blank'/> Mirth, Melancholy, and the Mundane: February 2011

Monday, February 28, 2011

Ink and Think... (300 Words)

Being at conferences is strange to me. I don't look like a college professor and I often don't think like one either. I sit in sessions with my tattoos and my jeans (I don't always bring climate appropriate clothing) and I pull out my laptop and I work while I'm listening. I don't sit still for long periods of time very well – and even less so during the promotion portion of the session. I need to keep my mind busy while I wait for what I came for. Ideas. Practical, hands-on things I can use the day I get back. A leadership idea for developing an online avatar for the writing center came from a conference session. My classroom research grant proposal was borne from another. A feasibility study about adopting Google Apps for Education I did a few years ago came from a conference as well. I can't buy the furniture that the college uses; I can't change online management systems; I can't adopt software easily or even afford programs for just myself. It's the ideas that matter – the feeling that other people have developed techniques I can use to do what I do better. Forget the theories and the heavy thinking. Give me toys and techniques that I can mold and manipulate to improve student success and engagement. I am a college professor with tattoos and a rather unorthodox way of approaching the classroom and the student. I intertwine my pedagogical goals in with things that are interesting to me, because let's face it: If I'm not interested, the students won't be either. What it boils down to is that conferences are about plans and paradoxes. They are energizing and exhausting, they are expensive and invaluable, they are lonely and collegiate. I am teacher and I am learner.

(PS - This is not part of the 300 words, but just a comment about the next blog – it won't be about teaching. Promise).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Unexpected Gems…

Those of you who are teachers will understand this moment perfectly. Those of you who aren't have still probably experienced a time when something wholly unexpected but also wholly welcomed happened in the course of doing what you always do. Let me explain.

I'm currently part of a small group of faculty who are teaching a pilot version of our second semester writing course. Instead of it being centered on reading and studying literature, we're moving the course to be argument and research based. Students need more instruction in writing for an academic setting and the English department is trying to be the flagship in moving that direction. So, in these pilot courses, students are working on a big project that will sustain them through a substantial research project and beyond. A couple of the sections are focusing on a very specific issue -- that of global climate change. Now, anyone who knows me (and specifically knows me as a teacher) knows that I really don't like controversial issues and politics. I think they are important, of course, but I've never felt comfortable seeking out the inherent conflict and debate that are part of those issues. So, in the classroom, I tend to find other ways to teach skills like research and critical thinking and argument. So, for my own version of the pilot, I decided to go broad and bank on the fact that students would be able to find something of interest in a broad topic and have the opportunity to seek out or avoid political debates according to their desire. The broad topic I chose to focus on is Community. Being that we are at a community college and the students and I are engaged in a 'forced community' within the classroom, it seemed perfect. There are so many places you can go when looking at all the communities you are in, how they function or don't function, how they struggle, what their goals and values are, and what you do when two of your communities conflict. In short, it seems like the possibilities are inexhaustible.

Since I'm working on some of this stuff from a very new perspective, I decided to start with what's known as a 'diagnostic essay'. This horrifically named beast is simply a writing prompt that gets students engaging with the course content while providing the instructor with some basic ideas about backgrounds and general writing ability. I usually ask students about their experiences with literature or have them reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in their writing. This time, however, I decided to go more general. I asked students two questions, with no intention that they should link them. The first question was "What is argument" and was meant to touch on the writing side of the class. We'd be looking at the elements of classical argument and I wanted them to start down the path of thinking about that definition in addition to the immediate mental image of people shouting at each other. The second question was "What is community" and that one was to touch on the content side. Sitting in a class at community college thinking about what community was a great way to start the process of critical thinking and finding ways to put themselves into the formal conversations happening all around them.

Many of the essays were two separate thoughts – one about argument and one about community, which is entirely what I expected and took no issue with. A few students, however, actually started to join the two terms and as I read these, I began to see that there was much more going on here that I had perhaps originally thought about or intended. These are the moments that awaken the hearts of teachers and remind them of why they are teaching. These are the gems in what would otherwise be an ordinary assignment – satisfying, but not remarkable in a larger sense. This sense of joy and discovery was culminated in one sentence by one student and it has completely changed how I look at this course. I'm not sure anyone outside the context of the course and my experiences with it will get it completely. But, let me preface by saying that my interaction with the course (not the students themselves) has been rocky. There's been quite a bit of soul-searching and self-doubting struggle as I tried to figure out if I could even TEACH it. You see, unlike some other professions, teachers often get very worked up about whether or not what we are doing is valid, useful, and sustainable for the students; for many, teaching is not so much a job as an entire way of existing that is ever-present. I may not always be analyzing your grammar, but I'm always a teacher in some way or another. My students are always with me. So, anyway, suffice it to say that I'd been agonizing over the course and when I finally sat down to read the very first assignment I had given on the very first day, I realized that somehow, I had asked the right questions. As I said, it can best be illustrated by a single sentence in a single essay, and this is what the student said:

"Although an argument is often what pulls and separates people apart, it's a community that brings them together" - M. Alfieri

