Pride

When I first started teaching more than twenty years ago, I asked my undergraduate mentor how long it would take before I could teach without jitters, and he responded with a remark I’ve never forgotten. “If you’re not nervous before teaching a class,” he said, “you have no business teaching that class.”

I’m remembering that long-ago comment as my Intro to College Writing students begin discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was this year’s common reading for incoming students at Framingham State. I first read Coates’ book last December, soon after it came out to popular and critical acclaim: I was curious to read for myself a book that generated so much heated discussion about the sadly relevant topics of racism and police brutality. But casually reading and thinking about a book is vastly different from engaging a classroom of first-year students in a discussion of the touchy subjects raised by that book, so I’m more than a bit apprehensive as I look ahead to this week’s classes.

Hipster trash

Between the World and Me is a difficult, unsettling text because it resists easy answers: when it comes to race in America, Coates isn’t optimistic or hopeful, and that is not a popular outlook. Mainstream American culture likes to fix things: we’re addicted to happy endings, and we like to think we’ve made great strides when it comes to social issues, even when the most cursory examination of the nightly news suggests we haven’t come far enough.

In the opening pages of the book, Coates describes a satellite interview where a TV journalist asks him why he believes America was founded on a history of theft and violence against people of color, and his response is sadness: not sadness over the realities of American history, which are not new to him, but at the implicit obliviousness of the journalist’s question. Realizing there is no satellite powerful enough to built a bridge between someone who has experienced racism and someone who has not, Coates is saddened for the journalist who interviews him, the society that protects her within a bubble of privilege, and his fifteen-year-old son, who is coming of age in a society where there is no buffer between him and threat of racist violence.

Consumption Lust Security

I am nervous to broach these topics with my students because they are so relevant: the issues that spurred Coates to write his book have continued to simmer and boil. As much as the American cult of positivity encourages us to ignore complex issues in favor of quick-fixes and feel-good bromides, I know difficult conversations are the only path forward. But considering my own classes, I feel ill-equipped to facilitate those discussions: at the end of a week where black men are still being gunned down by police and a campaign worker for Donald Trump had the temerity to suggest President Obama is the source of racial unrest, I don’t feel I have any answers or insight into the difficult questions my students might pose.

This is, I think, what my undergraduate mentor meant all those years ago. It would be both arrogant and misguided of me to walk into class with a smug sense of having an insight into Coates’ text: if anything, Between the World and Me forces white readers like me to set aside our easy answers. (When the reporter interviewing Coates in the book’s opening pages asks him whether a viral video showing a young black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer gives him hope, Coates admits a sense of defeat. If you think systemic racism can be eliminated with a hug or two, you haven’t comprehended the true depth of the problem.)

Reaching

My students, I know, want answers and the comfort of clarity: they understandably want to know what they need to extract from this or any other book to impress me, get a good grade, and graduate into a successful life. Coates himself is suspicious of schooling, seeing it as an institution that encourages conformity more than free and critical thought, and I can’t say I blame him: it is a dangerous power-trip for any educator to stand in front of a classroom and proclaim the Way Things Are or Should Be.

As I re-read the opening pages of Between the World and Me, I’m reminded of my true job as a college professor. As much as I want to waltz into my classes with The Answer, all I can honestly do is encourage my students to approach the text the way I do, with a willingness to listen and have my preconceptions shattered. More than any insights or answers, all I have to offer my students is a way of reading that holds open a genuine question.

When you open a book, you hear a writer’s voice, and some of the most interesting conversations happen when you’re humble enough to refrain from judgment, simply listening to the ideas that emerge, even if (or especially if) those ideas seem different from your own. When I read a book like Between the World and Me, I don’t try to crack it like a nut that yields a clean kernel of truth. Instead, I open myself to an ongoing interrogation between the book and me that calls into question my own assumptions, blind-spots, and the systemic forces that keep me from asking difficult questions of myself and others. I hope to encourage my students to do the same.

No more interviews with vampires.

Being a professor is like working inside germy Petri dish. Because college students are perpetually sleep-deprived, stressed, and crammed into crowded residence halls, they are often sick, and every semester, colds, flu, and other infectious ailments circulate freely on campus.

I’ve learned to take the usual precautions to protect my health, like washing my hands frequently and trying to keep a respectful distance from students who seem obviously ill. At least one of my teaching colleagues at Framingham State, however, has taken these precautionary measures to the next level, pinning a cluster of garlic cloves to his office door to fend off vampires. You can never be too careful.

Oak boughs

All semester, I’ve been eyeing a cantaloupe-sized knothole in one of the sprawling oak trees on the quad at Framingham State. The fifth floor of Hemenway Labs provides an eye-level view of this hole, and I keep hoping to see an owl, raccoon, or other critter peering out of it, as it looks like a perfect animal den.

