It’s in the Dmn Syllabi, Dmnit!

Over the past few weeks I have openly and egregiously lied about “reading the terms and conditions” of various products I’ve installed. If I were to extend this to years, were we living in a dystopia, I’d already be made factionless and an Avox. I didn’t read that stuff for ITunes 1.0, and I won’t read it when I install ITunes 8.8b, so I’ve just assumed that there was something about a new U2 album appearing without warning and there’s nothing I can do about it. For all I know, when I installed DVDFab9, I agreed to a condition stating, “Andy Black eats boogers.”

And yet, both mentally and verbally, I’m a big fan of the phrase, “It’s in the syllabus!” To students, it’s gentler; with other faculty, it’s a mantra that seems to define our pains. To wit:

I’ve been her, and the unsaid point of that comic is that a caring and intelligent teacher took the time to explain every detail, answer every potential question, and craft a document that’s an exhaustive and fair contract. The syllabus is the product of intense laboring – I don’t get much research done in the week before class because I’m writing and rewriting it. As a PHD student, I had a teaching mentor tell me that it was (more or less) irresponsible not to include a reading schedule, so I’ve included one ever since. I have a page where I explain participation grades and how they’re calculated, a page where I explain tips to succeed: my ENG105 syllabus is longer than most Raymond Carver short stories.

I also give a syllabus quiz, a mind-numbingly easy open-book affair that always ends up prompting confusion. The syllabus quiz is supposed to isolate and identify the most significant parts of the syllabus, and this practice – while necessary – leads me to challenge myself. Why can’t the whole syllabus be as concise as the quiz? Do I really need the section where I explain “virtual participation” as though it is the sixteenth amendment? Do I really need all the paper descriptions, which detail assignments that are four months away? Do I really need to explain to them what Canvas is?

The easy answer to this is that old truism that a syllabus is a contract, and it “protects you just as much as it does me”. But I wonder if it’s that kind of thinking that, like a rubric, suggests a model of neutrality and authority that we don’t really have or want as teachers, or at the very least have been nurturing critical student-centered pedagogies to revise. In my rethinking of the underlying ideologies and theories of the syllabus, my attitude is starting to be something less like “It’s in the syllabus (exclamation point) to “Why is it in the syllabus (question mark)”

Because in the case of my dauntingly exhaustive, prolix, and somewhat idiosyncratic syllabi, I probably wouldn’t read it either, and I honestly can’t be called upon to remember everything that’s in it. Since it’s the first document that my students read, I don’t know that I want to be a textual representation of me as a teacher. So far all I know, I’m contractually obligating my students to acknowledge that I eat boogers.

Productive Complaining

Last semester was probably the worst experience I’ve ever had teaching a First Year Composition course. While I had hoped my students would see me as an ally, someone invested in their success, many of them never got over the feeling that – by giving them criticism and a grade – I was the “enemy.” This led to a certain sense of despondency on their part, one that I tried to remedy but could not. The written portion of their final evaluations revealed this most without ambiguity, as did this email that I received on Thanksgiving day regarding a recently returned paper (I’ve edited this somewhat to make it even more anonymous):

First  my works cited WAS indented before you converted it to a PDF. This seems to happen every time. Secondly  I was not totally rushed to write my paper. I do have other classes than yours, you know and I had two 4 page papers due that week back to back. I make 100s on all my other papers so I think you have a problem with me or you’re just to picky. I do what you ask me to do and I change it then when you grade it  so you must forget what you told me and you count off anyway. In all my other English classes I’ve made As and Bs and I’ve had many works published in books and Ive never had a problem until I took your class. 

It’s aggressive, angry, and on many levels, inappropriate. Yet what the student thought is that I was accusing her of things, rather than trying to help her. This was also the first “reflective” or “complaining” email I had received from the student, which suggests she internalized her frustration and let it all out at once. She’s mad at both small things (the fact that I told her to indent the second line of her works cited) and big things (I’m too picky). In my end-comments, I suggested that she might have been rushed in writing the paper – as I had some evidence that she wrote it at the last minute. This assumption clearly felt like an accusation, and I’ll never do it again. Her frustration probably built with each returned paper, before it exploded. And I should note that this is someone who, while doing poorly on this particular assignment, got a B in the course. Ultimately, I never got to address this with the student, because I told her to meet me in my office and she never did.

