Tag Archives: Teaching

Faculty Money

Just a month into my faculty contract and I’m already taking full advantage! I just got awarded a Flex Grant for Teaching and Faculty Development by the Center for Teaching and Faculty Development and the union (MSP), to start building a multilingual audio and text database for our interpreting courses.

UMass Amherst runs interpreting courses that are multilingual, include both students who are native speakers of English and those who are non-native English speakers, and have students who are at different levels of language proficiency (they are courses in interpreting studies with a heavy practical component, but not designed to be primarily interpreter-training classes). A significant part of the class is dedicated to readings and discussions about issues in interpreting, from linguistic and skill-set questions to debates on ethics and best practices to historical analyses of the role of interpreting. But about half the classes are set aside for practical work.

As such, it’s often very difficult to find materials for practice sessions. Right now, my class has five languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Spanish), only one of which I know (Spanish). I have a collection of sites with audio in various languages (international news sites, language learning online, etc.), but I can’t be confident about the level of difficulty of any of the texts but the Spanish. I’ve found and created a number of monolingual exercises designed to train and reinforce particular skills associated with simultaneous interpreting (this semester’s focus is on simultaneous), and obviously, I can find audio in English that I can select for vocabulary, speed, and complexity. But this course needs a coherent component moving into English as well, and that’s been harder. (It was apparently also a difficulty for the designer of the course, for whom I’m substituting this semester while she’s on research leave.)

A possible solution: an in-house audio bank. Texts chosen for non-technical vocabulary on a variety of topics, recorded in English, translated into the languages we need, and recorded in those languages as well. It’s not the same as working with “authentic” texts or situations, but this is training, and the “authentic” texts that are available are difficult to sort through and often problematic in one or more ways (problematic accents, technical vocabulary, mumbling). I know that if my students go into interpreting, they’ll need to be able to deal with those issues, but this course is intended as an introduction to interpreting, not a finishing school. Choosing texts and then having them translated and recorded means that the whole class can work on the same topic (roughly the same text) at the same time, address the cultural issues that arise as a class, and even be able to check their understanding of the text with the written versions in either language.

I’m trying to choose texts that are not so specific that in a year or two we’ll have forgotten the context. General-knowledge, on topics that might be relevant to interpreting, with minimal vocabulary demands (this isn’t the place to challenge their vocabulary while they’re working on their interpreting- vocabulary building can happen outside the practice session), spoken clearly and a tiny bit slower than normal, with decent pauses. Given a solid corpus of audio to use at the beginning of the semester, we can then try to work our way up to authentic texts (also giving the instructor time to find some in all of the languages!) by the end.

The grant will go to pay translators and speakers to record the translations. I’m first trying to find graduate students in the department or college who are native speakers and have some translation experience; if I can’t find the languages I need that way, I’ll look further afield. I’m aiming for four (short) texts translated and recorded in each of the current five languages by the end of the semester; it’s not a huge grant, and my contract ends in May anyway. But it’s a start, and a neat project that can keep getting built little by little.

New Year, New Projects (Part I)

Despite a lot of continuing projects (finding a job, revising the dissertation, keeping the yarn away from my cat), somewhere between the beginning of the Western calendar year and the impending start of classes at UMass Amherst, it feels like a new year. And for a new year, new challenges and new projects!

This will be the first semester that I teach more than one course. There were a few semesters at the start of my Ph.D. when I was teaching in Italian where I would teach two sections of the same course, but since it was the same course, it was very similar preparations. This semester, as an almost-newly-minted Ph.D. and a Lecturer A (the Ph.D. mint date is February 1 and the Lecturer A mint date is January 18), I’ll be teaching two separate courses, both upper level, in Comparative Literature. I’m lucky for a number of reasons, first of all that I’m really interested in both, and second that they’re both pretty small courses (one is actually almost TOO small right now, partly because of a late announcement of the course, after people had signed up for classes).

Course 1, which has been part of the plan for a while, is in Interpreting Studies, focusing on simultaneous interpreting. It’s not really a training course, although there is a significant practial component. Our program follows the lead of translation studies, where practical training can be paired with a more theoretical investigation of the social, cultural, and political implications of the practice. The course is the second of a pair, so I’m taking over a group that already had one semester together. The professor who designed both courses and usually teaches them is  on research leave for a semester, and was very happy with the idea that I could take it over temporarily. It’s still partly under development– last year was the first year of this new pair of courses– so while there is a syllabus from last year that I am largely following, I also have the freedom to make adjustments, as long as I take notes on what I adjust and report back to her about how it went!

