Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Problem With Teaching Teacher Personas

I've written before about always wanting to be a teacher. Laura Ingalls was one. So was Anne Shirley. So was Jo March. I made my younger sister sit and "let" me teach her using our replica McGuffin readers. As I got older, and tv shows and movies expanded my view of teachers, I added Jaime Sommers and Indiana Jones to the list.

Whether you're in grad school in order to teach at the college level, or to gain certification for K-12 teaching, every program has a shared component- how to develop your teaching persona and philosophy. Invariably they ask you to think of teachers who inspired you, and why they did. For me, that was  my hard ass AP English teacher in high school. I had a world history professor in college who was tiny, an expert on Japan, and hysterical. I had a teacher in high school who made sure I had lunch every day, and had me as his TA.

All were male, all were strict, mean even. I did well in their classes because they were smart, straight shooters, who didn't lie. But here's the problem with this approach- we're encouraged to name these teachers and the traits we admired as though we should mimic them. And these ignore the complicated structures of gender, class, and race, that inform how students will see us as teachers, and that inform how we see ourselves as teachers.

I admired my teachers' sarcastic, smart-ass approach. But in a female teacher, this is seen as countering maternal norms, judged more harshly than when this is seen in men. It runs counter to what students expect and can cause cognitive dissonance. The other issue is, what I really admired about my teachers was their smartness, how much they knew, how they could break it down for everyone, and that they were honest. For years as a teacher though, because I'd been told this was what I should do, I mimicked the form, and didn't think about the meat behind it. Beginning teachers are told to "fake it until you make it" and we're told a large part of that is mimicking or imitating the styles of those teachers we admired.

This last year, several factors led to a radical change in my teaching style.
The first was that because of various reasons, I started having panic attacks when teaching.  They were anticipatory anxiety attacks- I imagined all the things that could go wrong, anticipated them happening, and then the attack would hit. This was traumatic for a lot of reasons. I struggled with fitting in in grad school, not feeling like my low class background wasn't a problem, but teaching, teaching was always easy for me. I loved it. I loved teaching other teachers. I loved designing curriculum, courses, interacting with and helping students. So the fact that my anxiety was only focused on teaching felt like a betrayal. My anxiety resulted in my taking medicine for a time. I also used to wear ties, button down shirts, and vests to teach in. My anxiety made this impossible.

So this was the environment I was functioning in when I returned to teaching high school last March. My school is 1500+ students. Mostly lower class. Mostly Chican@ and Native. And I just decided to drop all the nonsense. A student in one of my uni classes the semester before had complained about my sarcasm, so it was in the back of my mind to make some changes. The new job and new school was just the perfect opportunity. For the first time in 15 years, I dropped the teaching persona I've been educated and trained to have. And I was just me.

And it was great. I'm known with my students to be honest. Direct. But not uncaring. I teach them a variety of things- history and English, but also "life stuff." In part too, these changes occurred because classroom cultures and safe spaces have come to the forefront the last year, so I started thinking about what I could do in my high school and university classes to create these spaces. In my university classes, I've had several students, even ones that eventually dropped, tell me that my class was a safe space, that they felt comfortable in. For some, the first time they'd ever felt that way.

As I was reminded this week, part of this too has to do with letting go of ego. There was a conversation on social media a while ago about professors not wanting to police their classrooms, and how changing that perspective changes your class. Even with all the changes I've made in the last year about how I teach and interact with students, when a student emailed me over break to complain about a grade, and then tell me how I should be teaching and grading (even providing rubrics I should be using), I admit, my reflex was all ego. But because it is break, and I told students I'd be unavailable, I've let the email sit there, and I've thought about it.

Here are my conclusions. I did make an error. And when I respond, that is the first thing I'll say. The second thing is, while this student's tone, and correcting me rubs me the wrong way, I don't believe it's their intention. I believe that they are genuinely seeking help to improve, and so that is the vein I will take it in, and respond to. I'm not sure yet how to respond to the "these are the rubrics/grading you should be using." But again, this is ego. At first, I wasn't planning on responding to that part. Most professors I think would say that students don't get to dictate those things. But I am also toying with something along the lines of, I'm sorry that the rubrics, and grading, in this course are not easily accessible to you. I can only say that you will have a variety of courses, professors, and grading policies, that you will learn to navigate. If I can explain or help, please let me know.

Because here's the thing. Most students want help. Many students need it. Many don't get it. A student's classroom experience can vary wildly based on school, department, and professor's training. Changing my teaching, thinking about what helps students best, has made me think about, and prioritizing what I value in my own teaching.

With (hopefully) defense and graduation in the future, I've been thinking about this both through the lens of how to stay focused on what I think is important, and through the lens of recrafting my teaching philosophy. Here's what I came up with:
  • As a first generation student, from a lower class background, in a single parent household, I am deeply committed to not only being transparent to my students about my background, but actively seeking to help them and provide them tools that will help them.
  • While I think I'd be happy in a variety of positions, I think I would be happiest in a situation where I was serving these populations, and able to serve as a model and help for students like myself.
  • While some of my uni students complain it's too simplistic, I believe in designing courses that provide low stakes practice activities aimed at filling in skill gaps and ultimately helping students succeed.
  • I would rather believe the student who says they had an emergency and needs an extension than believe all students are liars.
  • I would rather have students feel comfortable reaching out and talking to me than not.
  • While it is more work for me, I believe in encouraging students to submit drafts and get more help.
  • I believe in encouraging students to make choices in what they study, and the format they demonstrate mastery.
  • I think that helping students, learn the content, learn to time manage, learn to prioritize work, is my primary goal. This means posting safe spaces banners in class, posting videos and flyers about mental health, and encouraging them to take care of themselves. While this may not be a tangible thing, I think these things better serve my students.
What I've learned in the last year is that I still value being honest, a straight shooter, smart. And I am all of those things for my students. But I've learned how to be those things as me, and not as a copy of a teacher I had twenty years ago.