While you might see this as evidence of a student’s entitlement (I’ve made As and Bs), or pathology (that she never expressed her irritation before to avoid this blow-up), it would be irresponsible not to recognize part of this falls squarely on me as an instructor, and it’s prompted me to create the following reflective assignment: “Productive complaining”


—————————————————————————————— (note, after posting this, I see the typos; they’ve been fixed)

My opening salvo is the key to this exercise as a pedagogical endeavor: by complaining, students are practicing and employing a personal form of rhetoric, which is the primary goal of my class. But as is hopefully clear, the other imperative of this assignment is to have an ongoing conversation with students about how they feel being graded and critiqued, and about how I can best help them with my marginal- and end- comments. Hopefully, I’ve also formalized the process of complaining, establishing it as genre, encouraging it as an ethical practice, and using the mechanisms of the class to give it a channel through which it can occur.

Finally, it furthers the project that I always see myself engaged in: of de-centering authority and giving the student ownership over his or her education.

When I explained this to the class, I noticed that they were alternately delighted and confused. Some of the delight may have been the carrot-and-stick approach through which I’m encouraging them to complain initially by giving them a grade boost. And the confusion is most obviously related to the fact that I am a weird teacher who has already asked them to write three drafts of a a rhetorical analysis of a commercial and now is ordering them to complain about their grades. And I imagine there was some suspicion as well. A student from another one of my classes was nearby, waiting for her next class to begin, and immediately walked in saying, “Did I hear you right? Were you insisting that your students complain?!”

Yes. Yes, I was.

The complaints are not due until later today, but the first early-bird response I received suggests unqualified success:


I love this complaint. It tells me so much about how and why the student is concerned. Here’s what happened: the student got an “A” on the paper, which is the highest grade I gave. However, when he looked at his grade on Canvas, he was frustrated to receive a “95.” I gave him a “95” because that corresponds to an “A” in the gradebook, and Canvas has no way of merely entering and calculating letter grades. Therefore, I ultimately don’t stick hard and fast to numerical averages, mainly using Canvas as a place to store and record grades. He’s also confused as to why I gave him a “5/5” on earlier drafts; in fact, I was just acknowledging that he completed them and giving him credit for doing so. My comments, rather than the grade, reflected the quality. I can explain this to him, and he might not be totally satisfied with the answer, but at least there is an answer. This is clearly a student who is concerned about his grade, perhaps overly concerned, to the point where he’s managing every point and trying to figure out what he needs to do to receive that “A.” That’s something I can help him with by explaining the way grades work in my class; it also initiates a conversation about grading practices in general.

But as an instructor, there’s also this for me: I clearly gave this student nothing but “good job” type criticisms. In looking over the paper, there were places where I probably could have been specific and suggestive. This is problem for me, I think, with “A” papers: I tend to give them a breeze-by on the comments because they’re mostly doing everything right. Of course, their papers aren’t perfect, and therefore I can offer more constructive criticisms as a way of thinking about future assignments. I’m glad to have learned this.

So far, I like this a lot. I’ll be reporting back on my progress eventually.

Going to Chicago for MLA! – A hypothetical budget

Good news! I am a hypothetical job candidate and I just got word of my first hypothetical MLA interview today on December 24th.  They’ve asked me to come on January 11th.

I live in Washington DC, attend one of the consortium schools, and make around $10-14,000 a year as a graduate assistant after taxes. I also have significant student loans, and have spent some money to travel to see my family.

I do not have a car, and pay around $750 in rent in the two bedroom apartment I share with my hypothetical roommate. Since this is the first notice I’ve received for an MLA interview, I’ll go ahead and make reservations and keep my fingers crossed that I’ll get a few more. I don’t have any hypothetical friends in Chicago, at least well enough to call and ask for a free hypothetical place to stay. The good news is that I live in a major city with two major airports, and I’m flying into another major city that isn’t unreasonably far away. Therefore, I’m in a good position overall, and my hypothetical budget is going to be on the cheaper end.

First I need to join MLA and pay for the conference.



Not bad; I’m thankful I can pay the graduate rate. Next I need to get a flight.


Much as I’d like to take a non-stop flight, I don’t want to be rolling into Chicago around 10 pm. Also, getting to Dulles (IAD) is expensive and difficult because it’s not metro-accessible. So, I’m going to Reagan at 1:30. Need to pick a return flight and here’s the damage:


Now I need a hotel room. If I want to stay at one of the conference hotels, here’s what I’m looking at:



And here’s what happens when I do Expedia for hotels on the Magnificent Mile:


I can keep looking around, but I’m just going to assume that I can get a room for around 91 dollars a night after taxes. I’d love to stay at the hotel where the conference meets, but every cent matters, and likely one of these cheaper hotels will allow me free internet and perhaps a free continental breakfast. So while the conference rate will be cheaper than the prices listed above for the Sheraton and the Marriott, I’m going to choose to stay in one of the two star hotels that are (hopefully) conveniently located and are (certainly) cheaper.

