Monday, July 31, 2006

Day 22 - Presidential Watch 2006

Still no sighting of the President in my building, but rumor has it he walked through the Science Building today.

Read this if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Friday, July 28, 2006

An article in the Chronicle today (Chronicle Careers: 7/28/2006: Let's Sue) reminded me that I have never delved fully into all my feelings about the website

Ratemyprofessor became very popular on my campus about 3 years ago after one of the secretary's sent an email out to all the freshman telling them about the site and urging them to make use of it for choosing classes. My first response was that I wanted to start an anonymous site so I could post something vile about big-mouth secretary's who don't have anything better to do with their time than go online looking for ways to make it easier for students to vilify professors. My second response was that there should be a site where professors wouldn't hand out grades along with the justification that goes along with grades, but instead could post their real thoughts about students. Like: Mary Summers - always forgets to turn her cell phone off, a real pain. Mark Taylor - A serial plagiarizer, watch out! Ben Burnett - Smart, but tends to hog office hours. I mean after all, what's good for the goose...

However, since isn't going to go away anytime soon - I have the following thoughts.

1. Check out your score. If it is good give yourself a little pat on the back and then never go back to the site without a compelling reason. It really is a waste of time, ego-stroking site, if you have good ratings.
2. If you have a bad score - take all the comments with a grain of salt. Remember, there is no safeguards on who posted those comments. It could easily be a hacked-off old girlfriend or your 12 year old nephew.
3. If you have a bad score and the comments reflect the same sentiments as real course evaluations, it might be time to sit and seriously think about how you are teaching, whether it is effective, and if there is something you can change so you can help students learn better.
4. If you have a bad score - fix it. Login and write yourself some nice comments; give yourself some nice ratings. This entire site is a bunch of bunk anyways, so don't feel guilty about abusing it.
5. If you are going on the job market, be VERY aware of what it says on about you. I admit to looking at it when we hired someone last year. I was hoping it might cut through some of the glowing recommendations letters that swear everyone is great teacher. At the same time, however, I realized that there was no guarantee that what I was reading was accurate. I knew that it would be easy for a candidate to "manage" his/her ranking if they wanted. But I looked anyways - and other hiring committees do too - so you better know what it says about you.
6. If you are going to check out the rankings of your colleagues, peers, fellow graduate students - don't spend too much time hunting them down, don't get too much glee out of it, and never do it again. Sure, maybe it will feel briefly good that the prat from graduate school who ended up on the tenure-track at an East Coast Research University (while you are adjuncting in the mid-west) is hated by his students, but reveling in those kinds of feelings really doesn't accomplish much. Instead, update your lecture notes, focus on finishing an article, and do things that really can make you a better professor.
7. There are a few pretty funny comments on the site. Some of my favorite include:
* You can't cheat in her class because no one knows the answers.
* His class was like milk, it was good for 2 weeks.
* I would have been better off using the tuition money to heat my apartment last winter.
* Emotional scarring may fade away, but that big fat F on your transcript won't.
* Evil computer science teaching robot who crushes humans for pleasure.
* Miserable professor - I wish I could sum him up without foul language.
* Instant amnesia walking into this class. I swear he breathes sleeping gas.
* BORING! But I learned there are 137 tiles on the ceiling.
* Not only is the book a better teacher, it also has a better personality.
* Teaches well, invites questions and then insults you for 20 minutes.
* He will destroy you like an academic ninja.
* Your pillow will need a pillow.
* She hates you already.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Historical Comedy

I love it when history is used in standup acts or other comedy. I like to think that it means we are such a historically literate society that we find jokes about George Washington funny, but it probably means I'm just a geek.

Anyways, two recent history comedy occurrences brought this to mind. The first was on Last Comic Standing last night. Comedian Gary Gulman's act claimed that he had a dream where he was a history professor at an elite university in the Northeast and he was having problems with his girlfriend because she was failing his class. When she came to his office hours and offered to do anything to pass his class, he got all excited and told her to write a 12 page paper on the industrial revolution and get a 70 on the final. Yea... the industrial revolution that is what turns history profs on. (Okay - my explanation is not quite as funny as actually watching the act.)

Second occurrence is story in the Onion titled: Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence. I especially liked the paragraph that explains how the U.S. defeated the British in the war:

The special anniversary tribute refutes many myths about the period and American history. According to the entry, the American Revolution was in fact instigated by Chuck Norris, who incinerated the Stamp Act by looking at it, then roundhouse-kicked the entire British army into the Atlantic Ocean. A group of Massachusetts Minutemaids then unleashed the zombie-generating T-Virus on London, crippling the British economy and severely limiting its naval capabilities.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tired of Being 1 out of 300 Job Applicants?

