PALS Summer Post Roundup

Site visits and page views are lean for PALS between the May and Labor Day. A summer readership drop-off is a common occurrence for many academic blogs, perhaps especially so for a blog focusing exclusively on teaching. Our traffic successes follow the rhythms of the academic school year. (You can read more about our traffic flow here). Our visits are robust during the fall and spring terms, but drop off during holidays and extended breaks. Again, the readership drop-off phenomenon isn’t exclusive to PALS, as these tweets from Robert Keys show.


By the way, if you’re not visiting Keys’ Adverts 250 Project throughout the entire year, you’re missing out!

We even joked about this drop-off earlier in the summer. Our joking paid off and turned into one of our summer blog posts! Side Note: We’re always looking for guest post pitches. Hit us up with your ideas!

The summer months have always been lean for PALS since our rollout in the late summer of 2015. Our readership has climbed over the subsequent years, but the summer drop-off has remained a constant. However, the summer of 2018 topped all previous summers for site views and visitors, no doubt facilitated by a rather substantial uptick in content generated by our regular and guest contributors. PALS usually takes the summer months off, a practice reflecting the fact we understand our success is tied to the rhythms of the academic year.

However, in the summer of 2018 we posted a lot more than usual, which might explain our uptick in visitors to the site. Today’s post is a rundown of our summer 2018 content; it covers May through Labor Day. Think of it as an extended ICYMI as your semester starts to ramp up!

Teaching (Vocation Optional) by Meagan Ciesla

I bring this up because the idea of teaching as a vocation has been on my mind. For many of us in academia, we came to teaching through some other pathway: an interest in lab research, reading that kept us up at night, writing we didn’t want to stop doing. And although teaching is for many enjoyable work, it is often not a calling, but a career.

Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine by Jessica Thelen

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight.

Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students by Clay Zuba

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

School’s Out: How to Focus Your Writing With a Summer Writing Group by Randi Tanglen

As many of us know from teaching writing workshops and incorporating peer revision into the classes we teach, writing is a collaborative and community process. Our students’ writing benefits from the feedback and support their peers provide. Yet for many of us, the demands of teaching and instruction make our own scholarly and creative writing an isolating and solitary process. Further, because many of us who read the PALS blog tend to emphasize teaching and pedagogy, our writing might not always be the priority we would like it to be on a day-to-day basis. A summer writing group may help you and your colleagues address concerns about writing in isolation and how to prioritize your own writing.

Some End-of-Semester Thoughts on Academic Struggle by Caitlin Kelly

In my current position I have the opportunity to serve as advisor to first-year students and this was my first time to do that. In one way or another, almost every conversation with my advisees turned to struggle. While some of the struggle they face comes from outside of the university community, a lot of it comes from within. I can only speak to the students I’ve taught but one of the things I’ve noticed about selective institutions is that there is a sense that all high-aptitude students are capable of anything if only they try hard enough.

Schooled in Barbecue by Thomas Hallock

I confess, I had other expectations. Being summer, the time when teachers become learners, I asked Mr. Walker to teach me how to cook ribs. He agreed to school me.

The Field of Reads: Weird Adventures in Course Design and Planning by Greg Specter

The assigned books in my fall honors class are a weird mélange. Notice that I didn’t say “The books that I assigned…” A few of the included texts come via a menu of options generated by a committee of instructors teaching different sections of an honors class in the fall.

Intro to Postmodernism: Questioning the Truth Claim by Matthew Luter

Literary postmodernism is a tough concept to introduce to my high school students. Many students have never heard the term postmodern at all; a few are aware of it as a kind of buzzword that has become a right-wing boogeyman; and more than a few are a little turned off by how academically highfalutin’ it sounds. In order to introduce it to my students, I developed a set of tasks that lean into rather than steer away from the complications of literary postmodernism.

Writing Academically with Emotional Clarity by Brianne Jaquette

I also have come to realize that I didn’t just need to write more; I needed more explanations for what makes good writing. I think the focus on what makes for competent writing in academia is a bit off. Yes, people care about our argument. They care about our sources and our research. But rarely is anyone talking about the quality of our writing, and we fall into bad habits of super long explanations and wordy clauses. We think we already know how to write, so we do not ask anyone about the clarity of our sentences. We only ask, “Does this argument make sense?”

Making Space for Voice and Choice: Assignment Design in an Online Course by Jacinta Yanders

However, in recent semesters, I’ve been thinking more and more about student ownership in the classroom and working to provide opportunities in which students have a hand in shaping the course. In the spring semester First Year Writing course I taught, for example, I had students generate the assessment criteria for their essays and vote on what they believed to be the most important elements of that criteria. By this point, students had seen and worked with sample essays as well as given feedback on drafts from their classmates. They had some sense of concrete moves that came across well to them as readers and other choices that hindered them. Collectively, they were responsible for setting the stakes for the essays and ultimately revising their work to meet those stakes.

