My last post was, to be fair, a barbaric yawp of despair. But now, classes have ended, final exams have been given, and my students have completed the unofficial course evals I use to supplement the uni’s “official” (read: Likert scale) ones.
And so, in the spirit of the support and kind words my last post generated (thank you, readers! they were much appreciated), this post is an act of self-kindness: a reminder that whatever my state of existential, academic-related despair, I am a damn good teacher.
(Perhaps at some point I’ll publicly parse the constructive criticism that my students provided. But, for now, I’m sticking to the sunny side of the street.)
The comments below tell me that many of my students get something out of being in my classroom and some even enjoy being there. Indeed, I’ve been teaching for six years now, and never before has the word “fun” appeared so many times in a set of evals. Given how little fun I was having this semester writ large, I am pretty damn pleased to see that.
FWIW, these are responses submitted by students in both of my classes in response to this, the last question on the unofficial eval:
10. What else would you like to tell me about your experience in this course?
A moment of horror in the copy room. That’s where this post started.
A moment of horror borne of another instructor’s handout, one that simultaneously reduced and universalized the writing “process” to a tick sheet of dos, don’ts, and otherwise. Writing is a formula, this handout shouted, one that I, as your instructor, have licked. Follow these steps, do exactly as I say though I don’t explain why, and I’ll give you an A.
I wish that I’d saved it, this castoff from another classroom, but at the time, all I wanted to do was escape it.
As a writer, as someone who teaches writing, I see composition as a road trip: you point the car in a general direction and let the road take you where it may.
Sure, you might have some idea of where you want to end up–you might choose a particular highway to take over another, after all–but you’re open to diversions, to side trips off of what you thought was the main route. And you’re willing to let those diversions rewrite your travel plans entirely.
Such an approach, however, doesn’t neatly line up with the ways in which many instructors teach writing as a “process.” While early discussions of writing-as-process made note of the messiness involved, much of that acknowledgement has been stripped away in the professionalization/commodification of composition. In place of such mess, a process designed for a flow chart, for easy replicability in any classroom, with any students, any instructor, because of course, all writers—especially first year writers!–are alike.
Yeah, no. No no no.
One of those steps in the “process” that makes me particularly enraged is forcing students to write a “thesis statement” before they start writing an essay. See also: the horrifying “write a topic sentence for each paragraph before you start writing the essay” variant.
Let’s talk for a second about why this tactic often frustrates the crap out of students and, bonus, results in boring, slack-tastic writing:
Look, when you put these restrictions on students’ writing, you’re reinforcing the idea that a writer should know exactly what she or he wants to say before they sit down at the keyboard. You are preventing a student from writing, period. Continue reading “Writing is a road trip”→
So I was talking with one of the younger Masters-level GTAs in our program today about her preparations for the rapidly-approaching semester. She’ll be teaching the first in our uni’s two-course composition sequences, and this’ll be her first time teaching that particular course. She was telling me about all of the constraints (my word, not hers) that the program places on her, as a young GTA: a list of required assignments (including grammar lessons?! WTF), a mandatory textbook, and a brand-new (mandatory) reader.
I did a terrible job of hiding my horror at this set-up, because to me, teaching is nothing if not kairotic. The system that she described, to me, seemed to strangle all of the possibilities out of teaching, especially teaching freshman comp. Look, I did my best not to be a sanctimonious git. But I have really, really strong feelings about what makes for effective teaching–especially the teaching of writing–and what my colleague was describing? Came nowhere close.
Then, ok, I realized that my approach to teaching–cultivated over time and through the hands of many fantastic mentors and role models (wow, that makes me sound old)–is nothing if not idiosyncratic. I recognize that some parameters are necessary (especially for young teachers, I guess?) and that there are, no doubt, great teachers who thrive in such a scheme.
But it got me thinking about one of the docs I’ll need to draft soon, as I prepare for the job hunt: a revised teaching philosophy. My old one feels like a good place to start, but I’ve changed a bit over the past couple of years, and the philosophe needs to reflect that.
So round 1 of that revision: brain dump of the things I do as a teacher that I see as central to my success in the classroom.
