Ghastly

Walking Reggie ’round the block has gotten infinitely more interesting now that various neighbors have gotten into the Halloween spirit. One house in Newton has a white filmy ghost on a stick that Reggie looks at, askance and uncertain, every time we pass…but this morning in Keene, Reggie walked by, oblivious, when a motion-sensitive tombstone outside one neighbor’s house started flashing and emitting creepy sounds as he approached. Apparently my four-legged ghost-buster isn’t fooled by high-tech decorations, but he is spooked by sheets.

Ghoulish

I’m offering these ghoulish images by way of a “drive-by post” before heading back to this week’s paper pile (or one of them, at least). Taking a break between drafts, I clicked over to Jo(e)’s only to find that she, too, is facing (and blogging about) her latest paper pile. What Jo(e) says is entirely true. The biggest challenge in reading student papers isn’t actually reading them; it’s figuring out how to make insightful comments that help students move from a relatively weak early draft to a somewhat more workable next one.

In both my first-year and intermediate writing classes, I have the luxury of working with students who are writing sustained, semester-long projects I see in various incarnations over the course of fifteen weeks. By semester’s end, I’ll have seen the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…but not usually in that order. Right now, I’m typing second draft comment letters to give to my students in small-group conferences: tomorrow afternoon, pairs of students will sit down with me for fifteen minutes, during which time I’ll give them a typed sheet with my impressions of their draft so we can talk about where they’re going next.

This practice of typing rather than scribbling my second-draft comments is one I borrowed from one of my teaching colleagues: it turns out that both writing and the teaching of writing are works-in-progress. After years of writing too many nitpicky comments that never seemed to encourage students to re-see their papers in radically different ways, I’m borrowing a colleague’s strategy for getting students to look at the “big picture” when revising. It’s too easy, as an English teacher, to offer a line-by-line commentary on any given draft, which typically means getting bogged down in surface-level errors in paragraphs that might not even make it into the next draft. (Like Jo(e), I’m often tempted to write “You could improve this essay by cutting this paragraph out completely,” but that’s a dangerous statement to make when you find an entire string of dead-weight paragraphs.)

Cool ghoul

In reading this and last week’s sets of drafts, I’ve held my pen when it comes to surface-level edits. This time around, it’s about looking the Bad and the Ugly straight in the face and trying to figure out how to uncover the Good that’s in there trying to get out. “You have a lot of information to share about Topic X,” I find myself typing again and again, “so as a reader, I’m wondering what you want me to do with that information: what point about Topic X are you trying to prove?” From previous semesters, I know that many students won’t figure out What They’re Trying to Say until they’ve written a full 15- to 20-page draft…at which point many of them will sit up in their seats, the proverbial light-bulb illuminated above their head, and utter some version of “I totally know how to write my paper now, but only after I’ve already written it!”

In looking up where I’d blogged that statement, I see the proverbial light-bulb flashed last December, still about a month from where this semester’s students currently are. That means both my students and I have another month or so to stare the Bad and the Ugly in the face before the Good staggers through the door: “Were you looking for me?” Although Reggie is scared by spooky sheets, luckily I’m not scared of paper sheets, having seen more than a few dreadful drafts pass over my desk like Halloween shades.

Chrysanthemum

I’m re-discovering this semester a simple formula for my personal health and serenity: WWW, the letters that represent my time-tested but oft-neglected morning ritual of waking, walking, and writing.

Shop window tiger with jewelry

It sounds simple enough: in order for me to stay happy and sane, I need to structure my schedule so I wake up early enough to walk Reggie and then write in my journal before tackling the day’s other tasks. Not only does this routine sound simple enough, it’s one I discovered over four years ago, when the demands of teaching, dissertation-finishing, blogging, and life in general were enough to drive even the most faithful walker mad. Back then, I learned from experience that a regular diet of dog-walks and journal-writing kept me sane. But even though I know full well that the simple recipe for my own personal happiness boils down to three simple letters, so many other things intervene. When you have classes to prep, papers to read, and emails to answer, life seems so much more complicated than the simple practice of “WWW.”

