Friday, September 28, 2007

Toddlers Gone Wild

So it's somehow fitting that just as I'm reading Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, which is a funny take on familial embarrassings, imoto decided to show me what it's all about. At this semester's Women's Studies symposium the other day, she got it into her head to head for the podium, try to stare down the speaker (a new colleague who specializes in 19th C American women writers), and then toddle off, yanking off her tank top as she went. As there were only about, oh, 20 people out of the 50 there with an angle to see her doing this, it wasn't so bad, but by the third time she tried it (yeah, I kept bringing her back in the room after wrestling her shirt back on in the hallway--victory of hope over experience, fine line between bravery and stupidity and all that), pretty much everyone had checked out her belly button.

So was this as embarrassing as onechan's love of "exercise," which entails finding the nearest pole-like object (it started as the kitchen table leg in our apartment in Fukuoka, but quickly graduated onto many other tall, thin, cylindrical things) and kind of, well, embracing it, suspending herself above the ground for as long she can? Well, yeah, except for the time at the wedding of one of the tsuma's best friends a few weeks ago when onechan found a pole holding up a tent covering the outdoor dance floor and proceeded to get her exercise in front of, oh, about half the guests at this very big post-wedding dinner.

Clearly imoto was just hot and onechan wants a strong upper body so she can climb to the top of any playground structure whenever she feels like it, but to be on the safe side I'm brainstorming ways to talk them out of exotic dancing as a career path. Just in case.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

On Leaving Academia

For those wondering what life after leaving the tenure-track can look like, I'll briefly note that one of my best friends who did this is working on an investigative documentary TV series that just won an Emmy for this episode. Watch them all!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hump Day

We've switched our monthly department meetings to Wednesdays from noon to one, away from the usual Friday from three to whenever slot. Today's our second meeting and I can already report that I'm liking it. Somehow the week seems more than halfway over already.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Speaking of Storytelling...

What kind of mental state do you have to be in to believe that the consequences of doing this won't be worse than just taking the damn test?

Maybe I should be assigning "Fancy's Show Box" in my Postcolonial Hawthorne class to help my students deal with the trauma of getting an afternoon off on a nice sunny day. We've already read "Young Goodman Brown," which seems relevant in a different way.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Onechan's a Storyteller

Already. Just don't be taken in when she says with a straight face that her imoto is solely responsible for the mess in the playroom or just pulled her hair! (She's going to have to learn to stop lying to her mom eventually, right?) After telling her I played great for the first time in a long time in the faculty noon-time basketball games I've been joining fairly regularly on Tuesdays and Thursdays since I returned from Fukuoka, onechan regaled me with a long story about how she played basketball, volleyball, and soccer with her sensei and tomodachi at the Fredonia hoikuen yesterday--and even "all by myself." I don't know what Plato or Zora Neale Hurston would say, but I'm certainly enjoying her stories.... And no, the fact that she painted me my birthday present yesterday has nothing to with it. Nothing, I say!

(Yes, I'm a little bit more relaxed about her adjustment into English and western NY now. If only I could say the same about imoto.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Devi and Rowling

Remember when I said it would take about, oh, a month to start some Deathly Hallows blogging? Me neither. Let's just say that never happened, shall we? Why? Well, I'm ready with Harry Potter 7 spoiler #1, of course! Are you sitting down?

Too bad I have no idea how to put things "below the fold," because this one's a doozy. I'll be as coy as possible in case anyone's even further behind the fantasy zeitgeist than I am. (You know, besides the three-quarters of my students in my Postcolonial Hawthorne class today, my dad....) The good news for you is that you don't even have to go back to my now-7-months-old-and-more Devi blogging to get this one. Quite the opposite--it's actually one where Rowling clarifies Devi.

Let's put it this way: remember how The Boy Who Lived lives up to his name towards the end of Deathly Hallows? How he's unexpectedly (if you're anything like me, that is) empowered by his acceptance of his own death and transformed by his courage in acting on it? Assuming you do, you'll appreciate how weirdly similar this is to the acceptance and transformation Devi details for the Nagesias in "Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha." That is all. A cross-cultural structural parallel that may well top my Douglas Adams-Salman Rushdie one. You may go.

[Update: Uh, wait! Before you go, check out the slyly disguised Harry Potter 1 reference in paragraph 3 of this otherwise deathly serious article. My year will be complete if Martindale owns up to it here!]

