Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

A Timely Reminder from the International Society of Bassists

September 12, 2009

After I left my English class on Wednesday, I found a letter in my mailbox for “Composition Professor” from the International Society of Bassists.  That’s how it was labeled: “Composition Professor.”  The address did not have a department affiliation—Music, English, Art, Chemistry, Culinary Arts—so it ended up with me.  On the surface, it makes sense:  I serve as director of our writing program, so anything related to Composition would be at home in my mailbox.  However, the sender was clearly trying to reach a different audience!

Later, though, I thought a bit more about the word “composition” and how I tend to focus on just the one meaning and medium; that is, to me, composition is always about writing, about language, about alphabetic text.  Even though I am aware of other uses of the term—a composition for flute, artwork as a composition of found objects and silly putty, for example, or the chemical composition of an alloy—these meanings never enter my mind first.  For many, many other people, a composition might mean a musical score, a piece of art, a recipe, a combination of elements…  they might not even think of writing at all!!

I mention this letter because it was one of the many moments when I am reminded that not everyone loves writing—or even thinks of it first.  A lot of my life is tied up in writing—I’ve spent years and years in school to be where I am, so it’s no wonder that I get a little bit focused on teaching writing and doing writing and reading about writing and thinking about writing and….  Well, let’s just say this letter came at an important moment for me.  It’s never a bad idea to stop and look around, to take note of what you understand as “reality” and compare it with other versions of “reality.”  I try to be aware of the world around me, but like everyone else, I get a little myopic from time to time.

Which brings me to my last thought—this semester.  I have been thinking back on my own first college writing class and realizing that I was, shall we say, decidedly less enthusiastic about writing then.  In fact, I recall very little about the content of the class at all.  A peer editing session here, a quiz there, one assignment about dialect…  What I remember more clearly is that I had very long hair, that the football player in my class was HUGE, and that I had a half-hearted crush on a boy named Dan.

Anyway, this letter served as a small but timely corrective to the zeal I bring to each new year.  Composition, rhetoric, and writing are meaningful and important subjects, but they’re not going to resonate with everyone.  The letter/reminder won’t prevent me from bringing my love for writing to class with me each day, but I’m hoping it will serve as a buffer for heartbreak that comes when my students don’t bring theirs.

they’re just not that into me… and/or the class

February 8, 2008

Despite my firm assertion otherwise, I’ll admit it can be extremely difficult to avoid pandering to students.  Especially lately.  I’m not a big fan of the class I’m teaching right now, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the students.  For as tempting as it is to rail against the stereotypical student at my university, I can say in complete honesty that in five years of teaching (well over 350 students worth) I have only ever disliked one student.  One.  Them’s pretty good odds, I’d say.  And I’d even go so far as to include my first three years, too.  So eight years=one bad apple.

My concern this semester is the class itself.  English 112, entitled “Composition and Literature,” has so many flaws that it’s almost unteachable.  First, most students resent the hell out of the class itself.  I don’t care how much students “love to read for pleasure,” it doesn’t matter.  As second semester first-year students, they’re tired, they’re overwhelmed.  They made it through their first semester of college and are now fully aware of the time and effort it takes to do well.  They see that they are no longer “the smart one” from their school—universities like mine are ROTTEN with “the smart ones”—and they’re ready to get down to business… IN THEIR CHOSEN MAJOR.  Screw English 112.  Screw literature (pronounced, for those who don’t frequent an English department, “li-trit-ure.”)  I would guess, for the vast majority of these students, they simply want a B in second semester chemistry, or accounting, or whatever the heck pre-requisites mean something to their chosen field.  Unless these students plan to become English majors, they tend to doubt the necessity of the course.

And I don’t blame them one little bit.  I can remember absolutely loving my English 112 teacher, but also wishing I didn’t have to read so much because I really, really wanted to do well in my other classes, the ones that would count on my transcript.  (As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum, I was a Microbiology major until I added English as a second major my senior year.  I recall very clearly realizing, even at that early stage, that I needed to dedicate more time to my major than my other classes.  That’s just how it is.)