Window shopping

In a previous lifetime when I attended a nondenominational evangelical church whose Sunday services lasted most of the day, the minister used to remind us from the pulpit that “preparation for worship starts the night before.” If you want to be awake, showered, and dressed in time for morning service, you need to be mindful of that intention on Saturday night, when the temptation to stay up late can destroy even the best laid plans. This semester, I’ve been making a conscious effort to be both in bed and asleep by midnight so getting up early isn’t a huge difficulty. Thanks to the two and a half years I lived in a Zen Center, getting up at 5am or even earlier isn’t a completely foreign concept: you can, I’ve learned, train yourself to be an early bird rather than a night owl…but you can’t (I’ve also learned) be both.

Window shopping

Although having a dog guarantees I’ll walk sometime during the day, I really do prefer to walk “almost first thing” in the morning, when there’s barely enough light to see the sidewalk ahead of me. At that hour, my body feels fresh and invigorated; at that hour, it feels good to be awake, outside, and moving. When you walk “almost first thing” in the morning, when it’s still lingering dark, you can pretend you’re the only one for miles around who’s awake and stirring. The streets, shop-windows, and lamp-lit shadows are all yours, with no need to share. When you start your day with even a short walk, you have something to write about when you come home, sit down to today’s oatmeal, and then write today’s pages over tea. When you start your day with even a short walk, it’s even easier to come home after a solid day’s teaching, take the dog for a second stroll, and feel your workday has been beautifully bookmarked, the life of the mind fueled by the moving of one’s feet.

The three Ws of waking, walking, and writing are in no way fancy, but for me, they’re a simple equation that adds up to a good, productive day. In the pursuit of the elusive W called Wellness, it ultimately comes down to two other Ws: Whatever Works.

Nothing happened

I arrived home from Ohio just in time this week to dive into semester prep, spending the last few days revamping syllabi for my Keene State classes, which start next week. Syllabus-prep is a tedious and mentally demanding task: you have to maintain both a long- and short-view in order to figure out the precise steps your students will take as they move from the proverbial “blank page” that greets them during Week One toward the 15- to 20-page research paper that’s due by Week Fifteen. And yet, despite the mental energy it takes to craft a well-planned syllabus, it’s one of my favorite aspects of teaching: a strong foundation that reflects my most optimist hopes as I stand on the brink of another daunting term.

Line 'em up

Some of my colleagues plan their semesters far less meticulously than I do, distributing single-page syllabi that are infinitely less detailed than my five- to fourteen-page (!!!) ones. I’ve always preferred a full-disclosure approach: students in my classes know from day one exactly what’s due and when, how they’ll be graded, and other important factors they’d have to figure out gradually in other classes. A well-planned syllabus is a life-line for me, too: on any given day, I have a road map that tells me exactly what we need to do TODAY to get us to the finish line of “Week Fifteen”…and every year, there are times when even I, as instructor, completely forget what exactly we’re all doing here and why.

Once in a faculty training session, I described the process of teaching first-year students how to write a sustained research project as being like climbing a mountain with a group of small children. There will be many times when you’ll get sick of the seemingly incessant whines of “Are we there yet,” “I’m bored,” and “This is stupid!” As some combination of den-mother, cheerleader, coach, drill sergeant, and makeshift sherpa, you keep spurring your Little Darlings on with glowing descriptions of what awaits them at journey’s end: “Keep going! You can do it! You’ll be so proud once you’re finished!” This works, of course, when you yourself are feeling energetic and chipper…but at those moments when you’re exhausted, out of patience, and wondering why you thought climbing a mountain was a good idea, you’ll want nothing more than to push those Little Darlings off the nearest ledge.

