Friday, October 29, 2004

And again I say... MFA is a terminal degree! It means I can hold a tenure track position in academia. Yes, I know it's not the same as a PhD, but I am so tired of being treated like I am in some sort of academic ghetto because I chose a degree based on practical application (or, in my case, artistic application) over research.

My wife was corresponding with an old family friend who has a PhD and eventually plans to go into teaching after putting in several years in the corporate world (in his field, this would be appropriate, I think). Anyway, he said to her, via e-mail, "I didn't think there were still any tenure track positions for non-PhDs."

My wife said it was nothing, people don't know what an MFA is, etc. But it was that "still" in the comment that angered me, as though there used to be positions for people with "just a master's," but doggone-it haven't we eliminated those by now? It just rubbed me the wrong way, and of course my wife by now knows the whole MFA speech drill, so she recites it chapter and verse for people like this friend. I just feel like people think, "how'd you luck into that gig?" when they find out what I'm doing now, and I always have to say (come on, repeat it with me): AN MFA IS A TERMINAL DEGREE.

I'm thinking of appending profanity to the end of that, for emphasis, but I'm not really a "profanity" guy, so I guess I won't. Maybe I'll just start chronicling in here every time I have to explain this to someone, as a way of avoiding potential insanity.

In other news, how cool is "early voting"? Had never heard of that before moving here, but I voted yesterday and now won't have to wait in a long line on my way into the office on Tuesday. Of course, the stick-um on my "I Voted" sticker will be completely gone by then, so I'll have the appearance of one who did not vote or who was not proud of having voted, but who cares. They should have special "I Voted (Before You)" stickers for those of us who got there early.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Tenure for the "Creative" Academic

One thing with which I'm really struggling and could use some input: as a filmmaker hired on the tenure track, my tenure goals aren't the typical book and article publication. My goals are to make films (that get screened at festivals or distributed to theaters) and write screenplays (that sell or win/place in screenwriting competitions). Fortunately, my department is very supportive. They have a tenure document that vaguely reflects an understanding of this concept.

I say "vaguely" because there's no real consensus on what precisely I need to do to make tenure here. And they have a great new faculty program, with dinners and mini-seminars that run all academic year long. Recently we attended one on making tenure here. I attended, and while I found it interesting, it was neevertheless frustrating because they have no one addressing my situation. They have individuals addressing tenure in the humanities and others addressing tenure in the hard sciences. Okay, great. What about in my field? What about someone who isn't expected to write and publish but rather to make movies?

I'm not complaining about my position -- don't get me wrong. I am just frustrated that I don't have clear goals in mind because no one really knows. My department chair, as I have mentioned, is supportive and sincerely seems to want me to succeed. How I do that is anybody's guess.

My thinking so far has been something like this:

  • A feature film is analogous to a book.
  • A short film is analogous to an article.
  • Screenplays that win competitions are analogous to... what?

So with this thinking in mind, I am focusing my energy on making a feature film next summer. That sounds like a huge task.. and it is. I know it can be done, but at the moment I have no idea how I am going to do it. I need to find a producer who knows what he or she is doing on the business end of things.

I'm meandering here -- my point is to ask the question: are there any others like me out there, and can you talk about your tenure experience and what it took for you to get tenure?

Class Dynamics

Amazing how one test can change the class dynamics. I casually mentioned how, in light of test grades, participation grades might be even more important for some students. Lo and behold, participation was at an all time high today. We didn't even finish the material because the discussion got going so well. People whose voices I've never heard before were raiaing their hands to comment.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

It worked... I think.

The students seemed to get something useful out of the assignment I mentioned below. We read all their scenes aloud in class, which was excruciating for them (and for me, for different reasons). There seemed to be some attention to detail, but sometimes it was misplaced. Rather than giving us a sense of a character's look, they describe very specific facial features. It's a no-no because of casting. You want to be able to see a variety of actors in a role, while at the same time having a very specific sense of a character.

It's kind of an advanced skill, so a little hard to convey.

And of course I had one student who said, "We were supposed to do that for today?" Yes, that's what the e-mail said. Read the email you get from your professor! Hello!

And one who said, "Well, I wasn't here, so I didn't know exactly what I was supposed to do." So ask someone. Like me, the professor.

But overall, a pretty good experience, I think.

Do They Ever Listen?

I just finished grading the latest script pages from my screenwriting students, and the title-question is on my mind. Some of the pages were good, reflecting understanding of previous critiques as well as stuff we discussed in class.

Others ranged from awful to mediocre. Some of this obviously has to do with innate talent. Some of it has to do, though, with not paying attention or flat-out lazy writing. Typos and grammar errors galore! Really awkward phrasing. Just not getting it.

