Eagle and clock tower

Several weeks ago, after having applied for an adjunct teaching position at Boston College that would nicely supplement my part-time position at Framingham State, I stopped at Boston College to walk the labyrinth there. It was a superstitious act: I somehow thought that if I walked with a grateful and meditative spirit, the Universe and the English department alike would recognize how perfect I am for the job. It was drizzling that day, so I walked with an umbrella, wending and winding my way from the circumference of the stony circle to its center, then retracing my steps to the place I’d started. It had been a more than a year since A (not her real initial) and I had first visited this labyrinth, and it felt comforting to return to familiar turns.

A way through grass

When A and I first walked the labyrinth at Boston College, I was still nursing the hurt of the previous year, when I’d applied for (and failed to get) a full-time teaching position there. After walking the labyrinth, A and I ducked into Saint Mary’s chapel, which was one of my favorite quiet spots on campus when I was a Master’s student at Boston College some twenty years ago. Instead of finding the chapel quiet and empty, we found a chamber music ensemble performing sacred music to an intimate and attentive audience. Silently watching the group for a song or two then quietly excusing ourselves, I turned to A and said, “See why I want to teach at this school?”

Labyrinthine

Walking a labyrinth is a process of retracing your own steps, as the paths there and back again are one and the same. If you visit the same labyrinth more than once, you re-trace your own re-tracings, labyrinth-walking becoming a self-reflexive and recursive thing: a process of turning and re-turning.

Whereas mazes try to trick you with a confusing array of forking choices, labyrinths merely try your patience. Most labyrinths feature a unicursal design, which means there is a single path bending and coiling its way from edge to innards. When you walk a unicursal labyrinth, arriving at the center is guaranteed as long as you keep walking, undeterred by the number of times you go in circles, think you’re going the wrong way, or fear you’ve reached a dead-end. If you keep going and don’t step off the path, you’ll get to your destination in the end, eventually.

Axis mundi

When A and I first walked the labyrinth at Boston College more than a year ago, I hadn’t yet quit my job at Keene State College, but my spirit knew I was leaving. I’d been reduced from full- to part-time status, and no longer made sense to cling to a part-time job in another state. I hadn’t yet quit my job at Keene State then because I didn’t have another job to move onto: I was poised in mid-step, one foot held in midair while I tried to find a place to plant it. When you can’t clearly see the path ahead of you, it’s difficult to believe your feet will automatically fall into their own footsteps. Poised between one step and the next, you feel anything but grounded, the earth beneath you seeming uncertain and untrustworthy.

Serene circles

This time last summer, I’d finally quit my job at Keene State, and I was grateful to have found a part-time job at Framingham State: a step down, financially, from the full-time job I’d had in New Hampshire, but a job mercifully close to home, and a new start. “Sometimes you have to take a step backward to take a step ahead,” I’d told a friend, but in retrospect, I’ve never veered from my path. That path might have turned, folding onto itself to veer in the direction I just came from: a complete about-face. But for the past twenty years, I’ve never turned from the path in front of me, taking each hesitant step as it’s been gradually revealed to me: one step forward, regardless of where “forward” is found.

Midway

Looking back at my twenty-year teaching career, the word “unicursal” perfectly describes it. For the past twenty years, I’ve patched together a full-time livelihood from part-time jobs, full-time but temporary positions, and all manner of adjunct appointments. For the past twenty years, I’ve made a modest livelihood doing one thing and one thing only: teaching all sorts of students in all sorts of places how to read, write, and think, believing that these skills are valuable no matter who you are, where you come from, or what kind of school you’re attending.

Heading out

At the midpoint of every semester, I quietly worry whether I’ll continue to be employed the next term, and at the end of each academic year, I quietly envy the folks with reliably stable year-round jobs with paid vacations, benefits, and job security. But no matter how many times I’ve been tempted to step off the path I’m on, at the start of each new academic year, I find myself abundantly grateful to be doing something that feels like I’m helping people by doing something I find interesting and profoundly satisfying.

Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I had an opportunity to sit face-to-face with a Trappist monk who also practiced Zen meditation. As a lapsed Catholic, I approached this interview with a certain amount of trepidation, having been accustomed to sitting face-to-face with priests only when I was going to confession. When Father asked me if I had any questions, I tried to appear witty and nonchalant: “What’s a good little Catholic girl like me doing in a place like this?” Father’s answer was short and laser-sharp in its concision: “Never doubt the place where God has led you.”