Course 2 was a bit of a surprise. I’d mentioned it months ago as something I would like to teach, and we’d talked about possibly offering it this semester, but then the subject got dropped. For a while it seemed up in the air how many lecturers the department could hire this term, and I was happy to be teaching one course, so I didn’t push. And then, a week before the schedule went online for registration, I heard from the department chair that they wanted to hire me for both courses. There was a bit of a scramble to get a description together and get the course online (it went up late), but it’s there, and it’s running. The general course is “Comparative Book Cultures,” which hopefully will continue to run as a sort of topics course, depending on the geographical and historical interests of whoever is available to teach it. But I’m teaching it this semester, and it’s going to be medieval all the way.

There are three strands to the course: readings in medieval literature that discuss books, writing, and reading; work in manuscript studies and book history; and hands-on work (as much as I can manage) with calligraphy, book binding, and whatever else I can put together with no funding. We’ve got two rare book rooms with medieval holdings close enough to hold a class there (2 more close enough for students to easily visit on their own or do research), and I have a colleague who had a previous career as a rare book conservator who will give a guest lecture. And the quill pens I ordered arrived while I was at the MLA.

So: two courses to teach that are both new to me, in totally different fields,  one of which is completely new. My first semester out of school, as a lecturer. I’m sure there will be moments where I can’t believe I said this, but I can’t wait.

Classroom atmosphere vs. The Environment

This year I decided to take a slightly harder line than in past years about computers, cell phones, and other things that my parents categories as TTLUs (Things That Light Up). In the first class, I told my students that I was going to ask them to print out all of the readings (as small as they wanted) and not to use their computers or other TTLUs in class unless there was a specific learning-related reason that they needed to do so. I also told them that if anyone had financial problems with the printing or book buying requirements they should see me.

They shrugged and nodded, which was pretty much what they do for most of what we say on the first day.

One student came to talk to me after class. He explained that he is very involved in sustainable living projects and that he felt strongly enough about not wanting to be printing out copies that if I said absolutely no computer, he would drop the course and find another. He was very articulate.

It helped that it’s already a dilemma I’ve thought about in terms of my own printing habits. Cost is one thing, of course, but once I accepted that this was part of being in graduate school (paying for ink and paper), the other hurdle was the quantity of paper. I have a lot of it. I have trouble getting rid of handouts and readings from classes I’ve taken because it seems so wasteful to have printed them out and then just discard them. I have a lot of paper I don’t need.

Pedagogically, though, I knew I had something in mind in asking students to keep their TTLUs off and away. So, after another conversation with a friend about the subject, I went back to class the next day with a plan.

I explained why I don’t like TTLUs. (1) The upright screens of computers separate you physically from the rest of the class. (2) Having a device distracts you from the discussion in many ways (taking notes that are more like transcriptions than notes, absorbing interest simply because they are transfixing, presenting the possibility of completing other tasks while in class without it being obvious).

I offered the class a compromise. They can have computers for taking notes if they promise to try to write down only key words and they keep the screen either really far open or closed down over their fingers. They can have computers and other TTLUs for reading the pdfs for class if they keep the computers open wide (as flat as possible) or the TTLUs flat on the desk. And it’s fine if they want to team up and print one copy every two people and share, instead of each printing the reading.

Today in class: one student typing very occasionally with the screen over his fingers, looking up, and following the conversation; two students with the text on their screens open all the way, who could lean over to read from the text or find a quote but who were otherwise focused outward toward the discussion.

I’ll remind them all of this bargain later this week (I still have students shifting in and out of the class, so possibly three more class sessions with new students). We might have to return to the topic mid-semester, like I’ve had to do with many topics. It’s early in the semester, though, and I’m still optimistic. I pronounce this a proto-success.

First-day expectations

A colleague whom I met at a conference on teaching book history at the Folger last year has a tip, published by the website Pedagogy Unbound, for gauging student expectations of their performance while simultaneously encouraging them to take more responsibility for their education. She suggests a quick questionnaire on the first day that asks students three questions:

1) What grade do you anticipate receiving in this course?
2) What will you do if you discover that you are receiving a lower grade than the one you anticipated?
3) Why do you feel these strategies will work? (quoted from the website)

It starts the year with a sense of student responsibility, gives her something to work with when students come to office hours upset about grades, and provides a means for students to reflect on their performance at the end of the year.

