Thursday, January 31, 2013

The pregnancy post

Since I would like to be lost in my theory reading, but am suffering from the pregnancy symptom of ah,there's not enough room in my abdomen for whatever is going on in there, I figure I should write my long-planned but as yet unwritten post on being pregnant.

One reason I've put off writing this post is that the Internet seems to be full of horror stories of being pregnant in academia, but this is not my experience at all.  Perhaps it is my discipline, perhaps it is the departments I've been in, but I appear to be at odds with the Internet, or at least what I randomly encounter on it.

For example, it never occurred to me not to have a baby on the tenure track, as all but one of the assistant professors in my PhD program had babies on the tenure track (and some had two!).  There were also plenty of grad student babies, so having babies and being an academic has never seemed unusual to me, as there were plenty of models (and their babies) around me.

Since it took my mother a while to become pregnant the first time, and I am like her in many regards, I was not willing to wait that long to start trying.  So, when I got this job, meaning a steady (and higher) income, and the prospect of staying in one place longer than a year or two, my husband and I decided to go for it (and it turns out I do not resemble my mother in this regard after all).

When I told my chair I was pregnant, which I had to do quite early on as we were planning a summer program I would no longer be able to participate in, his response was enthusiastic: "Wonderful! We had lots of babies in the department last time I was chair, and now the university has a real maternity leave policy!"  Responses from my colleagues have been similarly enthusiastic.

At the conference I attended recently, one of the grad students brought her newborn.  The conference goers were enthusiastic, and insisted the baby be smack dab in the center of the conference photo.

So all in all, this is quite positive.  This does not mean that the Internet is wrong, after all those with bad experiences are not in my disciplines or departments, but it is heartening for me to know that this is not all there is.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Back to Theory

For my current article, I am delving once more into theory, (re)reading the poststructuralist theories of identity that I first encountered in high school English, then undergraduate linguistics, then graduate sociolinguistics and second language acquisition.  Luckily for me, despite the fact that I often struggle with incorporating these theories into my work (since you can't just straightjacket understudied contexts into them), I never really get tired of reading them.  I find the concepts difficult to work with, but this is part of the point--if everything could be neatly categorized, we would never have needed to move beyond structuralism.  Most of all, I am coming to appreciate the possibilities (or "transformative power" as the theorists would say) of these theories for my teaching, research, and life.  Having the words to express what is wrong with essentialist categories, instead of just feeling frustrated at their essentialized nature, turns out to be quite useful.  It makes the world a less certain place to be sure, and more difficult to navigate if you can't just rely on your essentialist gendered, racial, national, etc. categories to tell you what you should do with your life and spare time, but on the other hand, it means that there are many, many possibilities, and this is appealing to me.

Since SLA has borrowed these theories from other fields of the humanities/social sciences, I tend to think of these fields as more advanced theoretically.  This is one reason I wanted to be in a literature/cultural studies department rather than an SLA one* and so it is always surprising to me when I run into say, a cultural studies professor who specializes in critical race theory, but espouses essentialized gender categories, or a literature professor who focuses on issues of identity in the work of female poets from a particular century and country, but doesn't seem to realize that these same issues and theories apply to their teaching of the language of said country.  For me, the value of post-structuralist theories is not just in their rather messy applications to my teaching and research, but also as a way of understanding life, and so they are useful everywhere, at least until I find something better.

