Teaching & learning


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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