To get to my hotel from the airport, I’ll need to take a shuttle, which I assume will be cheaper than a cab.


I’ll give myself a budget of fifty dollars total for meals, and I’ll need about six dollars to travel to and from the airport on the Metro. Here’s how much I will (optimistically) be spending for the trip:



I’ve presented this without qualification or commentary, but I do hope this puts things into something of a financial perspective for both potential job-seekers and those who are looking to hire them. Also, we should be aware that some students are given a stipend for travel expenses related to job interviews, but often that money is limited.

I present this as something of an ideal situation for the moment: that is, I’ve found out about two weeks ahead of time, and I’m flying from a major city to another major city close-by.  And yet, I realize this budget may be hopelessly naive – but keep in mind the graduate students who are just finding out about MLA interviews today. Or next week.

I welcome feedback from all participants in this process – those who are attending MLA as candidates and potential employers, and for alternate possibilities.

Revision Tracking – Piloting an idea

Last spring at Maryland, Jim Ridolfo visited to give a talk about his research and he stayed to talk to graduate students. One thing he mentioned, almost in passing, was that he questioned the necessity of Learning Management Systems because most teachers only used them as file storage systems – which is something any number of free services can provide, often with better functionality than Blackboard. This alternately felt like inspiration and a friendly accusation: even if my Blackboard sites were pretty well organized, I was basically creating file folders where students could download stuff and turn stuff in. In my first experience with Canvas this summer, I tried to become a more functional user. But looking back at my course site, I feel like there’s little I do here that requires the system with (perhaps) the exception of the gradebook. I use Wikia for Wiki projects, WordPress for student discussion. The LMS provides all these features in a private and secure space, while I want my students to think about writing for a public audience.

If the best thing about an LMS is its ability to store, collect, and localize different virtual logistical features, I’m piloting an attempt to use this in a way that helps students think about writing and revision. On two of my syllabi, I’ve include the following statement:

ImageOn Canvas, it looks like this:

ImageMy students’ first paper is due tomorrow (Friday), and I’ve post a “draft tracking” prompt each day since last Wednesday. Here, they can submit the progress of their paper – whether that’s an incomplete draft, a series of ideas, an outline, or a list of links for articles. Since this assignment asks them to write four analysis paragraphs, they have mainly been submitting those drafts.

My goal is to encourage them to work on a project a little bit per day, and then to post the evidence of that online. It’s completely optional and ungraded. When a student emails me to say she is going to come to my office hours, I take about five or ten minutes before the appointment come to review her progress. As I explain in the syllabus, and in more detail in class, I only look at this if the student asks me to, and I won’t give feedback over Canvas. I really don’t have the time to do that on a daily basis, and I want the students to develop their own revision process, which I can’t model as well virtually. But both the student and me have a record of the progress of revision, so we can both figure out ways to improve that process.

BTW, If I continue to do this, I’ll cut the didactic tone at the end of my syllabus statement – “the goal of this. . .” – because I think it implies a stereotype about “lazy students” that I wasn’t intending to establish. Rather, I’ll let them see the value without me explaining it to them. Also, I’ll cut the part about “leniency,” even though I’ll keep the general philosophy: this does show a students’ diligence and willingness to improve, and that’s something to take into consideration when the paper falls between a B- and a C+.

I welcome your thoughts for this test-run. At this point, the students are using it predictably: they’re turning in paragraphs that they’ve either already submitted for peer review in class, or full drafts that they want me to read during my office hours. I’d rather them use it as a space to store and collect their thoughts, outlines, half-finished drafts, or questions. But maybe that will come with the longer papers.

The Humanities are Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself

Here’s an idea: let’s put a one year moratorium on any “death of the humanities” articles, either by outsiders or insiders. I want every academic or employee of a university out there to agree not to participate in this seemingly weekly emerging body of texts. I want senior academics to stop telling people that they would never do what they did if they had to do it now. I want newspapers to stop printing them as a way of fueling a flame with questionable statistics and highly generalized hypotheses based on personal experience. And I want the headlines of these articles to be less provocative and more honest; let’s stay away from “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.” After a year, instead of coming to quick judgments, we’ll talk about what we’ve learned.


No? Oh whatever, just read this:


The price of the New York Times Sunday edition to anyone who can tell me what this means: “Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale. ” I’ve missed the point of this article, I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean it deserved to be written and published.

In a misguided attempt to be helpful, the Atlantic has posted this article:


And how have they come to this conclusion?