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On Classroom Observations

As associate chair of my department, I'm responsible for mentoring new hires during their first semester on campus, which includes writing an observation letter on their teaching. The way we usually handle this in my department is to give our new professors as much choice in the process as possible: among the classes I am free to attend, they are free to choose which course I will observe and when my two visits will take place (usually toward the beginning and toward the end of the semester). No pre-observation or post-observation meetings are required, but they can of course request them, and since we're meeting as needed to discuss any questions and problems they may have over the course of the semester, it's easy to discuss their classes and students along the way. All I ask for before my first visit is a syllabus. Since they go up for renewal for the second year sometime late in the fall semester, thanks to our nutty renewal and promotions schedule, I'll be writing up the letters over Thanksgiving Break so they can get them right after it and decide whether to include them in their files or not.

The point of these visits is to give useful feedback on their course design, pedagogy, classroom management, and so on. What I usually try to do while observing a class is figure out how the lesson is structured and why, how it relates to the overall course goals, and how the students are responding to it and to the professor. Obviously my being there changes the classroom dynamic to some extent, which is why only about a third of my overall focus is on their responses, especially during that first visit. But that doesn't mean I don't do a lot of student-watching. I like to come to a class early and watch/listen as the students come into the classroom, so I can see how they change as the professor enters the room. If there are any group or team discussions or activities, I like to place myself in a location where I can listen in on several teams (while appearing to be focused on taking notes). The great thing about students at my university is that from their words and body language it's very clear what they're thinking and how engaged they are with a lesson plan.

Still, especially for new faculty, that's not the be-all and end-all of an observation, particularly the first one. I've been here long enough (it's the start of my 10th year, if you count the year away) to have realized that it's how the students change over the four (or more) years they're here that matters most, so you have to think in semester-long arcs as well as shorter ones. If a particular class doesn't go as planned, you still have many more chances (and many many more than in Japan, where they meet only once a week for half the overall contact hours as in U.S. universities) to meet your goals for the semester. Of course, in my second visit, I'm looking to see whether/how the class atmosphere has changed, along with the quality of student engagement and discussion, particularly if the professor wasn't happy with how the first class went. But like I said, how the students respond to a new professor before any word-of-mouth has gotten around the student grapevines, which helps students self-select professors who match their own goals and learning styles, is not the biggest of deals to me.

What is is seeing how the professors are adjusting to the students in their class. Coming to a new institution, it's difficult to anticipate what student expectations and habits are with respect to reading load, in-class participation, individual and team assignments, taking responsibility for their own learning, and so on. In your first semester at a new place, you're basically gathering intel for the future--the next class, the next week, the next unit, the next semester--and looking for patterns in student thought and behavior. What can you expect from English majors? from English Adolescence Education majors? from Early Childhood Education English Concentrators? from students from the arts? humanities? social sciences? sciences? What about the mix of first- through fourth-years in your classes? What are their (often different and conflicting) expectations for this course? And so on. The goal is to figure out what the assumptions about them that you might be making that could be getting in the way of teaching them better, as well as what assumptions they seem to be making that they need to be disabused of or lead away from.

By adjusting to the students, then, I don't mean pandering to them, patronizing them, or catering to their every whim. I mean figuring out what are reasonable challenges to be presenting them with at what time in the semester, figuring out what you need to do to prepare them to do as well as possible on the assignments you've laid out for them, figuring out how to get and keep the group of students in front of you (or around you) motivated to push and challenge themselves. I mean thinking realistically and pragmatically about how to achieve your goals in the course. And maybe rethinking your goals and methods for the next time around.

Not all this shows up in my observation letter, of course. A good part of the letter is simply describing what I saw, in as much detail as I can muster from my notes and memories. Along the way or at the end, I usually include a mix of interpretations and assessments and suggestions. In doing this I tend to be more about options and roads not taken (but might be in the future) than about armchair quarterbacking or backseat driving; I consider alternate ways of achieving the apparent goals for the class meeting or adjusting them in light of the course goals. I try to convey to the professor and to anyone else who might happen to read the letter someday the complexities of and subtleties in teaching well.

