Faces

Fridays are always busy:  a day devoted to an assortment of teaching tasks and household errands.  By the time I’ve picked up a Friday night pizza and unpacked the week’s groceries, it’s almost time for evening chores:  too late to do any serious work, but too early to collapse into a end-of-week coma on the couch.

Face

Sometimes I use these spare minutes to read; too often, I fritter them away online, catching up with Breaking News that seems genuinely intent on breaking us all.  I’d be much better served, I think, to turn off the news, turn on some music, and spent a spare half hour writing, stitching together some sort of sense from the tag ends of days.

Float like a butterfly

Some days I rail against the page, reluctant to come to it: antsy. There is no clear reason; I just balk like a spooked and skittish horse.

Yum

Some days the words flow freely. I sit down with a thought in mind, and that thought leads to another and another like a parade of circus elephants, each attached to the next, trunk to tail.

The Saw

Some days each word emerges slowly and with difficulty, like a foot pulled from sludge. Some days each line is a hard-fought battle, the end of the page an impossible destination.

WeMissUBradley

Some days I have something to say; some days nothing. Some days I have something to say but the words won’t come, or they come slowly and with painful effort, each one creeping on crippled feet.

2016

Some days I come to the page empty and exhausted, without a thought in my head, and the words nevertheless appear.

Curly

Some days I write as if I understood this thing called writing, my lines fluid and fluent, flowing. And other days I write as if I know nothing at all, following nothing but the sound of my pen scratching the page.

This is what appeared when I wrote this morning’s journal pages. I guess today is one of those days.

The Wall at Central Square

During the last week of classes, when students and instructors alike are sleep-deprived and swamped with work, you learn to accept words of encouragement wherever you find them.

Wall at Central Square

The Buddha touched the earth with his right hand the moment before he was enlightened, but he continued to touch the earth with his two feet for the rest of his days. When we typically imagine the Buddha, we picture a sedentary figure seated in contemplation, but in the immediate aftermath of the Buddha’s life and death, the icon that represented him wasn’t a seated person but the image of a human footprint.

Pretty / Boston Strong

Picturing the Buddha as a walking rather than a sitting man is suggestive on many levels. Picturing the Buddha as a walking man reminds us that Buddhism isn’t primarily an idea; it’s a practice. What you believe isn’t as important as how you live: do you walk the walk? As an awakened man, the Buddha was fully engaged in the world: he wasn’t as unmoving and aloof as his statues would suggest. If you want to follow the Buddha’s teachings, you needn’t pay lip service to anything he said; instead, follow in the footsteps of what he did.

Warhol RIP

It’s significant that the cornerstone summation of the Buddha’s teaching is known as the Eightfold Path. A path is something you have to walk: a path is useless if you don’t use it. The Eightfold Path tells you how to live an enlightened life if you are willing to take the steps to get there: looking at or merely thinking about the path will get you nowhere. You have to put one proverbial foot in front of the other if you want the Eightfold Path to be efficacious.

B&W

Walking demands balance: if you are lopsided or top-heavy, laden down with worries and obsessions, you won’t be able to walk well…but the very act of walking will help you find balance, your wobbly steps gradually becoming more stable and assured. The Eightfold Path is often represented by the eight spokes of the Dharma wheel, each spoke balanced in turn. A one- or two-spoke wheel won’t get you very far, so you need to walk the fine line between excess and abstention: a just-right state the Buddha called the Middle Way. It is by walking the way of the eightfold path that you find your own inner balance.

Create more, consume less

The Buddha’s footprint is evocative of many things. A footprint is grounded, and it is also balanced. A footprint marks a journey, and it marks the incremental steps from “here” to “there”: a journey of a thousand miles, the saying goes, begins with a single step. People who fly, float, or otherwise transcend the earthbound world don’t leave footprints: only people who take things one step at a time do. Walking upon two even feet replicates the repetitive coupling of inhalation and exhalation: a two-beat routine that will take you wherever you need to go, and every place in between.

Ajar

Early depictions of the Buddha don’t feature or fixate on his face, for the Buddha could be Anyman. By the scandal of particularity, the historical Buddha was a particular person born to a particular family in a particular clan in a particular tribe. By the scandal of particularity, the historical Buddha was an Indian prince born to a life of ease…but anyone, anywhere, can wake up. If you fixate on Buddha’s face, you might think he is different from you: a person of a different time, tribe, or personality. But if you contemplate the Buddha’s footprint, you realize this is a path you too can walk. The focus isn’t so much who you are as where you are going, and how.

