by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Teaching”

Wednesday, in Numerical List Form

Posted 21 March 2012 in by Catriona

Sleep had (insufficient).
Cups of coffee drunk (3).
Showers taken (1).
Strange men holding an enthusiastic conversation right outside my shower (2).
Outfits that accidentally look like tuxedos worn (1).
E-mails sent to students (1).
Thank-you e-mails sent to television production companies (2).
Exciting breakthroughs made in television research (2).
Exciting breakthroughs not made in television research due to a disappointing and illegal absence of authorial credits in Dutch DVDs of Australian children’s television programs (1).
E-mails sent to boss (4).
Lead-paint removal (ongoing).
Conversations held with my computer desktop image (several).
Spreadsheets updated (2).
Headaches endured (minimal).
E-mails received from my mother (1).
E-mails sent to my mother (1).
Misunderstandings had with my mother via e-mail (1).
Phone calls received from the builder telling me he is standing outside my front door and would like me to let him in (1).
Paint colour catalogues to look through (2).
Rooms in which the builder will allow me to have a colour feature wall (1).
Editing tasks completed for my father-in-law (1).
Lifetimes spent waiting for service in the post office (7).
Book I impulsively bought while waiting seven lifetimes in the post office (2).
Minutes it actually took to post the parcel (4).
Parcels posted (1).
Post-office employees who told me highly personal stories about their horrible mothers-in-law (1).
Tutorials held (2).
Number of tutorials in which I used The Never-ending Story as a metaphor for conscientious editing (1).
Number of students who told me that “Atreyu really loved his horse!” (4).
Number of us who admitted that we cried when the horse died (2).
Undergraduates who have done me unnecessary but thoughtful kindnesses today (2).
Bus trips taken (2).
Amount of wine I’m about to drink (all of it).

Strange Conversations: The Job-Satisfaction Edition

Posted 30 August 2011 in by Catriona

Talking a class through a professional-editing exercise:

ME: So, how would you annotate that problem?
STUDENT: I’d say, “Don’t be a pompous douchebag.”
ME: As a general rule, it’s best to avoid any phrases that, for example, I wouldn’t write on a student’s assignment.
STUDENT: But if you wrote “Don’t be a pompous douchebag” on my assignment, I’d just think, “You’re right, I was being a pompous douchebag.”

Grading Assessment: A Survival Guide

Posted 29 May 2011 in by Catriona

First step: become a Time Lord.

Time Lords may not read instructions, but they have control over space and, more importantly, time. Even though you can’t travel back on your own timeline, I’m sure (given that, apparently, there’s a great big “except to impress girls” loophole in that particular rule) that they wouldn’t mind if we popped back into our own lives to eke out a bit more time for marking.

Of course, Time Lords don’t seem to spend much time marking assessment, except maybe at the Academy, and that doesn’t exist any more. So perhaps they wouldn’t be as sympathetic as you’d think.

So if that fails, move on to the second step: become a vampire.

Sure, they spend dawn to dusk dead in a box somewhere (unless they were fortunate enough to be written by Stephenie Meyer), but what’s to stop them spending the night marking?

(These two photos were taken twelve hours apart. Note that neither I nor my assessment had moved much in that time.)

Want To Know Why I Haven't Been Blogging Lately?

Posted 6 May 2010 in by Catriona

It’s all summed up in this slightly embellished conversation:

ME: Now, your next piece of assessment is released tomorrow. No, it’s not. That was a total lie. It’s released next Tuesday.
ME: I was getting my T-days missed up.
STUDENTS: Tomorrow is an F-day.
ME: Is it? Is today Thursday?
ME: Did we have a public holiday this week?
ME: Well, it’s still being released next Tuesday.

Still, at least I was in the correct class and teaching the correct material.

I Make My Own Fun

Posted 2 November 2009 in by Catriona

I spent much of yesterday completing a job-application package and occasionally tweeting about the process, as follows:

Selection criteria are sent to try us. Is it too much to ask that someone just give me a job without my applying? Oh, wait: yes. Yes, it is.

Still, I think academia should have the option to just “discover” an academic, maybe in a library. You know, like a model in a coffee shop.

I mean, how great would that be? “Excuse me, Doctor. I see you’re reading up on Victorian literature. Have you considered academia at all?”

“Here’s my card, if you want to give academia a try. Don’t worry: it’s a real university. Bring your research assistant, if you’d rather.”

“I mean, I’ve seen a lot of potential academics come through this library, but your brain’s really unusual, you know? That’s hot right now.”