Which means these things take a long time to write. But I usually learn a lot about teaching from visiting my colleagues' classes and writing up my observations, so I figure I should only return the favor with a letter they may be able to learn from.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rethinking a Course Blog

And by "course blog," of course I mean student blog. Too busy prepping and wasting time pretending to be the Commissioner of Women's Golf to do more than link to this announcement of a change over at American Identities. Go there and read the whole thing--it's short!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ready with Harry Potter 7 Spoilers in, oh, about a Month

In the apparently eternal struggle to make CitizenSE relevant to someone else in Blogoramaville, I can report that thanks to that honors thesis student on whose behalf I blegged last weekend, I'm currently making my way through that next-to-last one in the Harry Potter series this weekend--Half-Blood Prince, if memory serves. So like it says in the title, I'll finally be able to participate in the HarPot-blogging-fest about half a year late.

On the bright side, a student and fellow Gaiman fan has lent me her copy of Anansi Boys. If the blogging is light (in more ways than 2) here over the next couple of weeks, you'll know who to blame!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Story Time

In Japan, onechan never really needed or wanted bed-time stories. Sure, she'd have her mom read her books from the library as often as she could get her to, she'd ask me to read her the few books in English we brought from home, and when she was really desperate would get me to read to her in Japanese. But now that we're back in the States, she's really wanted to get back into the bed-time rituals we had established before we left. With some changes.

For one thing, she definitely likes certain stories for their nostalgia value now. Big Sister Dora is a big hit with her, probably because it takes her back to the winter and spring before imoto was born when we were frankly trying to indoctrinate train prepare her for her changing role in the family. Some stories take her even further back in time, like Goodnight Moon and Pat the Bunny (bed time edition). In Japanese, she's gotten even more into this series of stories about two little bear friends, Guri to Gura, which we originally received as a gift from the wife of one of my colleagues and which we now have access to thanks to the library at onechan's UB yochien. Since it's going to take her awhile to figure out how to invent that time machine she's been implicitly asking for lately, narrative will have to do for the time being.

For another, she's into me making up stories at bed time for the first time. These characters I invented several trips ago in Japan based on her and her oldest Japanese cousin, whom I'll call Iki and Ika here, are now doing double duty here. In the past, I told mostly action-adventure or silly stories about Iki and Ika's interactions with her favorite cartoon characters like Dora and the various Pretty Cure superheroes. Now, taking a page from Bill Benzon's Sparkychan and Gojochan, I'm having Iki and Ika go through versions of the problems onechan is going through. So one story has had them discussing how to make new friends in a new place. Another has had them figuring out what to do when a kid at hoikuen is being mean to them.

All this has gotten me thinking about imoto. It's clear that onechan is motivated to develop her English through listening to these stories. But in part because imoto is too young to really understand the shift from a Japanese-saturated environment to an English-saturated one and in part because she's been on this physical rather than verbal kick ever since she figured out how to roll over, I'm not at all confident that she's going to get the idea of using (more) words any time soon. So figuring out how to change her bed-time ritual to get some story time into it is going to be a big deal in the next several months. The problem is that she's so used to going to sleep with her mom in one bed and onechan is so used to going to sleep a little later with me in a different bed (after staggered baths most of the time) that it's going to be difficult to change things around so that I'm reading imoto a story in English before she goes to sleep with her mom. I can see adding a post-bath step, where the tsuma reads to onechan in Japanese while I read to imoto in English and then reversing it to end up with the familiar pre-sleep situation. Shouldn't be too big of a change, given that the current pattern fell into place only in the last two weeks, when it became clear to onechan that imoto is such a bed-hog that it's really difficult for all four of us to sleep together comfortably. But it does mean adding another 10-20 minutes to the process of putting the girls (and, usually, ourselves) down for the night (or in our case, a few hours before heading downstairs to talk and work for a while and then back upstairs to sneak a few hours of sleep together with imoto). Still, imoto's getting close to the age when we started building in regular bed-time storytelling to onechan's good night ritual, so it's going to have to happen sooner or later....

[Update (9/16/07): Thanks to Uncle Bill Benzon, I can point you toward this new University of Waterloo psychology study on very young children and stories!]

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Abe Out

Back in the day, I did a number of political posts at Mostly Harmless that looked critically at the ties between right wingers in the U.S. and Japan. (Yes, March feels like "back in the day.")

I never came out with a prediction that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would resign, like I did for then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez (ok, so I was off by a few months there--sue me!), and now I'm wishing I did, because he just did!