Wall at Central Square

How might we live our life? This is the question underpinning the Buddha’s teaching, particularly the concept of the Eightfold Path. We do not set out to perfect ourselves through conscious striving for this goal; instead, we ramble and wander, often unaware. But if we persevere in practice, continually bring our mind back to this present moment (the ground under our very own feet), we gradually attain the grace the Buddha himself described. By following in the Buddha’s footsteps, we come into a right and well-aligned relationship with the world.

After dark

Footprints mark the spots at which a particular person touched the earth. A celestial or purely cerebral person doesn’t leave footprints; only people who are down and dirty, grounded in the actualities of life do. The Buddha’s footprint reminds us not to be too ethereal or too pure. Like a lotus flower rooted in mud, we lead lives that are silted in the nitty-gritty details of mundane life. Without our feet planted on the earth, we can’t reach, strive, or grow.

Will finish on Sunday

Painters know that before you get down to work, you have to prepare your canvas. If you’re a street artist, this means painting over the work of those who preceded you, creating an empty space for your own design. Although graffiti might seem to be a hurried medium, creating a multicolored design takes time. Each layer of paint has to dry before you apply the next, so you can’t hurry the process. First you have to prepare your canvas, then you have to work through each stage to complete your work-in-progress.

The Wall at Central Square

This week is finals week at Framingham State, so I’m busy with end-term grading. I have two classes’ worth of essay portfolios and final exams to read along with quiz averages and participation grades to calculate. Every term, I tell myself I’ll finish these grading tasks early, keeping well ahead of my paper-piles, and every term, things go more slowly than I’d anticipated. It takes a while for layers of paint to dry, and it takes a while to read through a thick paper-pile.

Open door - May 7 / Day 127

Every finals week, I find myself checking off a whole list of tasks before I get settled down to the business of grading. On Monday, I balanced the checkbook and paid bills; yesterday, I went grocery-shopping and led practice at the Zen Center; today, I did laundry and caught up with my two online classes, which are at the start and middle-point of their respective terms. Just because I have a huge grading pile doesn’t mean the other aspects of my life grind to a halt: the dogs still need to go out, the dishes still need to be washed, and I still need (or at least prefer) to wear clean clothes.

The Wall at Central Square

When I first started teaching, I thought this urge to check off tasks before settling down to grade was pure procrastination: surely I was looking to keep myself busing doing anything but grading. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Just as it’s easier to paint a new work if you start with a fresh, empty canvas, it’s easier to focus on grading if you aren’t wondering whether the bills are overdue, the refrigerator is empty, or your students are filling your email inbox with confused queries.

The Wall at Central Square

These last few days, in other words, I’ve been preparing my canvas, creating a clean, clear space where I can concentrate on the task at hand. Today, I had a long to-do list; tomorrow, all that’s on my list is “grade.” Now that I can scratch “Feed the blog” off today’s list, I can focus without distraction on that looming paper-pile. Like the street artist who signed his work-in-progress “Will finish on Sunday,” I know the task at hand will be done in due time.

Sleeping

Earlier today, I submitted two batches of end-term grades, and the rest of today and tomorrow, I’ll continue commenting on essay drafts from my FSU students. We’ve reached the point in the semester when I feel word-weary, too full of other people’s ideas, other people’s opinions, other people’s words. If there were a way to crack open my head and rinse out the residue of other people’s prose, I’d do it. Instead, I sit here and try to purify my brain by pumping in prose of my own.

Abyss

Tonight I go to the Zen Center to lead Tuesday night long sitting. I always feel a surge of adrenaline before leading practice: as the head Dharma teacher, you’re responsible for making newcomers comfortable as well as making sure things go smoothly in the Dharma room. If the head Dharma teacher does her job, everyone else can meditate without wondering who is watching the clock, who is keeping track of interviews, or who will indicate when to walk, when to sit, or when to bow and chant at the end of the evening: all done. If the head Dharma teacher does her job, Tuesday night long sitting is a calm and quiet time, but if the head Dharma teacher doesn’t mind the details, an atmosphere of confusion rather than calm prevails.

