Life lessons


Good day for (rubber) ducks

Spring semester started last week at both Babson and Framingham State, so I’ve spent the past week getting my proverbial ducks in a row. My syllabi, assignment prompts, and Canvas sites were ready on day one, and I’ve spent the past week and weekend setting up attendance records and updating studio schedules for my Comp I students.

Although there have been semesters when I’ve built my pedagogical plane as I was flying it, this semester I’m revisiting classes I’ve already taught. I know from long experience the more planning and preparation I can do early in the semester, the easier things will go later. There will be weeks when I’ll be buried in grading, and at those times I’ll need the guardrails of a well-designed course to keep me on track. A detailed syllabus and course calendar are for my benefit as much as my students’.

”Executive function” is the term psychologists use for the planning and processing skills both students and instructors alike need to stay organized and on-task. Many first-year students struggle with executive function, with college being the first time they’ve had to juggle school, socializing, and other aspects of adulting without a parent present. This is especially true in Spring semester Comp I classes, where many students are repeating the class because they got derailed last semester.

I am not a naturally organized person, as anyone who has seen my messy desk can testify. Over the years, I’ve learned I need a scaffold of to-do lists, calendar reminders, and So Many Alarms to remind me what I need to do when. I’m only as organized as the structure surrounding me.

They say second marriages represent a triumph of hope over experience, and I’d argue that students’ second or third attempts to pass a class represent a combination of hope and experience: my students’ hope, and my experience knowing what it takes to stay on-track. As lead duck leading a flock of younger ducks, it’s my job to keep everyone on task and on target: ducks, meet row.


Raindrop

Yesterday afternoon, I listened to a two-hour radio show dedicated to G, the father of my friend A (not her real initial), who died in December after fighting dementia. G loved to play and listen to music, so A’s aunt in Oregon used her weekly public radio show to air a playlist of songs her brother loved: lots of Chet Atkins, an occasional Willie Nelson tune, some Charlie Pride and a delightfully palate-cleansing Frank Yankovic, and a handful of songs from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

It was a moving and joy-filled tribute to a man with many friends, and I woke this morning with “I’ll Fly Away” singing in my head. During the past three pandemic years, we’ve all become accustomed to creative ways to celebrate safe and socially-distanced milestone events, including drive-by birthday parties and too many CardMyYard displays to count.

At the height of pandemic lockdown, J and I attended our first (and so far only) Zoom wedding, a gathering in a Texas hotel ballroom with remote attendees in Pakistan, Qatar, and beyond. It was an event we wouldn’t have attended in any other context, but Zoom literally opened the ceremony to folks like us in far-flung places, giving us a chance to witness an otherwise private family event.

The week after G died, I “attended” his New York memorial service via Zoom, and I was grateful for the opportunity to be there virtually if not in person. Yesterday’s radio show felt similarly–and surprisingly–immediate. Although a radio playlist dedicated to G wasn’t a nod to pandemic protocol–I’m sure his sister would have dedicated a show to him even without a pandemic–the technologies we’ve become so accustomed to these past few years are a perfect way to gather far-flung friends and family in a shared act of remembrance.

Yesterday as I listened to an Oregon radio live stream on my phone here in eastern Massachusetts, I occasionally traded text comments and emoji with A in western Mass as we listened: not quite the same as being in the same room, but a way to share a real-time experience across the miles.


Watching

Last night I went to the Zen Center to teach a brief meditation intro class. While the Zen Center was closed during the height of the pandemic, this class happened virtually via Zoom and has only recently moved back in-person.

Teaching meditation online is…interesting. It’s perfectly possible to tell someone the basics of Zen meditation via Zoom: here is how to keep your body, breath, and mind. But when you teach meditation in person, you can hear the person next to you breathing, and you have a peripheral sense of their posture: are they nodding, slouching, or slumping?

When you teach meditation on Zoom, you can see your students’ faces, but you don’t have a three-dimensional, multisensory sense of their physical presence. Watching someone meditate is about as interesting as watching paint dry, but meditating alongside someone gives you a much more intimate understanding of how present they are.

Teaching a thing is only partly about talking: telling students about Zen is as helpful as telling someone about a delicious and nourishing meal. If you want to learn how to meditate, sit beside someone else who is meditating, and like an old ox teaching a youngster how to pull a straight furrow, your yoke-mate will teach you more than words can say.


Perspective

One of the things I perpetually struggle with as a professor is what to do with myself while my students are writing in class. Like an intellectual life guard, I feel I should be ever watchful of my students as they work: what if someone reaches an intellectual impasse and needs help? Although I regularly open my laptop to check email while my students are working, I struggle to contrate on anything more sustained, knowing someone at any moment might have a question.

