Teaching & learning


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.


Donut Stress

This is the third week of the semester, but it’s the first week I’ve taught entirely in-person.

Both Babson and Framingham State started the Spring semester remotely, giving students time to get booster shots and take on-campus COVID tests. Babson returned to in-person instruction last week, and this week I finally met my Framingham State students face-to-face.

It’s strange to meet students in-person after you’ve already read their first assignments: the opposite of how it usually happens. The names and words on the screen now have flesh-and-blood personalities attached, and in my Tuesday classes we did an icebreaker activity I often do on the first day of class, not the third week of the term.

Omicron or no, I’m ready to be back in-person. Last Thursday, I taught my final (scheduled) Zoom classes from my desk in my bedroom while workmen in the basement clanged and rattled, tearing out a leaky oil tank and replacing it with a shiny new one. As Roxy paced and whined, upset that Strangers Were in the House Doing Things, I lectured to my screen and tried to maintain some semblance of professionalism despite the domestic chaos in the background.

After two years of intermittent work-from-home, I’m ready for boundaries again: let home happen at home and work happen at work. When I’m teaching or holding office hours on campus, I’m not worrying about walking the dog, folding the laundry, or unloading the dishwasher. Although I still grade papers, answer emails, and prep classes at home, I’ve had my fill of real-time remote classes. I’m ready to kick students out of my bedroom and back into the classroom where they belong.


Teaching at home

Spring semester starts tomorrow at both of the colleges where I teach. Tomorrow I’ll teach my Framingham State classes from my desk at home, and on Wednesday I’ll teach my Babson classes from my office on campus, followed by my first COVID test of the semester.

I’m so accustomed to pandemic-related modality shifts, I didn’t bat an eye when FSU then Babson announced the first week of the in-person semester would be remote to give returning students and faculty time to get tested before returning to the classroom. I had a similar lack of response when FSU announced we’d actually spend the first two weeks of the semester remote. At this point of the pandemic, I have practice with nearly any modality: been there, done that.

At this point of the pandemic, teaching college feels like some sort of Green Eggs and Ham-style nursery rhyme:

I can teach standing in class
Or sitting at my desk on my ass.
I can teach in a room
Or I can teach in a Zoom.
Students can Webex from home
Or from wherever they roam.
I can teach from home when I’m sick
Or when the snow and ice are too thick.
I’ll teach however we need to stop the spread.
I’ll teach however you’d like, as long as I’m not dead.

Discarded

Every year before we adjourn for Thanksgiving, I tell my first-year students to rest up over break, as we’ll return to the busiest time of the semester. And just like that, another Thanksgiving break is over, and we’re headed into the maelstrom that is the end-of-term: from rest to stress in the blink of an eye.

Crocker Hall

Every semester, I have a method for triaging teaching tasks. My basic rule is People Before Papers. This means paying attention to the student in front of me is more important than grading papers. What this means in practice, unfortunately, is that paper-grading inevitably gets bumped to the bottom of my to-do list.

Prepping classes takes priority over grading papers, for example, because class time is People Time: that is, time spent face-to-face with my students. I can catch up with paper-grading later, but I can’t make-up precious class sessions after they have passed.

If I’m in my office grading papers and a student walks in with a question or problem, the rule of People Before Papers applies. My paper pile is set aside so I can tend to the student in front of me.

If no student shows up for my office hours, the People Before Papers dictum applies to email, too. The paper-pile can always wait–it certainly isn’t going anywhere–while I answer an emailed question. As slow as I am at grading, students sometimes mention how much quicker I am responding to email than their other professors are.

When it comes to days off and weekends, People Before Papers applies to folks who aren’t my students. Lunches or weekend outings with J take precedence over my paper-piles, as do get-togethers with friends or the care and feeding of the pets. (Pets, after all, are people, too.)

What this all means, of course, is that paper-grading invariably gets pushed to the bottom of my priority pile. It’s not entirely a case of procrastination, although there is, of course, an element of that, too. Instead, it’s a matter of having too many obligations and not enough hours, with paper-grading always deferring to other priorities.

Every Fall semester, I look forward to Thanksgiving as a chance to catch up in large part because my other obligations lessen then. Every moment I’m not prepping or teaching classes can be spent grading papers. And as soon as students head home or elsewhere for the long Thanksgiving weekend, I have fewer questions to answer in-person or via email.

So while my students look forward to traveling, spending time with friends and family, and enjoying other holiday pastimes, I look forward to a long weekend of monotasking, everyone else’s holiday giving me a chance to catch up with work.


Do the math

My Babson students are currently working on a project my Framingham State students will start next week: a theory of writing. This assignment comes at the almost-end of a semester that started with students writing a literacy narrative, so I’ve been envisioning the term as coming full circle. In September, I asked students to reflect upon a specific event that shaped their attitudes toward reading and writing, and now in November, I’m asking them to articulate the larger role writing plays in their intellectual life.

