The Generalist as Pack Mule

When I left my PhD school in 1996, one of my professors said, “Just don’t go to a two-year college. You’ll be stuck there forever if you do, and they are the pack mules of academia.” It’s 2010 now, and I’m in my 14th year at a two-year college. I can’t argue with the pack mule charge.

This semester I have more than 200 students, about 60 in literature and the remaining in composition courses. I’m writing this on Sunday morning. My to-do list for today, a Sunday, looks like this:

Grade research proposals
Work on TYCA National document
Work on report for TYCA-SE
Contact panelists for March symposium
Prepare e-portfolio workshop for MSGCCC
Work on Twitter workshop for CFTTC
Catch up on awarding discussion board points
Catch up on email
Catch up on responding to discussion boards
Grade late papers
Work on grant proposal
Prepare talk for library

Yes, these are all items that need to be done today, not within the next few days. Tomorrow I’ll have a whole new list and a whole new set of assignments rolling in. Yesterday, I graded for most of the day. Had I not, my list would be unachievable. As it is, I can probably manage, depending on how many emails I receive and assuming I do not take a nap or leave my house.

I look at this list as I think about my professor’s comments all those years ago and as I think through my own part in revising TYCA’s statement on Research and Scholarship in the Two-Year College. I was first directed to this document maybe five or six years ago by John Lovas, may he rest in peace. He said then that the purpose of the document was to help the discipline recognize the hard work and scholarship already taking place in two-year colleges as much as or more than encouraging two-year college faculty to engage in more research and scholarship.

Two-year college instructors take on heavy teaching loads and see no real financial incentives to remain active scholars within their disciplines. Yet they are scholars, many or most of them, because they care.

I’m happy to be working on this document even though it will take up a good portion of a day that would be busy regardless. I believe in the spirit of it. I believe two-year college faculty do make a significant contribution to my own discipline and should be recognized as such.

I also believe that the main reason they aren’t better recognized is that they are by necessity generalists as opposed to specialists. In the past 14 years, I’ve taught composition, developmental English, reading, creative writing, world literature, British literature, and introduction to humanities. The only class we offer that I haven’t taught is American literature, which ironically enough, is probably the class I had the most background in when I started the job. I might be asked to teach anything. I have been asked to teach anything. Sometimes I’ve had as little as a day’s warning that I would be teaching an entirely new preparation. Life and enrollments are unpredictable in a two-year college, and if you aren’t able to quickly adapt to new sets of expectations, you aren’t likely to last long there.

Thus I have researched a wide variety of topics related to writing, literature, and teaching over the past 14 years. I know enough to comfortably get by on just about anything I might be asked to do. I know a lot more than that about some things. Does that make me an expert at none? I don’t know. I know a great deal about poetry, teaching with technology, and Southern literature. Am I an expert in those areas? I could teach any of them at any level, but I wouldn’t pit myself in a contest against someone who has been teaching a particular specialty area at the graduate level for any length of time. I haven’t put that much time into one particular specialty. I’ve been too busy doing everything.

What it comes down to for me I think is that the generalist is a viable scholarly position, but it doesn’t get much respect. I suppose it doesn’t in any field. I wouldn’t go to a general practitioner if I needed heart surgery, but where would the world be without the general practitioners working on the front lines to protect the world from flu and streptococcus?

Insert your own transition here to maneuver back from the front line to the pack mule analogy. You get the picture. Two-year college faculty work hard, thankless jobs. They do a lot more research and produce a lot more knowledge for the discipline than we often recognize. They certainly teach a lot more students than anyone else.

Cheers to TYCA for working so hard to see that their members do get some recognition. And thanks Sandie, Howard, Frank, et al for handing me this extra item on today’s to-dos. I’m happy to help where I can.

Giving it up for Lent

Dust to Dust II:  Self Portrait

I didn’t post this picture on Ash Wednesday because it looks a little demented. I thought my other self-portrait was more appropriate as a form of religious observance. Now that it is no longer Ash Wednesday, I’m okay with demented. In fact, since I’ve just had a Caffeine Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, demented is entirely appropriate.

This week I’ve been surrounded by people making pronouncements about what they were giving up for Lent. This Lent thing is not just for Catholics anymore. But you see I don’t understand it. That isn’t an invitation to explain it to me. It’s not like I’ve never been told or even that I’m incapable of putting the concept into words. It’s just that I don’t have a personal comfort level with the Lenten observance of a nature that inspires me to go around giving stuff up for it. This was not part of my religious upbringing. In fact, I think my childhood church believed that if it had the potential to be pleasurable it should be given up all the time, not just for a few weeks.

Still, I watch others make their vows with interest. Diet Coke, Facebook, chocolate, etc. I try to think of something to give up that would be meaningful in some way, and I draw a blank. I want to give up email, but that’s impossible considering it is the source of my livelihood as well as the bane of my existence. I should perhaps give up coffee, but I can’t afford the withdrawal illness that would ensue. I think about giving up chocolate or Diet Coke, but those aren’t daily habits. I might consume them often, but I could go without them and not notice.

