Teaching & learning


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.


November stairwell

The other night I dreamed I was in a high school musical. Inexplicably, I had only one number, and it involved none of the other cast members: I basically swooped in to sing a song independent of the rest of the cast, then I’d exit the stage, and the show would go on.

Unfortunately, when the time came for my solo, I walked on stage and forgot both the lyrics and melody of my song. It was just me, a spotlight, and an expectant audience waiting for something to happen.

So in my dream, I winged it. I energetically improvised a melody and lyrics that had little to do with the ones I’d supposedly learned. Instead, I crooned and tap danced and waved jazz hands for my allotted time, then I left the stage, hoping my audience was none the wiser. And indeed, the show went on.

Normally, I’d chalk this off as the usual nonsense that passes as dreams: no analysis necessary. But after teaching for decades, I can’t avoid seeing this as yet another version of the Imposter Syndrome. Here I am standing in the theatre of another college classroom, faking it until I make it.

This dream doesn’t happen in a vacuum: dreams seldom do. This semester I’m teaching a new-to-me curriculum that is forcing me to rework my syllabus, rewrite my assignments, and revise my teaching approaches, all while learning a new language to describe the pedagogy behind my practice.

This semester, in other words, I’m singing from a new script.

Masterful performers take lines they didn’t write and make them their own. They breathe life into words on a page, memorizing lines until those words become automatic: a natural, fluid expression of a character they’ve embodied. But before that happens, performers sometimes forget their lines and have to improvise.

Before you can sing it, first you have to wing it.


Proboscis Paradise

The start of August is the beginning of the end for college instructors. My semester starts on September 1, so I finally need to get to the business of preparing my classes. This time last year, I had no idea what teaching during a pandemic would actually look like: in a cloud of uncertainty, I designed my classes so they could function entirely online if necessary, figuring that any in-person classes we could manage would be icing on the pedagogical cake.

This year, we’d assumed or hoped that Fall would be different. In the Vaccinated Times, we believed we’d all be back on campus together, maskless in full classrooms, the threat of sickness and death behind us. As Spring semester ended in May, we all looked toward Fall for a return to Almost Normal.

Now, though, the future is once again uncertain. Will vaccines alone be enough to keep students in crowded classrooms and full residence halls safe? Are we ready–really–to return to the Petri dish version of college, where students start falling ill with colds, flu, and unidentified illness a few weeks into the semester, then circulate said ailments among their sleep-deprived peers for the rest of the semester before bringing all manner of germs home for Thanksgiving, only to return to campus with a fresh set of bugs exchanged over family gatherings?

In the Before Times, I’d regularly come to class with pocket packs of tissues and an assortment of cough drops, distributing both to my sniffling, sneezing, and coughing students. (Students sick from the other end were on their own.) Sickness rages like proverbial wildfire on college campuses, bred and spread in the close quarters of classrooms, cafeterias, and dorm rooms. Are we really ready to return to that part of the Before Times?

In the face of the Delta variant, rising COVID cases nationwide, and the disheartening reality of breakthrough infections, I find myself quietly planning my own worst-case contingencies.

Feel free to use lawn

Last night I dreamed I was assigned to teach first-year writing in a large, shady cemetery. As I walked the grounds on the first day of class, I wondered how I was supposed to teach outside without the usual infrastructure of a normal classroom. I also fretted because my syllabus wasn’t ready for a class that was abruptly starting in July rather than September.

Eventually I found a flat, coffin-sized tombstone I figured I could stand on while shouting to my students, whom I assumed would be far-flung throughout the cemetery grounds. Right at class time, however, I realized none of my students had showed up, so after several more minutes of wandering, I found my class packed into a small, squarish chapel, where some students were standing and others were sitting on an assortment of rickety wooden chairs they had pushed against the chapel’s stone walls, with everyone’s backpacks and other belongings piled in a messy heap at the center of the room.

After introducing myself and explaining that I’d post the syllabus before our next class meeting, I sent my students outside to complete a small-group icebreaker while I took inventory of our makeshift classroom. There were not enough chairs, no desks, no podium or table for me, no projector for my laptop, no electrical outlets for my students’ laptops, and not even a chalk or whiteboard to write upon.

But since my first-years had never been to college before, they were unfazed by the weirdness, even as I explained that today’s class was in July and our next class wouldn’t meet until September.

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