Before I go any further, I should say that I’m not about getting rid of English 112.  And I’m also not for a strictly “writing across the curriculum” approach.  It is not the job of the English department to teach students to create lab reports, or to format in APA, or to understand the conventions of composing a memo.  We can certainly help out, and I think we should, when our assistance is requested, but it’s not our job.  Furthermore, literature does have a place, it is our job to teach students to read and analyze text.  I’m just not sure it should be set in stone that students need to take the class second semester of their first year, that’s all.  What if they signed up for the 112 course during their junior or senior year, when they know a bit more about what they’re planning for their future?  Then, a course in close reading, genre conventions, exposition, critical analysis, rhetorical analysist, life writing, etc, etc, etc.  would be a choice, not a hassle.

Which brings me to my point.  Obviously, I love teaching.  Even after days I feel terrible about my own teaching, I can’t wait to get back into the classroom to interact with the students again.  But trying to teach to an audience that, at times, thoroughly resents the class itself can be depressing.  I love writing and thinking about writing and reading and thinking about what I’ve read and talking to others and theorizing and just the whole experience of working with langauge.  But it can be a challenge to teach, to get in there every day and be the cheerleader.

And there’s the rub:  should I be the cheerleader?  Should I spend so much time and energy trying to get them to love it?  To love li-trit-ure?  Or should I simply go in there expecting that they’ve read, expecting that they’ll respect this material (despite the flaws of the course), that they’ll recognize the worth of the class?

Tangent # 657:  Most of my students, when asked to write about their past experiences with reading, cited a specific moment in time when they began to HATE reading.  With few exceptions, this moment occurred when they were forced to read something against their will, under a deadline, and with a test or writing assignment attached to it.  Good God it was a sad bunch of papers to read and respond to.  I felt guilty on behalf of every well meaning teacher out there (and seriously, seriously pissed off at a few not-so-well meaning ones.)

So that’s it.  Do I pander?  Do I cajole?  Do I try to inspire them to enjoy the reading?  Do I momentarily set rigor aside to ask: “If you were casting this book as a movie, what actors would you seek for each character role?” and then let them have at for 15 precious minutes?

I don’t know.

Or maybe it’s just me.

quick and dirty

February 6, 2008

Okay, maybe not so dirty, but this post will be brief and spartan.  I really, really want to dedicate some time to a few of these items, but they’ll have to wait for now.  Until then, here’s a list of topics for future posts:

•  We’ve moved.  I know, I know, who moves at the start of a semester?  No one in their right mind.  We took up the idea to move on January 11 (the date of my last post), chose a new place on the 14th, and moved the 28th of the same month.  In that time, we packed up our stuff, painted five of eight rooms in our new place (one a two-tone job) and moved.  The unpacking?  A work in progress.  Every new box is like Christmas.  Most commonly uttered sentence:  “Oh that’s where ____ ended up.  Funny.”

•  Second semester is underway.  I actually have a draft of a post entitled “they’re just not that into me…or the class.”  It promises to be a long semester in that regard.  The real question is:  do I care?  The answer:  I’m not sure.

•  Campus visits.  Oy.

•  New apartment, new area of town.  We’re basically in the East Egg portion of East Egg.  Too many runners, too many Audis, too many Starbucks-toting, Uggs-wearing citizens.  We got a deal on our apartment.  No, it’s not in Oxford.  Why do you ask?

•  Knitting?  What’s knitting?  My fingers itch at the memory of holding needles.  Phantom limb for the wool and needle set?  I have about half of one sleeve left to go before I attach the sleeves and begin the yoke:

hourglass with sleeve start

Check back with me in April, when cashmere will most certainly be the least appropriate fiber for the rainy, sticky, pre-Spring evenings.

 •  And finally, Opening Day can’t come soon enough.

sow’s ear=silk purse?

January 8, 2008

In the past two months, I’ve received a greater than usual number of requests from students to force-add one of my classes.  Currently, the class cap is set at 23 (too high for a writing class, but that’s a subject for another post) and both of my classes are full, but that hasn’t prevented 12 students from emailing to ask if I will add them to my roster.  I’m teaching at two relatively popular times, a fact I’m certain brought the majority of the requests.