So for those of you who teach teachers, advise grad students, here is my suggestion- rather than encouraging them to mimic teachers or styles, to fake it until they make it, instead encourage them to think about what helps them as students. What do they appreciate as students? What do they best respond to? What types of things bug them? Hurt their feelings?
Mentor them to use that list to build the type of teacher they want to be.
I guarantee they'll be happier. And better teachers.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

High School and Higher Ed: Bridging the Divide (Postscript 8 January)

The first time around, I taught high school from 2001-2004 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and from 2004-2013 in Manteo, North Carolina. While in NC I also taught for an online high school and for the local community college.

In 2013 I moved out here to Albuquerque to begin my PhD program.

I returned to high school teaching this past March here in Albuquerque.

I've been thinking a lot the last few months about how teaching and pedagogy is and isn't stressed in higher ed. I've been told repeatedly in my PhD program that "teaching isn't why you're here." Added to this, being back in a high school classroom after three years of my PhD program has made me realize just how much my higher ed experience has influenced and changed how I teach high school students. Likewise, I've realized that contrary to popular opinion, my high school teaching is an asset to my higher ed teaching.

Last year, the Medieval Academy has a dust up over the World History taught in high school AP classes and the fact that it was incomplete and inaccurate. While this was only a single instance to me it highlighted just how little high school teachers and college professors know about each other and what they do. I've blogged some about my schedule as a teacher, but I think a lot of people don't know what the other does.

First, I want to talk some about the general differences between high school and higher ed in the hopes that both could learn some from the other.
  • High school (and other K-12 teachers) are encouraged to get to know their students. Their home lives, their families, their cultures.
    • My school has roughly 1500 students. 50% of which live in poverty. The majority of our students are Chican@ or Native. Most of our families are employed, but they struggle to make it so they are working poor. Parents often work more than one job. Many students don't have computers at home. Or internet access. Or a place to work. They care for multiple siblings or work to help out after school. 
      • For students from the reservation or lower socio-economic class this is an access issue.
      • Whether or not students have smartphones, or computers, dictates whether they can do that assignment.
        • Being aware of this, and making sure students know about campus/school resources is key.
    • Our students deal with trauma, of homelessness, family and friends lost to suicide, drugs, crime. 
      • There's a rule in my classroom- no one goes hungry in my class. My students know this. I have a drawer in my desk that's always full of granola bars, oatmeal. Students know they can always ask and ALWAYS have food. ALWAYS.
      • In part because of these issues, absences are a HUGE issue. I have several students I haven't seen in ten weeks or more. Others only turn up every nine days because they know after ten they'll be dropped. 
      • We have a food and clothing bank on school property. It's key to erase the stigma to taking advantage of these resources. For college professors, think about making a list of resources, on campus, and in town, and posting in your course so students have access.
        • Don't assume someone else is doing this.
    • Families want to help, but Spanish only speaking parents and their work schedules can often make communication difficult.
  • The importance of culture cannot be understated.
    • For me this year that meant choosing different texts to teach skills. We read The Underdogs, The Jungle, The Milagro Beanfield War. Books that spoke to culture and socio-economic class.
    • I have noticed with my students that they prefer to work in groups, communal efforts and work is a cultural thing both for my Chican@ and Native students. This works well in my classes because my default is group work at big tables. 
      • This affects daily work. Most of my students don't work on their own, they always work in groups, they always complete assignments together. For smaller, formative assessments this can be helpful. But it can also complicate assessing what they know versus what the group knows. Separating them to get them to do their own work is sometimes tricky.
      • In my classes I often see/have one or two stronger English Language Learners helping or translating for five or six weaker English students. They translate the instructions, they explain what we're supposed to do. 
        • There are pluses and minuses to this. The plus is I don't speak Spanish, and these students are a resource I wouldn't be able to provide otherwise. 
        • This group setting also helps build class community. 
        • The minus is that usually this role falls to the girls in my class. Which means they put their learning aside to serve the (mostly) male students. 
        • Many of my students have Spanish as a first language. I ask them what words and phrases are for things I say a lot. I ask them how to correctly say names. I make them experts in our classroom.
      • The last year I  had students in my college classes who were assaulted, had friends die, had lives taken over by care-giving, and other traumatic events that impacted their class performance. I know we're not counselors, or psychiatrists, but we can be support. I have language on my syllabus about reaching out for help, contacting me. I tell them that I cannot provide the help they need but I can help them get it.
        • I have a safe space sign on my syllabus and on my online course's header. 
        • Out of these students the last year they've all reached out and I think my reaction has helped them. I made sure I was sympathetic, told them I was sorry they were going through this, and asked what I could do to help. Not all passed. Some dropped. One dropped then took me the next semester to graduate and told me my support was key to that happening. Each, whether they passed or not, reached out to thank me for being there. These connections matter.
  • Proximity and contact are important tools in the teacher's toolbox. You walk around the room, you stand near groups that are off task. You high-five students, tap them on shoulders, give them pats on back.
    • For the obvious reasons this can go wrong, and issues of consent, higher ed professors shy away from this. And I get it. But proximity can be done without issue. And if you walk around larger classes, use proximity you learn more about your students. Crouching down by desks/tables and listening, you learn more about your students. Asking how students are, building in some personal contact (even if it's not physical) will improve your classroom.
      • This can be asking how they are in the ten minutes before and after class. It can be encouraging them to explore their own interests in assignments. It can be in your interactions and communications.
  • My students don't have a whole lot of role models. Last year when I told them I was working on my doctorate they asked if once I graduated I was going to work in a hospital. They didn't know the difference between a medical doctor and a PhD.
    • For this reason, as with my college students, I am very transparent about my background and my experiences. Growing up poor, moving a lot, having a single mom, being a first generation college student, how I worked all through high school, college  for my masters' degree, and now my doctorate. 
  • High school teachers are encouraged to connect their content to the students' experiences. Activating schema is huge- text to self experiences.
    • In my higher ed classes I do this through pop culture references and just asking. What do you know about X? I also encourage them to find cultural connections to the material we're covering. It doesn't take a lot of time, and can drastically change how you approach something.
  • I am a big fan of teaching students where they are not where you want them to be. This means assessing where they are and then planning activities to improve and supplement the skills they don't have. 
    • In my classes there are a lot of class assignments in f2f and practice assignments in my online class. They're not graded usually, or if they are they count as extra credit. They are designed to improve student skills and to give them a chance to practice the skills needed for larger, graded assignments.
    • I know college professors can't make up for years of not knowing X. But there are small moves that can be made to improve skills and class performance.
  • Because of my higher ed experience there are also things that have changed in my high school classroom:
    • I jump on kids immediately for offensive or dismissive language. High school students, particularly high school boys are fond of using "fag," "retard." "pussy" on a casual basis. Not only do I chastise them for it, but I interrogate them about why they think this is okay. If they use gendered language I ask them if they're seriously going to say to ME that women are weaker, or less than. Because of how I frame it though, I've never had to have the conversation twice.
    • High school students are super touchy-feely, but I stress with them that in my classroom we don't touch people without consent. 
    • As in my college classes, I explain why we do what we do, and what my rationale is for doing certain things or assigning certain things.
    • Because I teach at the college level I also make a lot of statements that tell them how college is different, and what they can expect. Not all my students will go to college, so I make similar statements about the work force.