Several students violate one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting -- they tell us things in the description that we can't possibly see. For example (not from one of the students' scripts):

We see two guys, Ryan and Jeremy, walking through the football field where the graduation was held. Their faces are blank and they are speechless for the first time in their lives. This has hit them really hard, and they just don’t know how to deal with it, so they just sit there staring off.

If you read that in prose, okay. Lousy writing, but you didn't violate any rules. In a script, you can't say things like "this has hit them really hard, and they just don't know how to deal with it." We can't see that, You have to show it in action and/or dialogue. This isn't even a particularly egregious example. I had one student turn in a script that was rife with character history and feelings written into the description. I am wondering if he misheard my admonitions and thought I told people to make sure to add that stuff in!

One colleague told me a few weeks ago that I shouldn't agonize over student work when I grade it. After all, he said, you can't care about it more than they do. Some students are content to get a C. I guess those of us who ended up in academia have a hard time with that because most of us were always striving for excellence. I was an A student who couldn't stand anything less. Yes, I was very grade-sensitive. I had a competitive streak when it came to grades and always wanted to have the highest grade in the class. That was, I admit, immature, but underneath it was an ambition for excellence. I don't see that so far in many of my students, but I'm just getting to know them.

Today, we'll be reviewing their comic boook scene adaptation assignments. I mentioned this in a previous post. They were given several pages from a comic book/graphic novel (the excellent graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's short story, "Murder Mysteries"). There is a scene, early on, that sets a sense of mood and mystery, without much action. Just two guys running into each other in the mddle of the night, sharing a smoke on a park bench, with one of them beginning to tell the story that makes up most of the action of the piece (a murder mystery set in heaven before the creation of earth and mankind).

I wanted them to take this scene, devoid of any context, and do it in screenplay form, focusing on describing the action effectively in order to create a mood. So we'll see how they did with that. Some of them have shown some real improvement, and others don't seem to be trying at all.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Deciding on a Curve

After thinking much about it this weekend, and reading comments in the blog, I have decided NOT to curve the exam grades. Enough students made A's or B's that the F's will just have to live with it. Basically, I know the material was there and they were capable of learning it, if only they had studied.

It'll be a lesson for them in planning and paying better attention. I have class in a few minutes, so more on other topics later.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Midterm Blues

I gave my first midterm on Monday, first test all semester (most of my classes are project-based this semester).

Man, what a lousy experience. My students did terrible. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but in a class of 50 people, around 7 or 8 people got A's and more than 20 people failed. And the F's weren't all 67 or 69. Many of them were in the 40s and 50s. And I even gave extra credit on the test, about 10-15 points worth.

So I am left wondering how they did so awful. I was speaking with a colleague in my department, and his theory was that if someone aces it (and several did), you know you taught the material and that it was possible for them to do well. And really, with double-digits getting A's, I know they are capable.

But to have a student get a 35? And this is a senior, taking a class in her major! I can't get over that.

One theory: I'm new, they didn't know what to expect (they do now).

My problem here is that I truly don't want to be a hard-ass as a professor, but I really do want them to learn and expect them to study. I even told them what was important to know for the test.

And that leaves me thinking that I must be SO boring as a teacher that they just couldn't pay attention. There are days, I am sure, when this was true, but I don't think that my ability to entertain them should be what determines their level of studying for the exams.

So now what do I do? This test is 20% of their grade. Several options:

  • Leave the grades as they are. That's what they earned, after all.
  • Curve the grades a set amount (i.e., a 10 point curve). It doesn't help the really big F's (the 30's, 40's, and 50's), but it makes it more palatable, I guess.
  • Curve the grades by a set percentage (i.e., everyone gets a 10% or 20% bump). In this option, at least it's more fair because you get an increase that takes into account your original grade.

All right -- soliciting opinions. What would you do? Keep in mind several factors: my insecurity as a teacher (I'm new and concerned that I didn't want the test to be too hard, but I also don't want to be a pushover); the fact that several people did do well (though several of them were graduate students taking a course full of primarily undergrads); the fact that I gave them a list of things that were important (it wasn't an overly specific list, but enough info to know what to focus on); the test was part multiple choice, part short answer and fill in the blank (they essentially had to list and define a lot of things we discussed in class); the fact that students openly slept in class at times and some barely took notes.

These are all things that have been running through my mind, so I am curious as to other opinions. I have to decide by Monday morning, which is when I see the class again.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Teaching Screenwriting

I am a screenwriter who has been produced and who has won or placed in a few prestigious competitions, so you would think teaching screenwriting would be a natural fit. It's not as easy as you would expect. The market is glutted with books purporting to teach screenwriting, from Syd Field's paint-by-numbers approach to Robert McKee's "I'm smart, really. No really" complexity in his epic tome "Story," you can find an approach that suits your temperament.