I should point out that I am not permitted to add anyone to my classes until the second week of the semester.  Until that point, the Director of Composition or the Chair of Undergraduate Studies performs all of the force-adds for first-year writing courses and introductory literature course—doing so ensures even enrollment numbers across sections, of course.  And I agree with this system wholeheartedly.  At the school where I earned my MA, we could do our own force adds and one semester I ended up with 28 and 29 students in my classes.  I had trouble saying no when confronted directly by students.  I was young(er) and (more) naive then.

Anyway, many of these email requests were modest and considerate; the students presented their cases politely and then inquired into my force-add policy.  However, other requests came across as annoying, petulant, whiny, or self-important.  For example, one student informed me that her schedule was almost exactly the way she wanted it and if she could only have my class then everything would be perfect.  Another informed me that her schedule was really, really tight and that mine was the only class English class she could fit.  A third student “heard I was cool” and didn’t want to have a bad experience in English because she didn’t enjoy writing.  Maybe I’m jaded, but I can’t help but hear a subtext in each of these responses—“I don’t want to have English three days a week”; “I don’t want to get up before 10:00”; “I want a TA, not a professor—they’re easier.”  I had one student try to lie her way into my class–“the secretary told me it was okay for you to force add me into your class, so where should I bring my slip?”  I don’t think so.

My favorite, though, was one young lady who, when she wrote, wanted to know the titles of the books I am teaching, a summary of my pedagogical practices, especially how much writing I require, and what the overarching “theme” of the course will be.  It was hard to keep my tone even when I responded.  Seriously, I don’t audition for students.  I wrote back, as politely as I could muster, telling her the names of the books and informing her that my students and I do A LOT of writing—probably 1 1/2 to 2 times as much as other classes.  On the subject of the “theme,” I reminded her that all readers bring their own interpretations to the texts they read and suggested that I would be remiss if I forced my own ideas about a text onto her.  I haven’t heard from her since.

***

All of these emails came back to me today as I sat down to write up the course goals and requirements for my syllabus.  As I drafted an overview of the materials and assignments, I realized that I truly believed what I had told the student about defining a theme.  When I revisited my reading selections (both longer texts and shorter readings), I discovered that any number of themes might emerge and that I didn’t want to limit my students’ imagination.  I know that other teachers use short titles to indicate the focus of their reading—“Monsters and Madness,” for example, “Women and Violence,” “Travel Writing”—but I decided that my original tag was entirely too limiting.

I also decided that the final short writing assignment for the semester will ask students (and me—I’m writing with them again this semester) to identify a theme that emerged in their own reading and thinking during the semester.

I’m not exactly certain where this post is headed, but it seemed worthwhile to acknowledge that my frustration with one particularly precocious student email prompted me to rethink my approach to my writing courses this semester.  So, thanks, obnoxious emailer!

should be “on pencils and needles”

January 2, 2008

A friend responded to my crossword puzzle picture  (below) by congratulating me for doing the puzzle in pen.  My first reaction was:  I wish I used pen, but I lack the derring-do.

Then I realized that, unless I’m taking notes or drafting something, I NEVER use pen.  I always use pencil.  I use pen when I jot down a to-do list or a grocery list, when I annotate my own writing, when I write letters and notes to friends (but in the event of an error I either a.) tear up the letter and start again or b.) make a box of ink over the mistake and move on [and then only if I’m writing to a friend or family member.])  In other words, pen is for when I don’t care about mistakes.

As I sat down this evening to work the crossword—in pencil—a student paper from this year sprang to mind.  He wrote an entry (as part of an autoethnography) about the way that pencils “hide” the mistakes/thinking a writer does in a way that pen can’t.  Said another way, the revisions and reworkings of an essay, or letter or notes or whatever, are visible when the writer uses a pen.  He argued that, in terms of the writing process, pen is actually a better medium because mistakes have to be addressed and acknowledged.