The place I find this contradiction most striking and frustrating is in the organization of language departments (including every one I've ever been associated, this post is not about Andalus U), where students take "language" classes followed by "content/culture" classes.  As noted in a previous post, one of my major issues with these language classes is not offering enough hours to get students to a reasonable proficiency level (like Advanced on the ACTFL scale, which is not actually all that advanced in terms of life, but which many students never reach despite six or more semesters of language classes).  However, as I move from my happy theory bubble to the reality of the views of certain language instructors I encounter, I see that these classes are often rooted firmly in a structuralist tradition: glorifying and prescribing the langue at the expense of the more useful parole, or tossing in the obligatory song, traditional dress pictures, and food items for "culture." Part of the problem, in my view, is the division of labor that occurs in language departments, where "anyone" can teach language classes, especially lower division ones, whereas only researchers with PhDs can touch the "content/culture" ones.  This is obviously problematic even from a structuralist perspective of acquiring structures, but for me it is also problematic in terms of incorporating current theory.  If language classes are devalued as not requiring the theoretical knowledge that the content/culture classes do, can we really expect them to be better? If the teaching of language classes is given to people assumed to be uninterested in theory (lecturers, although obviously this isn't always true) or not yet competent enough in it (grad students, again, not necessarily the case) how can we expect theory to be implemented in these classes?

Luckily for me, I am my own little diktatora in terms of building Arabic section at Andalus U, so I can mostly ignore this ridiculousness.  However, it frustrates me when I encounter or read about these types of language classes outside of my own, or when I encounter pompous idiots (not at Andalus U so far) who assume that if I am interested in language teaching or have a PhD in SLA, I can't possibly be interested in or know anything about literary or social theory, and reference things like "dialogism" or "imagined communities" with a condescending offer to explain "because I know you don't study this".

This is not something I have the power to change alone (just look at the struggles in ESL teaching, where they've been on top of these theories for decades) but progress sure would be nice!

*That and reading/discussing the positivist/structuralist research that still dominates a portion of the field makes me want to rip my hair out


Monday, January 21, 2013

The Woes of a Technology Addicted Arabic Speaker

I am in the market for a new personal computer, as after two years of absorbing the Cairo dust and a year of analyzing data and cranking out el-wa7sh, my poor laptop has been announcing for the last few months it's desire to quit (or at least not run the gazillion programs I always have open all at once).  I (or rather my husband) have previously (maybe a year ago?) upgraded the hard drive and RAM, but it is still not happy.  There are also mysterious flecks in the screen that I attribute to some combination of cats and Cairo dust, and have resisted all of my screen cleaning attempts.

However, then there is the question of what computer to get? At work, I have a 27" iMac, which I love.  It has lots of hard drive space, and I can have have four or five programs (or windows of different programs) running side by side on a screen that size, which works very well for me.  The difficulty of course, is that it's not portable, and then what would I do for conferences, travel and the like.  In all honestly, I'd like to just travel with my iPad, but there are currently no iPad apps I can find that can support the basic things I do every day for teaching and research, which include features such as:

1) Right to Left formatted tables (no, not just the text, but the whole table).
2) Right to Left bullets in powerpoint

Google docs, for example, is great if I am online, but alas, if I am traveling, I am likely to want to do stuff offline.  Another trick is that my teaching materials in particular have to be sharable with Microsoft users, which means the tables, etc have to convert nicely.  This is the reason that I run Microsoft in a virtual machine on my current laptop--while there are word processors that support Arabic very well on the Mac (i.e. Mellel) they are crap when converting things like tables with colors and highlights to Word.  In contrast, something like Pages, that can convert tables nicely is crap when it comes to supporting Arabic.  My presentations don't need to be shared, but they do need to support Arabic.  Given Keynote's lack of Arabic support on the Mac, it seems unlikely that it will be supported on the iPad, and the only office iPad app I found that said it did support RTL had terrible reviews in the app store.

So, it seems that at least for now, I need a laptop to travel.  My ideal solution would be to get an iMac and Macbook Air, but that is way out of the budget.  I could also get a Macbook Pro and a nice screen, but that is also a lot if I want a screen like my iMac.  Since I spent a lot of time daily with this screen, quality is important to me (this is also the reason I refuse to just purchase a PC computer).