Now for some things that perhaps higher ed professors don't know. I'm basing this on my 16+ years of experience in a variety of places, but I have a lot of friends who are also high school teachers throughout the country and I can tell you these are all pretty typical situations.
  • Work, work, work, grades, grades, grades are the motivators in high school. At my school parents were concerned that all of a sudden at the end of the marking period their child was failing because many teachers weren't entering grades until the end, so we were asked to give a minimum of 2 grades a week.
    • I teach 5 periods. Roughly 30 students per class. That's 150 for those of you not good with math. So I was just asked to grade 300 assignments. Every week.  
    • I tend to do a lot of small practice assignments that are formative not summative assessments and my big grades are long term writing and projects. So this edict is in direct conflict with my pedagogy.
    • The union intervened, but this work expectation is fairly normal. As are parent calls and emails about why their child is failing, has a B, doesn't like you.
  • We are required to call all parents of failing students, or students in danger of failing. This is usually 30% of them during a six week marking period. So 50 students every six weeks. 
  • While this varies from school to school and state to state in general, there is little incentive for students to stay on top of research, current trends, up to date information.
      • A high school English teacher is a general teacher. 9-12 English is the designation. This means that people with no background or experience teach specialized classes. Teachers teach based on interest (theirs) and school needs. Rarely does a teacher get assigned a class because they are an expert. For example, my specialty/focus is medieval and early modern literature. But last year I taught 9th grade an intro to literature, a reading remediation class, and this year I have the remediation class and American literature. Teachers may teach things because they "love" it not because they actually know anything about the content or field. This means that you have teachers who are not necessarily qualified teaching courses such as: Film, British literature, American literature, Shakespeare, Bible as literature
      • This might not seem like a big deal. Until you realize these are foundation classes, not just for the content they teach but for the way they teach students to think.
  • In this same vein, you need to realize that most high school teachers only have bachelor's degrees. Many do not continue their education as they teach outside of required professional development. Some may pursue their master's degree if they can during nights or summers. It's often a pay raise. But these programs are often nights, weekends, summers and probably do not look like the grad school model you're familiar with. But most don't pursue this. Money if often an obstacle as is daily schedule. High school teachers may share ideas with other teachers, but there is a strong division between high school and higher ed teachers sharing approaches, pedagogy, and research.
    • Even if teachers are interested in these things, it becomes an issue of time. The workload that the numbers above equal means that there's not a lot of time to do anything other than keep your head above water.
    • Budget cuts mean that out of city, let alone out of state, conferences are no longer an option. If you live in a small, rural area you may not have access to conferences or professional development.
  • Being a high school teacher is expensive. Depending on your school you buy your own supplies. You buy supplies for students who don't have them. You buy class sets of books. The list is pretty extensive. Conservatively teachers spend several hundreds of dollars each year of their own money.
  • High school teachers are required to design multi-page lessons for each class. Each must show how they achieve state standards, and daily student learning objectives. In addition, content can be questioned by administration or parents. 
    • Tests and certain assignments are often dictated by department, school, or district. This doesn't even include the state tests.
    • All this is to say that enthusiasm for content, experience on content, are not always the driving force in a classroom.
I understand comments of professors that they can't teach their content and catch students up. But I also think that some reflective teaching, asking questions about why they don't get certain things, what you can do to improve it, can help.
A lot of these I think focuses on skill development. Students having a hard time writing thesis statements? Do a brief mini-lesson on how to write a good one. Students having a hard time with citation? There are hundreds of web resources, just point them there.
I know that college classes can't make up for or address all the instances of trauma our students experience, but we can make our classes safe spaces. We can be that one person students feel like they can talk to.
I'd love to see the divide between college professors and high school teachers fade if not disappear entirely. Professors, other than rhet/comp people could reach out to local high schools, guest speak. We could hold local and regional conferences where professors could be paired with high school teachers to share state of field ideas. Technology means we could build list-servs and webpages that shared this information.