I remember being on the job market and receiving rejection letters informing me that 300 or more applicants had applied for the same position. I always found it very depressing. 300 applicants was way more competition than I wanted to deal with.

Apparently the key to minimizing the competition on the job market is to study a VERY obscure subject and just wait until some school needs you to teach it. Sure you might have to wait awhile until the perfect job comes along, but today might just be your lucky day. The University of Toronto just posted a job listing for an Assistant Professor in the History of Zoroastrianism. You need to be qualified to teach in all areas of Zoroastrianism, including its relationship to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. It would also require you to supervise research on Zoroastrian Diasporas (because of the growing demand for Zoroastrian studies professors around the world - I'm sure).

Unfortunately the area of specialization for the job is open - so all those studying Gender and Zoroastianism or the Economics of Zoroastianism will have to compete against each other for the position. However, I'm guessing you'll still be only 1 out of 3 applicants for the job.

Only History Can Judge

Old Jon Stewart Clip that goes off on the Bush administration's argument that only history will show whether or not the war in Iraq was a good thing.

Some of the best lines include:

* Abraham Lincoln not very much beloved at the time of his presidency. With the hindsight of history, we now understand that in fact slavery was actually very bad. And that Lincoln was a tall, gay, depressed, circus-like freak.

* You know the old saying "History is written by the winners and also the team of handpick historians the winner keeps hidden away in an underground bunker."

Monday, July 24, 2006

If you are going to read the Chronicle today check out these stories -

The University of Missouri is cutting $20 million in administrative costs and redirecting it to the academic program. Finally, a school administration that remembers what the point of its existence is - The Chronicle: Daily news: 07/24/2006 -- 05.

The Chronicle talks to a number of bloggers about Juan Cole not getting appointed at Yale. Cole is the only historian-blogger the Chronicle asks about the issue. I found his response pretty inspiring. Juan R.I. Cole: A Reponse.

Jonathan Malesic discusses the differences between being a graduate student and a first year assistant professor. Dispatches from the First Year.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Happy 14th Amendment Day!

I hope everyone has a keg reserved because today is: Happy 14th Amendment Day! Go read all about it at Salon.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Presidential Transitions

I was thumbing through (figuratively) Inside Higher Education and came across a short question and answer article on Presidential Transitions. My school is going through a presidential transition right now too. I think most of the faculty were pretty happy about who the board selected to take over the presidency. There's been a growing belief on campus over the last few years that something was going wrong with the college. So when our former president announced his retirement, many faculty members believed that this might provide the shake up or the fresh eyes needed to get the school back on track. It is probably too early to judge whether or not the new president will meet these expectations (he only started at the beginning of July), however, I do already have a concern. It isn't a major concern, but still it is starting to really bug me. My concern: Why haven't I seen the new guy walking the halls yet?

Now this is a pretty small campus. If I was at the University of Missouri or something I wouldn't really expect to see the new president wandering around the campus buildings. But this isn't the University of Missouri. This is a small, liberal arts school and I want the new president to at least walk around the academic buildings, seeing what is what, who is who, etc. The longer he stays holed up in the administration building, the more nervous I get. Does he think the only things important on campus are in that building? Doesn't he want to meet the faculty who around during the summer? Doesn't he want to know what the facilities are in the various buildings? Is he some sort of stand-offish Yankee who doesn't want to consort with the enemy/the faculty?

I am not sure what he is thinking. However, I do know that every day that passes, without a sighting of him outside the halls of the administration building, he is losing a little of the goodwill and support that at least this member of faculty initially felt for him. Today is day number 13 of my presidential watch. I'll let you know when the vigil is over.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Advice for First Year History Graduate Students