Straight and curved

Boston College’s memorial labyrinth sits in one corner of the grassy lawn outside Burns Library. Before A and I visited the labyrinth more than a year ago, the last time I’d been to that particular grassy spot was the day I’d received my Master’s degree. I remember the ceremony feeling a bit anticlimactic: nobody but my then-husband was there, and I had to leave immediately after the ceremony to work a part-time retail job I had to make ends meet. Having earned a degree that declared me a “master” didn’t seem to make much difference in my mundane life: we still had bills to pay, and I was still scrambling to earn minimum wage plus a paltry commission.

Labyrinth through trees

It’s easy on the way from “here” to “there” to doubt the path you’re on. Looking around, you see others who seem to get to their destinations more quickly than you, their paths seeming more straightforward and direct. It’s easy to envy those folks who seem to know exactly how to get from point A to point Z without any mazy meanderings; it’s easy if your way is long to think you aren’t actually going anywhere, or you’re spinning in eternal circles, stuck in a dead end, or going the wrong way, fast.

Hairpin turns

It’s been twenty years—two decades!—since I taught my first first-year writing seminar as a second-year Master’s student at Boston College. A lot has happened in those twenty years: I graduated with my Master’s degree, entered a PhD program at Northeastern, and taught there as a Lecturer a few years before moving to New Hampshire, where I taught a bunch of other places. It took me ten years to finish my PhD, and it’s taken me almost ten years to settle into Whatever’s Next, a transitional phase that has involved divorcing and remarrying, moving back to Boston, and trying to re-establish myself as a college writing instructor here.

From the center looking out

In other words, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Last July, I left my job at Keene State, a college where at one point I thought I could happily spend the rest of my life teaching. But instead, I fell in love with J, got married, and moved to Newton, which seemed to send my career in a different direction. It’s been difficult to find my feet, professionally, back in Boston. There are lots of schools here, and all of them need instructors to teach writing and literature courses…but there lots of graduate students to compete with, and at times I’ve felt like my career has hit a dead-end.

Leafy

Last July, I left my job at Keene State because I managed to find a part-time job at Framingham State, and almost exactly one year ago, I was busy with the logistics of starting over as a new hire there, fretting over the details of acquiring an office, email login, parking permit, and the like. This fall, I’ll continue to teach at Framingham State, and I’ll also be teaching at Boston College, where the Universe and the English department alike did indeed grant me that supplemental adjunct position. Today, I once again walked the labyrinth after picking up my Boston College parking permit on the same day my Framingham State permit arrived in the mail, with classes at both schools starting the week after next: an exciting time of new beginnings.

Memorial labyrinth

Two weeks ago, I went to faculty orientation at Boston College with a roomful of second-year Master’s students, all of them poised to start teaching first-year writing in the fall. Twenty years after I was a second-year Master’s student getting my start at Boston College, in other words, I’ve come full circle, my mazy, meandering path never swerving from its unicursal intent. I’m still juggling a patch-work of part-time jobs: it’s more difficult than I’d thought to find full-time work in a town like Boston. But twenty years after teaching my first college-level composition class, I’m still managing to make a living teaching, and I’m still happy to trust a path that has always managed to manifest itself immediately under my feet.

Like fireworks

This afternoon I received the latest version of an email I’ve gotten once or twice every single semester I’ve been teaching online. The particulars don’t matter because it’s always the same basic scenario.

Pink horsechestnut

Student X has stopped participating in class because of a health, personal, family, or work problem; Student X is worried they won’t pass or get a good grade in my class; and Student X can’t drop the class because of financial, philosophical, or logistical reasons. The particulars don’t matter: what matters is that the story is almost universal. Whenever a student is panicking because they’ve stopped participating and don’t know how to get back in the swing of the semester, my answer is pretty much the same: “Just come back.” It’s an answer that is mind-blowing in its simplicity. “The way you finish the semester,” I wrote to this latest incarnation of Student X, “is by finishing the semester.” In other words, just come back: just resume doing whatever it was you were doing before you hit a bump and got derailed.

Almost poppy

I’ve taught many incarnations of Student X over the years, and the biggest barrier they typically encounter is their own panic, despair, or shame about having to start over. Once again, the particulars don’t matter: what stays true is this mental block about coming back. There’s this deeply ingrained feeling that you should beat yourself up when you’ve hit a bump because your professor or some other authority figure is standing with arms akimbo, scowling, wanting to punish you. In my experience, though, half of life is about showing up, and the other half is about coming back. It’s not about never missing a beat; it’s about getting back in step after you’ve stumbled.