I'm not sure any of them makes you a better writer. I'm not sure I make anyone a better writer either. These books teach format (which is something you can get from a software package), basics of plotting (which goes back to Aristotle and which can be expressed as, essentially, "have a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order"), character development, dialogue, etc. But can you teach someone to be a good (creative) writer? I think there's something you have or don't have, and then that has to be developed and nurtured. But if you don't have it, can you get it in a classroom? I'm not too sure you can. But I admit, it's just a theory right now, and part of it is based on my insecurities about my teaching abilities.

I'm struggling to teach my writing students these things in a way that's more 'full' than a book can provide, that gives them a richer experience of writing. How do I do that? I need to have them read more screenplays than I did this semester, for one thing. I didn't have time to pick scripts I thought would be good, or to figure out how to have the time to use those scripts in the teaching process, but I need to do it next semester.

Is watching movies a way to teach screenwriting? One of the profs at my university, who teaches screenwriting in another department, has his students watch a movie a week in class, and then talks about aspects of that movie as they relate to writing (might be genre, character development, etc.) But a movie is a different thing than a screenplay. Yes, a movie is the final product, but they screenplay for any of those movies was probably a very different beast. Scripts that sell are often veery good, but they seldom look exactly like the film when it is complete (for a good example of this, download and read the draft of Charlie Kauffman's Being John Malkovich that sold and compare it to the movie version we all saw in theaters. If you thought the movie was bizarre, wait until you read the script.

But my point is this: to write a good script that will sell, perhaps watching movies is not a great idea. Or not the greatest idea. Maybe if you compare script-to-film, you've got something there. The movies we see in the theater are a function of a script that went through a 'development' process and that was then influenced by the director, the actors, and any number of involved parties. The original script, as it was written and sold (i.e., in the form that made it attractive and interesting to people in the first place), sometimes represents a more original and creative product (and sometimes it doesn't, I admit).

Right now, we're focused on 'writing style' in scripts. I wonder if I'm spending too much time on style, but bad writing style (or non-existent style) is such a mood-killer in scripts. When I talk about style, I am referring to the part of a script where the writer describes the action or the characters or the room in which something is taking place. Now, in a lousy script, that style will usually consist of something like this (a real example I pulled from a script posted on the internet):

It is a high school graduation. There is a banner hanging over the stage where the ceremony is taking place that reads "Congratulations to the Eastport High Class of 2000!" It is a nice day and the ceremony is outside. There is a large crowd. They are all in full cap and gown. We hear the principal say:

You see? That's lousy writing. Lackluster. Boring. It gives us no sense of the atmosphere. More importantly, it inspires no confidence that the script will be a good read. It tells us we're not likely to be in good hands for the length of this script.

So for me, style of this sort is a necessary component to being a screenwriter. No, the WAY in which you express something on the screenplay page won't be on the screen, but it will influence whether or not the screenplay gets sold and/or made in the first place, so shouldn't that be a concern?

And shouldn't good writing style be a concern?

I haven't spent nearly as much time in class on plot and structure, and I have yet to deal with dialogue and other issues, but after reading the first few pages of my students' scripts, I felt like style was something I needed to cover with them.

Wow -- I sound like a real teacher: adjusting and adapting to my students' needs (I hope they appreciate it).

So today, they're going to be reading from a scene they rewrote over the weekend to improve its style (the paragraph you read above is from the piece I handed out to them). And if we have time today, we're going to do another writing exercise. For this one, I copied several pages from a graphic novel/comic book and plan to have them write up a compelling scene in screenplay format. The class isn't about adaptation -- it's about writing original scripts. But with a comic book scene, the images and dialogue are provided, and the point of the exercise is to learn to describe what you see (in this case, on the page; in normal situation, in your head) in a compelling manner in order to capture a specific mood.

I am hoping this will yield something useful for them.

Monday, October 11, 2004

What do you blog about when you have nothing about which to blog?

One of my concerns as a blogger is that I won't have anything to say. So here it is a Monday morning, and I have little to say. I mowed the lawn this weekend (I hate mowing the lawn). Took the kids to a great museum in town, with a cool kid-themed discovery center. They love this place, so much so that we became members so we could take them whenever we want.

What else...?

Noting really. I needed a mental health break this weekend, so I rested and did very little thinking.

