Teaching & learning


Codman frogs

It’s the start of the third week of the semester at Framingham State and the fourth week of the semester at Babson College. I’m teaching hybrid classes at both colleges, so instead of commuting four days a week, I teach at Babson on Wednesdays, Framingham State on Thursdays, and online the other days.

For much of the summer, I alternated between anxieties: on the one hand, I worried about the health risks of teaching in-person; on the other, I worried about keeping my job. Now that the semester is officially underway, I’m calmer and less anxious than I have been at any time during the pandemic. Instead of fixating on the many things outside my control, I am busy paying attention to the things within my power.

These days I spend an inordinate amount of time fiddling with the classroom technology that allows me to teach students in the room and students who are logged in from home. When the technology works, it is awesome and amazing; when it doesn’t (which is often), I wonder whether I’m effectively reaching anyone, anywhere.

Despite the glitches, though, I find myself wondering whether I’ll go back to conventional teaching ever again. Teaching half-time in-person forces me to prioritize what we do in class, with me in the room, versus what we can do more effectively online, at each student’s own speed. In retrospect, the amount of time I used to spend giving real-time lectures on writing–a skill that must be practiced to be perfected–seems unnecessary and counter-productive. I would have been better served meeting with students individually or in small groups.

This much I know: I will never have a conventional attendance policy again. I no longer have any desire to force sick students to come to class when there are perfectly viable ways they can participate remotely. One of the things I’m curious to see this term is whether we all stay healthier than usual. Will having morning classes one day a week rather than two mean my students this semester will be less sleep-deprived? Will there be less sickness–fewer cases of colds and flu–now that we’re washing our hands, wearing masks, and staying six feet apart?

I’ve always said that teaching in a college classroom is like working in a germ-infested Petri dish: by the fifth week of a normal semester, everyone is sick with an infectious malaise that gets passed around and around ‘til Thanksgiving, when students go home, rest up, then return to campus with a fresh set of germs to share.

But this is not a normal semester–and most people say that as if it were a bad thing. Yes, it’s sad that the virus-spreading activities of the “normal college experience” have been cancelled or curtailed this semester. But what if this particular cloud of contagion has an unexpectedly salubrious side-effect?

I would happily say goodbye to the infectious practices of past semesters. There used to be a badge of honor bestowed upon students who came to class sick–what dedication!–or who boasted about multiple all-nighters–what diligence! But why should growing your brain be a danger to your physical health? What if one side-effect of the COVID crisis were a paradigm shift where caring for one’s own (and one’s neighbors’) physical health were as important as making the grade?

Magnolia-to-be

I’m writing these lines during today’s virtual office hours. Although all of the required components in my suddenly-online classes are asynchronous, I hold real-time office hours in case my students have quick questions. So as I write these words, I’m sitting in front of my laptop, webcam on and headset donned, just in case anyone drops by to say hello. It’s a strange new ritual in this age of remote learning, a kind of vigil I keep just in case any of my students wants to talk.

This is, of course, comparable to what I used to do during my face-to-face office hours: I’d sit in my office and wait for students to show up. During that time, I’d try to be productive, grading papers, prepping classes or answering emails, just as right now I’m writing these lines.

But online office hours feel different because of their virtual nature. When someone comes to my office on campus, they enter a space we subsequently share, but during virtual office hours, there is no shared physical space. Instead, I sit in front of my laptop in my home office with Roxy napping on the bed behind me, and my students sit in front of their laptop webcams in their own spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, couches.

It’s oddly intimate while being (literally) remote. Occasionally a grandmother wanders in with a plate of food or a kid sister pops into view, eager to show off a painting she made. There is a brief screen-sized glimpse into another person’s world as if through a window: here a student I knew only in the neutral space of an academic classroom or administrative office exists on their home turf, or at least wherever they find themselves right now, for now.

I feel the same kind of intimacy when I hear or see radio and TV reporters calling in from home these days, or experts and interviewees appearing as tiny video squares from their attic offices, basement dens, or spare bedrooms. Suddenly we are sharing spaces even while we are apart, our connection mediated through screens both large and small.