“Let me guess: your father was a Leavisite, but your mother was part Marxist—New Historicist, maybe? Yeah, yeah: I can see that, now.”

“It’ll just be a couple of Tier 2 journals to begin with: can’t expect the big time straightaway. Seriously, Doctor, take my card. Call me!”

Celebrating The End of Semester

Posted 29 October 2009 in by Catriona

Behold, the pile of marking!

Behold, the pile of marking with a pen to show the scale!


An Unusually Polemical Post; or, Why I'm Confused By The Debate Over Teaching-Only Positions

Posted 12 May 2009 in by Catriona

I was reading a fascinating piece on teaching-only academic positions over at Sorrow at Sills Bend: a piece that was not only nuanced and thoughtful itself, but led to an engaged and engaging discussion (until the troll appeared, at least).

And it made me think.

Because I’m a sessional academic. A casual academic. Whatever term you want to use: I’m someone who is post-Ph.D. but pre-potential full-time job. And like many people in that position, I’m anxious about any number of issues.

About giving my job the attention and energy it deserves when the work is so fragmented and temporary.

About improving my pedagogical practice, and whether it is possible to even do so under these circumstances.

About expanding my pedagogical practice—is it becoming too restricted, since I work only in the lecture theatre and the classroom, and never at the level of course design and implementation (though I’ve been lucky enough to work largely with a convener who does invite the imput of her sessional teachers)?

About carving out little spaces of time to research and write, so necessary if I want to move past sessional teaching.

About whether my writing will become a chore and a burden rather than a joy, if it becomes a mechanical, frustrating process. Will I come to resent it, because it is unpaid, because it is squeezed into time when I would normally be relaxing, because it comes to be nothing but a means to an end (the job! the elusive job!) and I’m not achieving that end?

I think the anxiety about losing the joy I take in my writing would be the cruellest blow of all.

So if universities offered teaching-only positions, I’d be dancing in the streets.

Because I love teaching. Yes, I love my writing. But I love teaching—and I love teaching young adults in a mature pedagogical environment.

And, frankly, I can’t see where teaching-only positions would hurt the universities.

Yes, I’ve heard the argument that it would create a two-tier system, where research academics are elevated and teaching-only academics are relegated to the position of second-class employees.

But why should it? Unless we let it. Unless we endorse an argument that teaching is the lesser purpose of universities. Yes, universities generate research. They generate knowledge. But can they not do that while also acknowledging that many of the students who pass through them are looking for something more than just accreditation? That universities aren’t just job-training centres, and that in the lecture theatres and the classrooms and the labs, we are doing much, much more than simply spoon-feeding?

In my experience (in a certain discipline), full-time academics work extraordinary hours. And then they go home or lock themselves in offices and work even more insane hours to complete their research. Or they have to step entirely out of their teaching positions (via ARC grants, for example) to complete their research. And when that happens, their courses often suffer, especially the smaller, more advanced courses that so often depend on the work of a specific individual.

It seems to me (as an admittedly baised sessional academic) that there’s more than enough work out there for those of us who would enjoy being more teaching focused. And most of us would continue to research on our own (to the benefit of the universities): after all, as Lucy Tartan points out in the post I linked to above, sessional academics are already engaged in research, and we don’t get paid for it now, either.

But giving more money to teaching-only academics wouldn’t take away from the others. It wouldn’t ghettoise those of us who entered joyfully and willingly into teaching-only positions.

And it would vastly benefit the students. Their tutors would be able to give them more time and more energy than we can manage now. We could focus more on detailed feedback to their assessment, tailor the feedback specifically to individual students. They’d be getting something out of their degree other than credentials.

Because that’s something that worries me. If academia becomes increasingly fast-paced, cut-throat, competitive (whatever cliche works best to describe the process), if academics are pushed to complete more and more work in less and less time, then isn’t there a risk that the students will also be caught up in that, that only a handful of students who are already driven and dedicated will be able to truly benefit from their university education?

That wouldn’t be their fault. And it wouldn’t be the fault of the academics either.

But I don’t think it’s where we want our universities to end up.

Bibliographical Practice and the Busy Academic

Posted 1 October 2008 in by Catriona

I don’t normally link the articles on this solipsistic little blog to discussions in the wider blogosphere (though it sometimes happens almost accidentally, as with the season finale of Doctor Who).

But this is causing a little stir at the moment (courtesy of Crooked Timber): the owners of EndNote are suing George Mason University for an enormous sum over a tool (based on open-source software) that they say violates EndNote’s license agreement.

