I have spent the last week feeling rage at both my students and the current system of higher education.

It springs from the assignment. I asked my students to use online sources for their research — library catalogues, databases — to locate scholarly information and learn how to create a bibliography. One aspect of the assignment asked them to show that they understood the difference between how to cite a book in a footnote, and how to cite it in a bibliography or “works cited” page. In anticipation of the assignment, I showed them essentially how to find the answers to every question.

Everything went wrong. Only about 20% used the right online sources to answer questions. No one understands how to cite anything, despite all the information I provided. Some of them cited radically incorrect material, like novels or advertisements. After grading 15 of these, the highest grade was a 67.

To be fair, many of them use the term novel to describe everything — scholarly books, journal articles, memoirs — even though I’ve told them this is incorrect. I tried to teach them the word monograph to describe focused scholarly books, so 50% of my students now refer to them as monograms.

This is so frustrating for me, perhaps because I want to believe my students might actually be better at locating online information than I am. “Are they just stupid?” I spluttered at my colleague on Thursday, using a term I strongly dislike and almost never use except when referring to members of Congress.

But of course the true reason I’m so frustrated is because they didn’t pay attention while I tried to teach them to fish, and because I’m so goddamn tired.

My frustration is unfounded, because even if my students might be good at this kind of quest, they’re just goddamn exhausted. Many of them work at least 40 hours a week at the same time that they take 5 or more classes. One student — a highly capable guy in his 30s who has returned to complete his degree because he has discovered that his true calling is to become a high school teacher — got teary-eyed in my office this week telling me that he can’t handle the pressures of work and school, plus the family crises that have plagued the past few months.

Another woman told me that her boss has decided to stop allowing full-time student employees to adjust their schedules around their school schedules. So unless she wants to lose her job (and not pay her rent), my student has to skip classes to show up to be a hostess at a restaurant.

This is a crisis, folks. And it’s a direct parallel to what is now facing our government. My students have high tuition rates and extremely low financial aid of any kind, which necessitates all the part-time jobs. They cannot succeed in college if they work that much. Which means that they are being starved of a respectable education, only to receive the halfhearted one they can fit in between work schedules.

And meanwhile us college professors are left wondering what this means for us. Do we lower our expectations? We get told all the time to liven up our teaching, to make it more interactive and more dynamic, but the problem is not that we are tedious bores.

The problem is that our students are starving, and that we are being asked to ignore it — or to adjust our expectations, given the fact that they’re starving. At the same time, our universities ask us to do more with less — faculty is getting starved, too. And I’m one of the lucky ones, with a secure, tenure-line job, benefits, retirement program, etc.

I’m so goddamn tired.

I put a lot of work into my teaching. I don’t say that to brag, as I sometimes worry that it’s not healthy. But then you’ll read a paper that really gets it — a student has taken everything you’ve suggested and worked hard — and suddenly it seems like what we do matters after all.

And then you get the plagiarism case.

Although I’m sure a few students over the years have figured out ways to fool me, on the whole plagiarism is pretty damn obvious. Like when they use a foreign-language phrase clearly lifted from Wikipedia (my favorites are when they use something in Latin). Or when they use English terms they clearly do not understand. Or when, suddenly on p. 2, their writing goes from belabored to clean, neat, and effective.

After working this hard, I have no energy left for cheats.

I don’t want to listen to anyone apologize, offer excuses, cry, feign ignorance of the university’s rules, or deny it. I wash my hands.

Here’s my response: I find the original source, fill out a report with the university’s honor council, send them all the documents, and let that office take over. I send the student an email stating that this process has begun and that it is entirely in the hands of the Honor Council. And my university takes these offenses seriously. Their staff studies the documents I provide and meets with the student to discuss the matter. Then they contact me and we discuss any final details, as well as preferred punishments.

The typical punishment is an automatic F in the class with a notation on the student’s transcript that the F was earned due to academic dishonesty. If the student is a serial offender, they can be suspended or expelled. After five years, the student can petition to have the notation about dishonesty removed from the transcript.