These days, the word “screen” is oddly evocative, for originally screens were a veil pulled opaquely to provide privacy between two contiguous worlds: you on one side, me on the other. Neighbors can hear one another through screens; priests can hear confessions from anonymous penitents, and absolutions can be offered.

A screen is also where we project ourselves or our hopes, dreams, and fantasies. Something that is a keeper-apart of faces and spaces is at the same time an open place–a proverbial blank canvas–where we can show and perform.

In this sense, holding virtual office hours is an act of hope, even if (especially if) no one shows up. It’s the waiting that makes it sacred: a kind of virtual vigil where presence itself is its own sacrament. Here I am, holding a space open for you, wherever you are.

In this sense, holding virtual office hours is like showing up at the page or taking three sips of tea before giving a Zen interview: you don’t know what will flow from your pen or who will walk through the door.

First forsythias

This afternoon, a teaching colleague emailed to ask for any advice I might share as he transitions his face-to-face class online. Since so many instructors find themselves in a similar situation right now, I thought I’d share my response:

Although I spent more than a decade teaching fully-online classes elsewhere, I’ve never taught a face-to-face class that then suddenly went online. Ideally, you’d design an online class from the ground up versus on-the-fly. So don’t set your expectations too high: at this point, you’re trying to salvage some sort of decent learning experience out of a crappy situation.

More than anything, you want to be human and humane. I think this pretty much sums it up.

The more you can do asynchronously, the better. Let me repeat that: THE MORE YOU DO ASYNCHRONOUSLY, THE BETTER.

I know everyone is fascinated with the “shiny new toy” aspect of Zoom, Collaborate, and other real-time meeting tools, but I’d under-emphasize those. Students are going to be living at home with family, roommates, significant others, children, shared (or no) Internet connections, unpredictable schedules, and a pandemic that might affect the health of their loved ones and/or themselves. Adding the learning curve of new technology and the stress of real-time scheduling is NOT helpful.

When you’re teaching online, less is more, less is more, less is more. Or as Thoreau would say, Simplify, simplify, simplify.

The Blackboard discussion board is your friend. Students can post asynchronously whenever they are able, and they can post from their phone with the Blackboard app. Provide your students with clear expectations about discussion board participation. Emphasize that in an online class, “participation” and “attendance” are the same thing. You can’t sit in the back row and lurk: to be present, you need to participate.

In converting my face-to-face classes, I’ve cut a LOT of content and activities that work well in person but just won’t work online. In an online course, there is no need to “fill class time” with activities. Decide which final deliverables are essential, divide those into weekly chunks, and jettison the rest.

For one of my classes, this means each Monday-Sunday module features one discussion board and one writing assignment due on Sunday night. (These writing assignments are pieces of a larger research project.) THAT IS ALL.

We aren’t doing any real-time class sessions. If there is something I absolutely have to teach “in person,” I’ll record a video that students can watch whenever is convenient to them. Each Monday morning, I’ll post everything students need for that week’s module, including a checklist of relevant tasks and due-dates, links to whatever they need, etc. It’s up to students to plan out how they manage their time and work-load for each week’s deliverables.

The only real-time component I’m keeping is virtual office hours. I’ll have set times twice a week when I’ll be available for students to talk via WebEx or Blackboard Collaborate. (Skype is also an option many students are already familiar with.) If students want to “meet” at other times, we can schedule that, but I’m not requiring anyone to meet me in real time. Students’ schedules are too complicated for that, especially during these crazy times.

Students won’t remember whether you were a tech-guru who was a master of online technology; they’ll remember whether you were kind, humane, and helpful during an unbelievably stressful time.

I hope this is helpful. Let me know if you have additional questions, and STAY HEALTHY.

Four cones

Every year, I repeat the same mantra as October turns into November: “If I can make it to Thanksgiving, I’ll survive the semester.”

Every semester is a marathon, not a sprint, and just as distance runners learn to recognize the cycles of any race–the places they get tired and discouraged, and the places they find their second wind–I’ve learned to recognize the phases of a typical semester.