These things could only help our students.

Even if college professors can't act on these things or implement them (which they totally can if they want) then at least they're aware.
Even if high school teachers can't make large scale changes to better scaffold for college, they can make small moves that better prepare students.

Postscript: 8 January
There were some great conversations and shares yesterday after I posted this with both Kevin Gannon ( ) and Dave Mazella ( ).
  • The first thought that came to me after posting was that at the high school level EVERYTHING is personalized. You tailor assignments, and to a certain extent content (see culture above) to the students. Likewise, while some of us use assignment guidelines and  rubrics, many of us still use standard complete/incomplete for small assignments and A-F scale for larger ones. And Johnny's C may not be the same as Amy's C. Amy may be a previously straight A student who is phoning it in while Johnny may be a kid with low reading and writing skills but busted his ASS to get really unique ideas on paper.
    • Yes, we should have parity in classes. But for me this is more about parity of the quality and time of instruction. All students are not created equal, and we shouldn't treat them that way. This is part of the reason I like projects as much as papers in my college classes. And it's why I'm not a fan of rubrics. Students can check all the boxes on a rubric, score well, and still write a crap, unoriginal piece. Students can score low on a rubric but rock a project or paper- unique ideas I never would have thought of, great arguments. 
    • So give all your students YOUR same energy. But remember that THEY are not the same.
  • Protection. I have worked in union states and non-union states. I have worked on an at-will contract, and last minute contracts. In NC I was called into the principal's office for teaching The Scarlet Letter and accused of being a devil worshipper. Like, this was a real thing. I've also had parents complain about my Twitter handle. I once lost a contract job because I wouldn't grant an extension to a failing student who hadn't worked in weeks. Depending what your situation is, tenured or not, high school teachers can occupy a very precarious position. I've had parents call and scream at me because their student hasn't attended school in eight weeks. We have little to no recourse with these things. We get used to being treated like this. Many times our day to day becomes a "pick your battle" thing.
    • Unfortunately, all the good topics, the ones that challenge students to think and learn critical thinking skills, and become good citizens all fall into dangerous categories. Some of us still push because it's important. Some, understandably, aren't comfortable doing this because they have things to prioritize.
    • All this is a reminder that a lot influences the content in a high school classroom.
  • Resources. I wrote above about the money teachers spend of their own. But there's a lot we just can't afford. Often we can't afford class sets of books. So your content is limited by what books are in your school's bookroom. 
    • I wanted to add Fences to my American Dream unit this spring. We don't own it. We have some Chican@ texts, some African-American literature, but most of it is old, white, canon. That's a disservice to our population.
    • You also have to share books with 15 other English teachers. So if they get to it first, you're choosing something else.
    • You also have to teach what your school or department has agreed on. You look at what you're allowed to teach and then you plan your class.
  • Time. I had this conversation at my Tuesday professional development with other high school teachers and it came up again yesterday on Twitter. We don't have any. When I was in high school (1991-94) my English classes were often show up having done the reading, and then we'd spend the entire period just talking about it. What happened? What did you think? The teachers believed in wait time, and if you struggled they gave you a hint. But you figured it out. But we don't have this now. Because you have to post standards for the lesson, and use those as a checklist. And you can't just "talk" about the book or play or poem because while this and discussion is how students learn to figure stuff out, it's hard on a day to day to PROVE this. 
    •  Technology is great. Projects are great. Organizers, sentence starters, supplements, are all great. BUT nothing replaces sitting with students and talking through the ideas. I'm aiming more this semester to try and do just this. But it's hard. Somewhere along the way sharing best practices became a checklist of things you HAD to do in your classroom in order to replicate results, and that just doesn't do it.
    • I wish I could have more time IN class, time to explore readings, ideas, get students to think. The problem is there's such a check list of what you SHOULD be doing every day that by the time that's done, there's not much left.
    • Time and Physical Consequences:
      • In union states you can't be assigned duties during your lunch, or before or after school so your hours can actually be "just" 725-225 of pretty much straight teaching. But that's 7 hours on your feet. If you have knee or back problems, remember, those hours are on a concrete floor, standing. Because you can't sit at your desk.
      • I leave my house at 630a. School starts at 725. I teach until lunch (30 minutes, duty free). We have seven periods, one PLC, one prep period. School ends at 225p. Mondays I have all classes in a 50 minute class. T/TH I have 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th. 2nd is my prep, so 90 minutes on those days. But W/F I have 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th with lunch my only break. Technically teachers aren't allowed to leave students alone in a room. Because of this, the number one complaint I hear from older teachers is the permanent bladder/urinary problems they have for overriding instinct and not going to the bathroom for 4-5 hours.
If you mentor grad students and TAs, encourage them to base pedagogy on their population, their culture, their interests. Think about incorporating some of this. If they're looking for a place to start, please feel free to share this- a TA and Teaching Resource Manual. I add to it when I have time, but created it to help TAs out.
If you're a faculty member, consider these things as you teach graduate classes that include high school and future high school teachers. Or reach out to local high school teachers and ask them what they could use, or what they wish college professors knew. 
The more dialogues we can have back and forth, the more this becomes the norm and not the exception the better it is for all of our students.

Thanks to everyone who shared and discussed yesterday. I look forward to the continuing conversation. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Grad School and Academic Taxes Tips

Yesterday I had a day off and it was the new year, so I sat down to pull my tax stuff together. I tweeted about some of it, but thought too I'd pull some of the tips together here for grad students and others.

I first learned to be saavy about taxes as a theatre tech where you could deduct just about everything. While I apply many of these ideas to my taxes now, I also don't know enough about taxes, so always take my stuff to H & R Block and have them do it, and I just ask questions. This saved me last year when it turned out person who filed for me first year out here had made some errors. H & R Block not only fixed it, but they paid for it. To me this peace of mind is worth it.

