Yesterday I went to a faculty orientation for the “Introduction to College Writing” course I’ll be teaching at Framingham State University this fall, and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. There are many logistical details to attend to when you start teaching at a new institution, so I’ve been navigating a byzantine process of signing contracts, submitting paperwork, and acquiring various logins and passwords. I don’t know where my office will be, I don’t know whether I’ll have a campus mailbox and phone number, and I find myself spending an inordinate amount of energy worrying about getting a parking decal and ordering textbooks. All the things I normally would have taken care of months ago, in other words, are still up in the air because I’m a New Hire, and that means Everything Is New. It’s both exciting and a bit intimidating.
Amidst all the novelty, though, are some small victories. So far this week, I’ve managed to log into my new email and Blackboard accounts, I’ve discovered where to access my class rosters, and I’ve figured out where my classes will meet even though I haven’t actually set foot in those buildings yet. I’m simultaneously nervous and excited, wondering whether the textbook I chose will be a good one, whether my students will be moved by the common reading we’ll be discussing, and whether they’ll be engaged in the writing assignments I’m designing. I’m feeling all the emotions, in other words, that my students are presumably feeling, or will be, as the start of classes rapidly approaches: eagerness, anticipation, excitement, and more than a bit of anxiety. I want to be ready for the first day, but I also have a nervous, unsettled feeling that it’s impossible to be entirely, completely ready. You can do your best to be prepared, but at a certain point, you just have to dive in and brace yourself for the overwhelming sensation of full immersion: “C’mon in: the water’s fine!”
Starting school as a new instructor or a new student is really a lot like life itself. You do your best to plan ahead, but you also have to be ready to abandon your carefully crafted plans when it becomes painfully clear that what you expected isn’t what the Universe is handing you. Plan A might have been wonderful, but Plan B is often what you end up working with.
I’m reminded of the main lesson I took away from Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard the first time I read it–a lesson that is reinforced every time I re-read the book. Before traveling to Nepal to accompany the biologist George Schaller on an expedition to study blue sheep, Matthiessen asks his Zen teacher for advice. “Expect nothing,” the teacher exhorts…and then Matthiessen spends the rest of the book describing how his various expectations for the trip are frustrated. Matthiessen hopes to reach the legendary Crystal Monastery, study with the revered lama there, and see an elusive snow leopard, believing that each of these milestones will mark a progressive step in his spiritual development. But in typical fashion, life doesn’t go according to plan, and nothing that happens on Matthiessen’s trip conforms with what he’d expected.
I arrived at yesterday’s “Introduction to College Writing” orientation with nearly 20 years’ teaching experience and a nine-page draft syllabus, and I left wondering if even 50 years’ teaching experience would be enough to teach this class, and with plans to completely rethink the syllabus I’d drafted. None of this is entirely new to me, of course: my typical approach to planning a semester usually involves radically revamping whatever I did the previous term. I once read that colleagues of the writing teacher Peter Elbow sometimes call him “Write It Wrong Elbow” because his insistence that students write (and then revise) crappy first drafts, and I think this “no worries” approach to making mistakes applies to teaching, too. Sometimes you have to Do Things Wrong in order to figure out how to Do Them Better, if not Right. I’m headed into this coming semester with a lot of experience teaching writing the way I taught it at Keene State College the past 10 years…but the courses I taught at Keene State are distinctly different from what I’ll be teaching at Framingham State in the fall. I’m in a situation, in other words, where past performance isn’t indicative of future results, so I’m having to revisit and revise things accordingly.
As a teacher, I often urge my students to take risks and try new things: this is, after all, what teachers do. But how often do teachers themselves try new things? It’s easy to get settled into your set routine of teaching Pretty Much the Same Thing to subsequent classes of Pretty Much the Same Students, wearing a familiar path from the beginning of the semester to the end. This term, though, I’m having to re-think and re-visit pretty much everything I’ve been doing the past ten years. What got me here won’t necessarily get me there…and that’s exactly the experience my students will have over the coming semester, the techniques that worked for them in high school not necessarily working in college. The thought that I’m responsible for helping them over that gap–that impressive learning curve–is both inspiring and daunting: a real (and awe-inspiring) challenge.
It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that if you cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s on your semester syllabus, you’ll somehow keep Chaos and Complete Semester Meltdown safely at bay. I’ve been teaching long enough, however, to realize things aren’t that simple. Even the best designed syllabus can fall apart in the middle of the semester, and sometimes the things that work for one class simply don’t work in another. There is always an aspect of chance and risk in any endeavor, and teaching is one of those activities where you do your best then hope for the rest.
I have just under two weeks to prepare for the start of classes: just under two weeks to worry and fret over contracts, paperwork, parking decals, and office space. I have just under two weeks to revise, rework, and revamp my syllabus, not just once but probably several times. (Next week is the English departmental retreat, for instance, where we’re supposed to bring several copies of our syllabus for peer feedback. The thought of showing my syllabus-in-progress to my new colleagues fills me with an odd combination of excitement and dread: presumably the same feeling my students will feel before their first essay peer review.)
This time next month, the semester will be underway, and I’ll be subsumed with the actual demands of teaching, struggling with the disconnect between what I’d expected or hoped my students and semester would be like with what they actually are. Whether I see the pedagogical equivalent of a snow leopard this next semester, I’m sure my experience of teaching will be nothing like what I’d expected. It’s a journey I know no amount of planning can completely prepare me for.