At first, a new semester is both exhilarating and exhausting: for the first few weeks, you have to manage the adrenaline rush of new classes and a new schedule. Around week five, the novelty of a new term has worn off, and everyone is sick and tired: the start of what I call the Dark Night of the Semester.

For the past month or so, I’ve settled into the middling stride of my semester–my teaching days have fallen into a familiar routine–but this routine is also its own kind of drudgery. I’ve been behind with grading–buried in my paper-piles–for so long now, I sometimes wonder whether I’ll ever dig out. “The work always gets done,” I remind myself, a mantra I repeat every semester without fail. No matter how high the paper-piles, the work always somehow gets done, and usually not a moment too soon.

Whereas Spring Break comes right in the middle of Spring semester, Thanksgiving break comes at the almost-end of Fall semester: after my students and I come back after the holiday, there are two weeks of classes–the busiest time of the semester–followed by Finals Week. This week I told my first-year students, who have never completed the marathon that is a college semester, to rest up over Thanksgiving because when classes resume, the business of the semester will heat up, fast.

I’ve run this marathon enough times to know that Thanksgiving is when the uphill slog of the semester turns into a roller-coaster rush to the finish.

Minimalism

This past week my Intro to College Writing students at Framingham State have been preparing brief presentations they’ll give after we return from Thanksgiving break. My students have worked on individual projects for over a month now, doing research and spending lots of time thinking about their topics in advance of writing a five- to seven-page position paper. But before they submit the final version of that assignment, I’m asking them to prepare a brief presentation where they share their conclusions and field questions.

Being able to summarize a complicated issue in a clear and concise manner is a valuable skill: imagine a world where everyone could boil things down to their essence. In class last week, I showed students how to summarize their project in a single paragraph using a basic template I provided. This week, we’ve practiced converting this paragraph into a sentence outline, and today we’re translating that sentence outline into a keyword outline.

I tell my students that being able to express an idea both briefly and at length is a valuable skill: if you know a topic inside and out, you can whittle it down to its essential points or you can elaborate in more depth and detail. Many of my students are accustomed to school assignments that require them to write more rather than less, so they are surprised to realize how hard it is to be both brief and clear.

When you whittle something down to its essentials, you necessarily have to prioritize your points: which ideas are essential, and which are expendable? Brevity isn’t merely the soul of wit; it is also the companion of comprehension.

One woman's trash is another woman's fashion

It’s a gray and rainy day–a damp, drizzly November in my soul–and I spent most of my office hours grading papers. We’re at the point of the semester when I could grade 24/7, and the bottom of my paper-pile would still be far, far away.

Sadly, I have things to do besides grade, so I chip away at my paper-piles during the smidgens of time between classes, meetings with students, and the perpetual need to prep class after class. (The biggest challenge in teaching six classes isn’t that you have six classes’ worth of papers to grade; it’s that every moment you spend in class teaching is a moment you aren’t reading papers.)

I’m writing these words in a notebook while my first-year writing students are crafting opening anecdotes for the essay draft that’s due next week: another batch of papers for my pile. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Toledo, I sometimes would go to University Hall late at night with nothing but a notebook, and I’d sit at the front of an empty classroom writing, imagining the day when I’d be a college professor sitting at my desk writing while my students sat quietly working at theirs.

This was the late 1980s, so I had no idea my eventual students would compose on laptops, tablets, and phones more often than with pen and paper. And I had no idea then how many papers I’d be reading now. How could I have known? Grading papers is invisible work: I never actually saw my professors doing it. Instead, I saw them lecturing in class or looking profound during office hours, when they were invariably poring over a book, never student papers or that more recent bane of modern academic life: email.

When I was an undergraduate, I never took freshman composition, the class I now primarily teach: the adjunct’s bread and butter. I never wrote drafts that were commented on then returned to revise. Instead, I took Honors Readings Conference my freshman year, and I met with my instructor face-to-face to talk about every paper I wrote. There might have been comments on those essays: honestly, I can’t recall. What I remember were the conversations I had with my professors and the awe-inspiring realization that they took my ideas seriously enough to encourage me to think about them even more deeply.