So, at least for now, relying on the iPad for travel seems unlikely.  So then I started thinking, well if I had an iMac, I would be able to work from home, and I could just try to pare down things on my laptop and use it just for travel, and perhaps it will be happier.  One of the things it objects to the most is running the virtual machine, but I need to do these fancy word processing things in Arabic, and this is the root of all of this trouble (thanks, Microsoft, for your steadfast refusal to support RTL on the Mac, which would solve all of my problems).  So, as I do from time to time, I revisited the Office options on Mac, hoping that this time one of them would support opening and editing my teaching documents created in Word for PC, creating documents able to be opened and edited in Word for PC, and creating/opening/editing Powerpoints.  This would allow for the removal of the virtual machine from my laptop, which would mean I could actually accomplish something without it freezing whenever I try to edit anything.  My laptop made some very unhappy noises while all of this testing was going on, but here are the results:

Word Processing:
Attempting to open my 102 Weekly Schedule (a document that contains highlighted text,  a mix of Arabic and English, RTL numbered lists, and RTL tables with assorted color-coded fills):

Pages: letters disconnect (although changing the font will fix this), no RTL support
Mellel: RTL support is fine, but table loses all of its coloring 
TextEdit: RTL is okay, but no table support, and table loses all of its coloring
Google Docs: perfect support, but not sure about offline editing
Nisus Writer: flips the table in reverse, can't find a way to make the whole table RTL
LibreOffice: letters disconnect (although changing the font will fix this), flips the table in reverse, can't find a way to make the whole table RTL, RTL support seems rather limited
Open Office: Victory! It seems that since I last did this run through there is now an Open Office version native to Mac (there wasn't in the past), which does all the RTL stuff I need, opens my docx document perfectly, and makes my laptop considerably happier to run.  The only potential problem is that it saves with doc, not docx files, but as far as I know, I don't use any docx features, so this is fine.  

Slide Shows:
Attempting to open my most recent conference presentation, in Arabic, with tables, graphics, RTL bullets, notes, and animations
Keynote: This program is a disaster with Arabic--no RTL bullets, if you click on an Arabic word to edit, it starts editing a few characters over, not RTL text direction choice, enough said
Google Docs: See word processing
LibreOffice: See word processing (tables are important in slide shows too!)
Open Office: Victory again! See above, and I don't think I use any pptx features.  I guess the moral of this story is to just keep visiting these programs every few years hoping they've updated to support what you want.  

I will have to experiment with Open Office for Mac a bit more before I commit to the idea of removing Microsoft from my laptop entirely, but it seems that finally, finally, there may be a viable solution.  There is even spell check for Arabic!  

Dreaming of working from home on a nice iMac with a snuggly 2uTa on my lap, I bit the bullet and went to order the new iMac, only to find out it is on a 3-4 week shipping delay.  Ya weel!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Semester goals

Based on last semester, I have two goals for this semester:

1) Spend more time reading (both things directly related to research, and those that are more part of what Jonathan calls the Scholarly Base.
2) Spend more time coding/deidentifying/organizing my dissertation data (which didn't even all make it into poor enormous el-wa7sh)

Since I am only teaching one class this semester, things are a little easier, as I have more time.  This week, a decent amount of that was spend sorting out the students in the Arabic program (no you can't take Arabic 102 without Arabic 101 or alternatively if you have completed high school in Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country) and doing other things related to the first week.  However, I anticipate this settling down shortly.

Since reading is interesting, I am more motivated to do this.  The idea is to read things in my field (since this requires more concentration and notes) during the day, and more fun scholarly base stuff at night (like the 30 pounds of Arabic novels I brought back from Egypt).  For most of last semester, I was unable to read at night, as I was in my first trimester of pregnancy, and suffered from terrible evening sickness (okay, big news, I know, but I'll discuss it more in another post).  I am now in the second trimester, and suffering a bit from jetlag in the evenings, but am no longer curled up miserable on the couch at 7pm.  So, this is good news on the reading front.

Data organizing on the other hand . . . is just boring.  Yesterday, I had the brilliant idea of listening to the BBC Xtra while deidentifying Facebook pages, and that was a considerable improvement.  Still, I don't have much tolerance for this, and I think I will just have to push through.

