I call it my office in a bag. “It” is a large and durable laptop tote with room for file folders, textbooks, my journal, Kindle, chalk, dry erase markers, pens, index cards, staples and a stapler, cough drops, tissues, a water bottle, and an emergency bar of dark chocolate. On days when I leave my laptop at home, my office in a bag is big but easily portable; on days when it’s fully loaded, my tote is bulging and heavy, the kind of burden I’d love to sling over a llama’s back or hand off to a Sherpa. Make no mistake: teaching is only partly about ideas. It’s also about the stuff you’ve learned you can’t function in the classroom without along with whatever organizational method you’ve devised to make sure those materials are always close at hand.
When I was an undergraduate, I remember my professors striding into class nearly empty-handed. They’d carry whatever text we were discussing that day, and they might carry a folder containing their lecture notes or a slim grade-book for taking attendance. On days when they returned assignments, my professors arrived with a fat stack of papers scribbled with red marks and ringed with coffee stains, but that was pretty much it. In the days before laptops, my undergraduate professors were “wired” only on caffeine, and they seemed to assume (accurately or not) that whatever classroom supplies they might need to deliver their lectures would be present in the classroom itself. Particular professors might have idiosyncratic needs—one, for instance, used to consume an entire package of menthol cough drops over the course of a single lecture—but for the most part, my undergraduate professors didn’t come to class carrying a large bag overladen with office supplies. Instead, they just walked into the classroom, ready to Deliver Knowledge.
So, what has changed? First, there’s a difference between the classroom technology of today and the classroom technology of my undergraduate days, way back before Al Gore invented the Internet. When I was an undergraduate, chalk was pretty much the only pedagogical tool my literature professors needed, if they used even that. When I was an undergraduate, most of my professors either lectured or peppered their students with questions, Socratic style, and all they needed to do either task was the voluminous information contained in their own skull. On rare occasions, one of my undergraduate professors might show a video on a big, boxy TV that he or she wheeled into the room on a bulky cart, but that was it. Had the power gone out in most of my undergraduate classrooms, we could have easily continued class by huddling our chairs together, discussing that day’s assignment by candlelight. Back in the old days, professors lectured and students took notes, and this pedagogical approach required very little equipment.
In today’s undergraduate classroom, most instructors do more than lecture, so they need more than a textbook and a stick of chalk. Most of the classes I teach don’t follow a strict lecture format: instead of me talking while my students take notes, most of my classes consist of me presenting several activities that students do either in groups or individually. If small groups are summarizing their impressions of an assigned reading or brainstorming tentative essay topics, I might ask them to write these down on index cards; if we’re doing a grammar workshop, I might ask students to write on the black- or whiteboard selected sentences from their own essay drafts. Since few classrooms are reliably stocked with chalk and dry-erase markers (much less index cards), I always carry my own supply: anything to get my students actively engaged rather than falling asleep over their notebooks as I did when I was an undergraduate sitting through long lectures.
For any day’s class, I typically prepare my notes as a Word file that I post to Blackboard along with whatever web links I’ll be sharing, so students can refer to those materials later. If we’re talking about David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, I might show students a photo essay from the Brooke Army Medical Center; if we’re discussing grammar, I might show one of Taylor Mali’s spoken word routines. Incorporating multimedia resources into the college classroom keeps students more engaged than words scribbled on a dusty chalkboard, but it means I have to lug my laptop to classrooms that aren’t equipped with an instructor workstation. It also means I have to have a Plan B in place in case the Internet is down, the projector isn’t working, or some other technical difficulty forces me to use an actual blackboard rather than Blackboard. Although I suppose my students and I could continue class by huddling our chairs together and watching YouTube videos on someone’s smartphone, that isn’t a pedagogical technique I’d recommend.
But there’s another significant difference between the way I currently teach and the way my undergraduate professors taught. My undergraduate professors were professors, not “instructors,” “lecturers,” or any of the other euphemistic terms colleges use to refer to their part-time, contingent faculty. My undergraduate professors didn’t have to carry an entire day’s worth of teaching material in a single bulging bag because they had an office where their books, files, and office supplies lived. If Professor Z realized on his way to class that he needed a particular book, journal article, or brimming coffee mug, Professor Z could simply stride back to his office down the hall and retrieve it. When you’re a contingent faculty member teaching on multiple campuses, though, you learn to leave very little (if anything) in any of your offices. Not only do you share those offices with other contingent faculty, you learn by experience there’s nothing worse than realizing on your way to Class A on Campus X that you forgot the textbook in your office on Campus Y.
I’ve come to the point where I can recognize my contingent colleagues by silhouette: they are the ones who are slung all around with bags as they trudge like pack-mules across campus. I’ve seen several colleagues use wheeled bags or carts to carry their things as if they’d just returned from a weekend getaway, but so far I’ve resisted the siren call of the wheeled carry-on. Carrying my office on my back like a turtle seems more dignified than dragging it behind me like an ox, and my still-pretending-to-be-youthful pride recoils at the thought of using anything even remotely reminiscent of an old lady’s folding shopping cart.
In her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed names her huge, looming backpack “Monster,” a load whose weight rubs scabbing sores on her back. At one point in Strayed’s journey, a more experienced hiker helps her sort through and jettison some of her things, many of which seemed essential when she was preparing for her trip but turned out to have no useful relevance once she’s actually hiking. In my case, however, my “monster” is huge, hulking, and heavy because I’ve been on the trail long enough to know the things that are essential are often difficult to find if you don’t carry them with you. When you teach out of your bag, you need that bag to be ample, expansive, and well-stocked.