest of it - although I wanted things done simply, without pretention.

Is there an amount of time people are supposed to wait between the time they meet and get engaged? That just smacks of the notion that people should know their betrothed for years. Ed and I dated barely just under eight months before our engagement; I had known him perhaps four months before I finally agreed to go out with him. (Although I admittedly knew of him for a long time, we had never spent any time together, even chatting, until the last couple of months of my prior relationship.)