Having now faced down plagiarism case #2 of the semester, I can only say that I’m tired. And I still have 20 papers left to grade.

I mean really. Is this some kind of test? I even dislike texting, with its nagging insistence that I look at it immediately. Do you think I’m going to put my uncombed, coffee-slugging head in front of a camera phone at the drop of a hat?

I can’t believe I’m saying this — considering how much time I spend answering email — but at least I can happily ignore it during my morning work hours without it pinging at me via the iPhone.

… is that the men don’t answer their @#$%ing email. I’m on a committee with 3 women and 3 men, and here’s how we make decisions:

A woman makes a suggestion via email that we discuss an important policy change.

The other two women respond within an hour or two, batting the proposal about, offering thoughtful ideas or tweaks, each time asking for input from the entire committee.

Four days later, not a single man on the committee has responded at all, even as time is ticking by for said policy changes to be effected. (This is not an age issue; two of the men are young, untenured guys.)

The women suggest we put the issue to a vote of the whole department.

So no wonder my attitude by the end of the day is:


15701217After agonizing a while about yesterday’s angry/ desperate post on a guerrilla response to rape culture, I opened up a new novel last night.

After reading the first five pages of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, I want to kiss her on the lips. Here’s how it begins on p. 1:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.

I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father ever day on the telephone –every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/ daughter/ friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.

Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish.

And with that, I’m now 5 pages in and feel as if I have a new best friend who’s also a Betty Friedan version of those visionary doomsayers of days of old, who looks a little disheveled perhaps but then lapses into otherworldly trances like Sybill Trelawney in Harry Potter and scares the shit out of you. Just wait till you read (on pp. 4-5) what she means by The Woman Upstairs (and those of us whose first thought was Madwoman in the Attic are on the right track).

This is going to be scary and awesome, like having to run through a house on fire. I feel like I’m being tugged by the hand by my new unfiltered visionary friend, and I might have to dedicate the afternoon to her.

Because whoever has put together Office Hours are Over and My Life as a College Professor have basically provided a public service for the rest of us. To wit, a post with the heading, “Department Meetings”:

tumblr_inline_mm1tlvt0td1qz4rgpOr, When It Is the Last Day of Classes:

tumblr_inline_mjr9lfla0p1qz4rgp_zps8bc5baf8I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so understood.

Finished my last week of classes.

Hence, my afternoon will have two things in it: as much as I can get through of 1995’s deliciously 6-hour-long Pride and Prejudice …

Pride-and-Prejudice-1995-pride-and-prejudice-1995-16731552-728-409… and a shaker full of this:

sidecarKa-blam! Then, to be honest, there will probably be a nap. Best day ever.


How to grade papers

13 March 2013

“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” — some brilliant person from history

Actually, compared to grading student papers, writing is easy. You want blood oozing out of your pores? Try grading.

Just recently we received a plaintive letter from one of our avid readers:

Dear Feminéma,

I am grading my students’ papers. Is it possible I could die?

Sincerely, Agonized

Never fear, Agonized. I have advice!

1. Let’s get this over with already: the problem of procrastination. Watch this video:

…but only watch it once, because otherwise you’d be guilty of procrastination. Also: do not allow yourself to do anything else, even those things you ordinarily hate doing (cleaning the house; emptying the litter box) which now suddenly look awesome because they are not grading.

2. Let yourself indulge in your oral fixation of choice. I grade papers while consuming an bottomless pot of tea, glasses of water, and a bowl of almonds. I have an entire drawer full of non-drowsy herbal teas for this purpose alone. (Favorites: Good Earth Herbal Sweet and Spicy; Peet’s Hibiscus C Blend.) Why, you can consider a long day of grading to double as a kind of flush of the toxins in your system if you drink enough of this stuff.

Note: Beware of caffeine. It does not help to finish grading if your hands start shaking and/or you find yourself wondering if your heart is beating too fast, and whether you need to visit the emergency room.

Exceptions to my oral fixation rule: all fixations that would actually be nice and helpful, like cigarettes and alcohol. Also street drugs. DO NOT ABUSE NARCOTICS WHILE GRADING. Alcohol only works for approximately 30 minutes as you go through the very first paper; after that it ruins you (i.e., me) for the entire evening.