All in a row

A good syllabus, like a good map, helps guide the way when all hell is breaking loose. I’ve been teaching long enough to know that there will be times (usually around Week Five, a depressing lull I’ve named the Dark Night of the Semester) when even I, as instructor, will stare in disbelief at the ambition of my own syllabus: what the hell was I thinking when I decided to assign X or expect Y? But whereas my first-year students have probably never climbed the mountain of a 15- to 20-page research paper before, I’ve been there, done that. In my metaphoric role as den-mother, cheerleader, coach, drill sergeant, and makeshift sherpa, I know from experience that every writer eventually gets sick of her or his topic, every writer loses hope of ever finishing, and every writer has moments when simply facing another draft seems completely impossible…but those feelings pass. And so like a wise old matron who listens to a sobbing newlywed, pats her on the head, and sends her back to her hubby with instructions to kiss and make up, I know my job as a writing instructor is ultimately a matter of making sure my charges don’t give up. “Just keep trudging, and it will work out: I promise!”

And so these past few days, I’ve been contemplating the long view, at least from the perspective of a fifteen-week semester. While my soon-to-be first-year students are packing and preparing to move into their residence halls this weekend, I’ve been mapping the terrain, watching the weather, and otherwise scouting a 15- to 20-page long “mountain” my students don’t even know to start worrying about yet. The semester hasn’t even started, but already I know we have many long, tiring miles between here and there.

Electric

Even though New England has been getting its fair share of torrential rain this summer, my blogging has been in a dry spell. It’s not exactly that I haven’t had things to say, and it’s not exactly that I haven’t had time to write. It’s more like I haven’t been able to coordinate these things so I have “things to say” when I find “time to write,” and that adds up to many days without blog posts.

Coffee cup

It’s not the first time I’ve had the blog-blahs, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I’ve been writing long enough to know that sometimes, you run out of things to say (or at least it feels that way); I’ve also practiced (and taught) Zen meditation long enough to know that sometimes, you go “dry” in your practice (or at least it feels that way). New writers and new meditators often think these dry spells are a sign they’re doing something wrong: “Maybe I’m not really cut out to be a writer,” or “I tried meditating once, but it didn’t work for me.” What new writers or meditators don’t know–the sole secret we seasoned veterans have figured out–is that it doesn’t matter whether it feels like you’re “doing it right”: you just keep trying anyway.

Empty tables

I can’t call this current bout of blog-blahs “writer’s block” since I’ve been faithfully writing in my journal nearly every day, and there have been many times when a dry spell has completely derailed that practice. And I can’t call this current bout of blog-blahs a “spiritual crisis” since I’ve experienced a recent renewal in my meditation practice, coming back to my cushion to meditate regularly after too many months of practicing only sporadically. So in everything but my blogging, life has been stable and healthy; indeed, I’ve wondered whether this current blog-block is caused by the happy fact that everything right now is going fairly well with me, and there’s not much narrative excitement in a blog-post that duly reports “I finished grading those midterms,” “I made enough money last month to cover my bills,” or “I accomplished almost all the items on yesterday’s to-do list.”

Zorn Dining Commons

In other words, this bloggish dry spell happens at a time when I’ve comfortably settled, for the moment, into Normal Life. Every year as August approaches, my heart reminds me it’s my anniversary of independence: today marks four years since my then-husband and I separated, a personal milestone I usually mark by blogging some sort of State of the Psyche address. This year, I don’t feel I have anything significantly new or different to add from last year: perhaps one way that shock settles into stability is the way that ultimately, you stop counting the months, minutes, or years between Then and Now. These days, I don’t feel particularly mindful of the fact that it’s been four rather than three years since my separation and divorce; these days, apart from an occasional slip where I use my married name, I can almost trick myself into thinking it was someone else, not me, who was once married.