Cat eyes

The last time I led Tuesday night long sitting, a bunch of things went wrong. Although I arrived at the Zen Center early, I was late bringing tea to the teacher giving interviews…and since I’d made the wrong kind of tea, I had to bustle back to the kitchen to brew a second pot before finally arriving (late) to the meditation session I was supposed to be leading. While I was bustling around brewing tea, the order of people in the Dharma room waiting for interviews got screwed up, with everyone looking around nervously when the interview room bell rang: “Who’s next?”

Porno piggy

What was wonderful, though, was how quickly even these tempests in a (late) teapot subsided. Having fretted before practice that Something Would Go Wrong, I did indeed drop a few proverbial balls…and in the end, everything was fine. When I brought the second pot of tea, the teacher giving interviews was genuinely grateful I’d taken the extra effort, and when the bell rang, people figured out who had the next interview. By the end of the night’s regular routine of sitting, walking, and sitting, everyone (myself included) had settled down and settled in. This seems to be the recurring pattern behind my Zen Center practice: beforehand, I worry myself with what-ifs, then once I’m there, everything works out fine. Even when things don’t go entirely according to plan, everyone is flexible and forgiving, and the ruffled waters quickly return to calm.

9/11 Truth Building / Bowz

One of the things I tell newcomers at the Zen Center is that there’s no mistake you can possibly make that someone else (probably me) hasn’t made countless times before you…and every time, both the mistake-maker and the Zen Center itself has survived. I’ve yet to encounter someone who has died of embarrassment after making a mistake at the Zen Center, and as of yet, I’ve never died of embarrassment there, either.

Street buddha

In my tenure at the Zen Center, I have brewed the wrong tea, sung the wrong chants, eaten from the wrong bowl, bowed at the wrong time, sat in the wrong seat, walked the wrong way, fallen asleep, fallen down, farted, snored, cried, and said any number of wrong, idiotic, and inappropriate things. In response, I’ve been gently corrected, nudged, hugged, laughed at, and laughed. Never, though, have I self-destructed, and never have I (yet) managed to destroy the place. In grandma-gentle style, the folks at the Zen Center always seem to respond to mistakes with placid compassion: “Another mistake? No problem!”

Dreaming

So tonight, I’ll go to the Zen Center to rinse out the residue of other people’s (and my own) ideas, other people’s (and my own) opinions, and other people’s (and my own) words. Tonight at the Zen Center, I’ll probably make a mistake or two, but I won’t die of embarrassment. Instead, I’ll follow my breath, watch the clock, and keep track of the order of people waiting to have interviews with a teacher who rings a bell and drinks tea in the next room. That tea might come late, and it might take several pots before I brew the right kind. But the only way to make a second pot of tea is to completely pour out the first, rinsing out even the residue of “wrong.”

I illustrated today’s post with images from the graffiti-covered Wall at Central Square, which I shot last December.

Got agendas?

One interesting characteristic of being a college instructor is the way you’re frequently asked to present a statement of your teaching philosophy. I don’t know if this ritual is limited to college teaching: I know that entrepreneurs write mission statements for start-up companies, for instance, but I don’t know if the proverbial doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief is ever required to articulate her or his professional philosophy. Do plumbers, mechanics, or firemen ever sit down to explain their philosophy of plumbing, machinery, or firefighting, or is this an exclusively white-collar or even Ivory Tower thing?

Modica Way

I don’t know how it is for other professions, but in my field at least, having a statement of teaching philosophy is as necessary as having an up-to-date copy of your CV. A CV and teaching statement aren’t only required when you apply for a new job; they’re also included in the teaching dossiers many schools require you to assemble to keep your job, whether that means applying for tenure or seeking reappointment as an adjunct. If you’re a college instructor, it’s not enough to simply do your job; you also need to be able to articulate why you do your job the way you do. What implicit philosophy underpins and inspires your teaching?

Palimpsest

I recently realized that although I’ve written various versions of my own “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” over the years—a new, updated one every time I came up for reappointment as an adjunct instructor at Keene State, for instance—I’ve never written a statement of my online teaching philosophy. Just as the teaching tasks and responsibilities of an online instructor are slightly different from what is required when you teach face-to-face, these two kinds of teaching require a slightly different philosophical outlook. Having recently crafted a statement of my online teaching philosophy, I thought I’d share. If you’re wondering why I’ve recently had reason to articulate the philosophy behind ten years of online teaching experience, I won’t say anything other than “Keep your fingers crossed.”