Updates forthcoming on all fronts!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Yes, we need intensive language classes!

By far, my biggest annoyance this semester was the fact that the language classes I was teaching are only three hours a week.  This is, in my opinion, ridiculous for any language, but especially for Arabic, which requires more hours to learn for English speakers.  Having classes only 3 hours a week means:

--it is harder to learn the language (since you need to do something with it every day, and language learning is all about time and practice)
--you can take a lot of classes and still not be able to do much in the language
--you are behind your peer institutions that offer intensive classes, and thus less competitive for jobs and scholarships

However, apparently Andalus U is not big on intensive language classes, which means I may have to do something sneaky, like have an extra 3 credits required online.  I am tempted by the idea of a hybrid class, which would still only meet 3 hours a week, and have the other 3 credits online, as this would make scheduling easier and also allow me to take advantage of the best of both environments for language learning.  We shall see.  

To those that say it is a lot of credits for students, and will reduce enrollments, I say you have to make choices: quality over quantity.  To those who say, but you will have to teach five days a week, I say that if you are not willing to do that, you should not be in this field.  To those who say well, it's the culture that's really important, I say that you will never get the culture without the language (and vice versa of course, they are inseparable).  

Another interesting question of course, is why this is so important to me.  The students don't know (yet) they're missing out with three credits rather than five or six, and it's less work for me to teach a three credit class than a five or six credit one.  So something I've been thinking about a lot recently, spurred on of course by the fact that much of what I've been reading recently focuses on ideologies of language learning, is why this is so important.  

The answer is that I view fighting American monolingualism as an important life goal.  One way I do this is through my teaching and research, which also explains why I get so frustrated and annoyed when people treat these as separate areas.  While it is objectively true that since I do not do classroom research, my teaching does not lead to things that "count" as research and vice versa, I view teaching and research as part of the same larger goal.  Being a quality teacher and researcher allows me to fight on two fronts.  

Similarly, if I accept the status quo, that it's okay to have three-credit language classes, that it's okay to take six semesters and still not be able to do much in the language, I am supporting monolingualism, despite the fact that as a language teacher I am ostensibly working against it.  It is both the covert and the overt messages we give about language learning that are influential.  We cannot let the former undercut the latter.  

And now I will step down from my soapbox, but continue the fight.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

First Semester Reflections Part 2: Dancing

Due to the unfortunate lack of Scottish Highland Dancing in these parts (although I'm working to remedy this) I took flamenco lessons this past semester, since that seems to be the thing to do here. While flamenco suffers from a serious lack of bouncing, it is at least very technical while maintaining its own folk style, which is what I like about highland. At our December recital, I was talking with one of my classmates, who is in her first year of a PhD in English at Andalus University, and she asked me how I balanced dancing with my academic life. My thoughts went along the lines of what are you talking about? to what other option is there? to well, you have to do something other than academics, which is what I finally said, since the first two seemed rather rude. She seemed relieved, explaining that some people in her program seemed to concentrate on doing only academics, so she felt strange doing dance as well. I assured her that I had done just fine in grad school doing both, and that it had in fact helped me when I was pretty much working all waking hours on my dissertation, because dancing in the afternoon gave me the energy to keep working into the evening. I mean, I hope to never again work the hours I worked on my dissertation, but taking that break to dance was what made it possible, albeit painful. If there are people who desire to spend every waking hour on academic work (I have personally not met one) they should most certainly do this, but it seems odd to me to have this be an expectation. This semester, I feel like I got plenty done, and I basically worked from 8-4:30 5 days a week (including breaks, and not including the occasional weekend hours I put in). By the time I got home, I was quite tired, and although I would usually read for an hour or two in the evening (although there was a big chunk of the semester where I didn't, for reasons that will become apparent in a later post) it seemed pretty much impossible to do anything other than dance, eat, and relax.