That’s right, a wavy-line chart! See, the humanities were really bad in 1985. I imagine this is largely due to Perestroika,  the misplaced excitement surrounding Magic Johnson’s stellar play in the 1985 NBA Finals, and also the fact that New Historicism bummed a lot of people out for a few years. I mean, Stephen Greenblatt couldn’t even talk to that guy on the airplane. (“What was wrong with old historicism?” said a despondent 1985 Yale undergrad in between sips of New Coke. before changing his major to International Business.  And that kid grew up to be Julian Assange.) As the chart indicates, the rise of the humanities is directly linked with the American obsession with Australian culture upon the release of Crocodile Dundee.  And it flatlined around 1996, because (as scholars have noted) that’s when I graduated high school. I continue to contend that this is unrelated.

Y’all, we’ve got to stop fighting quantitative research with other quantitative research. Even the salvos intended to defend the humanities are trafficking in statistics and grim stories about students who probably weren’t going to be English majors anyway. We have to change the tenor of this discussion.

How To Beat the System That Is Beating The System: Paper Mills

Before I begin, I should note that I have never done and am not going to do what I describe here. But maybe you could do it!

The other day I was looking for a coherent plot summary for Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland, a work that only takes up a few paragraphs of my dissertation. Rather than rereading the book, I just wanted to make sure I had the chronology, setting, and character names correct so I could focus on one scene (he said, as you notice all the shady justifications for this shortcut). I came to, which offered a pretty unexceptional Cliff Notes of the story. While it was helpful for my purposes, I’m flustered to know that it’s an easy out for students who don’t want to grapple with Brown’s profoundly tricky narrative and the gothic surprises that they will encounter. However, what drew my attention was the opportunity for $$$ on the right:


This is classic paper-mill territory. The Daniel Ellsberg of this group is an opportunist named Dave Tomar who wrote about his experiences working for one of these places first under a pseudonym for the Chronicle of Higher Education and more recently in a book I have no intention of reading (here’s a review). There are so many ways of condemning this behavior that it’s boring to go through them, and nothing is going to stop these goon sites from pawning their crappy papers out to college students. I could have said “lazy” college students, but that’s a generalization I don’t want to make.

But here’s the most egregious problem that transcends merely the setting of paper mills and indicts the colleges that so frequently condemn them: Generic Kelly goes to college from her sheltered suburb. On the first day of class, there’s a hip friendly dude wearing a stupid hat and handing out a cool T-shirt. All you have to do is sign up for this credit card, he says, in a manner that makes Generic Kelly  think he’s flirting with her. So she does, and when she gets it, it’s free money and all she has to do is make the fifteen dollar minimum payments and she doesn’t have to eat the meal plan at the cafeteria anymore.* She’s able to buy tickets to see Train. She can do a whole lot of online shopping. And since her parents don’t get the bill, they don’t know what’s up. But all this new access to (not)money gets in the way of less significant stuff like class, and after about six weeks, GK has to hand in an five page research paper on Shakespeare’s Measure on Measure [sic] and she hasn’t even read the play. But wait! There’s! She gets to do more shopping! In fact, she can just type in “Measure for Measure paper” (after the cover of the book reminds her of the title) and this is her first hit:


Now $19.95 is pretty steep, and since Katie wants/needs to do well on this paper, she figures she may as well buy the $34.95 one – ironically enough on “morality” in Measure for Measure. Now that’s a preposterous price, but wait: Generic Kelly has a credit card  . . . you see where this is going. I’m being pretty reductive here, but I’m not making fun of Kelly: I’m describing the behavior I would have engaged in as a college freshman if I had access to these outlets. It could also come from the other side, when a teacher has bullied and belittled a student into this behavior. The whole system is FUBAR, y’all.

Here might be one way to get back of these vipers and drain some of their capital. I have some pretty awful papers that I wrote in high school like this:


It’s dreadful (“An Existentialist’s Hell”: HA!), but maybe I could clean it up a bit so that the ghastly content of the paper is covered up by more polished prose. The argument is non-existent (I think I was making a point about how bad it sucks for Garcin), but the language is pristine, furnished by some critical jargon and words like “foreshadowing” and “mimemis.” Then I grab 25 bucks from the saps at Gradesaver, who sell it to poor Generic Kelly for her Introduction to Drama class (by now she probably has four high interest credit cards, because she’s getting like four applications a week by mail, naturally). However, what I do next is turn the paper in to an as-of-yet non-existent public site. is an example of sites that offer subscription services, and they’re valuable; but what if it was even easier? What if graduate students, professors, and intelligent people began selling their papers, and then uploading their papers to a site that every teacher could easily access. We bombard these sites with well-written hokum that sounds good if you don’t read the book. Word of mouth would spread, and any time a 200-level teacher got a paper on Leaves of Grass that referenced Deleuze’s rhizome, he or she could just type in a sentence from the site and easily figure out that it was written by an MA student who used the twenty-five bucks to buy her own copy of Anti-Oedipus. Generic Kelly goes to the honor council, and hopefully she learns her lesson. Ideally, that intervention would happen sooner, and of course we should structure our courses so it will. But as “The Shadow Scholar” indicates, the industry is flourishing, and this might be a way to throw a wrench in it.

You might think I’m encouraging plagiarism, but I would argue that I’m discouraging it.  I’m depleting the resources of a paper mill that shouldn’t exist and I’m providing a paper that can be easily discovered as counterfeit. Generic Kelly goes through the honor council education program and hopefully they turn her on to someone who talks to her about financial responsibility.

And I’ve made 25 bucks.**

*- Steps are being made to limit predatory practices by lenders (see here)  but I still see these folks around Maryland.

** – I realize the fallacy here is that will make 35 bucks off Generic Katie. But I guess I’m envisioning an apocalyptic scenario where so many students get caught that they stop using these sites. Highly and unrealistically idealistic, I know.


This week, I guest-lectured in a course called “Introduction to Literary Studies” that was unlike the kinds of literature surveys I’ve taught at Maryland. While most of my classes are organized historically or thematically, this course focused on the micro- and macro-elements of literary analysis and production: plot, character, setting, symbol, etc. We tend to assume students – even English majors – have a firm understanding of these elements, but they often have vague ideas about how to write about them, and this can be encouraged through the kind of discussion that a class such as this one encourages.

Asked to lecture on “setting,” I used two stories – Edwidge Danticat’s Wall of Fire Rising and Jay McInerney’s It’s 6 Am, Do You Know Where You Are? – as a way of talking about “location” and “dislocation,” of alienation and affiliation, and the means by which settings are characters and also how characters define the worlds around them through imagination. As Milton explains, “the mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.” With this quote, I’m always reminded of the dwarves in C.S. Lewis The Last Battle, who think they’re stuck in a dank barn when they’re actually standing before a great feast.

I’m willing to both listen to and make arguments that, in survey courses, we should focus more on the intersection between literature and the world more than just the fundamentals of literature itself. But teaching “setting” invites examinations of social and political urgencies that literary discourse at once shapes and responds to. The emergence of the novel – as the great scholarship of people like Ian Watt, Michael McKeon, Nancy Armstrong, and William Warner have shown – is the result of an interrogation of “plot” and “character,” of narrative realism and what can be conveyed about psychology in writing. So by introducing students to these early, we offer them the foundations to discuss form and poetics in connection with epistemology and history.

David Foster Wallace is a brilliant guy who I know little about. I read about fifty pages of Infinite Jest and stopped, still planning to finish it later. His essay on Lost Highway is probably my favorite thing written about David Lynch. But a while ago I was referred to Wallace’s syllabi for a class like the one I was described. The University of Texas has released these from the David Foster Wallace archive. While teaching at Pomona college, Wallace taught elements of fiction with a syllabus made up entirely of mass-market paperbacks / airport best-sellers. Here’s the list.


Later in the syllabus, he explains that the “lightweighish” nature of these books is itself a fiction, and explains that evaluating them critically will be more difficult than other sections that use canonical texts. Here’s how he explains the “aim of the course”

wallaceaimofclassEver the iconoclastic iconoclast, Wallace is primarily interested in teaching his students not what to read, but how to read. With these selections, students don’t struggle with narrative or language, so they can focus primarily on developing critical insight and articulating it clearly. This is a 100-level class; it’s open to all comers and probably to unselective students who are probably choosing a section based on time and availability. My guess is that by and large actual English majors would prefer to read English literature, but that’s not a hypothesis I’m going to make much effort to validate. Wallace’s students probably thought they knew already how to go “below the surface,” but he apparently spends the entire time telling them how to put their findings into categories and to explain their complexities. As I thought about organizing a syllabus around elements of fiction, the one work that would seem essential when talking about setting is a haunted house story. Why not The Shining – in which the Overlook hotel is alive?

Whatever the case, reading Wallace’s materials invites us to ask what we want students to learn and what we expect them to know already. And also, we can wonder if we’re skipping this in a historical or topic-oriented survey.

(In case you missed it, here’s the link to the Wallace materials