Teaching & learning


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.

Six word memoirs

This past Friday was the National Day on Writing, and for the first time, Framingham State hosted an event sponsored by the English Department and the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA). Among the day’s activities was a six-word memoir wall where students, faculty, and staff posted colorful sticky-notes telling the (brief) stories of their lives.

More memoirs

Capturing your life in six words sounds difficult, but it’s fun and even addictive once you try it. (You can read some examples here.) On the first day of my American Short Story class each semester, I tell students the apocryphal legend of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” We debate the larger story behind these words: who placed the ad, why were the shoes never worn, and is the baby who should have worn them alive, dead, or never born?

The best people are English majors

It turns out you can say a lot in only a few words, and every semester my students and I try our hands at writing our own six-word memoirs. If you had only six words to share your life story with strangers, which six words would you choose? A six-word version of my story I often share with students is “Went to college, never came home,” but other six-word accounts of my life are equally accurate, like “Still writing after all these years.”

From today's National Day on Writing event. #WhyIWrite

At Friday’s event, we also asked students, faculty, and anyone passing by to pose with one of our #WhyIWrite whiteboards. Just as everyone has a life story to tell, everyone has their own reasons for writing. (You can see some of them here.) Some of us write to understand our lives, some of us write to escape them, and some of us write to share our experience. Some of us struggle to explain exactly why we write; we just know it will take far more than six words to say.

Smile, you're under video surveillance

This semester, I’m asking my first-year writing students to do something I’ve never asked my students to do before. At the end of class on Thursdays, I’m asking them to write me a private journal entry about a weekly win: one thing, big or small, that happened over the course of the week that made them happy.

Hibiscus bracts after blooms

I often ask students to write something for me at the end of class. Usually, that bit of writing is related to whatever we did in class that day: what, for example, was the clearest or most helpful thing they’ll take from a given class, and what was still confusing or unclear? But this semester, I’ve decided to ask my students to “accentuate the positive” by keeping a weekly log of things that have gone well.

It’s an idea I stole from a story I heard on NPR this summer. A radio host somewhere–already, I’ve forgotten the details–set up a voicemail line where listeners could share things that went well the previous week. Each week, the host selected several voicemails to play on the air, and the result was wonderful, with kids sharing what they learned at school, parents bragging about their kids’ Little League games, and people from all walks of life sharing small victories, random acts of kindness, and other assorted reasons to say “Hooray.”

Crabapples

College is stressful in part because there are so many opportunities to mess up. We’re five weeks into the new school year, and already my students are feeling the uphill slog of a long semester. When you’re a new college student, everything is alien and confusing, and the pressure to succeed is high. With so many chances to do something wrong, it’s a relief to remember there are some things that go well, end happily, and run smoothly.

Hibiscus buds.

The weekly wins my students have shared with me so far this semester have run the gamut. I’ve heard about aced quizzes, completed homework assignments, and extended assignment deadlines. One student was thrilled to have gotten the phone number of a secret crush; another was excited to have talked on the phone with a little sibling. Yesterday, many of my students were happy to be heading home for a three-day weekend: a chance to see the friends, family, and pets they’ve missed these past five weeks, and an opportunity to sleep in their own bed, enjoy some home cooking, and otherwise enjoy a break from the academic grind.

When I see my students in class on Tuesday morning, we’ll start our next writing assignment: as soon as you’ve grown comfortable with one skill, it’s time to move onto the next. Given the continual challenges of the academic semester, sometimes it’s a relief to focus on small successes rather than the challenges that still lie ahead.

Aster

Already it’s almost October, a month or so into my first-year students’ brand new college careers. Whereas my friends with children get to watch those children grow up, I see something different. Every year, I watch batch after batch of young women and men beginning and beginning and beginning again. Every fall semester, I get older, but every fall semester, my incoming first-years are just as young and tender as they ever were, earnestly asking where their classes meet, where the campus shuttle bus stop is, or where on campus they can hang out in between classes.

Autumn mushrooms.

After more than 20 years as a college instructor, I’ve learned that teaching first-year students is only partly about teaching. One of my colleagues refers to first-year writing as “Self Confidence 101,” and she’s only partly joking. First-year writing instructors encounter students right when they are their most vulnerable: we’re the ones who hear about roommate troubles, bouts of homesickness, and long-distance breakups. Few of us went into teaching to become confidants or counselors, but by default this seems to go with the territory.

Pokeweed berries

“Emotional labor” is the official word for this kind of tending, and it is both a thankless and essential job. I’m currently reading Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, What Happened, and she talks about emotional labor in both the private and public spheres:

[Emotional labor] describes all the unpaid, often unseen work that people–overwhelmingly women–perform to keep their families and workplaces humming along. Organizing office birthday parties. Arranging the kids’ summer camp. Coordinating visits with in-laws. Helping the new employee feel welcome and included. The list is endless: all the little details without which life would devolve into chaos and misery. Not all women take on these tasks, and that’s fine, and some men do, and I salute them–but it’s largely women’s work. Finally, someone thought to name it. (pp. 132-133)

Rainy day mums outside @traderjoes

Clinton describes how emotional labor works in the political world: someone has to pour the coffee, organize the meeting, or be the first to reach across the aisle. “It’s often women who handle constituent outreach, answering phones and responding to letters and emails,” Clinton observes, and she notes it’s often “women [who] make those calls and write those letters to Congress” (p. 134). It’s not that women necessarily care more about their families, workplaces, or countries than men do; it’s that women have been conditioned to be caregivers. “We’re not just the designated worriers in our families,” Clinton argues, “we’re also the designated worriers for our country” (p. 134).

Sprouted after Jose, on an outcrop of white quartz.

What Clinton has observed as a public servant, I’ve lived in academia. Someone has to notice (and worry) when a student starts missing classes, looks depressed, or fails to submit assignments. Someone has to show up, pay attention, and actually mean it when asking a student “How are you?”

Emotional labor has traditionally been women’s work; traditionally, emotional labor has been undervalued. But while the big and bombastic make grand moves on the global stage, I sometimes think the quiet, overlooked work of emotional labor is the only thing holding the world together.

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