This is not a Desk Copy by Greg Specter

It is no wonder the books start getting beaten down physically just by going in and out of bags. Corners dinged. Corners bent. Corners peeling. Stains. The physical destruction of my books is disconcerting for someone that takes care of their books. I take pride in reading a book and finishing it in mint condition. The semester is cruel to my books.


This is not a Desk Copy

My Undergraduate Experience: A Memory Experiment
From time to time I do a memory experiment. I close my eyes, run through my memories, and try to envision every course I took as an undergrad. At first, I wanted to know if I could remember my instructors. I’ve forgotten many of their names, but I wondered if I could, at the least, remember their faces. However, as I did this experiment I began to recall other details about my classroom experiences and the demeanor of many of my professors.

I began to recall my professors’ arrival to class. How they carried themselves. What they wore. The items they brought with them to class. Common elements emerged. My professors brought pens, and maybe a marker or chalk. They brought record books or a class-dedicated folder. They brought a book, if needed, too. Some of them brought coffee. Not in throwaway cups or travel mugs, but in real coffee mugs. Common threads emerged about the objects I didn’t see. Winter jackets were absent from my memories. Briefcases, totes, and other bags were not in my memories.

I furthered my memory experiment by accounting for my professors’ shared similarities. A major feature stood out to me. All of my instructors taught classes in the same building as their office. I had English classes in buildings housing English departments. Historic preservation classes were held in the home building of the historic preservation department. History classes happened in the same building as the history department. I traced my memories to follow this pattern. In short, my professors taught classes in the same building as their home departments.

I reached further back into my memories, searching for systemic and structural explanations. I found a few. I began my undergraduate career at a small public liberal arts college in Virginia. I finished my undergraduate degree at a small private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Both of these schools, regardless of being public or private, fit the stereotypes of a liberal arts college. These were bucolic campuses where, for the most part, academic departments had their own offices and classrooms in their own buildings.

My college professors were tenure-track or tenured faculty. I never took a class from an adjunct. I never had a graduate student as an instructor. The very nature of who my college instructors were (and where they taught) explains much about how their classroom demeanor operated. They had offices in buildings that housed their classrooms. They were people that could carry a mug of coffee down a flight of stairs or past a few doors down a hallway to a classroom. They didn’t carry their entire professional life around like an academic pack mule. They didn’t need bags just to travel from one building to the next.

It’s in the Bag

Put me in, Coach

Today, as an instructor, bags tell the story of my semester’s progression. My blue lunch bag is a constant well into the semester, at least, until I’m too exhausted at semester’s close to plan my lunch in advance. My decrepit, black gym bag, stuffed with everything I need for the gym, towels, and a change of clothing is another mainstay; hopefully, for most of the semester. I begin the semester using a black leather Coach messenger-style bag. The Coach bag originally belonged to my (now retired) mom. (She originally suggested I start using the bag at academic conferences; the suggestion says a lot about academic conferences…) The bag projects authority, style, and sophistication at the start of the semester. I pack this bag with one or two pens and the books I need. The Coach bag, as it starts to strain with handouts, student papers, research, and other items, is the first bag to go as the semester moves forward.

Less than 3 NYC
I less than 3 NYC

As the semester grinds on I cull the things I’ve accumulated in my bag. I transition to a light-weight “I Love NY” tote bag. The bag was a gift from my sister. Similar bags are a mainstay of her everyday life in New York City. This bag-transition is fleeting, generally in-between the brief period of the first and second major assignments. I accumulate more items: papers to grade, papers that aren’t handed back, books, handouts and more. The bag that handles the demands of city life inevitable falters under the weight of the semester. Next, I transition to a large reusable shopping bag from Wegmans. Apparently I’ve become known for this purple Wegmans bag. My returning students have asked about it. Clearly, my keen fashion sense at the semester’s start doesn’t matter. I suspect some students connect to this bag because it reminds them of home. Regardless, this is my mainstay bag for the semester’s close. My purple Wegmans bag eventually groans under the weight of everything I carry. I try to organize things as best as I can. Drafts, final submissions, and handouts are organized into plastic grocery bags; then they go in the Wegmans bag.


The Books I Carry
The books used for teaching are the mainstay items in all of my bags. In and out of the bags they go. Eight to twelve times a week (at the least) the books go in and out of my bags, depending on my teaching schedule. There are the countless times I remove books for my own reading, class prep, or frantic searches for something I’ve misplaced. It is no wonder the books start getting beaten down physically just by going in and out of bags. Corners dinged. Corners bent. Corners peeling. Stains. The physical destruction of my books is disconcerting for someone that takes care of their books. I take pride in reading a book and finishing it in mint condition. The semester is cruel to my books.