So I'm not really sure what the point of this post is, other than that I feel lucky that no one has ever made me feel guilty for dancing when I could in theory (but not in practice) be doing academic things, or that I have never even had to consider this as a potential conflict until this classmate asked this question. I suppose that I'm kind of sad and horrified that there are people who make my classmate feel like this, as it seems like a terrible and also pointless thing to do.

In any case, moving on with my dance plans for next semester, I am signed up to start teaching Highland Lessons, dance at a Burns Night, and will continue with flamenco. Happy Dancing to me!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

In which I feel famous . . .

There's nothing to make a young academic happier than meeting someone at a conference who says "oh, I've read your article, it's really important"  . . . and then pulls it out of their bag!

Yes, I almost fell out of my chair.  All the more motivation to continue this research!

First Semester Reflections Part 1

I am on the train from Alexandria to Cairo (although obviously when you read this I will not be), which is in a sense where this blog began, a product of fieldwork stress and too many random theoretical thoughts to keep track of. At that point I mainly blogged about the former, but I often think that it would be helpful to add in the latter. In any case, since I have now completed my dissertation, and landed a tenure track job, and the second semester has not yet started, it is time for some first semester reflections. This will be a multi part series, as there have been many, many changes going on in my life, but I am not yet sure how many parts this will be. In any case, this part will focus on my accomplishments in the areas I'm evaluated on, and my thoughts thus far.

--transferred my dissertation IRB to Andalus U (far more complicated than it seems)
--submitted an article (based on a dissertation chapter, but with considerable theoretical and data re analysis)
--provided comments on an article I'm third author on, that will be submitted soon
--deidentified part of my data
--read a lot
--organized all of my sources in bookends, including making a reading list of urgent and not so urgent ones
--presented at two conferences (well, technically one starts tomorrow, so I haven't attended it yet, but my presentation is ready)
--gotten accepted to two more conferences

Overall, I think this looks pretty good in terms of accomplishments, and I met my tenure plan goal of submitting this article. I have to admit I was a little skeptical of the whole working on writing in short chunks of time every day, but it seems to have worked. According to my charts, with few exceptions, starting in October I wrote for 25 minutes on MWF and 50 on TR. This gave me a nearly completed draft by finals week, when I upped the writing to 100 minutes for four days. Then all I had to do over Winter Break was revise, which I mostly did the past four days sitting in my favorite coffee shop watching the Mediterranean and drinking hot chocolate. Tough life, eh? Then, after all the Internet in Alexandria seemed to be down for days due to weather, I submitted. So by my estimation, this works, although we shall see what the reviewers think about this project.

--taught three classes (technically an overload, so I am only teaching one class this Spring)
--although two of these were sections of Arabic 101, which I have taught before, using the new (and much better) edition of the textbook, and actually getting to teach the way I want meant substantial revisions to the class
--supervised the TA who taught the other Arabic classes
--attended a teaching conference

In general, I was pretty satisfied with my teaching. What a difference it makes to be able to do what you want, and thus do crazy things like teach proficiency-oriented classes that address the diglossic reality of the Arabic language! I will never, ever, go back to fus7a only. It is just wrong, and no one will ever be able to force me to do it again, Mwahaha! There are of course things I will revise in the future, and there are some serious structural issues to the program that I will discuss in a separate post, but so far, so good. I got two class observations for my tenure box, which were excellent, although I do not have my student evaluations yet.

Luckily, I don't have to do much of this. I served on one committee and one advisory board. The latter only met once, so I don't have much to say about it. The former was a good fit for me, for several reasons. It is in charge of giving out grants for a particular thing that is the subject of my research, so I am quite well placed to evaluate the applications (or grumble and moan about their quality). Furthermore, I will be applying for one of these in the future, so it is useful to know how the committee operates. I wonder if in the future, as a tenured professor, it would be so enlightening serve on the IRB committee. I must remember this. In any case, this did not take up very much time (14 hours) so I don't have much to say about it.

All in all, I think it was a productive semester, and here's hoping for more inthe future!