So while I admire others for making a vow, for finding meaningful ways to practice self-discipline and faith, I’ve chosen not to participate. Don’t take it personally, Lent. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions either.

I think I’m particularly shy of making a religious claim I’m likely not to see through. I thought at one time the most meaningful thing I could do would be to give up time, the idea being that I would have 30 minutes a day or so of silence (no Internet, no TV, no books, no grading) just to sit in quiet contemplation. The day I thought up the idea I went to bed around midnight after working non-stop all day. I don’t have thirty minutes a day for silence, and I’ve conditioned myself so to multitasking that I don’t know if I could do it. Even my drives to work are not silent. That’s when I listen to my book club books. If I gave up listening and driving, I’d have to quit the book club, and since I’m the coordinator, I would find that difficult to maneuver.

So I’ve got nothing.

I started to write a post once about the concept of perfection being unattainable. Daniel Pink talked about this in Drive. He said that different personalities look at this reality in different ways. Some think “perfection is unattainable, so I might as well not try.” Others think “perfection is unattainable, but if I put everything I have into the effort, I can keep getting closer and closer.”

I could cite any number of instances in which I’ve seen people take one approach or the other, but I also think no one responds to every aspect of life in the same way. I might be a “keep trying regardless” person in some areas and a “don’t bother” person in others. I’ve set myself the task of writing every day for no other reason than to challenge myself to improve. I take the same approach to learning new technologies and rethinking teaching strategies. No one ever gets it exactly right, I think, so the important thing is to keep trying and trying and trying.

But for Lent? No. If I can’t do it right, I don’t want to try. This is probably due to the harshness of my religious upbringing. We were of the make-one-mistake-go-straight-to-Hell variety of believers. If you grow up like that and you aren’t a drug addict by the time you are 20, you’ve had a narrow escape. Religion imposed on children in the form of threats is nothing more than psychological abuse. It offers nothing to sustain. It engenders no appreciation of God as Love.

Unfortunately, I’ve known more people than not in my life who approached religion as a series of threats.

So while I admire the effort I see people putting into Lent–the enhanced mindfulness of it–I can’t bring myself to make a religious promise I might not be able to keep. I imagine myself picking up a Hershey’s kiss and eating it before I remembered that’s what I gave up. If I don’t have time to even sit still for thirty minutes a day, I know I don’t have time to process that level of guilt. Godspeed to those of you who are doing it.

Teaching Loads

Interesting conversation here:

Found via:

Due to a steady decline in state funding and steady increase in enrollment over the past few years, our teaching loads have grown to beyond believable.  Of course something is sacrificed.  Of course time is limited for student feedback.  Of course we change the kinds of assignments we require as well as our approaches to teaching them.  You have to survive somehow. 

That's not to say, though, that all is lost even as we say all is not as it should be.  It does mean we have to put more time into finding educational "hacks" or ways around enormous obstacles.  That's one reason I'm playing around with podcasting this week.  My students have responded well in the past to audio recordings–as well as to anything, in fact–and I need to find a workable broadcast model for providing more group feedback to compensate for less individual feedback.

I do believe copious individual feedback is the best approach, but you have to survive somehow.

Posted via email from Just Haphazardry

Public Writing and the Private Lives of Teachers

Public Writing And The Private Lives Of Teachers by Sharon Gerald  
Download now or listen on posterous

Public Writing and the Private Lives of Teachers.mp3 (12106 KB)

In which I mull over my own reluctance to have students in my personal information stream (bonus background cat fight).

Posted via email from sharongerald’s posterous

Day 50

This is day 50 of my blog-a-day project. I can say this much. I haven’t quit yet. That’s considerable in light of my current level of busy. I have not accomplished my blog plans. I have not stuck to the poem-a-week plan. I have not even posted book reviews consistently. I have continued to take pictures, but I’m not posting them every day. More days than not I go for the fluff entry as opposed to the well-thought-out entry. If I were a reader of this blog, I might have given up on it as being not worth my time by now. Good thing for me, I’m doing this for me not for you. And I haven’t quit yet. That means I’m succeeding. What’s the old maxim about success is showing up? That’s what I’m doing. I might not write what I hope to write every time I sit down to the blog, but I’ll never write if I don’t first just plain old show up to do the job. That’s why I’m here, folks. Nothing else to see.

Contentment Diary 2/18/10: The Details! The Details!


Today I chased details in all directions. Because every idea sounds like a good idea when it first flows out of my mouth, I now find myself planning multiple events at once. This means I find myself piling meetings up one on top of the other, attempting to make sure the clash of details among the varying vying projects does not become a hazard, or even an embarrassment, to myself and others.

And what do I do at meetings, aside from writing stuff down to pretend I’m both paying attention and on top of it all? I drink coffee, of course. A coffee over here. A mocha latte over there. And oh wait, yes, another coffee.

This is where I should say goodnight, John Boy. I’m tuckered out, no longer able to sort the details I’ve spent so much time gathering into meaningful patterns. Alas, the coffee that is such a friend by day, a bestie even, has no regard for your feelings or your health by night. I’ll be up accomplishing nothing more than irritability deep into the night. Message me if you are bored.