Desk Copies
I requested desk copies for nearly every book I’m teaching this fall. I already owned many of the books I requested. My assigned course readings overlap with my personal library. Several of the books I assigned are books purchased and read a lifetime ago. They’re part of a personal identity, very separate from my identity and role as a literature professor. I bought them at some point. I read them. They weren’t for classes; they were for me. These distinctions say a lot about how I want to keep my identity as a person and an employee separate. I made a decision in the spring when planning my classes: My past self wasn’t going to subsidize the books I’m teaching today.

Mail 2
Desk Copies

Professors talk about desk copies a lot. Often there is a significant amount of virtue-signaling that occurs regarding desk copies, especially via social media. People in full-time, tenure-track jobs extol buying books for the classroom as opposed to requesting desk copies. I understand the drive, especially when it comes to supporting smaller, independent publishers. But I don’t see desk copies as a bad thing, especially when they’re actually used in a class.

This is not a Desk Copy

This is not a desk copy

I requested a desk copy of Naguib Mahfouz’s Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth. I bought my personal copy a lifetime ago. I read about Mahfouz in KMT, a journal about ancient Egypt geared towards a popular audience. KMT had published several articles on fiction about ancient Egypt. I was a historic preservation major at the time I read these articles. I was thinking seriously about becoming an Egyptologist. At that point in my life I rarely ever read fiction. Reading Akhenaten was a major departure for me and my reading. The copy I purchased and read in 2000 is still pristine in 2018. I read it again this summer in preparation for my class. I was transported back thousands of years, and I was transported back to my first reading. I read like I read it before. I didn’t mark it up. My copy of Akhenaten is not a desk copy.

This is not a desk copy

I requested a copy of August Wilson’s Fences. I bought my copy from a small-chain bookstore when I was in high school. Folks from the Mid-Atlantic or the Northeast might remember Encore Books. That is where I bought it. I went there one night with a “friend.” I bought several other books along with Fences. A play by Dylan Thomas stands out. I read Fences that spring. Later I saw a production of Fences at the Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center. I still remember that production; the physical presences of the actors stands out in my mind, just like the image of James Earl Jones on my copy of Fences. I was a high school kid then; it is a lifetime away from where and what I am now. My copy of Fences is a physical manifestation of many complex feelings, ideas, explorations, moments, and experiences. My copy of Fences is not a desk copy.

Dead Book
This is not a desk copy

I also requested a desk copy of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, a new edition published by West Virginia University Press. I bought my copy of The Book of the Dead at the White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh where I attended an event celebrating the book’s recent release. I had a chance to meet with Derek Krissoff, the Director of West Virginia University Press. We talked about the release of the book, the importance of university presses, and the importance of public events like the one hosted by the White Whale Bookstore. The event also featured a reading by Catherine Venable Moore. Moore read from her excellent introductory essay that accompanies Rukeyser’s poem. My copy of The Book of the Dead is not a desk copy.

These Distinctions Matter in a Precarious World
All of my words on personal copies versus desk copies might seem like a strange distinction. It shouldn’t. I have another story to share. For most of the last year I spent my time grappling with an iPhone rocked with the dreaded touch disease. Using my phone to send emails to students, operate any of the Twitter accounts I’m associated with, or to do any form of work, was an opportunity for a devastating career disaster. Money was tight; I couldn’t afford a new phone. I came to realize that my employer wasn’t running out to get me a new phone so that I could do my work. Yes, my employer doesn’t pay for my desk copies, but the experience with my iPhone forced me to think about the other ways that we subsidize—in some form—the many facets of the work we do.

I refused to ask my past self to subsidize the work that I do, certainly not with the books from my personal library, especially ones from such very different parts of my life when this identity I have now wasn’t anywhere on the horizon.

The distinction of desk copies and personal copies of books is my way of navigating the evocation/avocation tensions of my work. Our love of teaching is supposed to be some kind of reward. I can’t eat the enjoyment of the work I do; I can’t pay the landlord with a good day in the classroom. I see myself as an employee the more time I spend in academia. If I worked in a restaurant kitchen I would never pay for the food that I’m preparing for patrons; I wouldn’t subsidize the owner of the restaurant. (Of course, many chefs bring their own knives to work– certainly an apt comparison here.)

I’m no longer using personal copies of my books. I’m not going to shame people for requesting desk copies. We can be respectful about how we request and use desk copies. Support quality publishers by promoting them, leave reviews of the books, and promote their books. No one will pay it forward for using books from my personal library; but I can pay it forward by promoting and assigning books from great publishers deserving of support.