Okay, so this is what I do.
  • Before I leave for a conference, I add a largish envelope to my binder. As I gather receipts during the conference I just put them straight into the envelope.
  • As soon as I get home I add them all up
  • My tax lady last year made sure I knew that travel and food had to be separate and that you only got credit for 50% of food costs.
  • Once I've tallied the receipts on the envelope, I put the envelope in my deductions folder in my big box.

I keep this box right next to my inbox to sort (left of this) and next to my desk (right of this).  This makes it really easy to stay on top of things.
  • As bills, papers that need filing come in during the week I throw them in the inbox.
  • On Saturday, the first thing I do when I sit down at my desk with coffee is balance my checkbook for the week. The next thing I do is file anything in the inbox into the big box.
    • For taxes I have folders like deductions, medical, misc. tax stuff
    • But I also have one for bank stuff, house stuff, will, credit scores, etc.
      • This ensures everything for a year is in one place
  • Yesterday, as I sat down to organize and add up tax stuff I just pulled the relevant folders.
    • I pull the folders, and rubber band them together to represent the year, 2016. Once I file the taxes this banded folder and the H & R Block folder will get rubber banded together and put in a separate big box that holds tax stuff. Every year I shred the latest 7th year, so this year I'll shred 2008's stuff.
I made a version of this worksheet a few years ago to keep track of things, and every year it gets revised a little more based on tips or things my tax lady tells me (I say lady, but it's never the same lady each year which is kind of nice as each as a slightly different approach and therefore tips!)
  • As grad students and academics, conferences are probably the main thing we expense/track, so that's first. 
    • Travel, food, and dues/registration all get itemized differently, so they're separated here.
  • As a student, and a high school teacher, it's important for me to track all the things I buy.
    • I think the deduction is like a paltry $200 per year. I spend hundreds more than this.
    • Depending on where you are and what your actual career is, what you can deduct is different. 
      • In general the vague description is anything necessary for job and/or school. Which in many cases means books but can mean media as well.
  •  Medical comes next. Mine has been pretty hefty the last couple of years because of gum surgeries.
  • Donations are next. With all the paring down and trips to Goodwill I had a lot of these. 
    • Be sure to keep receipts of these all year long.
  • You deduct your car registration/taxes. I still don't understand this but every year I forget so I added it here.
  • The last block is a list of the forms I need before I can file. I tend to file the first week in February but one year filed, forgot I was missing a W2 and had to refile. So I list the forms I'm waiting on, check them off as they come in, they make the H & R Block appointment online once they're all in.
    • This worksheet gets printed, and I staple it to the front if my tax folder for this year.
    • This folder only has the deductible receipts and such in it, this is not the bigger rubber-banded folder that represents all of 2016 stuff.
It took me less than an hour yesterday to pull out the 2016 folders, add up the math, put it on my worksheet, and be done.
Printing out my 2016 Amazon order history to track and add up dissertation and high school materials was the lengthiest part. Hey Amazon- how about you make this easier? Add a way to look at orders for year, divide into categories (books, media, household goods, etc.) and tabulate the costs. LOTS of people would thank you.
Now, this folder just sits and as tax forms come in mail, or come available online for me to print out, I just add to the folder and check off.

I think this all works so well because it it's small, manageable moves all year so it doesn't seem overwhelming.

So those are my tips. Anyone else have any great ones? Any deduction tips experienced academics want to share?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Crafting the Dissertation: December 2016 Update on Being Done (Kind of)

Earlier this morning I sent off chapter four, my Milton chapter, my penultimate chapter of rewriting my dissertation from scratch, off to my director.

So the total rewrite of the dissertation, the throw out over a year's worth of work and start over, is done.
Kind of.
Sort of.
I still have the introduction and conclusion to rewrite.
And all of it is still in rounds of revision with my director.

But the heavy lifting, the emotionally insane work of starting over and rethinking everything is finished.

I rewrote the dissertation in four months. Working, except for breaks, just one day a week on Saturdays. This forced schedule (forced by my full time job teaching high school and my TAship teaching an online Shakespeare class) had some interesting results.
  • It meant Saturdays were long days. From waking up to dark except for walking Nehi, I did not leave my desk. Whether inspiration struck or not, I was not allowed to leave my desk because it was the only day I had to work on things.
  • It also meant that ideas percolated the rest of the week. Several times I had thoughts and inspirations during the week that I'd write on a scrap piece of paper or Post-It and place on my desk during the week to revisit on Saturday.
  • My goal was one chapter per month and I met that goal. I met it mainly because I had very structured goals:
    • Week 1 was pull all the close readings for that month's chapter.
    • Week 2 was add the scholarly sources.
    • Week 3 was add introduction, conclusion, and footnotes.
    • Week 4 was last looks and done.
The schedule didn't always work. I was very sick for two weeks in November, so days I'd thought I'd have to get ahead (election day and Veteran's Day) were lost, as were those Saturdays.
I had also forgotten just how exhausting teaching high school full time was. I have been tired for months.
I was done with my high school teaching job 16 December, and thought I'd get more done before Christmas than I did. Mainly because chapter four, my Milton chapter needed a lot more time than I thought.

All this being said, one of the lessons of this summer's STUFF was not to be tied to arbitrary deadlines. So while I had a time management plan, when it went wrong or things took longer I didn't stress about it, choosing instead to do what was best for the dissertation.

As I was finishing this week I thought a lot about crafting the dissertation. There's a lot that gets said about just finishing, and that the best dissertation is a done dissertation and I get all of that. I am certainly ready to be done, to defend, graduate, move on. But I have seen very little about what it means to craft a dissertation. I did not focus on craft with the original dissertation for a couple of reasons. I was focused on getting done and I was focused on fixing other people's notes and lost sight of what I was making.