I’ve had a really hard time writing of late. All kinds: my dissertation, fic, blog posts, you name it. The words have been hard to come by, even harder to put on the page.
Part of it, no doubt, lies in the building veil of anxiety that surrounds what will happen this fall. That is, come September, there’s a very real possibility that I might be the only person in my cohort going out on the job market.
Now I do my best to be a “run your own race” kind of person, so at some level, this development shouldn’t concern me at all. My colleagues and I, we are all of us faced with very different life choices at this time, and what they do or do not do on the job front has little impact on me.
However, as I’ve noted before, in my department, the job hunting season for upcoming grads is freaking spectator sport, and in this equation, I will be the object of that gaze. With the prospect of perhaps being the ONLY object from my cohort in those sights, well. Pass the Pepto and the nearest paper bag.
No doubt this has contributed to my sticky keys.
But there’s something more to it, something even more fundamental and confusing. Setting aside the problem of what employer might pay me for what, I’ve been battling the question–what kind of scholar do I want to be, exactly? What kind of job might I want (dare I even think such a thing)?
It’s the end of the term here this week; another semester, another school year, come to a close, one that I was happy to see end. That said, I was reminded this week why I love teaching. To wit:
1) The perfectionist student in my composition class who finally had enough faith in herself and her ideas that she brought a messy, working, fantastically drafty draft of her paper to our peer review workshop–something that she wouldn’t (couldn’t) have done six weeks ago.
2) A former student from my Literature, Medicine, and Culture class who thanked me for advising them to begin a new essay by sitting down and just writing for an hour. That is: to write first, and then go back and deal with what’s on the page, rather than trying to get it “right” the first time. “It’s really helped,” he told me, “in more than one of my classes this term”–and with the personal statement he’s writing for med school.
3) Another student from Lit, Med, and Culture who’s continued on her own to pursue one of the ideas we discussed in class (that of narrative medicine) because she’s freaking annoyed and yet intrigued by it, by what she sees as the dissonance between the concept and its practical implementation. She told me: “Your class was one that left the impression on me that it’s important to keep asking questions and learn more beyond the classroom.”
I sat down, I’ll admit, to write a post about a frustrating discussion I had with a senior faculty person this week about how to respond to student writing. But then my students, bless them, redirected my energies and reminded me what’s far more important: them.
Truly, one of the strange things about teaching is that, at some level, you don’t usually get to see the fruits (or not) of your labors, of your 16-week long collaboration with your students. But, then, sometimes? You do.
This weekend, one of my students from last semester was killed. She was a beautiful writer, in both academic prose and in fiction; she had an ability to write dialogue that was both natural in speech and informative in function that I envy. She was going to medical school next year, somewhere; she’d already been accepted somewhere great, but was waiting to hear back from several more.
She was one of the few students in the course who enjoyed reading Camus’ The Plague. And in thinking about her, since the news of her death was made public, I kept coming back to this passage, from near the close of the novel, wherein the main character, Rieux, must face the sudden and surprising death of his friend, Tarrou:
Tarrou had died this evening without their friendship’s having had time to enter fully into the life of either. Tarrou had ‘lost the match,’ as he put it. But what had he, Rieux, won? No more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it, of having known friendship and remembering it, of knowing affection and being destined one day to remember it. So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match. (Camus 291)
I like to think of myself as a cynical idealist: somebody who’s grounded in reality but who’s always looking for hope.
But if you believe academic Twitter these days, our profession as teachers and scholars is completely and utterly fucked.
The humanities? Disrespected. Labor issues within the university? A gaping head wound that the powers that be have refused to address. The academic publishing industry is a boondoggle and, best of all, there’s almost no chance that I’ll be able to land a tenure-track job.
And that’s all true.
But I balance that, in my cynically idealistic head, with the emails I’ve received from a few of my former students in the last few days, students who have taken some of the work we did in my Literature, Medicine, and Culture class this past fall and created something more. They’re going to conferences, applying for internships, looking at scholarships, in an effort to build on conversations we had in class, that they furthered in their own writing.