1. Don’t skip class EVER – You aren’t an undergraduate any more, professors will notice if you are gone, think less of you, and assume you aren’t serious about becoming a professional historian
2. Read, study, and write in the library – Unless you are at some university with a new-fangled coffee/bar virtual library, the library is a great study location. It is quiet, all the sources you might want are easily accessible, there aren’t the distractions of T.V. or laundry, and your fellow graduate students and teachers will see you working and think that you are dedicated.
3. Read, read, read. And even when you know you aren’t going to be able to finish all the reading you are supposed to do for the week, keep reading to get through as much as you can. There will NOT be an opportunity to go back and catch up later on the reading.
4. Read critically. It is not enough to just read the book and walk into class not having thought about subject critically. You need to be prepared to discuss it like a historian. That means an hour before class sit down and figure out what the book’s thesis is, why the book’s author thought this book needed to be written (I’m talking about historiography here), whether or not you found the author’s argument convincing, and why it was or was not convincing.
5. Talk in Class. Do not talk while the teacher is lecturing, but participate in discussions. The only way your teacher is going to know that you are reading, reading, reading is if you talk in class.
6. Get yourself a textbook. If you are in a graduate class about the Early Republic there is a very good chance that you won’t be taking lecture notes about what the presidents were doing. Instead you’ll be reading books that discuss a small part of what a certain president did and you’ll be expected to understand the historical context that it occurred in already. Having a good textbook on hand to refresh your memory from undergrad days is a lifesaver.
7. Get to know your advisor. Take her or his classes, read the books and articles they have written, and go talk to them about important history related subjects during their office hours. Your advisor can be one of the most important resources you ever have. They can fight to get you funding, they will write reference letters for you, and they can recommend journals or presses that might be interested in your research.

Personal Life

1. Have at least one good friend who is not in graduate school. You will need someone to let you know who won the World Series, what new restaurants have come to town, and simply remind you that there are people who don’t care about Bernard Bailyn’s interpretation of the American Revolution.
2. Drink with fellow graduate students. If you have a class that meets in the evening. Try and convince a group of your classmates to go out for a drink after seminar each week. Some of the best conversations I had about course material in graduate school, I had over a pitcher of beer. Socializing with your classmates, moreover, helps lessen feelings of competition between you and your peers.
3. Your peers can be one the greatest sources of information on what classes to take, what professors to avoid, and how department politics works. Hang out in the graduate student offices or the student lounge and get to meet as many as you can.
4. Take care of yourself physically. Try not to eat only junk, go to the gym or run a few times a week, don’t give yourself an ulcer because from the stress of graduate school.
5. Take care of yourself mentally. When the semester is over, drive out into the country and scream and yell until you are hoarse. It is oddly renewing.

Odds and Ends

1. Buy a laptop. If you are going to be working in the library you’ll need one. Moreover, you’ll probably be going on a research trip to an archive sooner than you expect. Having a laptop will save you on copying expenses and keep you sane.
2. Don’t put any games on your laptop. Its okay to leave solitaire installed, but don’t add anything else on it which might distract you from doing your work.
3. Back up everything. Wear your backup around your neck (thumb drive). Laptops get stolen and hard drives break. People have dropped out of graduate school because all the research they did on their thesis vanished due to some horrible computer accident.
4. Some professors are dicks. Try to avoid them at all costs. If you can’t, don’t get in a pissing match with them – they probably have tenure. Just do your work, act respectful, and keep your head down until the semester is over.
5. Go to any type of career development workshop your departments holds. Things like have to give papers at conferences, how to submit articles to journals, and how to apply for jobs might not seem critical in your first year, but they do provide you with some direction as you think about what your future is going to look like.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Getting College Freshmen Off to a Good Start

Here is the list of ideas I give my college freshmen orientation class to help them get off to a good start. Some of them are my own little pet peeves, but others are serious. Am I missing anything important?

1. Academically
- read and understand the complete syllabus of each class
- write due dates in your calendar
- keep up with assignments
- go to every class (Tuition is $8120 a semester, if you take 15 hours that means a 3 hours class costs you $1624. The class meets 42 times a semester, so each class you missed is $40 you’ve wasted. You wouldn’t pay $40 to go to Six Flags or a baseball game and then decide to sleep in that day, so you shouldn’t do that with class either – go and get your money’s worth of an education.)
- do the readings
- act interested
- for many assignments the library can be more useful than the internet

2. With Your Professors
- call them doctor or professor, not Mr., Mrs., or Miss
- don’t call them by their first name, unless invited
- go talk to them in their office hours
- don’t call them at home
- don’t come into class late
- turn your cell phones off before you enter class
- don’t make up excuses for not completing an assignment
- don’t ever start a conversation with ‘My tuition pays your salary.’

3. Socially/Personally
- join clubs/ get a campus job
- get involved
- don’t hang out with only your roommate
- be open to having a variety of friends, people of different races, or nationalities

Monday, July 03, 2006

George Washington Rap

I was reading the latest History Carnival at Chapati Mystery and was awed by this little gem of what is apparently a music video about George Washington. I really love this, although I would never admit to my colleagues.

I do hope that creased comics puts out an entire presidential series of music videos. I'm sure the one on Calvin Coolidge would be 'first rate.'