Part of me wishes I could make better use of these random moments while I’m teaching to work on my own writing: part of me wishes someone were lifeguarding me, offering encouragement and a watchful eye as needed. It is the shepherd’s job to watch the sheep, but who guards the shepherd? At the same time, another part of me resents this perpetual urge to Make Good Use of every spare moment. Why must I cram my own writing into an occasional stolen moment while doing something else?

I’m reminded of two disparate stories: first, Virginia Woolf’s description in A Room of One’s Own of Jane Austen writing novels in her family’s common sitting-room and hiding her drafts under blotting paper whenever she was interrupted; second, a colleague’s account of how he finished his dissertation in record time because he wrote non-stop for six months while his wife left trays of food outside the door to his study.

Why is it, I wonder, that generations after Woolf wrote her essay, women still have to squeeze creative pursuits between other obligations, and why is it that nobody has ever left a tray of food at my door?


Maple leaves

Already it’s late November: almost Thanksgiving, which means the end of Fall semester will be here in a flash.

Every year I warn my first-year students about the post-Thanksgiving time warp. Every Fall, students and faculty alike look forward to Thanksgiving as a chance to rest and recuperate, and every Fall, students and faculty alike are dismayed to realize how much work awaits them when they return from Thanksgiving, the end of the semester looming large.

Every year, I tell my first-year students that semester-time doesn’t work like regular time, but every year, they don’t believe me until December, when they experience this time warp themselves. The days before Thanksgiving move at a snail’s pace, but after the holiday is over, it will feel like we’ve stepped into a bobsled.


Adirondack chairs

This semester, after teaching first-year writing at Framingham State since 2012, I am complementing my usual teaching with studio tutoring, meeting with several small cohorts of students from someone else’s Comp I class to help them write and revise their assignments.

Teaching writing to your own students is completely different from tutoring for someone else’s class. My tutoring students are working on essays I didn’t assign and I won’t grade. I don’t have to prepare lessons: I just show up for my studio sessions and ask “What are you working on today?”

So far, I’m loving the different set of teaching muscles that tutoring flexes. When you’re not responsible for grading students, you can focus simply on helping them improve the draft they currently have. You focus on the steps they can take right now to make this draft better rather than comparing that draft with an idealized “A paper” in your head.

Since you’re the student’s tutor, not instructor, you’re also free to help them work on anything they bring you, not just Comp I assignments. Last week I gave several tutoring students some pointers on how to read a journal article for a chemistry class, and I helped another student brainstorm and start drafting a movie review for a 100-level literature class.

When you teach, it’s your job to set and stick to an agenda, keeping students on topic in order to “cover the material.” But in a tutoring session, there is no agenda to enforce and no material to cover. Instead, you try to help students with anything they are working on, even if “all” they need is to talk to a professor who isn’t theirs.


Gingko leaves

On Mondays and Wednesdays this semester, I have the luxury of walking and writing in the morning before I leave for campus, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays those pleasures await me when I get home in the evening.

I sometimes think of the chores that await me when I get home as being a tall wall between me and the unplugging I crave at the end of a draining day. Instead of coming home and immediately flopping on the couch, as I’d prefer, I arrive home to a checklist of chores: bring in the trash, walk the dog, unpack my lunch tote, unload the dishwasher, clean the dogs’ dinner dishes, then collapse at my desk to write and prepare the next day’s classes before giving the diabetic cats their evening insulin and cleaning litter boxes before dinner.

When I walk and write in the morning, my mind is fresh and bright, brimming with energy and ideas. But when I write at the end of a teaching day, my inspiration is depleted, and I wish more than anything that someone would tend and shepherd me the way I try to encourage my students. It’s difficult to find anything interesting or profound to say at the end of a long teaching day, when my inner introvert wants to curl up with a book, someone else’s words replacing my depleted stores.

But here is the mystery: tomorrow morning, after an evening off and a good night’s sleep, I’ll do it all over again: teach, rest, repeat from the start of the semester to its eventual end.


Swimming lessons

Several weekends ago, A (not her real initial) and I met at the Worcester Art Museum to see “Fathom,” an exhibit of Kat O’Connor’s aquatic-themed paintings. Neither A nor I was familiar with O’Connor’s work, but Worcester is a good meeting spot between Here and There, and looking at paintings of blurred and distorted underwater figures seemed like an apt end-of-summer activity.