I’ve never been an EndNote user. I did try it, back in the days of my early enrolment in the M.Phil. programme: the library used to make it freely available to research higher degree candidates, and I did install it.

But it never suited me. My preferred bibliographical practice is this:

Index cards don’t suddenly crash in the middle of a project, they can be physically manipulated as a diagram of your argument, and they don’t suffer the same disadvantages as my other favourite research tool: Post-it notes.

(Those are forever losing their adhesive and ending up scattered all over the study floor.)

And yet, my most recent work had a strong bibliographical component.

The Ph.D. thesis required the standard list of works cited (a rigorous enough task—the standard academic requirements for accuracy aside—since established criticism on penny weeklies includes a large quantity of scattered pieces across a wide range of sources).

In addition to that, though, the thesis also included a second volume of scholarly bibliographies: the Index to Fiction in Fiction for Family Reading (1865-1866) and the Index to Fiction in the Second Series of Bow Bells (1864-1881).

This is a slightly different kind of bibliographical practice, of course, and not one to which EndNote is ideally suited.

But it is the reason why I’m peculiarly interested in bibliographical practice.

And, conversely, it’s why I’m concerned about what Crooked Timber points out as the side effect of this action against George Mason University.

While Fiction for Family Reading is only six volumes, the Bow Bells bibliography covers eighteen years—or thirty-four volumes or 882 (25-page) issues, whichever gives a better sense of scale. The entire 250-page index is the eventual result of six months in which I spent at least half of each day sitting in front of a microfilm machine.

That doesn’t seem relevant?

My point is this: an enormous amount of academic practice takes place in isolation.

Yes, collaborative work is an increasingly important part of academic life. But collaborative work is largely collaborative in the writing stage, not the research stage—and even then, it’s frequently a matter of independent writing followed by a stage of meshing different areas of expertise together.

It’s an important aspect of academic life. When I began my M.Phil., one of the main points they stressed for us was the importance of creating networks among other postgraduate students, of not spending three or four years scurrying between your office and the library and feeling increasingly isolated.

And this is where the apparent rival—in EndNote’s eyes—to EndNote becomes valuable: it’s not just a bibliographical tool. It also has a social-networking aspect, in that it allows academics to share, in Crooked Timber’s words, “metadata and other interesting things.”

As Henry points out on Crooked Timber, “this battle is likely to have long term consequences in determining whether or not new forms of academic collaboration are likely to be controlled by academics themselves, or take place through some kind of commercially controlled intermediation.”

Given that academic practice is already strongly skewed towards isolating work practices, this is a more serious concern than whether or not Zotero contravenes EndNote’s license agreement.

I’m rather pleased now that EndNote never suited me, although it would be satisfying to boycott it.

But that’s the point that concerns me here: I’ll leave the intellectual-property issues and the concerns about whether such a lawsuit is viable to those who better understand such issues.

Perhaps many years ago, when universities, at least on the European model, were largely staffed by academics who also lived on campus and therefore shared, to a large extent, a common social life in the common room, the isolating nature of academic practice wasn’t such a concern.

But that’s no longer the case.

And in the case of EndNote as opposed to Zotero, it’s dangerous to allow a commercially driven company to determine not only what type of bibliographical tool suits academics but also whether or not those tools should be used to foster collegiality.

Yet Another Semester Draws to a Close

Posted 23 June 2008 in by Catriona

The marking is done for another semester. Of course, I haven’t actually formalised the grades—that’s a task for tomorrow morning—but that’s something that can at least be done with a bit of music in the background.

But since I’ve finished the actual marking/adding/double-checking the adding/wondering why I’m incapable of adding things/being surprised that the addition was correct in the first place—you know, the usual process—I think a celebration is called for.

Am I going to celebrate by updating my blog?


No, I’m not.

I’m going to lie down in the living room with an enormous glass of wine and a novel.

And maybe some chili, lime, and tamarind almonds.


No Updates Today

Posted 19 June 2008 in by Catriona

No real updates, anyway.

I’ve been sitting in this chair marking exams for seven hours, and I can’t feel anything below my ribcage. Or, for that matter, from my right shoulder down.

It would probably be a matter for Occupational Health and Safety, if I weren’t working at home.

And I don’t think I’m even halfway through the exams.

So, much as I would like to write another ranty post about inappropriate gender politics in television advertising and in 1970s’ reprints of Victorian novels, that’s going to have to wait.

It's That Time Again

Posted 11 June 2008 in by Catriona

Final assessment needs to be graded for semester one.

In addition, I have double the amount of exams to mark than I anticipated—entirely voluntarily, due to an unavoidable set of circumstances, but still—and only four days to turn those around, which works out at roughly twenty exams a day.