This dissertation is totally focused on craft. Part of this is that after being told I had to throw out and start over I had to focus on craft. I needed to build a complete outline for the re-write. And let me tell you, if you're just starting your dissertation please listen--- outlines are magic. They will force you to identify and track your argument. They will force you to ask yourself necessary questions. They will save you when you get lost. I needed to make sure that my arguments were clear so introductions, conclusions, and topic sentences that clearly signposted what I was doing became vital to my purpose. Each chapter had to have its own clear, articulated argument and each chapter had to interlock with each other. My dissertation actually makes three distinct arguments in each of the three chapters and then analyzes those arguments in Paradise Lost. I knew before I started the rewrite what I needed each chapter to do (and was still surprised hitting CH 4 that the focus, and my argument, was the infernal councils).

My new director also specifically MAKES me think about crafting sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. She asks me questions about organization, word choice, WHY I chose to do certain things. And this is perhaps one of the biggest changes from the original.

This is MY dissertation.

My director has offered great advice, and support, suggestions of where another source or theory might help, and has asked questions to get me to clarify my thinking. She has offered suggestions for word choices or rephrasing. But the ideas in the dissertation, the argument, is all mine. One of the problems with the the original was that I got stuck in a loop of addressing notes, doing what notes told me to, trusting that they were correct. And I'm not saying they weren't (fog of war honestly prevents me from  knowing). But what I can say is that early on in the process of my first dissertation I lost my voice. I ceded it in the interest of giving what I thought others wanted, and more importantly, what was needed to pass.

I am even more grateful now that my committee did not let me go to defense in June. Not only would it not have passed, but I honestly believe now that I would not have been able to speak about the dissertation as it was not really my argument, my ideas.

I have made this dissertation my dissertation. I have built it. And the process of crafting it has made me better. My biggest fear after this summer was that I could not do this. That I lacked the skills and knowledge necessary to write the dissertation and earn my PhD. Sitting down to write the first chapter was one of the hardest things I've ever done. There was so much to overcome, both my own fears and depression, but also the almost crippling list of everything that was wrong with the original dissertation---no argument, too many texts, too much description, no argument, uneven interaction with secondary sources, wrong arguments or approaches, no clear methodology, too long, too bloated, no idea what you're saying here.
Sitting down with my director to get notes for that first chapter was terrifying. What if I hadn't fixed it? What if I proved, again, I couldn't do this?
Know what the biggest note was? Have you thought about swapping this section and this one, and putting this in a footnote. I gained a lot of my confidence back in that meeting. I also learned to internalize the notes. The organization of CH 2 and 3 was better. I didn't make the same mistakes. I learned to pay attention to the words, to hear my director's voice in my head as I revised, guiding me. I learned to anticipate the questions she would ask.
When we met about CH 3 the week before Christmas I was almost as nervous as that first chapter because it was the Shakespeare CH, and was the only chapter that contained anything close to the original. I was terrified that in revisiting some of the same texts I would replicate the same mistakes. Once again, I proved myself wrong.
Don't get me wrong- there are still notes. I still have to control F for contractions, and still have style to polish. There are things to be done.

But today I finished the last chapter. I fought with this chapter. I worried about this chapter. It took SO much longer than I thought it would. It scared me--If you suffer from imposter's syndrome I don't recommend studying Paradise Lost. But the lessons of the last few months served me well. When I was overwhelmed by the close readings I stopped and took the time to outline the entire chapter. I started small, looking at my close readings and seeing what the argument was (this was where the infernal council epiphany came from). I focused on crafting each sentence, each paragraph, each section and before I knew it I had finished.

I went through it a couple more times.
And then I sent it off to my director.

And I just stopped.

Because if you had told me in June, and the height of my anxiety and depression this summer that I ever would have been able to rewrite the dissertation and write something that I was proud of I would not have believed you. I have come a long way in just a few months. So I'm taking a bit to acknowledge that because it's a big deal. And I don't think we spend enough time stopping to acknowledge the things that are hard and then celebrating when we overcome them.

It's a contradiction of course to say I'm done. I'm staring at the next round of notes on CH 3 that I need to do. Now that I've drafted the whole thing, I have the introduction and conclusion to rewrite. Now that my director has the whole thing we'll focus on making sure I'm tracing throughlines and arguments through the whole thing. Plus the polishing, revising, tweaking that needs to happen over and over again.
So lots still to be done. But it still feels like this is a big deal.

I'm not exactly sure what happens next other than what I just wrote above. One thing I told myself this semester was that I was just going to do the work. I was not going to think past rewriting the dissertation. So I don't know how long this next portion will take. I don't know if I'll defend and graduate in the spring. We'll see.

But today is a good day.
And for now, that's enough.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Checking In- Dissertation Progress as of November 2016

I've had some people ask me how revisions on the dissertation are going. So I thought I'd take a few minutes and update you all.
As of today I have completed second round revisions on chapter 1 ("Devilish Leaders and Resisting Role Models in William of Malmesbury's Gesta regum Anglorum") and chapter 2 ("Parliament is Demonic: The Lesson and Context of Þe Deulis Perlament"). I'm meeting my goal of completing one chapter a month. It's getting a little tricky now because I'm juggling drafting the chapters with also revising notes from previous chapters, but I'm trying to time management it all.

My new director is great. Since I'm writing a chapter a month we're meeting about a week after she gets the chapter to go over it. It means a lot that she sets aside 2-3 hours each time to go over things with me. It also really helps that she gets drafts turned around to me so quickly. So far it's a process that's working well. For the most part the notes are minor and I seem to have internalized and corrected the major issues from the initial debacle. The new dissertation has a clear argument (YEAH!), both within the chapters and the diss as a whole. As a result the dissertation is leaner, and more focused. I was really worried after sending her chapter 1, worried I couldn't do this at all, worried that there were just so many things to fix. But each chapter I finish and get positive feedback on I feel more confident and better about it all.

The last couple of weeks have been a little rough--- I've been sick so I'm a little behind on my schedule/goal of one chapter per month. But this month I'm on chapter 3, my Shakespeare chapter, which is actually the only part of the previous dissertation that I can use any of so it's not the start from scratch that the other two chapters have been. I also have a five day weekend coming up where I can play catch up so I think I'll be fine.

That just leaves the penultimate Milton chapter, chapter four, for December.
The first three chapters each deal with an element (devilish leaders, demonic parliament, internal rebels) that I will then revisit and analyze in Paradise Lost.
My high school is finished 16 December, so my goal is to finish chapter 4, address the chapter 3 notes, and draft the intro and conclusion over the break. So a complete draft by the end of the year.

The next steps will wholly depend on how second and third drafts of the dissertation go, and we'll just have to wait and see on all that.

So that's the update. I hope everyone is well, and I hope too that it won't be too long before I have the time to come back and participate in my online communities!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A New Approach to a Paper Assignment

I have not had the time to blog lately about either the dissertation or teaching but I just tried something in my online early Shakespeare class that I'm really proud of and wanted to share.

I usually assign several large assignments:
  • a 2-3 page close reading
  • a 5-6 page thematic paper
  • a presentation on a single topic or theme
  • a final paper or project
I tell the students that mastering the close reading is important, which is why we spend eight weeks practicing these skills before the first paper, and the thematic and final papers build on close reading.
I also tell them that the presentation should be a way of exploring things they might want to write on later.
In the past, many students have chosen to write final papers, but I have a lot of education majors/future teachers in my classes so many in the past have elected to create lessons plans for their final projects. Honestly, the projects are always my favorite part.

This semester I noticed that a lot of students seemed to be struggling with front loading assignments on how to write a large analytical paper. So I changed the thematic paper assignment to this:
Thematic Paper Project
Directions: This paper has several parts. You will submit all of them together in a single Word document, but in this order. Please clearly title/label each piece and insert a page break between parts.
Project Piece
Possible Points
  • Annotated bibliographies of your two secondary sources
    • Proper Works Cited full citation
    • Under the citation one paragraph (6-10 sentences) where you evaluate the argument (does it agree or disagree with your thesis? How could you use this source?) and specifically refer to the article
15 points
  • Organizer of paper which includes:
    • You may use the sample provided in the course or not
    • Thesis that tells me what theme you’re analyzing in the two or more plays AND what you’re analyzing ABOUT them
    • What two (or more) plays you’re analyzing
    • Specific textual evidence from those plays that shows that theme
    • Explanation of HOW that evidence shows that theme
15 points
  • Introduction that outlines the entire paper
    • Title of paper that gives me a clue what the paper is about
    • Thesis
    • Mention of all subtopics your paper would cover
    • Conclusion
20 points
  • One sample body paragraph that includes:
    • Topic sentence
    • Close reading(s) in support of theme
    • Explanation of HOW that evidence shows that theme
    • Conclusion/transition
30 points
  • Properly formatted works cited page
10 points
  • Paper should be MLA formatted
    • 1” margins
    • Double spaced
    • Correct parenthetical citation (Author’s last name page #)
    • Times New Roman 12
5 points
  • Submitted as one document
5 points

The deadline for this is this Saturday but I've had some students submit early and a couple of early reactions. Students have done better on this assignment. I asked students to write in the submit box what they thought of this process and all said they found it helpful.
As a result I think this is what I'll do from now on. I'm also going to give my students the option to write this paper in full as their final paper if they want. I'm also going to give them the option of submitting this process for a new topic for their final.
From what I've seen, this change in assignment addresses a lot of the issues I wanted.
It still doesn't address problems my students have with the close reading- describing and summarizing versus analyzing, but I think I'll redesign some of the smaller build up assignments to do that. 
All in all I'm really happy with this and the students' reactions, so I wanted to share!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I'm Not Back...An Extended Hiatus

As some of you may have noticed, I have not been my normal chatty, super-posting self. And I won't be in the near future, so I wanted to write a short explanation.

For those of you not caught up on summer events-
  • I did not defend my dissertation in June. I did not graduate. Instead, I am starting over, and not just revising the dissertation but completely throwing it out, setting it on fire, and rewriting the dissertation. From scratch.
  • I can tell you this summer that I came really close to quitting. A lot of things, not just my PhD program.
  • With no face to face support system, everyone gone for summer, I found myself floundering on many levels. 
  • So I retreated a bit into hermitage in order to take stock, find my footing, figure out my next steps. You know, the normal cliches.
After two months, this is what I know:
  • What I wrote was an interesting literary survey of the devil in English literature from the Anglo-Saxons to Paradise Lost
    • A survey is not an argument, it is not a dissertation.
    • It certainly has a lot of information, and I have lots of stuff for future projects, but it's not going to get that Dr. in front of my name.
  • So a summer of soul searching, multiple crying jags, break downs, radical decisions, calls for help no one answered, and a lot of meetings later,  I have a revision plan/outline for a new dissertation.
    • This revision plan has a clear argument. Each chapter has an argument. Each chapter builds on the previous, with the final chapter's argument interlocking with each previous chapter.
    • This is a leaner dissertation, four chapters instead of six. Each chapter only focuses on 1-2 primary documents instead of 20-30.  Size-wise it will be probably be a little more than half the size of the original. More importantly, it does what a dissertation should.
    • While the dissertation is still on the devil in English literature, I'm trimmed or dumped a lot of the things weighing it down. Folklore and my original methodology is interesting, and still what I want to explore in the future, but it's not in the dissertation, neither is a lot of the interdisciplinary work I originally wanted to do. This is okay. The dissertation is my ticket into this world. It doesn't have to do everything I want to do in my entire career.
  • I know people have written about how isolating writing the dissertation can be. So have I. But I realized this summer that I was really, totally, on my own. And it took me most of the summer to not just internalize that but find a way forward from that.
I have a rough plan for HOW and WHEN I'm going to complete these chapters but I'm not married to it if notes, revisions, the work requires something else. This summer sort of cured me of that.
I'd like to draft one chapter a month, with the goal of having a complete rough draft of this new dissertation by the end of the year (so by January). But past that, I couldn't tell you. At least now I can see a way forward. I do feel as one committee member said, that once I figured out my argument, since I'd done all this reading, research, and work, much of the rest would fall together. I hope that all means that I'm on the right track. I trust too that my committee will guide me if not.