On my wish list: some kind of prescription drug that removes the pain/distractions from grading. Preferably (but not necessarily) legal.

Higher up on my wish list: a grading Rumplestiltskin (attention such individuals who come in the night to finish all this on my behalf: I have no problem offering up my first-born child).

3. Sit down in your designated grading area, far away from any device that can offer you electronic/internet escape from the horrors about to ruin your day.

How long it will take to grade one longish paper if you ignore your devices: 45 min to 1 hour

How long it takes to grade one longish paper if you do not ignore the Internet: 4+ hours

4. Just shutting off devices is not good enough; you need additional restraint. Let me recommend one possibility, designed by erstwhile American inventor Benjamin Rush for teachers everywhere:rushtranquilizer

Unable to realize the full tranquilizing brilliance of this helpful design? Yeah, me neither. So I opt for a hoodie. Yes, that’s right. I close the door to my office, pull up the hood on my hoodie, and settle in, as if I am a horse with blinders on.

Warning: anyone else in the house will mock you, sitting there miserably with your hoodie up. Try very hard not to feel shame for your weaknesses.

5. Start with low expectations, no matter what.

My trick is to start with a paper by a student who I think might do okay. NOT my favorite student. Definitely not the dumbest student. If the first 4 sentences do not leave me wanting to shoot myself, I consider this a major triumph.

On the other hand, I once asked a student if he had a spam-bot write his unintelligible paper.

6. Offer yourself rewards for completing a good day’s work in grading.

Like alcohol. But only after a significant number of essays have been completed.

Do not promise yourself a horrible reward like cleaning the cat litter, which will not look fun at all if you can have a nice glass of wine (or three).

Common Pitfalls in Grading

1. Do not let yourself think, “Next time I will grade these papers the minute they arrive rather than wait till the last possible second before I have to return them!” You are lying to yourself. Again.

2. Do not let yourself think, “These papers are awful. Therefore I must be a terrible teacher/ person.” This is the gateway to the hopeless pit of grading paralysis.

Related: do not let yourself think, “These papers are so awful because higher education is being destroyed by the United States’ lack of investment in education overall, by parents’ emphasis on education as purely instrumental, by students’ poor attention spans …” and so on.

Also: do not start taking notes on the op-ed you plan to write on these subjects.

3. Do not let yourself get angry at the students. I know they deserve it. (Oh, sweet Jesus, how they deserve it.) But it will only make you want to post snarky things on Facebook and/or send snarky emails to your professor friends.

What is worst? the factual errors, the utter ignorance (“I suspect Samli is not a Jew because she is raising a pig for Christmas and Jews don’t eat pigs”), the nails-on-chalkboard grammatical clunkers (“After the investigation, her and Geertz traveled to Bali”), or the overall inability to develop strong and logical arguments? Kill me now!

4. Do not start grading and then think to yourself, “Hey, why don’t I write a silly blog post about how to grade papers?”

[Fuck me.]

Well count me intrigued. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has written a book that seeks to foster a widespread conversation about the problem of the glass ceiling — and thereby develop a grassroots movement to change it.

Her book, Lean In, will be released March 11. Wonder if I can get a review copy?

The NYT article about it is skeptical; it ponders whether Sandberg places too much emphasis on women’s own stutter-steps and self-actualization rather than on the multiple institutional reasons women fall behind in pay and promotions. All the more interesting.

Winter moment, with cat

21 February 2013

2013-02-22 08.28.08I am reading for class and sitting on the sofa, and the kitty moves under the blanket such that she is snuggled up between me and the cushions. It’s just cold enough that we both appreciate the extra warmth.

Every once in a while she will pop her nose out from under the blanket and show her big hazel eyes (yes, they are actually hazel). Or one of her white paws will emerge to half-play with my elbow as I take notes.

All I can think is how much I need to remember this when I hate my job. Because what other job allows me to work while having a quiet winter moment with the cat?