In that one sentence lies the key to teaching the course. There are places to go from here, questions to ask, statements to challenge, waters to muddy – but that one sentence is enough for me to see beyond the next class meeting and see where we are going and many of the paths by which we might get there. This is learning that goes both ways across the proverbial desk. And that is what teaching is all about.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Only Way…

As most of my friends and family know, I'm pretty much always on the go, always doing something, always working on a project of some sort. It's frustrating to them quite a bit of the time, I'm sure. They tell me I make them tired, they tell me I should learn to say no, they demand I tell them when I sleep. And that last part is what leads me to the purpose of this blog. It's to show just how deep the geek in me really goes. When I finally decide it's time to shut out the lights and get some sleep, I find myself lying in the dark thinking about all the things I am currently in the middle of and wondering how classes will go the next day and what I want to do over the weekend, and what my next blog will be about, and…well, you get the idea. I find it horribly difficult to shut my mind off. Sometimes, it's terrible. As Calvin once said, "night time is dark so you can imagine your fears with less distraction" which means that too often, I start to worry (77). My insecurities, emboldened by the security of darkness, come on out and run rampant. So, my night times are often spent wondering, planning, worrying, or being too eager for the next day. They say it takes, on average, 7 minutes to fall asleep. But that's only when you can stop thinking long enough to actually shut down. Over the years, I've developed techniques to distract my mind with a project that requires no notebook, pen, computer, conversation, or calendar. I've developed things to do to keep tomorrow at bay and allow me to get some sleep so I can have a clean reboot to start over the next day. Here is my confession.

I play word games in my head.

I give myself a challenge that involves the alphabet – think of ten words that start with 'A' and are five letters long, then 'B' and so on. Think of ten actors whose first name starts with 'A' and name a movie each is in. Name ten adjectives that start with 'A'. The games run over several nights – sometimes more nights than I remember. I probably do the same letter more than once because I can't remember where I left off. I'll get stuck on the same letter and spend two weeks trying to think of a ninth and tenth word of four letters that starts with 'O'. I lose count and have to start over. None of those things matter, really – what matters is that I'm not thinking about Middle States or how many papers I have left to grade, or how the laundry needs to get done and the gerbil cage needs to get changed. I'm not thinking about how I'm going to reach that one student in the back who is continually disengaged or whether anyone remembers that dumb thing I said at the last department meeting. Sometimes I move through the letters quickly, but then I always hit that one letter where it slows down just a little, and I'm so dedicated to finishing what I started that my whole being slows down as I try to think of the next word, and then the next. Eventually, instead of the next word, my mind finds sleep and peace. I will pick it up the next night…

There is something soothing about words…they are steadfast and powerful, limited and amorphous. The games remind me of how much I love words and how this helps me relearn the joy of them in a world where the 10 second email takes precedence over a well crafted sentence much of the time. When I was younger, I did myself a disservice by limiting my external vocabulary in order to limit the repercussions of being too smart. I was, then, a nerd. Socially awkward, I spent my time reading and doing crossword puzzles and not much caring for the basketball team or the latest television show. I couldn't shake the words completely, though, for I still wrote poetry and worked on the high school literary magazine. Much of my love of words stayed a private thing, helping me get through my days and the now-trivial drama of youth. And that love is with me still.

My words and my love of language never really left me, and here, in the quiet of the night, is one place where joy of words finds its voice – serving me in yet another way and keeping my mind sharp even as the edges of my consciousness grow fuzzy and fade into sleep…

Watterson, Bill. The Indispensible Calvin and Hobbes. Kansas City; Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1992. Print.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Torment For Sale (300)

The public celebration of Valentine's Day seems to serve three purposes, only one of which is worth serving. The first is to reinforce male feelings of inadequacy now that they've had a chance to heal from their inadequate feelings over buying the perfect Christmas gift. I recently heard a commercial chastising men for not buying the engagement ring "they know she wanted" for Christmas and having another chance to get it right.

The second purpose is less humorous in male-bashing commercials, and is profoundly sadder. It seems to serve as a cruel reminder to lonely people that they are alone. I'm specifically using the word lonely – because I know that not everyone who is without a partner laments it. I'm referring solely to those folks who are struggling to get through the winter and wishing for someone to cuddle on a cold evening. A holiday drenched in images of love and togetherness just unnecessarily rubs their noses – or their broken hearts – in it.

You can't avoid the commercially manufactured depictions of gaudy romance. Tin-foil wrapped chocolate hearts, velvet covered plastic roses, stuffed animals in unnatural shades of pink and red, things with glitter, feathers and lips on them. It's horrifying.

What Valentine's Day is supposed to celebrate shouldn't need its own day, but since it has one, it should not need to be so public. Taking the time celebrate the love you have found is something worth doing every day of your life and perhaps a special day is needed in this busy world. But when February 14th comes around, let's not get so caught up in the commercialism that we forget that not everyone who wishes they could celebrate can and we shouldn't inflict our expressions of love onto those who need no more reminders that they are alone.