Black and yellow

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

A recent series of television commercials touts the customer-friendly approach of a particular bank. In the ads, customers go to a competing bank that is ominous and impersonal, with a cavernous lobby studded with grim gray pillars. There are no human tellers in this nameless corporate bank, only a disembodied voice admonishing customers for stepping out of line, tugging a pen tethered to a counter with an impossibly short chain, or daring to arrive a minute after closing time. After reassuring viewers that the customer-friendly bank doesn’t have rope lines, provides free pens, and is open both nights and weekends, a voiceover suggests it’s time to “bank human, again.”

9/11 truth building

I start with a description of these bank commercials because I think they match many students’ worst nightmares about online classes. No one wants to feel like their bank is peopled by robots who ignore the niceties of human interaction, and no one wants to feel like their college classes are similarly impersonal. When students log into their online classes, they want to know there is an attentive, qualified, and responsive instructor behind the electronic interface: a human being who will gladly answer their questions, encourage and respond to their participation, and provide constructive feedback on their assignments. Given the understandable desire on the part of students to be treated with decency and respect, it’s time that online instructors “teach human, again.”

was here

I’ve taught face-to-face college writing and literature classes for twenty years, and I’ve taught a mix of face-to-face and online classes for the past ten. During this decade of teaching both online and face-to-face, I’ve learned that all my students want the same basic things. Students want an instructor who knows their name, reads and pays attention to their papers, responds to their emails, and treats them fairly. Students want to know their instructor is “there” even if they need help outside the stated office hours. Students don’t expect their instructors to be available 24/7, but they appreciate a prompt, considerate response to their questions and concerns. Students want their instructors to be engaged enough to notice if they skip class and to care enough to ask why they might be struggling.

Rise up

Anyone who is a teacher or a parent knows you can’t watch all of your charges all the time: those stories about teachers who have “eyes in the back of their head” are, unfortunately, the stuff of myth. But even though human instructors can’t be “there” for their students at all times, modern technology makes it possible for instructors to be remarkably responsive to their students’ needs. Years ago when I first experimented with Blackboard, I wanted a way to keep in better touch with my face-to-face students even while teaching on multiple campuses. I quickly learned that an online learning management system made it possible for me to hold virtual office hours from home the night before a paper was due and thus be more “connected” with my students in their dorm rooms than I was when I sat in my isolated and Internet-free campus office.

Black and white

In my face-to-face classes, I notice with regret how students’ personalities sometimes hinder their academic performance. There are always a few extroverted students who dominate discussions, for instance, while their more introverted but equally intelligent peers are less eager to participate. In an online class, however, no one can sit in the proverbial back of the room where an instructor might overlook them. In an online class, everyone participates, and everyone has a chance to think before they contribute. In an asynchronous threaded discussion, you can easily refer to something a student posted earlier in the week and connect that comment to something another student said today. In an online class, all students’ contributions are recorded regardless of how outgoing they are in person.

Faces

Because of the electronic footsteps students leave in their online classes, instructors have a wealth of data they can use to ensure student success. Whereas a student can sit in a face-to-face class and quietly nod even though they don’t understand the presented material, in an online class, silent nods aren’t enough. In an online class, students need to articulate their understanding of the material, and that gives instructors like me a clear indication of whether students truly comprehend course concepts. If I’m concerned a particular student isn’t doing well, I can review that student’s discussion posts, blogs, and other assignment submissions. Given those indicators of student comprehension, I can reach out to students who are struggling and need more help. Instead of waiting for confused students to approach me, I can take the initiative to reach out to them.

Smokestack

Regardless of whether they take classes online or face-to-face, college students spend a lot of time and money on their education, and like any consumer, students want to get something of value in exchange. If we are going to give online students an education worth the time and money they invest in their studies, we might take a page from the playbook of that customer-friendly bank I mentioned in my opening paragraph. Both bank customers and college students want to be treated like human beings, and one way to assure that is to hire real live humans to help them. Given how faceless much of our mechanized modern life has become, online instructors should make a conscious effort to be engaged, responsive, and respectful, bringing the niceties of human interaction into their virtual classrooms.