I’m not sure I’ve ever accomplished that in any of my written comments on student drafts: I’m not sure (ultimately) that these comments are even the point. What I had no way of knowing when I sat writing at the front of those empty late-night classrooms when I was an undergraduate in Ohio was how much of my life would be frittered away grading papers and how little of it would be spent face-to-face with my students, having the kind of deep conversations I so enjoyed. My expectations then seem as removed from my current reality as the height of today’s paper-pile.

Witch hazel

Today has been a day of small victories. The sun was out for most of the day, so the snow piles are slowly shrinking. I heard a Carolina wren singing in the morning, saw the red-bellied woodpecker in his accustomed spot on a dead snag down the street, and photographed the witch hazel that’s been blooming for weeks in a neighbor’s yard.

Listing snowman.

This afternoon I spent too much time unpacking boxes and putting things away–this is the week when our monthly bulk orders of pet food, cleaning supplies, and other household necessities arrive–but I got the trash and recycling out to the curb for tomorrow’s collection, I’ve prepared my classes for tomorrow, and the pets are fed and the refrigerator is stocked. I graded fewer papers than I’d hoped today, but I made some progress with my paper-piles, and that itself is progress.

Is that a nest hole you're excavating, Mr. Woodpecker?

In March, teaching becomes a game of Drop the Ball: you’ve long given up your naive hopes of juggling everything, so you constantly assess which obligations can drop without shattering and which might actually bounce. This morning while walking the dog, I slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk mere yards from where I’d slipped and fell on hard-packed snow a few weeks ago. My ego was injured both times, but today I didn’t bruise: success!

Headless snowman

In March, you downgrade your definition of bliss: instead of holding out hopes for heaven, you content yourself with those scattered, spare moments when simply strolling down a clean, sunny sidewalk with solid footing and dry feet passes as perfection. I’m slowly reading a book by Anne Lamott called Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, which I’d gleaned from our neighborhood Little Free Library. I read a chapter here and there when I have time, which means the book mostly sits on my desk, waiting. Some days simply getting to the end of the day with one’s hair still rooted in place feels like a minor miracle.

First day teaching

This semester, after a two-year stint as a full-time visiting professor at Framingham State University, I’m back to teaching there part-time: basically the same job, but with a smaller teaching load, fewer departmental responsibilities, and significantly less pay. To make up some of the financial difference, I’ve taken a part-time position as an adjunct lecturer at Babson College in Wellesley, a college whose campus is conveniently located on my way to Framingham. Two days a week, I teach at Babson in the morning and Framingham State in the afternoon, and on the other days, I grade papers, prep classes, and answer student emails from home.

This way / that way

This is how contingent faculty far off the tenure track make their living; my situation is in no way unique. Throughout graduate school and beyond, I was a roads scholar, juggling classes at multiple institutions: drive in, teach, drive somewhere else, repeat. My two years of full-time teaching at Framingham State were the exception, not the rule. Even during the decade I was employed as a full-time instructor at Keene State College, I didn’t receive benefits and taught online to cover my health insurance premiums. Long before the gig economy had a name, I’ve supported myself for decades with a long string of side-hustles.

This way

In the year leading up to my fiftieth birthday, I spent a lot of time quietly lamenting the sorry state of my contingent career. I love teaching, but it often feels like the academy doesn’t love me back. I didn’t go to grad school, after all, with dreams of being a perpetual part-timer, and there is something quaintly pathetic about middle-aged adjuncts like me: we’re the folks at the party who have long overstayed our welcome.

Adjuncting is a rite of passage when you’re in graduate school, and most folks either merge onto the tenure track or move onto other things. But for better or worse, I’ve made a lasting living out of temporary employment. Out of necessity, I’ve become the person who can step in at the last minute when someone suddenly goes on leave or moves onto a better job. If I were a basketball player rather than a college instructor, I’d be the role player way down the bench who can plug into any team mid-season: a quintessential team-player who will never be an All-Star.