And, on top of that, I’ve just realised that I’ve scheduled a Doctor Who night right in the middle of those four days, which was jolly clever of me. (Still, I’m not postponing it—it’s the Steven Moffat episodes!)

That’s not even going into the administrative issue that’s thrown me into a right state today.

So, much as I love my blog—and, frankly, probably won’t be able to stay away from it for any length of time—I’m not planning any long updates for the next couple of weeks.

But that won’t stop me commenting on stupid television advertisements, which probably makes up about 60% of the content at the moment anyway.

(Slight aside: I have no idea what happened to my tone in this entry—it seems to have gone oddly hearty and hail-fellow-well-met. I haven’t even been reading any of my girls’ school stories, so I have no idea why I’m suddenly using phrases like “jolly clever,” but there you are.)

Of course, if I ever find my copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, I might make an exception.

"Does That Make Sense?"

Posted 28 May 2008 in by Catriona

I have, over the years, developed a tendency to say “Does that make sense?” to my classes when I mean “Have I explained that adequately and clearly, or would you like me to clarify the subject further?”

Partly it’s a form of shorthand; otherwise, I’d be saying “Have I explained that adequately and clearly, or would you like me to clarify the subject further?” every ten minutes, and would run out of time for covering my actual lecture or tutorial material.

But mostly it arose from working at a coaching college many years ago, where I largely taught primary-school children.

“Does that make sense?” was necessary, because eleven-year-old boys—and girls, but especially boys at that age—will not tell you if they don’t understand something; I don’t know if it’s bravura or sheer lack of interest, but they’ll just let a misunderstanding slide until eventually none of the class have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.

“Does that make sense?” was also age appropriate for those teaching situations; it was better not to throw in words such as “clarification” when you were asking if clarification was necessary.

But then it became habitual, and while this habit is unlikely to result in me smacking myself in the head with a hardback French-to-English dictionary, it does cause me some slight concern.

Because while it was appropriate for eleven year olds, I worry that it has started to sound a little patronising since I moved into exclusively teaching at a university. And while a lot of my students are straight out of school—to the extent that some still call me “Miss”—they are moving into a phase of self-directed learning, and shouldn’t be patronised.

So I make a point of stating, after an early use of the term, that it is habitual, that it means I am giving them an opportunity to seek clarification, and that if they find it patronising, they should let me know so that I can find an alternative mode of expression.

This alleviated my concerns somewhat, since no one ever said that they felt patronised.

Then Pierre Bourdieu came along and spoiled everything.

Well, Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron.

Thanks to a colleague, I was made aware of the introduction, by Bourdieu and Passeron, to a book called Academic Discourse (Ed. Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Claude Passeron, and Monique de Saint Martin. Cambridge: Polity, 1994).

The introduction—subtitled “Language and Relationship to Language in the Teaching Situation”—places great emphasis on the question of artificiality, making the point that “[a]cademic language is a dead language [. . .] and is no one’s mother tongue” (8), which is a point I’m certainly not inclined to dispute.

But the point that concerned me was the following:

The chair from which a lecture emanates takes over the tone, the diction, the delivery and the oratorical action of whoever occupies it, whatever his personal wishes. [. . .] So rigorously does the physical situation govern the behaviour of both students and lecturers that attempts to establish dialogue between them quickly degenerate into fiction or farce. Questions to the audience are often mere rhetorical gestures, belonging to the exposition, rather than interrupting it (except for a pause for breath). The lecturer can call on students to get involved or voice objections, but there is really no risk of this ever happening. As one student put it, ‘Lecturers have a way of asking, “Is that clear?”, which actually rules out any question that it might not be clear.’ Destined above all to play the part of the faithful at a church service, students must answer with ritual responses. (11)

This makes my concern that asking “Does that make sense?” might strike my students as patronising seem petty, overshadowed as it now is by the greater concern that the enquiry is meaningless however I phrase it.

I want to establish a dialogue with my students; I want them to be able to query me—in a pedagogical rather than a personal sense—because if they don’t learn to query the material that I am presenting when it makes no sense to them, how will they ever learn to efficiently and incisively query the texts that they study?

But if the problem with the student/lecturer interaction is not how I phrase my question but the fact that the very act of questioning is moribund within the environs of the lecture hall, then how can that dialogue exist as anything but a vestigial habit of speech?

I have no answers to those questions.

But they do suggest that I was right to be concerned about that habitual aspect of my pedagogical practice—but that I might not have been concerned for the right reasons.



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