Spruce and Sky

And yet, interestingly, one lesson I learned from my almost thirteen-year marriage is one I’ve heard echoed recently by my still-married friends: relationships, too, have their dry spells, and the seasoned veterans who stay married somehow figure out how to wait them out. Although my ex-husband and I eventually called it a day, what kept us married for almost thirteen years–and what kept us trying to be decent human beings to one another even down to the day we separated, and after–was a shared commitment to keep trying, anyway. Even if you’re not doing marriage “right”–even if you’ve determined, at long last, to call it quits for good–you keep showing up to that realization: you face it rather than fleeing from it…or already having fled too many times and for too long, you keep coming back.

Fire alarm

Perhaps the twin mottos of “keep trying anyway” and “keep coming back” are the motivational bookends that embrace successful writing, Zen practice, and human relationships alike. Even if you think you’re doing it wrong, keep trying anyway. When you’ve all but given up, keep coming back: if this page, this moment, or this relationship eludes you, just show up for the next one. Did yesterday’s page of writing really stink? Keep trying to write a page today. Did you fail even to show up on your meditation cushion, again? Keep coming back, regardless of how often or how long you’ve gone AWOL. Did your last relationship fail, or does your current relationship (marriage, friendship, other) feel dry and routine, beset with a terminal case of ho-hum? Keep trying anyway, and keep coming back: in a word, just show up. Dry spells come and dry spells go, or as my grandfather used to say, “Marriage is easy; it’s just the first fifty years that are hard.” Even if a dry spell lingers, even that dustiness can be grist for the mill.

What I get paid to read

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and in this case, that’s a conservative estimate. This is what three writing classes’ worth of end-term grading looks like, minus a few latecomers, lollygaggers, and incompletes.

The left and middle piles are from my first-year Thinking & Writing classes. Those folders contain the final version of each student’s 15- to 20-page research project, all the rough drafts that went into said project, and a final reflective essay. The small pile on the right is from my intermediate-level Expository Writing class. That stack is smaller because students submitted only final drafts of a 10-page research project, a handful of short essays, and a final reflective essay.

Grading portfolios isn’t as bad as all my complaining would suggest: it just takes a lot of time. As Jo(e) has said about watching student presentations, you learn a lot when you read research projects on topics that students are genuinely interested in, and grading papers is infinitely easier than comment on drafts. When you comment on drafts, you’re still steering the car, trying to communicate to students how they can/should improve a particular piece of writing. When you grade a portfolio, you’re riding in the car. The student is presenting their best shot at the Perfect Project, and you as teacher get to watch like a director in the audience of a one night performance. Yes, you see the mistakes; yes, you make note of them. But any improvements will wait until the next play or project: as in baseball, there’s always next year. For now, you sit back, watch the show, clap when the performance is good, and wring your hands when any given actor plays a scene differently from how you had directed it.

Ultimately, you see, it’s their show, not mine. Those portfolios on my desk? I’m just borrowing them.

Click here for last spring’s markedly different visual depiction of “Piled Higher & Deeper.” And if you want to learn even more about what I do with my first-year Thinking & Writing students, click here to read an alumni magazine article about Keene State’s new Integrated Studies program, illustrated with a picture of Yours Truly conferencing with one of last year’s first-year students. Enjoy!

All Greek to me

It’s very primitive when you think about it. Someone takes a stick-shaped piece of rock and scratches it against a big, flat rock. Okay, chalkboards are no longer made of slate, but chalk is still made of chalk. In a day and age when many students–including many of my own–study online, the brick-and-mortar technology of a classroom with chalkboards seems downright archaic.

After architecture class

You might recognize these chalkboards as belonging in the Keene State College classroom where there ain’t no chalk. This past semester, I’ve taught a section of my first-year “Thinking & Writing: The Art of Natural History” course in this particular classroom, where the class before ours is studying architecture. For an entire semester, I’ve entered this classroom on Tuesdays and Thursdays and found the most inscrutable scribbles on “my” chalkboards: diagrams, drawings, and technical-sounding words I’ve encountered only in print, if ever. My Thinking & Writing students have made drawings of their own in nature journals they’ve kept over the course of the semester–my attempt to get them to use the practice of natural history to make a memory all their own–but most of our hurried scribbles of leaves, trees, and the occasional squirrel look like scrawled cave paintings compared to even a lazy architect’s sketches.