Class starts in 20 minutes, and I should be prepping some more, but I'm mostly doing exam review today (midterm on Wednesday), so I'm wasting time with morning web-surfing. I do this every morning, checking my regular link list and reading. I spend WAY too much time doing this, but I have a hard time getting 'mentally revved-up' first thing in the morning. It's an avoidance technique, I know.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Test Anxiety

I'm giving my first-ever midterm next week, and I am having my own form of test anxiety (I never had test anxiety as a student, by the way).

I find mysself wondering if the exam is too tough or too easy. It's hard to tell the difference. I didn't want my first exam to be the ridiculously tough "he's trying to prove himself" exam, but I also don't want to seem like a pushover.

But I'm committed now -- I just gave the exam to one of the department assistants for copying. So we'll see how it goes. It's just weird to be testing people on what they learned... from me. I still haven't come to grips with the authority aspects of this job.

If I blog it, will they come?

Okay, so I love the IDEA of blogging but can't decide, after one previous failed attempt to maintain a blog, if I am any good at this. It is, I suppose, a little like keeping a journal, and I have always been lousy at that, so maybe this is a bad idea that will fade away.

Nevertheless, I figured I'd give it a go. My situation has changed recently, and with a new position, I felt like blogging might be a good outlet to join in the public conversation about academia.

Background on me: I just started my first tenure track academic position (and my first full time teaching position), as an Assistant Professor in a Communication department, teaching film, screenwriting, media, etc. I suppose I should come up with one of those cheeky names for my university, so I can remain anonymous. I don't know that I've been here long enough to really categorize it effectively. I think of it as Moderately Well Respected Mid-Size University, but MWRMSU is way too long to type every time I want to talk about the school... I'll have to think about it.

As for the blog title, well, I think the description states it adequately. I have a Master of Fine Arts, and that is a terminal degree, though not a doctoral-level degree, of course. Some departments and universities and colleges recognize this, some don't, and some just don't care and want to hire PhDs. Okay, so that's their prerogative, but I maintain that an MFA is not just NOT a PhD; it's a very different type of degree, for a different type of person/educator. I think of myself as an artist, not a researcher (not at ALL a researcher), and thus what I bring to the table, from an education perspective, is experience as a 'practitioner' in my field. Does this benefot students? I think so. Do I think they don't also benefit from teachers who are primarily researchers in their fields? I didn't say that.

I think a good balance is of the two is essential, but my experience has shown me that very few departments or universities agree. Perhaps this is driven by ranking systems that measure your worth as an institution by counting percentages of those holding PhDs among the faculty.

I sat in one pseudo-interview with a department chair that illustrates my issues. I call it a pseudo-interview because I wasn't an official applicant for a position. I was visiting my undergrad alma mater for Homecoming and one of my former classmates, now a tenure-track professor at the school, arranged a meet-n-greet with the department chair because I was pursuing the idea of returning to teach there. This dept. chair wasn't at said school when I matriculated, so we didn't know each other, though he had my CV, sent to him by the VP of Academic Affairs (who was the dept. chair under whom I studied and who was an ardent supporter of mine).

Anyway, in our little chat, he went ON AND ON about how he would only hire a PhD because he could, because it was a buyer's market, so to speak, and he could have his pick of candidates and thus would always choose someone with a PhD. This in spite of the fact that he himself was hired before he had completed a PhD and had ascended to chair of the department. I tried to have a pleasant conversation with him and discuss the reasons I had for choosing an MFA -- the fact that I would spend five years or more working on a PhD that wouldn't make me any better as an artist, and that my experience in my field, coupled with my degree, made me a legitmate YADDA YADDA YADDA. He didn't care.

My point was, and is, that for certain positions, those which focus on experiential learning (in my field, I would say this refers to things like film production, screenwriting, directing, etc.), an MFA is the appropriate degree, because the teacher should have some experience in the field in which he or she is teaching. I gave up on him, and my alma mater (sadly), and then landed my dream position at a better school, with better facilities, more funding, and people I didn't have to convince to hire me. They wanted me. Yippee!

So I've solved my hiring issue, but the MFA issue is still out there and still a problem. When I come up for tenure in six years, the people who will be Roger-Ebert-ing my tenure application will be PhDs, some of whom (at least on the committee now) don't like the idea of teaching practical education or having people with less-than-a-doctorate doing it. And even if things work out for me (my department is supportive, and the department's tenure document is appropriate for what I do), there are many others out there who should be teaching but can't get jobs with their 'lowly' MFAs.

But I don't want this blog to be just about that one issue. I certainly welcome people to discuss that, but like most academic blogs, there will probably be discussions about grading, instransigent students, and perhaps even my upcoming projects (to get tenure, I don't publish books or articles; I make films).

So, if anyone actually shows up and reads this post, please drop a comment and say hi.