Now I'm wondering which party is in more trouble, Japan's LDP or the U.S.'s Republican Party? Given that the Republicans have already lost both legislative houses and neither Cheney nor Bush has offered to step down, I'd have to say it's the LDP. But there's still time for the Republicans to catch up with the LDP. Go for it, y'all!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Early Semester Rush Over?

So far this semester, the chair and I have hired two new TAs after a pair of returning ones got job offers elsewhere the week before classes started, run our first department meeting, gotten the wording on our two upcoming tenure-track searches approved and sent out to MLA, gotten all the department committees set up, gotten the Spring 2008 schedule out for administrative approval, hired a Visiting Assistant Professor for the spring, and begun mentoring our three new tenure-track hires. And that's just the stuff I remember. Next week: getting together a committee to evaluate everyone's cases for a discretionary salary increase (it has to be made up of people not going for this "extra" raise). Bright side: we checked with the dean and reread the department handbook and it appears I'll be eligible to apply this year, despite being away on leave last year. Other good news: next semester I get to teach two courses I've been waiting my entire time here to get a shot at: Black Women Writers and Non-Western Literature. OK, time to finally finish the minutes from that department meeting!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Fantasy Bleg

So I'm doing one of my favorite things this year, which is mentoring an honors thesis on a topic I'd be focusing on if I were starting over as an undergrad doing an honors thesis right about now. No, it's not science fiction, comics, or video games, but fantasy. The student is interested in the ranges of the rules and functions of magic in fantasy, figuring that it may not be that dissimilar to the rules and functions of (new) technology in science fiction. The larger project is to make a case for the scholarly study of fantasy.

Not only does this give me a chance to introduce her to some of my favorite writers--Steven Brust, Neil Gaiman, Guy Gavriel Kay, Charles de Lint, and Sherri Tepper--as well as others I respect but don't like as much yet should be crucial to her project--Piers Anthony, Lloyd Alexander, Ursula Le Guin, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and of course J.R.R. Tolkien. But, most important, I get to read some George R.R. Martin and Irene Radford--not to mention finally finish the last three books of the Harry Potter series! What's more, this is work, or should I say guilt-free pleasure?

So, keeping the former part of the last sentence in mind, is anyone out there aware of good scholarly studies of fantasy? Lucie Armitt's Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction is our entry point, but she's a bit too hung up on the fantastic and the possibilities of Lit-ah-rary fantasy, for my taste at least.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Saturday School Then and Now

Just like my little brother and I did, my two daughters go to Saturday school. Just as my parents drove us to New Hartford for Hebrew school, the tsuma and I drive onechan and imoto to Buffalo for yochien. I wonder if the resemblances will end there.

My parents both grew up in heavily Jewish communities in post-W.W.-II era Brooklyn and, later, Long Island. My brother and I grew up as two of the four Jewish kids in Clinton, NY. So we went, rather unwillingly, to Hebrew school, until we had our Bar Mitzvahs--and then stopped. We were only taught enough Hebrew to make it through our Torah readings--and that's about as much as we learned. We identified as upstate New Yorkers, not as Jewish Americans.

Onechan and imoto have dual Japanese and U.S. citizenship. The tsuma and I hope their year in Japan came at just the right time, linguistically speaking, and that Saturday yochien in Buffalo can tide them over until we get back for our next extended stay. From what I've seen of the teachers and the set-up, they have decent odds at keeping connected with Japanese language and culture. Onechan is already loving to learn the hiragana and katakana writing systems that I struggled over last fall. She was "drawing words," as she put it to me later, for an hour straight last week. She seems to really like her sensei, too. But as good as they are, what's really going to keep her Japanese developing is her peer group there--and so far, only she and a 6-year-old girl whose Japanese is far behind her are the only ones in the class. We've heard two more kids might join up this week, so we'll see tomorrow. Her Fukuoka yochien friends and her cousins in Okinawa are mostly too young right now to enjoy talking on the phone with her (that is, over Skype), so she's going to have to rely on her Buffalo yochien friends until imoto gets old enough to start having conversations in Japanese with her.

So both girls are light years ahead of where my brother and I were at their ages. Perhaps if my grandparents had tried to pass down Yiddish, we could have become bilingual at a young age, too. But it's clear that they wanted their children to be monolingual in English. When my dad's mom was in late stages of Alzheimer's, a long time ago now, there was a period when she was mostly living in her memories of the Depression era. She would often correct our English when we visited her and our grandfather in Long Island, particularly irritated by my brother's and my upstate accents and bad pronunciation/enunciation according to her standards of correct English (which were quite correct). Although she spoke Yiddish with her sister and her husband her whole life, she didn't try to teach more than a word here or there to her grandchildren.