I snapped these pictures last Thursday, in between small-group essay conferences with those same Thinking & Writing students. In pairs they came at appointed times to discuss my last set of draft comments on their semester-long research projects: one last bit of feedback before final portfolios are due next week. When you get down to it, it’s funny how primitive teaching really is. My students and I spent some 15 weeks staring at one another in this very classroom, and much of the time I worried they just weren’t getting it. How can something as seemingly primitive as simply communicating, one human to another, be so difficult?

Architectural remnants

And yet semester after semester, the “A-has!” don’t start happening until the 13th, 14th, or even 15th week, when some sort of connection seems to happen. Students who had merely stared start listening. My comments about thesis statements and arguments start making sense. “You actually want me to say something in my paper?” one student asked in a pre-Thanksgiving conference, incredulous. I nodded, emphatic. “Oh my gosh,” another student exclaimed after this past week’s conference, after reading another set of draft comments from me. “I totally know how to write my paper now, but only after I’ve already written it!” Yes. That’s how it works. Sometimes you have to write a whole 15- to 20-page paper before you actually “get” what you’re trying to say…and yes, it’s all about having something to say.

I shouldn’t be surprised that it takes my students almost 15 weeks to “get it” since I too seem to forget every semester the most basic tenet of the writing (and teaching) process. Most of the time, you slog on without having a clue what you’re trying to say; even if you think you know what you’re trying to communicate, you’ll struggle for a way to get your message across. Having made your point one, two, or even more times, often you’ll realize only after the saying’s done what you should have said from page one. What applies to the process of first-year students writing a 15- to 20-page paper applies as well to the professor who cheers, coaches, and sometimes coddles them through the process…and every semester, I somehow forget that fact. For a professor, it’s surprising how very primitive I am.

This is my contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Primitive. I’m still laboring under the grading glut of two semesters ending while another lingers on, so blogging will continue to be light this week. So many papers, so little time.

Say what?

It’s the fifth week of the semester at Keene State, the fourth week of the semester for SNHU Online, and the third week of the semester at Granite State. In other words, this week I’m feeling the full brunt of being a multi-institutional adjunct instructor, burning the proverbial candle at both ends to keep all my juggled balls aloft and moving.

2007-09-24b

I’m tempted to say that like Mother Hubbard, my blog-cupboard is bare, but that’s not true. It’s not that I don’t have things to say, pictures to share, or ideas for blog-posts: there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all.

Gate closed

At times like these, I feel more like a bricklayer than I do a writer. While my poet friends concern themselves with the crafting of fine delicate trinkets–the work of literary watchmakers or jewelers–I’m daunted by the sheer weight of words as I try to keep on top of a perpetually renewing paper-pile. There’s no time to help my students craft fine delicate sentences; instead, we’re in the business, my students and I, of building weighty walls of prose, and that means schlepping a lot of words.

Danger - No Trespassing

It’s tiring work, this building with words, brick by brick. At the end of one of my marathon teaching days, my feet ache with the weight of language, and I come home wanting nothing more than to sit on my couch and say nothing. On grading days when I’m home with dog, laptop, and the ever-present paper-pile, my head and neck feel the weight of words like a yoke as I plow, ox-like, through the furrows of other people’s prose, pen in hand.

Faded

At this point in the semester–the simultaneous fifth week, fourth week, and third–I ask myself why I require my students to write so damn much, a question I’m sure they’re each individually asking. The answer, unfortunately, is always the same. If you want to become a bricklayer yourself, you have to lay your own wall, brick by brick; if you want the benefit of learning from an older, more experience bricklayer, she needs to watch and oversee your progress. It’s long, grueling work, and there are no shortcuts. By week seven, six, and five, we all will be stronger and more callused, my students and I. Between now and then, though, all we feel is the slow grind of a heavy haul.

Road work ahead