This way

I sometimes think of myself as an itinerant, like the pioneer preachers who rode from town to town on horseback with nothing but a Bible and a head full of homilies. Nobody becomes a superstar through circuit riding, but there are plenty of communities that relied upon preachers who passed through intermittently, but with great faith. The need for itinerants always outstrips the resources to compensate them.

What I lack in lasting job security, I make up for in breadth of experience. Almost a month into the semester, I’ve quickly realized that Babson and Framingham State are very different institutionally and in terms of student demographics, so twice a week when I steer my Subaru from one campus to the other, I move from world to world, culture to culture, gaining a perspective that professors who teach at only one college necessarily lack. The best college professors make a conscious effort to teach the students in front of them, not some theoretical idea of what a student “should” be. When you’re contingent faculty, the nature of the students in front of you changes from day to day and hour to hour, depending on where you find yourself.

Horse chestnuts (aka buckeyes) emerging and emerged

There is a horse-chestnut (aka buckeye) tree I pass every time I park in my usual spot at Framingham State, and this past semester, I fell into the habit of picking up a single buckeye every morning I came to campus to teach. Buckeyes remind me of Ohio, so it became a comforting ritual to pick up a buckeye, polish it in my hand as I walked to my office, and then place it on my desk as that day’s amulet: a good luck-eye.

Basket of buckeyes

Last week, I gathered all these buckeyes into a basket, each representing a day when I commuted to campus with the usual assortment of worries, obligations, and distractions. Whether it was rainy or sunny, I picked up a buckeye. Whether I was tired, discouraged, or feeling energized, I picked up a buckeye. Whether I was running late or had arrived early, I picked up a buckeye.

Whereas my students get something tangible at the end of each semester–a grade and whatever credits they’ve accrued–teaching can sometimes feel as futile as a dog chasing her tail. After so much energy poured into lectures, quizzes, and essay drafts, what (if anything) did I or anyone accomplish? At the end of yet another semester, it felt oddly satisfying to have accumulated a tangible thing: not something I made, for sure, but something I gradually gathered, a reminder of moments that might have otherwise slipped away without notice.

Greening

I took a moment earlier today to photograph the emerging leaves and flowering forsythia in our backyard: the same photos I take every year. It is somehow encouraging to see, again, that when the spring comes, the grass grows by itself, even while I am preoccupied with other obligations.

Forsythia flowers

Yesterday afternoon, I began discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me with my American literature students: the first time they’ve read it, but the fifth or sixth time for me. A good book, in my estimation, is one that wows and amazes you no matter how many times you read it. Emily Dickinson defined poetry as something that makes you feel as if the top of your head had been taken off, and this is how I’d describe the experience of reading Coates’ meditation on racism in America. The first time I read Coates’ book, it blew my mind with its blunt, unflinching honesty, and it stuns and shakes me every time I read it since.

First leaves of spring

Yesterday as I discussed the book with my students, I marveled at how much more politically aware they are than I was at their age. My students are saddened but not surprised by Coates’ account of America’s racist history, and they aren’t fazed by his refusal to offer sugar-coated hopefulness. Yesterday my students and I discussed the book alongside recent examples of police overreach, such as the shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento and the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks–and we watched a video showing parents of black boys describing The Talk they’ve had warning their sons of police brutality.

Spring green

These are not things I was aware of when I was an undergraduate. Rodney King was beaten in the 1990s, when I was in graduate school, and I blithely assumed his case was an anomaly, something attributed to a few bad cops rather than a pervasively systemic problem. My students today, however, don’t have the luxury of such innocence. They read the news and consider with clear-eyes the diminished promise of their own futures. Growing up in the shadow of the Great Recession, they know the American dream is a tempting fantasy that leads too often toward American disappointment.

Leafing

With hopes hardened by realism, my students are not shocked by the cruel realities Coates describes; they realize the world my generation leaves them is riddled by as many problems as promises. Like Coates, I don’t offer my students easy answers; I don’t have those answers, and I doubt any answers will be easy. But it heartens me to realize my students have open eyes and hearts that care, even as their youthful earnestness reminds me of the tender and tenuous first leaves of spring.

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