All about the alium

I wish I could say I learned this lesson through some sort of esoteric or mystical realization, but the truth is, I learned it the hard way. I’ve spent a lot of my life hitting bumps, getting derailed, and otherwise abandoning whatever work I’m supposed to be doing. Today, for example, I spent a good portion of the morning not checking my online classes, not checking work email, and not doing the things I’d duly written on my to-do list: the usual procrastination of yet another Don’t Wanna Wednesday. It’s not that I wasn’t working; it’s that I was avoiding one set of tasks by busying myself with another set of tasks. There’s always something lying around waiting to be done, so it’s always easy to procrastinate by looking busy.

Opening

So, how do you tackle the to-do list you’ve spent the whole morning avoiding? You just come back. How do you resume the morning writing routine you’ve let fall by the wayside? You just come back. How do you return, again, to the meditation practice you’ve been doing on and off and on-again for more years than you can count? You just begin again, again…and when your mind wanders, you just bring it back. There’s a reason why one of my favorite Zen sayings is “Fall down six times, get up seven.” If we didn’t stumble, flop, and fall, we’d never experience the joyous relief of starting over, anew.

Virginal

Last Tuesday I started teaching a summer school class I’ve never taught before: a 300-level class focusing on Buddhist-inspired literature. Although the content of the course isn’t new to me, the format is: the course is a “blended” class that combines once-a-week class sessions with online activities, and I designed the syllabus and assignment sequences last Monday, less than a day before the class started. Less than a week into the class, I already feel like I’m learning as much from teaching it as my students are learning (I hope) from taking it. You can talk about living in the moment, or you can teach a class where you’re more or less making things up as you go along, trusting the course content to pull together in ways you hadn’t entirely envisioned.

Half bloomed

This past week, I’ve also been re-designing from the ground up an online Literary Theory class that I’ve taught for years and am now currently teaching. I’m switching textbooks, revising assignments, and completely re-doing the weekly Lecture Notes in order to create a standardized course that other instructors will use. It’s a huge project because, once again, I’m familiar with the content but am re-envisioning how to deliver that content. The assignment sequences, discussion prompts, and Lecture Notes that worked for the “old” class I’m currently teaching just won’t do for the new, standardized version…and I find my head spinning with ideas while I juggle the “old” and “new” versions of the same material.

Spiderwort

Working with a proverbial “blank page” can be terrifying, invigorating, or both: a truly “blended” experience. On the one hand, you don’t know where the next assignment, lecture, or discussion prompt will come from; on the other hand, you’re amazed to see how the simple process of re-thinking something invariably leads to something new. It’s easy to fall into a boring routine of teaching the same old classes the same old way, expecting your students to learn something new from material you’ve milked dry. Occasionally it’s important to become a student yourself, either by trying something completely new or by “just” re-visiting and re-thinking the tried-and-true things that never fail to surprise.

Rose of Sharon seed pods

It’s a simple fact of teaching I re-discover every year: the semester invariably follows its own rhythms, cycles, and moods. Yesterday at Keene State, my usually lonely office hour was devoted to two students who came to talk about their semester-long research projects without any prompting from me. After eleven weeks of researching and writing intentionally messy early drafts, we’re now turning into the backstretch of the semester: time to start revisiting those messy drafts, cutting redundancies, and tightening the organization. After eleven weeks of brainstorming, generating, and accumulating, now comes the season for revising, pruning, and tidying, and that always inspires a handful of early-bird students to seek me out, nervously wondering how they’ll ever get a handle on the big ideas they’ve been wrestling all semester.

Bluish

Every semester–every writing project–follows this life-cycle, and every semester I forget the predictable pattern. Somewhere around five weeks into the semester comes the first wave of disenchantment as students want to change topics and instructors want to change careers; somewhere around nine weeks into the semester, I’ve given up all hope of ever getting to the bottom of my omnipresent paper-piles. And then right about now, Week 12, as we head into the last month of the semester, something changes. The drafts are still messy, but one by one, I see students starting to take tentative ownership of their projects. Instead of me cajoling, pleading, and nagging in my draft comments–instead of me feeling like I’m spending more time thinking about their topics than some of them are–I see my students starting to find their own voices, their own perspectives, their own ideas.

Rose of Sharon seed pod

Novelists insist that if you work on a narrative long enough, the characters take on a life of their own, and I’ve seen the same thing happen with semester-long research topics. At a certain point of the semester, my students’ topics truly become “theirs.” Instead of asking in various roundabout ways “what I’m looking for” in their papers, right about now my students are starting to get a clearer sense of what they want to say. This isn’t an easy transition: ripening is always a tenuous moment. It can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to have ideas of your own, and it can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to express those ideas. It can be frightening, also, to realize that your research, while helpful, will not give you The Final Answer to the big questions you’re pondering.

Planetree leaves

It’s easy, too, for a nervous or inexperienced writing instructor to step in too quickly, to kill a student’s embryonic ideas with over-coddling. “Here, let me show you” or “Why don’t you do it this way” sound like helpful feedback or well-intentioned guidance, but these also might indicate an instructor who’s not willing to step back and watch as a student does her or his own intellectual heavy lifting. A coach can model and reinforce proper form, but she can’t enter the field of play. Ultimately it’s the players’ game, not the coach’s, and her proper place is on the sidelines, watching and shouting and hoping.

I’ve taught long enough to know that the biggest a-ha moments won’t happen until December, when the end of the semester is just weeks (or one week!) away. So far, the seeds of the semester have been gestating in the slow, steady heat of a temperate season, but come December, my students and their ideas will bloom like hothouse flowers forced into opening, never a moment too soon.

Raindrops on crabapple blossoms

One of my teaching tasks this weekend is to re-read the first half of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which we’ll be discussing in my “Rivers and Literary Imagination” class this week. Pilgrim is a book I first encountered when I was an undergraduate in Ohio, and it’s a book I’ve re-read so many times, my original copy is literally falling apart. Even though I’ve replaced that original, well-worn copy with a newer edition so my students and I will be on the same page as we discuss the book, I’ve kept my old, yellowed copy with my old notes and underlinings: a tangible connection with whoever I was when I first read it.

Bejeweled

Over the years, I’ve downsized my personal library several times. When I was married, my then-husband and I frequently moved, and with each relocation I weeded through my stacks, selling or giving books away. When my then-husband and I divorced, one of the most painful parts of separation was the dividing of our already-diminished book collection into piles labeled “his” and “hers.” Whereas many of my tenure-track colleagues have offices whose walls are lined with bookshelves, as an adjunct I’ve always shared an office, so bookshelf space is at a premium. Unlike those of my teaching colleagues who still have copies of all books they’ve read, taught, or published research on, space constraints mean I occasionally have to do a book-purge, selling, donating, or giving away books I’ve read but don’t plan to revisit.

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a whole other story. Like my old, well-annotated copy of The Cloud of Unknowing, my disintegrating undergraduate copy of Pilgrim holds great sentimental value. Although I first heard of Dillard in an undergraduate Honors course titled “Ideas of the Natural World,” Pilgrim wasn’t a required text. Instead, it was on a list of recommended texts, and we each had to choose one title for an in-class presentation.

Raindrops on yew

From the list of texts, I chose to present on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I had read and enjoyed in high school, and a friend of mine randomly picked Dillard. I remember my friend saying in her presentation that she’d enjoyed the book, so when I saw a remaindered paperback copy at a local bookstore where I and another college friend would often walk, promising one another that we would not return to campus with yet another armload of impulse purchases, I had to break my promise and buy it.

That was at least 19 years ago, and I’ve lost touch with both college friends. The store where I bought my now-crumbling copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is now closed, in a city I’ll probably never have reason to visit again. When I bought that old remaindered copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I had no idea what role it would play in my life; indeed, I had no idea where life would take us, Pilgrim and me, in subsequent years.

Raindrops on rhododendron

When I pulled out my old copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to review its notes and underlinings this past week, I spent a long time studying the signature on the inside front cover: Lorianne DiSabato. I bought this book as a virginal undergraduate in Ohio, before I’d married, moved to New England, and eventually divorced. I still own a handful of books from my married days as Lorianne Schaub, and I have plenty of books I’ve purchased after I divorced and reclaimed my original last name. But a book that dates from my maiden days feels like a relic, a reminder of that Other Person from my past who shares my present name.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of those books I’ve read and re-read at so many different points in my adult life, the text itself has an accompanying personal history, a kind of marginal commentary in which I automatically remember Who I Was and What I Thought at the various times I revisited it. “How many a man,” Thoreau once asked, “has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” and this woman, for one, can claim Pilgrim (along with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Thoreau’s own Walden) as one such book.

Rain on forsythia

The first time I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I wished I had written it; upon later re-readings, I grew convinced that I could have written it, had Dillard not beaten me to it. Given Dillard’s interest in nature and spirit, two of my own favorite topics, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek articulates many of the ideas that existed as merely vague impulses until Annie Dillard gave them shape on the page.

Re-reading Pilgrim this time around, the text is so familiar to me, it almost feels like I did write it: just as I experience an odd kind of deja vu whenever I read something from my own blog archives, there’s a familiar nod of remembrance and recollection whenever I revisit some passage of Dillard’s that has nestled itself into my literary subconscious, a line or an image that rang so true the first time I read it, I felt Dillard must have been telepathic to have snatched the thoughts right out of my mind.

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek is about vision in every sense of the word, as I tried to explain in a graduate research paper I wrote about the book in 1996. So much of what I do these days as both a writer and photographer relies upon this sense of vision, re-reading Pilgrim feels like re-visiting my own creative manifesto. When you live by a creek, Dillard suggests, the constant flow of water and light presents an ever-changing panorama for you to observe and appreciate. If you keep your eyes open to this nonstop show, you can’t help but ask deeper questions about the source of this boundless creativity, and by asking these questions, you open yourself up to realizations you might have never anticipated.

Underneath

Although I live within easy walking distance of two rivers–the Ashuelot in Keene and the Charles in Newton–I don’t think you need to live by a creek or river to have the kind of epiphany Dillard recounts in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. All you have to have, I think, are wide-open eyes and a curiosity to match. I don’t know if any of my students will date a new era in their life by the reading of this book, but I secretly hope at least one of them does. I can imagine no sweeter thought than that perhaps one day nineteen years from now, one of my now-students will stumble upon her annotated copy of this book, now well-worn and crumbling, and wonder back upon the person she was when a simple paperback encouraged her to open her eyes.

A new leaf (or several)

Today at noon I met with small groups of my Creative Nonfiction Writing students to talk about the latest draft of their semester-long projects, which they subsequently turned in; tonight at 6pm, I’ll hand back a batch of essay drafts to one of my Environmental Literature classes, and we’ll spend some time in class working on revisions. And this afternoon at 4pm, I’ll meet with another section of Environmental Literature, sitting down to discuss Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge after not handing back the batch of essay drafts I’d promised them. In the maelstrom of incoming and outgoing student essay drafts that is April, I didn’t get to the bottom of that particular paper pile.

Lilac buds with new leaves

This is the endless loop that is my April: I hand back one batch of student essay drafts for every two batches still waiting for me to read. It doesn’t seem to matter how I schedule or stagger individual essay due-dates: in April, there are always more essays to read. At times at this point in the semester, I feel like one of those multi-armed Hindu goddesses, except instead of holding a single sacred object in each hand, I hold the various tasks I’m juggling: in this hand, a folder with papers I need to return; in that hand, a folder with papers I’ve just collected; and in another hand, a laptop with emails I need to answer. No matter how many hands I can find, those hands are always full, and all of my appendages feel like they’re spinning like a crazy windmill of collecting and returning, collecting and returning, collecting and returning.

In April, in other words, there’s no stopping the madly-out-of-control merry-go-round that is the life of a writing instructor: assign it, collect it, read and comment upon it, return it…then repeat, repeat, and repeat. At some point at the beginning of May, my students will give me their final projects for good, and I’ll grade my way to the bottom of those paper piles and be done with them. But between now and the beginning of May is the madcap month of April, “that time of the semester” for those of us who teach writing.

Ground phlox with dew

We writing teachers tell our students that writing is a process, not a product: it isn’t a matter of getting your essay perfect the first time, but of returning to it time and again until you get said whatever it is you’re trying to say. At this point in the semester, I feel like I’m up to my eyeballs in everything my various students are trying to say. Grading final papers is grueling enough, and reading essay drafts is even more daunting. Again, again, and again, you watch your students struggling to articulate whatever it is they’re “trying to say,” and you do everything but hold your breath and repeat incantations to your god of choice to help them through the labor of that creative birth.

In April, teaching itself feels like a repetitive, cyclical process: once again I’m walking students through the process of detangling the skeins of their own thoughts, and once again I’m scrambling to read batch after batch of student papers, waiting for each of my students to have that “a-ha moment” where their paper finally falls together. It’s easy for students to lose hope that this will ever happen, and it’s easy for their teachers to lose hope, too, especially when the paper piles are particularly high. During this time of the semester, I take comfort in the thought that Nature herself is in the throes of her busy season, producing draft after draft of green fecundity, each new leaf destined to face the inevitable cycle of grow it, kill it, mulch it, decompose it…then repeat, repeat, and repeat. All of it–every draft, every word, every green cell and leaf–is compost in the great soil of creativity.

Snow, slats, and shadows

We’ve reached that point of the semester when keeping up with work feels a bit like trotting on a treadmill running several steps faster than my usual stride. I’ve given up hope of catching up, so all I hope for is not to fall too far behind.

Courthouse with snow

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a busy one. Yesterday morning, after Tuesday night’s snow, I shoveled my driveway when I’d normally meditate, replacing one sort of repetitive, mindless activity for another. It felt good to be moving, and it felt good to see my car and driveway emerge from a half-foot of fresh snow, one shovelful at a time. Now that I’ve settled into the stride of yet another busy semester, the repetitive tasks of paper-reading and class prep are almost soothing as snow-shoveling in their monotony: just like this, each week greets the next, and no sooner do I dig out from one to-do list than I find myself facing another.

Winter Street in winter

There’s a certain, albeit circular, sense of accomplishment that comes when you surrender to the task at hand, no matter how boring. Shoveling snow, walking the dog, grading papers: none of these tasks is particularly interesting, but each is essential. No sooner do you cross off one of these tasks Today, you have to do it Tomorrow. But when you come inside after shoveling the driveway, walking the dog, or teaching another full day of classes, you have a sense of contentment knowing you did what needed to be done, and now it’s time to relax. Coming home from a full day’s teaching, or a good long dog-walk, or another stint of snow-shoveling feels like a good kind of tired, like when a basketball team gives every ounce of energy on the court and then walks off to the showers knowing they left it all on the court. It doesn’t matter if you won or lost, and it doesn’t matter if tomorrow you have to play the same damn game all over again. What matters is that for whatever span of time you ran on your own metaphorical treadmill, you gave all your attention and energy to every blessed step.

Still life with dog and Subaru

One of the benefits of having a laptop and wifi is being able to work outside. This past weekend while I caught up with online grading, Reggie and I took advantage of the nice weather by working (and, in Reggie’s case, resting) outside, both on the sunny patio and shady porch. Just because you have your nose to the grindstone doesn’t mean your entire life has to be a grind.

Relaxing on the porch

One of the results of teaching as an adjunct instructor at schools with overlapping schedules is the simple fact that the usual “hell week” of end-term grading actually lasts about a month or so. First, there’s the ramp up to the end of one online term; then, there’s the train-wreck of deadlines as you simultaneously submit end-term grades and get your new online courses rolling. While all this is happening, of course, your face-to-face classes still demand your full attention, and sleepless nights are the only way to tackle the torrent of almost-end-term drafts you have to read, comment upon, and return before your face-to-face students can assemble their final portfolios.

This week is Finals Week at Keene State, so I’ve been collecting final papers and portfolios from my face-to-face students while scrambling to keep up with my new batch of online classes. While many of my Keene State colleagues are rounding the home stretch, getting ready to submit grades after having collected final projects last week, I haven’t even started my end-term grading. When I first started managing the juggling act that is adjunct teaching, it was discouraging to watch my tenure-track colleagues finish their grades before I’d even started. Now, though, I realize that pacing yourself is key when you’re in the midst of a hellish month of grading. As this weekend’s Kentucky Derby illustrated, it’s perfectly possible to come from behind to win if you save your strength and hug the inside rail. Teaching, it turns out, is more like a marathon than it is a sprint, so you have to pace yourself accordingly.

Reggie relaxing on the porch

One way of pacing yourself is to emulate your lazy dog by taking advantage of every available bit of down-time to stretch out and even nap. This weekend I made a conscious effort to catch up with both work and sleep, knowing this week will be long. The lesson of lazy dogs everywhere is that you can rest in installments, snatching a little sleep here and a little sleep there if life doesn’t throw you an extended stint of downtime. What I envy most in my tenure-track colleagues these days isn’t the fact that they inevitably finish their grading ahead of me; it’s the fact that they enjoy actual summer breaks and even sabbaticals while my staggered semesters keep rolling on. Just as city dwellers cultivate small, hidden gardens as a refuge from crowds and squalor, I’m perfecting the art of the mini-break: a brief chance to step away from the paper-pile, stretch, walk the dog, or even do the dishes as a way of clearing my head. It isn’t as good as an actual break or sabbatical, but it’s welcome all the same.