A form to visualize idea

If you’re a teacher, August marks the official end of summer, so the month always passes in a blur, with countless preparatory details. I’ve spent the past few weeks updating syllabi and fiddling over Canvas sites: there are so many ducks to put into so many rows. Starting a new semester feels like jumping into the deep end–with a sudden splash, all’s subsumed in swoosh and swirl–and a well-planned syllabus is a life-line, with dates like knots to keep you connected to Here and Now.

Triptych

Viewing O’Connor’s work was a welcome respite. Her lush and voluptuous images–some painted in oil, acrylic, or watercolor, and others drawn in graphite–evoke the delicious disorientation of being submerged. Underwater, sound is muffled, colors are transmogrified, and shapes are distorted: nothing is how it seems. Something as simple as a quick summer dip feels completely transformative, a secular baptism into an altered state of consciousness.

Fathom

Looking at O’Connor’s paintings, I couldn’t remember the last time I went swimming. When I lived in Keene, I’d regularly walk the dog at Goose Pond, where we both ignored the “no swimming” signs. But now that I live in Massachusetts, my schedule is far less fluid. I still regularly walk the dog, sure, but we walk around the block at routine times rather than dropping everything for an impromptu swim when the weather is right.

As I post one syllabus and prep another, I realize how grounded in the practical my life has become. Poets and painters appreciate the weightless spontaneity of the depths, but teachers in August are mired in mundane details. These days, I’m a landlubber, preoccupied with schedules and to-do lists. A syllabus is a lifeline precisely because it is practical: before my students and I get swept away in the flash flood of a typical college semester, I carefully chart out due-dates and deliverables.

CLICK HERE for more images from the Worcester Art Museum. Enjoy!



Mirror wall

This weekend, I finished a two-week online professional development course on inclusive teaching. The course featured asynchronous course materials–readings, videos, discussion boards–and four real-time Webex sessions with faculty from a range of disciplines. It was a welcome opportunity to debrief and talk shop at the end of another grueling semester.

As strange as it might sound, one of the things I most enjoyed over the past two weeks was the luxury of being a student. For two weeks, I read articles and watched videos someone else found, participated in discussions someone else led, and reflected upon questions someone else posed. All I had to do, in other words, was show up to the course and do what the instructors told me to do.

One of the exercises we practiced was called windows and mirrors. The premise was simple: when you read a text or watch a video, there are aspects that ring true with your experience and other aspects that show you a new perspective. The ideas that reflect your own experience are Mirrors, and the moments that show you something new are Windows. We like to see our own perspective mirrored back to us, but it’s also important to get a glimpse into how other people experience the world.

When I teach literature, I practice a version of this windows and mirrors exercise. I often ask students what resonated for them in a literary text, and also what surprised them. Now I’m realizing that this familiar readerly practice can be applied to pretty much everything, not just literature. There are moments when we nod in agreement, and there are moments when we say “Hmm, I never realized that.” Both experiences are powerful, and both are worthy of reflection.


Hydrangea-to-be

This year’s Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network (BRAWN) summer institute is happening virtually, so this morning I led a Zoom session on building community in the college composition classroom, then I skipped the rest of the day’s sessions. As much as I enjoy talking shop with my Boston-area teaching colleagues, Zoom fatigue is real, and two hours of Zooming is about all that my Inner Introvert can handle.

I’m relieved to have finished the session. When I was asked to lead a workshop, my immediate reaction was “I have nothing worth sharing,” but of course these workshops aren’t about offering answers as much as asking questions, posing problems, and gently steering the conversation as colleagues describe what did or didn’t work in their classes this year.

So, what did or didn’t work in my classes? I naively (in retrospect) believed that having students simply return to the classroom after more than a year of remote, hybrid, and hyflex teaching would magically result in a close-knit community of learners: after all the complaining about Zoom school, surely students would be eager and energized to engage in the face-to-face classroom.

Instead, this past academic year was challenging and disjointed–a proverbial mixed bag–as students went in and out of quarantine. Too many students didn’t come to class, and too many students came to class but didn’t actively participate, treating the classroom as a virtual meeting they watched on mute with cameras off.

At times, this led me to wonder what exactly we were trying to accomplish in the face-to-face classroom: if it’s easier to post class materials online and let students complete tasks at their own pace, asynchronously, why even bother having class sessions?

Today my colleagues and I grappled with that tricky question, encouraging one another to re-envision the work and worth of the in-person classroom. We didn’t answer the question–we never do–but we had an engaging and thought-provoking conversation, made all the more interesting by the simple fact we were using Zoom to talk about improving our in-person classes.


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