Gray squirrel in oak tree

Good real estate doesn’t stay empty for long. On Thursday, I watched as first one and then two gray squirrels carried dead oak leaves into this hole, presumably making a nest for the winter. Gray squirrels, I read, often construct multiple nests in their home territory, typically using them as solitary shelter but sometimes sharing a den in cold weather. Apparently even squirrels appreciate cozy companionship when the temperatures drop.

Be the best version of yourself

This week the Framingham State community is celebrating a Week of Kindness, which means there are random compliments and words of encouragement posted all over campus.

Keep the kindness coming

We’re at a particularly busy point of the semester: both students and faculty alike are swamped with work, and it seems like everyone is sleep-deprived, sick, or both. We’re at the exact moment in the semester, in other words, when everyone could use a word of encouragement, even if that word is written on an anonymous Post-It note.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I love about watching the Boston Marathon every year is the way spectators cheer and wave signs to encourage random strangers:

Bathroom selfie with Week of Kindness post-it.

Can you imagine a world where we cheered each other on like this everyday, not just on Marathon Monday? Can you imagine a world where strangers shared simple kindness with one another, simply to keep them motivated and moving?

This week’s Week of Kindness at Framingham State feels a bit like the love-fest that is the Boston Marathon, but with smaller signs.

Be the best you can be

Please don't erase

Several of the lounges in Framingham State’s new science center, Hemenway Labs, have whiteboard walls, giving students plenty of space to scribble graphs and equations while they work. Although I’m not a scientist and don’t understand most of what these figures mean, I enjoy seeing them. As a writer, I deeply respect the blank page, and that’s basically what a whiteboard wall is. Whether you’re scribbling the draft of an essay or a graphic equation, you’re translating an imaginary idea into a visual figure that others can see and comment on. Where once there was nothing, now there is a visual expression of deep ideas.

Whiteboard dragon

This morning in my first-year writing class, I asked students to take a learning style assessment. Some of my students already know whether they are auditory, visual, or tactile learners, but others don’t, and I think it’s helpful for students to understand how they learn. Since I myself am a visual learner–someone, that is, who likes to see the shape of an idea and who remembers concepts according to where I saw them on the page–it makes sense that I love the whiteboard walls in Hemenway Labs. I’ve always struggled to do math in my head, so even the most complicated figure makes more sense to me than a verbal explanation of that same concept.

Fun with whiteboard walls

Whether or not they are visual learners, college students are perpetually stressed, so it should come as no surprise that some of the whiteboards in Hemenway Labs are covered with cartoon doodles that have very little to do with science. One thoughtful soul even went so far as to leave a mandala coloring book and shared stash of markers for anyone who wants to color their way to calm: visual learning at its best.

Communal art supplies

Empty classroom with mannequins

It’s Halloween night, and as usual our quiet suburban neighborhood has transformed itself into an eerie landscape adorned with fake tombstones, plastic skeletons, and all sorts of dangling ghosts, witches, and ghouls. But sometimes the simplest things can be the creepiest, like this quiet coven of dress forms clustered in an empty classroom at Framingham State. What do naked dummies do after their fashion design students have gone home for the night?

Atrium

I’ve been spending lots of between-class time this semester in Framingham State’s new science center, Hemenway Labs. Although I’m not a member of the science department, two of my first-year writing classes meet in the classroom building that is connected to Hemenway Labs, and during last month’s heat wave, it was more comfortably air-conditioned there than in my office in the much-older May Hall.

Tete a tete

The new science center’s classrooms and laboratories surround an airy atrium that is lit from floor-to-ceiling windows on both ends and narrow skylights overhead. On every level, there are lounge chairs and tables overlooking either the interior atrium or the campus outside. Depending on where you choose to sit, you are afforded excellent views of students studying several floors below, passersby strolling on bricked pathways outside, or the branching boughs of mature oak trees in the quad.

My office in the English Department is perfectly functional: May Hall is centrally located, so it’s easy for students to find me during my office hours. But the desk in my office faces a wall, giving me a view of the hallway rather than the world outside, and the windows in my office let in light but don’t offer much in the way of a view. Facing a wall is fine and good when you’re prepping classes, meeting with students, or grading papers, but when I write, I appreciate a more expansive view.

Lounge with a view

In Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” one waiter tries to convince another that lone souls both crave and deserve bright, open, and public places where they can congregate and converse: places to enjoy alone, together. The architects who designed Hemenway Labs clearly understood that. When I’m holed away in my office, my students have to seek me out, but when I sit in one of the science center lounges, quietly working on my laptop, I exist in one of the places they frequent, surrounded by the conversations that happen outside of any class.