I think I’ll be adding this to my repertoire this semester. I already give midterm evaluations (students evaluating the course and their learning, not me evaluating them), with a format borrowed from a professor for whom I TAed in my second comp lit teaching semester (Professor William Moebius). Students are asked to complete three sentences. The first begins with the words “I’m learning,” the second with “I like” and the third with “I wish.” Like Sarah Neville’s exercise, some answers are very thoughtful and serious and some are silly, but it provides a moment to reflect on course experiences in the middle of the course, both for my students and for me (I take them very seriously).

Good luck to everyone starting classes over the next week!

Logic in the Classroom

Over the semesters that I’ve taught Comp Lit, one of the problems that I’ve run into often is that students have a difficult time articulating logical connections in their papers. Conferences about their papers usually reveal that they know what the connections are, although I’m sure that some students struggle with that as well. This semester, I want to emphasize the importance of logical thinking and the articulation of logical processes in my course and see whether some of the paper-writing problems can be resolved simply by foregrounding logic as a component of writing.

To that end, I’m trying out an odd beginning-of-the-semester logic assignment. I’ve posted three different logic puzzles on our course website– the humorous, wordy, but uniquely solvable Self-Referential Aptitude Test by Jim Propp that I posted about a while ago, a  Kakuro puzzle that involves the integers 0-9, sums, and non-repeating rows and columns, and a 7×7 More or Less (Futoshiki) puzzle that also requires non-repeating rows and columns, with some requirements about which number be larger.

I know that these are tough, so I’m not requiring students to finish them, or even to figure out how to start all three. Each student is assigned to choose one of the puzzles and write out an explanation of the logical process by which they made their first decisions. The idea is to get them to articulate a logical process clearly, and ideally to someone who chose a different puzzle (possibly because the logic of that puzzle made more sense to them).

I’ll use this exercise to start a discussion about the kinds of logic that we typically use in literary study and critical writing: implications, correlations, cause and effect (and lack thereof), accumulation of evidence to point to one single outcome… I’m also hoping that I can convince my students that logic is an important part of critical reasoning in general. I’ll also point out that while I’m asking them to write these explanations out in English sentences, other fields that also use logic have their own systems of notation for expressing the same relationships, and that like in math, for example, it’s important in English to follow the “notational rules” for logic so that the argument makes sense.

We’ll see how it goes over!

Late-summer planning

I’m back to my desk after a week visiting my family, including three days up on top of the garage re-roofing it.

One of my late-summer tasks is finishing my syllabus and ordering books. I’m teaching Good and Evil in the fall (a gen-ed, 100-level Comp Lit course where each TA gets to create their own syllabus within a broad course description). This will be my second time teaching it, but I’m making a completely new reading list. The assignments will probably stay largely the same, but the organizing principle this time is…

Bargains and Negotiations.

The goal is to discuss morality and the notions of good and evil in a variety of cultural contexts and historical periods. The texts I’ve chosen are about different types of negotiation- humans bargaining with deities and supernatural beings, with each other, humans negotiating different ideas of morality and different cultural systems.

We’re going to start off with a Christian framework and read a little bit about St. Augustine’s notions of the nature of evil, along with the medieval tale (attr. Anna Bijns) of Mary of Nijmeghen, a Faust-like figure who surrenders her soul to a demon for knowledge, but then (unlike Faust) repents and is saved. We’ll also read Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (A-text) along with some of the historical documents about Faust and a couple of other short texts that prefigure the Faust story.

I’m still not sure of the order of the rest of the course, but we’ll be reading some negotiations with Death (the story of Sati Savitri from the Mahabharata Book of the Forest and Neil Gaiman’s Death: The Time of Your Life), some folk tales about bargaining with witches, the first half of Arthur Waley’s Monkey (a translation and abridgment of Journey to the West) where Monkey tricks and deceives his way into establishing himself both as an immortal and a troublemaker, the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, and Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need.” To finish up, we’ll read Tayeb Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North, taking our discussion of morality and negotiations between moral systems away from the supernatural. I’m still planning to add a few short texts (suggestions are welcome!) but that’s the main outline.

Along the way, we’ll be able to talk about various different ethical systems related to the religious or moral frameworks of the texts we’re reading, as well as the difficulties entailed in reading and discussing the concepts of good and evil (already culturally loaded) across cultures. I’m planning to have the class read the first chapter of a much more academic translation of Journey to the West as well (by Anthony Yu), along with Waley’s translation, to discuss the role of genre in how we approach texts, and the ways that the translator is himself a negotiator.

Last spring, I taught Good and Evil with a focus on heroes and/as sociopaths, and we had some great discussions. I’m looking forward to this semester, and building on some of my ideas about assignments and organization from last semester. Wish me well!