Writers love to write about writing. When we started working on this project, I asked students to read Zadie Smith’s “That Crafty Feeling” as an entry into the genre of writers examining their craft, and I also pointed students toward my blog category on “Writing & Creativity.” But if you’re a first-year college student who has written a lot for school but don’t necessarily see yourself as a capital-W Writer, it can be daunting to try to explain the larger role writing plays in your life.

I feel bad for students who have spent twelve years of their young lives writing predominantly for teachers. We learn spoken language naturally, babbling then chattering as children, then continuing to talk as we grow older, but reading and writing must be taught. The compulsory nature of reading and writing–the fact that many students read and write only when required and only when graded–means many students see writing as a chore. How can you grow fluent in writing–how can you learn to think with your hand, which is how I describe my journal-keeping–if you only write with a teacher reading over your shoulder?

As a naturally bookish child, I was lucky: from an early age, reading and writing were my almost-native tongue. When students approach me and tentatively ask what I’m looking for in a given assignment, I have to stifle the urge to shout “How do I know what I’m looking for until you surprise me with what you’re thinking?” Until you learn to think for yourself–until you learn how to find then follow your own inner urge–lessons and practice and feedback will turn you into a compliant writer, not an insightful one.

I am, I’ve decided, a selfish writer: after years of journal-keeping, I recognize that I write primarily for myself, even when I have an ostensible audience. I write for my inner ear–my own sense, that is, of how a sentence should sound–and I write to make sense of things: for me, writing and thinking are almost one in the same. How can I know what I think until I’ve scribbled it out on the page, or found it under my keyboard-tapping fingers? Even after all these years of blogging, I realize my real audience is me–an audience of one–and everyone else is just eavesdropping.

Ginkgo gleaming golden

Yesterday at Babson College, I spent my office hour preparing today’s classes at Framingham State University. Today at Framingham State, I spent my office hour preparing tomorrow’s classes at Babson. This is how my semesters unfold: prep, teach, repeat.

The ginkgo tree outside the building where I teach my morning class, on the other hand, has suddenly erupted into gold flame: no preparation needed.


November oak

My Comp I students at Framingham State are working on a project that asks them to explore what it takes to become an expert in a given field. We’ve discussed various theories of expertise: Carol Dweck on growth mindsets, Malcolm Gladwell on the 10,000-hour rule, and Atul Gawande on the learning curve new surgeons face.

Yesterday in class, we watched Ta-Nehisi Coates describe a stressful period in his life when he was pushing himself to reach a creative breakthrough. In the clip, Coates describes the stress of finishing his first book, writing his first article for The Atlantic, and pushing himself beyond his limits as a writer.

Coates’ admission that improving can be stressful–that honing one’s craft takes long work, and sometimes that work will be painful, frustrating, and humbling–made my students pause. What if acquiring expertise isn’t worth the stress and sacrifice?

This, of course, is the million dollar question, so I’m proud of my students for asking it. How do we each define not just expertise, but success, and what are we willing to sacrifice for it?

Is working 80 hours a week to become a CEO by the time you’re 30 “worth it” if it means you don’t have time for family, friends, or activities outside of work? Is working 80 hours a week more bearable if you’re busting your tail to support a family?

What, in other words, are the limits of success? Where do we each draw our own boundaries and set our own limits? What sacrifices are we NOT willing to make to “make it,” and how much of our life are we willing to spend to make a living? Why does so much of the research on expertise focus on the cost–the pain, toil, and long hours of practice–and not the joys that motivate us, the satisfaction we find, and the ultimate rewards?

As soon as one of my students mentioned the need to put limits on how hard we work and how much we pressure ourselves, I thought of Simone Biles and her decision this summer to put her own mental health and physical well-being ahead of her pursuit of yet more Olympic medals. Biles is clearly an expert athlete, and no one can question her work ethic. But even Biles reached a point when she chose to say “enough.”

I suspect my students’ thoughts are shaped by the moment we find ourselves in. In the midst of a global pandemic, is work worth dying for? How much is our own mental and physical well-being worth?

I also suspect the widespread emphasis on sacrifice and toil reflects American capitalism and the Protestant work ethic: heaven forbid we limit our willingness to work, work, work, even at the expense of our own happiness. My students’ willingness to question this–their skepticism about whether the elusive American dream is worth its cost in blood, sweat, and tears–says something about the deep inequities in America today, with many of my students wondering if the rewards of a college degree are worth the load of student debt that comes with it.

We live in interesting times, and I suspect the next generation isn’t as dewy-eyed and idealistic as their parents and grandparents. The old paradigm of toiling for years in the hope of having a comfortable retirement isn’t as alluring as it used to be, and at least some of my students are wondering why they should work for a system that clearly isn’t working for them.


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