Now open!

If you don’t have the luxury of an extended stint of downtime, you learn to take mini-breaks where you can find them. On Saturday afternoon, after making good progress with work, I treated myself to a short afternoon walk with J to try out the new neighborhood ice cream parlor. When you’re almost finished with a busy semester, a small cup of root-beer-float-flavored Italian ice serves as its own kind of root beer reward.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Casual. Keene State grades are due next Tuesday, after which point I’ll be teaching at “only” one school for a while.

Almost

It’s the last week of classes at Keene State, so today I handed back a fat stack of research drafts: the last I’ll see of them until next week’s deluge of final portfolios. It’s been an exhausting week, with that fat stack of drafts arriving right as one online term ended and another began: three fresh online classes that had the audacity to begin right when I’ve been busy with endings. After nearly a week of almost-all-nighters, I feel wrung-out, looking ahead to the weekend and a chance to soak up sleep like a sponge. The end of the semester can’t come soon enough.

You slay me

It’s been some fifteen years since I finished my Master’s degree at Boston College, so it’s been some fifteen years since I’ve set foot in Gasson Hall with its life-size marble sculpture of the Archangel Michael overpowering Lucifer. Some fifteen years ago, I was a backsliding Catholic, so the iconography of an angel slaying Satan didn’t seem hugely relevant to me: newly arrived in Boston, I was young, hungry, and struggling to balance the demands of graduate studies with the unanticipated rigors of college teaching. Looking at Michael and Lucifer, it was difficult to decide which was more personally relevant to me: was I the angel who slew, or the demon who was slain?

Archangel Michael overcoming Lucifer

As a graduate Teaching Fellow at Boston College, I occasionally brought my freshman composition students to Gasson Hall so they could sit in the rotunda and write in Michael’s shadow. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish; I guess I thought my students would be awed and inspired by an epic struggle cast in stone, even if they (like me) didn’t entirely believe the mythological details. Having been stunned into silence the first time I’d stumbled into Gasson Hall, I guess I wanted my students to experience something similar, with pen in hand. In retrospect, some fifteen years later, I have no idea what (if anything) resonated with my students at all.

That’s how teaching is. You try to take your students to places they’ve never been, and you hope they’ll share the awe and inspiration you’ve felt. And yet, sharing is a tenuous experience: you can lead a student to water, but you cannot make him think. If I was undecided, some fifteen years ago, how or whether the Archangel Michael was relevant in my marginally Catholic life, why did I think a sculpted stone would speak better to my students?

Paternal

In Buddhist iconography, the bodhisattva Manjushri is typically shown wielding a sword, just as the Archangel Michael does inside Gasson Hall. Michael’s sword is a weapon of divine judgment, and Manjushri’s sword is the blade of perfect wisdom cutting through illusion. In the fifteen-some years I’ve been teaching college writing and literature, I sometimes wonder whether I carry Manjushri’s sword or a wet noodle: having led so many students to water, what exactly have I accomplished? Have I landed any body-blows on the demon of ignorance, or have I been unarmed by his master maneuvers?

Loyal

With age (and with the retrospective wisdom of fifteen-some years of climbing the same mountain semester after semester), I’ve come to believe that Time holds the sharpest sword of them all. When I was a young, hungry, and struggling Masters student at Boston College just beginning to teach, there was no magical sword of wisdom anyone could have handed me. I had to learn how to teach by teaching, just as my students had (and still have) to learn how to write by writing. The collective teachings of the ages–the example all the the world’s Michaels and Manjushris–are there to inspire and guide us, but ultimately we have to take up our own sword, handling it awkwardly at first but eventually–after some fifteen years, perhaps–perfecting our grip and learning how to manage its heft in our hand. There is no better teacher than Time, who wields a scythe that slashes constantly and repeatedly, slicing back and forth with each passing moment and month. In time, even our most obdurate illusions will fall away, sliced, like stone under a sculptor’s chisel.

Congratulations to Dr. Tim Lindgren, who defended his doctoral dissertation last week in the basement of Boston College’s Gasson Hall. You can click here to read his dissertation, “Place Blogging: Local Economies of Attention.”

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