I am so freaking proud of them all.
Sometimes you just have those classes where the mojo is just good, where the planets or the goddesses align and going to class is a pleasure, plain and simple. My group this fall was just such a one.
For me, what makes that even more remarkable is that there were some major potential roadblocks in place: a class much larger than what I’m used to teaching, full of students from the sciences; my belief going in that I suck at teaching literature; and, oh yes: I was preparing to take my comprehensive exams. All these things together had me nervous before the term even began.
But then a funny thing happened: together, we made it work.
Hey, check this out: according to this article, we shouldn’t be forcing students to write essay in “required” humanities courses because, you know. Students are bad writers, and profs hate reading bad writing. And, anyway, students’ll just plagiarize anyway. And the ones that like writing will write anyway, so. It’s totally fine.
Now I know I’m just a grad student with a mere four years of teaching experience, and I’m not saying that I know what the hell I’m doing, but look. This is bullshit.
Any universalist argument gets my goat up because a) they’re easy to make and b) they’re impossible to implement. Which the writer knows. Which makes it an easy argument to make because hey, nobody’s gonna do it anyway, so what the fuck?
But the one in this piece, Rebecca Schuman’s “The End of the College Essay,” really sticks in my craw–despite the fact that Schuman is trying to be a bit more careful than the headline suggests.
A friend pointed out that, in my last post about my digital self, I linked the shit out of that sucker, a choice that she argued had the effect of shifting the reader from a linear experience in this space–scrolling from top to bottom–to one that’s unstuck in both space and time by kicking the reader through my back catalogue of posts, but in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure sort of way, you know, like:
You see a series of doors ahead of you.
If you choose the one marked “slash fic writer,” turn to page 7.
If you choose the door marked “rhetorician,” turn to page 4.
If you choose the one marked “political junkie,” turn to page 12.
Huh. I’d never thought of this place, this blog, quite like that.
Part of it, I suppose, is that because I wrote all of the posts in question–build all the damn doors myself–it’s hard for me not to think of this space as linear. At its core, this blog’s a trace of my thinking, for better or worse, and I tend to think of it in temporal terms. How the posts tagged to what was happening offline, what I was reading, where I was physically located, etc.
Now my friend, she’s very into space, the way that physical environments–especially those designed/designated as memorials–can affect the user/visitor’s construction of knowledge. So it stuck with me, a burr under my mental saddle–and then it ran headlong into George Siemens.
Siemens is an educational theorist and teacher up in the Canada, eh, whose work explores what he calls “connectivism,” a theory of learning that attempts to account for human-computer interactions. In “A Learning Theory for the Digital Age,” Siemens recasts learning as
a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual.
(HAL 9000? Is that you?)
Such a redefinition is necessary, he (Siemens, not HAL) argues, to account for shifts in learning practice and application. Educators must recognize that
knowledge is no longer acquired in the linear manner
but is rather constructed, negotiated, and revised by an individual end user within an ever-evolving panoply of informational networks comprised of both electronic devices–hi Gerty!–and other individual users.
Ultimately, each of us is constantly playing in and with what Siemens calls our “personal learning network,” one which, if it’s to remain useful, must always be kairotic.
So this got me thinking. Maybe one way of approaching this blog–a clearinghouse for my online life–is as the temporary home of my personal learning network, an online space through which I can momentarily move beyond what Spock might call “two-dimensional thinking.”
That is, a place wherein I might learn/write [because for me they are inexorably connected] not outside of time and space, per say, but through it, with the understanding that the Enterprise can fly up and down and beyond just as well as she can fly straight ahead.
But this assumes, I think, that I’ll return to the blog as a reader, too; as someone who engages with what I’ve written after the fact, outside of the kairotic moment in which the words first flew. Hmm. So building this living memorial to my PLN isn’t enough, perhaps; I’ve got to wander through it from time to time and engage the gaze. Participate in a little metacognition.
So, then, if other people, other readers, visit this space, then, it might become a point of connection within their own PLN, temporarily or no.
Besides, you can always turn the pages back and choose another door if you don’t like what you find: