Tuesday, October 19, 2010

By request: on professoring

A friend just nudged me for an update on "professoring." Consider these, then, random paragraphs of the very very early tenure track:

Teaching is going pretty well, I think. I have the usual mix of students who clearly enjoy the courses and are getting a lot out of them, those who are aiming for a B or C, and those few (especially in my lower-division general ed offering) who might be disaffected by just about any history course they take.

The student profile here, however, is very, very different from anywhere else I've taught. I don't have the institutional data with me--it's on my desk at work--but here's what I recall:
  • Number of students (grad + undergrad) at the university: 19,993
  • Average student age: 26
  • Overwhelmingly white
  • lots of married students and students with kids
  • 30% Latter Day Saints
  • Most selective public institution in Idaho, but (prepare yourselves for cognitive dissonance)...
  • 4-year graduation rate of 7 percent, 6-year graduation rate of 28 percent (yes, you read that correctly)
In other words, I'm not in the UC Davis classroom anymore. That fact is in many ways a relief, as these older students often bring deeper analytical skills to class discussions--although the writing skills of students here are on average even more dismal (many of them have let me know they never had to write a thesis statement in high school, whereas I very clearly remember learning that skill in 7th grade). I'm really enjoying working with older undergraduate students; my sense of my upper-division public history course is that most students are in their mid- to late-20s, with a smattering of students in their 30s and 40s and about the same number of traditional undergraduate age.

As I've mentioned before, I'm teaching two new-to-me courses, one of which is new to the university: the first "half" of the American history survey (which covers from the beginning of time to 1877) and an upper-division public history course. Next semester I'm tackling two also-new-to-me courses, a graduate seminar that introduces public history to students in the department's Master's in Applied Historical Research and a capstone senior writing course. This semester's survey course is kind of killing me, but I know I'm working less than do a lot of people teaching the course for the first time. Refusing to perform 50-minute lectures three times a week (or even once a week!) helps, as does my belief that students needn't memorize facts--because it means I myself don't feel obliged to establish a comprehensive understanding of 400+ years of U.S. history in a mere 15 weeks. I've been emphasizing critical and creative thinking skills. Best teaching decision to date: having students read Clarence Walker's 2010 book Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a slim volume that allows for all kinds of discussions of race and class in early America as well as the current political fascination with the Founders and Constitutional originalism.

I've agreed to sign on to a couple of grad student thesis committees, probably chairing both of them--one on the Master's of Applied Historical Research track and one in the more traditional M.A. program. I suspect I'll gain several more grad students after I teach the M.A.H.R. course in the spring.

Next academic year I'll take over the department's internship program for undergraduate and graduate students. I'm inheriting it from a professor emeritus who appears to have kept the program in very good shape, so I'm not too worried about it.

I've been spared departmental committee work this year, but I am taking over advising the undergraduate history club and its attendant spring conference-going. I've also taken a 16-hour student advising workshop, joined a very interesting faculty interest group on community outreach, and signed on as P.I. to a really interesting NSF grant application that needs an historian of women in science. I also just committed to serving on an advisory committee for the campus's observance of women's history month. Plus, next month I'll be stepping in at a Northwest women's history conference to cover for a faculty member from another Idaho institution; I'll be chairing a session and participating in a roundtable discussion.

The faculty interest group on community outreach promises to be very, very fruitful. Without giving out too many details on a project that we just hatched: a faculty member from another department has a small army of undergraduates he wants to put to work in community outreach, and he knows he wants the students to work with a particular population and to engage in some kind of writing, but he wasn't sure what should be driving their work. I offered to collaborate by helping the students learn to interview members of this group and construct a public history project that draws on both student research and first-person narratives from the group. Assuming we can get a couple of local agencies to participate (I think they will, as it would highlight their work) and can get IRB approval (it's sort of a sensitive population), I think it'll be a terrific project, the kind that births not only journal articles and conference presentations but also exhibits, podcasts, and lovely books of the coffee-table variety that seem to be popular locally.

I've also been helping several students from a colleague's class, as they're required to talk to another history faculty member about the context surrounding famous court cases. So far I've talked with students about the Mountain Meadows massacre, the Scopes trial, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Stanford White murder, and Margaret Sanger. It's been a nice way for me to very quickly review different eras in U.S. history, some of which I haven't had to think about much in the past few years.

I also sent off a journal article today, and I printed out a chapter of the dissertation from which I hope to harvest two or even three articles, as it's a looooong chapter packed with not-quite-fully-formed ideas that I believe merit further development. I'm also occasionally visiting the university library's archives to work with the papers of an Idaho woman who was an amateur mycologist, and I hope over spring break to visit the Smithsonian again, or maybe the New York Botanical Garden, to see the papers of a couple other women. I have the tiniest embryo--more of a zygote or blastocyst, really--of an article about California women gardeners and nurserywomen in the first half of the 20th century, but I'll need to visit an archive or two in southern California to really flesh it out.

My colleagues are excellent, alternately funny, warm, and quirky, as good professors should be. My new-kid-on-the-block antennae are picking up some vibrations of tension and dissent, or rifts among or between certain faculty in the department, but nothing too troubling. I love my job (except for grading, of course), and I feel extremely fortunate to be here.

Plus, Fang likes it here, too, as does Lucas. I now have an Idaho driver's license that's good for 8 years, and I hate hate hate taking tests and going to the DMV, so I figure we'll be here at least 8 years. :)


L said...

lovely update! Thanks for fulfilling your friend's request.

Breena said...

Thanks for the update! At first I thought I was being funny asking for a "professoring" update, but then I thought about it a bit more. I think professing is different than professoring, which would involve many different things including professing. Maybe you can tell I'm getting to that stage of tiredness when I feel the need to think deeply about made up words.

I will be a little slower in writing a big update since I am still behind on sleep and my grading. Hopefully I will have time to update the blog on Friday.

Laura said...

I'm so glad things are going well! I hope they continue in that vein.

fairbetty said...

Busy! But it sounds like you've settled into the groove so well. So happy for you.

If you travel to NY, look me up, ok?

JoVE said...

That sounds great. Really great. It sounds to me like you are adjusting very well to this new position.

And that community project sounds excellent. Hope you get the IRB approval.

What Now? said...

I'm so glad that things seem to be off to such a great start for you in this new job -- congratulations!