So certainly a lot of this contributed to my social media withdrawal.
But a lot more of it is practical.

I reported to my high school teaching job 5 August. Students reported 11 August.
I leave for work at 630a and I am at work from 7a until 230 or 3p. I teach five classes. My classes are bigger this year with mostly 30+ students. We also this year have had it  recommended that we give an assignment per week, with at least one assignment given every two weeks, so there's a lot of grading to do.
I had one week of this before I started teaching my online early Shakespeare class for my university this semester (which covers my tuition, and with the late notice of everything this summer, I'm happy to have it). There are currently 73 students in it, and I do not have a TA. However, I designed and taught this class this past spring, and made some changes based on student feedback this summer, so I feel good about it. The first week went well. Last semester the class started with 75 with a 5 student wait list but the class dropped quite a bit by the end. I was told this was the norm. But I also took some steps to make the course more accessible, and barring that, asked students to check with me before dropping. We'll see.
Right now scheduling and organizing is key. Lucky for me organization and color-coding is my superpower because every day, every hour is scheduled and set aside for specific things.
  • I have Monday through Friday during my school day to work on my high school stuff, so lesson planning, grading, etc. I'm aiming for getting it all done during the school day, but we'll see. 
    • I answer/check emails all day from my online course and once I get home I log onto my online class and grade daily so that it doesn't get out of hand.
  • Saturdays I have set aside for dissertation work (week 1 close reading for chapter, week 2 interact with/add secondary sources, week 3 write chapter intro and conclusion, add footnotes, week 4 final revisions). The good news is that the last year was not wasted. While I can only use about five pages out of the original 333 page dissertation, the research, the scope, the knowledge I gained has made writing the revision plan, and hopefully the writing, easier.
  • Sundays I grade in my online course, post the announcement of weekly reminders for week. Since I don't have a TA, I probably won't get their bigger papers graded and turned around in a day like I did spring semester and this summer. But I'll get it done as soon as I can, and I think I've scheduled the bigger papers where it will be okay. I'm letting myself off the hook with this because I know of no other professor who turns papers around in a day.
So, I am busy.
I am scheduled within an inch of my life.
Because of this I'm a little worried about hiccups- small things could have big impacts if they mess up. For example, the grad student I hired to come let Nehi out (she's crate trained) during the day quit with 3 days notice, so I'm scrambling a bit with that. I also have been horribly sick this past week so working when I just wanted to sleep was hard. When it's just you everything is harder. But I'm working on it.

I've tried to separate the wheat from the chaff, of things I really have to focus on, that matters, and what doesn't. Certainly in my personal life, the events of this summer made that easy. People who revealed themselves to be fair weather friends were easily cut from my life. If you can't be there for me during a crisis, then I don't need you.
I do feel better about myself than I have in a long time. I proved to myself that I could survive anything. I can do anything. I had forgotten that. I believe in myself again. And I am happy with myself. I have found my balance.
This is not to say things are always easy.
I love teaching high school, and am enjoying my school and my students. But I miss working from home. I miss spending most of my time with Nehi. I miss the flexibility of that schedule. I am sure I will miss participating in department events at my university that I won't have time for. I will miss submitting to conferences and participating in conferences I've attended for years but can't just now. I'm just going to one this year, #Kzoo17, because I can't afford more money-wise and I can't afford the time off from my teaching job.  I will admit that while this workload is a lot, the trade off is I am not worried about money, which I find has eliminated a lot of other stresses I had last year.

And all of this brings me to my hiatus.

I love Twitter and blogging. I love that  people who have read my blog about my grad school and dissertating experience have found it helpful. I love the community of Twitter, the sharing of ideas, the networking, the people. But this summer I realized a couple of things. The first is, I was looking to social media for answers, and help, and support that I needed, and I realized this summer that the help I needed was not to be found on social media. Not because people aren't nice or interested. But everyone has their own lives, their own priorities, their own stuff. I needed to find my own answers. My own support. And since I don't have a face to face support network I needed to be that for myself. This means I have to put myself first because no one else is.
Also, others have said this before, but Tweeting, blogging, a social media presence, requires a certain environment, a privilege in your life to be able to do it and do it well. I don't believe either is something you can dip your toe in and have it be meaningful. It's time consuming. It takes daily work to cultivate these conversations and relationships, to be aware of the ongoing conversations, to read all the references, the comments, the posts. And I just don't have that time right now.

I'm not deleting accounts or anything.
I get emails when people message me, and I appreciate those of you who have reached out to check on me.
I have a roundtable at #Kzoo with a deadline in September, so I've posted reminders to the CFP. I'm sure when #Kzoo17 does roll around I'll be tweeting and sharing as conference time allows.
But for now I need to focus on balancing my multiple jobs and workloads and on making sure I get through this all.