That's history for you. Our grandparents came to America just before anti-immigration and anti-immigrant sentiment peaked with the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act--a time when the KKK was reviving, when nativism and 100%-Americanism set the standards of inclusion and exclusion, when immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were of ambiguous and uncertain racial status (not-quite-white, at best). Our parents were born at a time when the U.S. racial order was undergoing a historic shift, one that has proven to be more deeply-rooted and extensive than the unfinished revolution of the later civil rights movement: the opening-up of whiteness to the previously racialized immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century, first on a kind of conditional "white ethnic" status and later simply white. Perhaps if we had grown up downstate, my brother and I would have taken part in the "ethnic revivals" of the 1970s, but most likely not. Between our grandfather's Holocaust-induced disbelief and our father's profession of philosophy (not to mention our childhoods in the college towns of Clinton, Chapel Hill, and Palo Alto), it's difficult to imagine us being seriously attracted to Judaism or Jewish culture.

So do our stories fulfill the classic melting pot script? With my brother marrying into a big Polish Catholic family and their four kids growing up in the classic suburban mode, perhaps so. Or maybe the ethnic similarities (we're part Polish and part Hungarian) outweigh the religious differences there, so that onechan's and imoto's cousins' childhoods will echo their grandparents' somewhat. In any case, it's pretty clear that onechan's and imoto's childhoods will be something different. In what ways and with what effects remains to be seen.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Deer in the Headlights

That's what I've felt like during my many hours in the office the past week and a half. There are a lot of benefits to being associate chair--a course release each semester, a small stipend (even smaller for me since I'm only doing it for the fall), a get-out-of-other-departmental-committee-work-free card), and let's not forget the soul-corrupting power (bwaa ha ha!)--but parking your computer and a few books in one of the rooms in the departmental office complex is most definitely not one of them.

Back in Fukuoka, my office time was my own. Even though I invited students to visit me every class, I didn't have to post any office hours, most of my students were loath to visit another campus (or university), and my 21st Century Program students were hesitant to intrude on me. Not so in Fredonia. Even though I've kept my office hours to a minimum for me (an hour and a half a day for the first four days of the week), I'm actually spending closer to 12-16 hours a week in that room, for the first month of the semester at least. There's just too much that needs to get done--new faculty need mentoring, advisees need advice, internship seekers need coordinating, students appealing various things need to be heard out and referred to the appropriate people, the spring 2008 schedule needs to be compiled, job ad language needs to be approved, committees need to be formed, minutes for the first department meeting need to be typed up, a colleague's teaching evaluations from last semester need to be summarized, a new dean needs to be consulted, and e-correspondence needs to be maintained. And that's just for starters. Between the departmental secretary and the chair, very little of this is my responsibility alone, but I have my hand in to a greater or lesser degree on just about all of it. The upshot is, very little time is left over for, say, getting my course web pages in shape, learning my students' names, tweaking my lesson plans, getting some reading for my courses in, or surfing the MLA bibliography. You know, the kinds of things I use my time in the office for when I'm not associate chair. It's gotten so bad at times the past two weeks I've found myself bouncing from task to task without finishing any of them. And when I actually get a chance to focus on, say, my own teaching, well, my focus is shot.

I know this, too, will pass, and I'll someday figure out how to be more efficient in the office at Fredonia--just as I eventually adjusted to my commute in Fukuoka and became a champion subway reader. But I'll tell you: a year away from service of any kind sure leaves you rusty. And wondering how you did so much more of it before your leave....

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Third Try's the Charm?

I'm teaching my Postcolonial Hawthorne course for the third time this semester--first was at Kyushu University in Fall 2006, next at Seinan Gakuin University in Spring 2007, and now here. Those already interested in the intricacies of course design may find the differences between the first two and the last less boring than the vast majority of those whose lives will never be brightened by this post.

Apparently I was the last in my department to get the memo that postcolonial theory is dead. But that PMLA forum I missed in May will actually be perfect for the course, the basic goal of which remains to ask whether Hawthorne ought to be considered a postcolonial writer or not and why, with a particular focus on the implications and stakes of the answers to these questions.