And he has a great point!  I use pencil when I want it to be perfect.  I use a mechanical pencil (Alvin Draft/Matic 0.5) and a Staedtler Mars eraser (leaves nary a trace of lead).  More importantly, when I read and respond to student papers, I only use pencil.  Heaven forbid I should make a spelling error or want to go back and edit my comments.  It occurred to me then (as it does now) that this practice doesn’t square with my stated beliefs about writing, teaching, or revealing my process to my students.

Anyway, something to think on.

What do you all use?  Pens?  Pencils?  And for what?

Back to my crossword, which will be pristine when finished…just how I like it!

(By the way, yesterday’s post was written on January 1st around 6:30, but I didn’t have the time set correctly.  As I hit “Publish” the time here is 6:39 pm.  I hope I’ve corrected that setting…)

who’s first?

November 30, 2007

I’ve incorporated a journal component into one of my classes this semester. Most of the students are future teachers, juniors and seniors in English Education, so I envisioned the journals as a space for teaching ideas, concerns, observations about the practices of other teachers, field experience notes, etc. However, many students create their own prompts, which is perfectly fine with me.

During this last round of journals, one prompt was especially popular: a list of identities, qualities, skills, beliefs, etc., beginning with the phrase “I am.”

I haven’t used this prompt yet. And tonight, right now, I think I know why. What would I put first? How would I begin?

I am a woman? I am a teacher? I am a wife? I am a student? I am anti-corporation? I am a closet Weezer-lover? You get the point.

Here’s the problem I’m dealing with tonight: I really might put things in roughly this order. I mean, yes, somewhere near the beginning I’d also identify as a daughter/sister, daughter-in-law/sister-in-law, and an aunt (family is important to me), but “teacher” would most assuredly be in the top three.

What if I’m not teaching next year? Can I do anything else? In my mind, who I am is so wrapped up in what I do that I’m all of a sudden frightened. What am I if I’m not a teacher? I think I’d rather say “I am a writer”!!!! At least I have a wee bit of control over that identity.

(A shaky premise, I know, but I have to have something.)

What would you put first?

cliché # 865: bloom where you’re planted

August 31, 2007

Or root. Whatever works.

***

No matter what, Russell and I will not be in our apartment next year on this date. Even if I don’t get a job, even if I do get a job, even if we decided to stay in Cincinnati just one more year, we will no longer live in this apartment, at this address, in these rooms. We understand that this change is minor and not at all life-threatening. We don’t care. We’re still sad.

***

I do the dishes in our relationship. For the most part. Russell is a fabulous cook, and I appreciate the thinking time that doing dishes affords. The view’s not bad either…

full view

And beyond my little “greenhouse” I can see the leaves of the beautiful ash outside my window as well as a giant oak tree in the next yard. It’s lovely and contemplative and green.

Tonight as I was scrubbing a pan I was thinking about a class I’m teaching this semester. I’ve assigned a journal component, not just because I’m mean, but because I really do believe that writers, and teachers of writing, should reflect on writing and teaching writing. It makes for good practice and it is good practice.

I’ve assigned this book for its journaling prompts. I like it and I don’t—but that’s a topic for another day. What I want to address right now is the author’s first chapter, the chapter I assigned to my students for their first journal prompt.

(I should point out right now that I’ve made the same egregious error decision to write all assignments with my students.)

So the author tells us, in her very first sentence, “Home is a blueprint of memory.” Later, she insists that “Finding home is crucial to the act of writing. Begin here. With what you know.”

***

Earlier, over dinner, I say to Russell: “Today is our last August 30th in this apartment.”

There is a pause before he replies, “Yeah. We’ve had our last whole August in this apartment.”

We sit there for a minute, letting the reality of this statement sink in. My first thoughts are remorseful: where did August go? did I appreciate our time here enough? was I even paying attention? no, I wasn’t. oh my god, what did I do last week? yesterday??? too fast….

After some nostalgia, we make a pact. I’ll write every day for the rest of the time we’re here; Russell will take photos of all of the idiosyncratic things about this place we adore. We agree that offering each other suggestions is okay. I make a list for Russell…

***

I know we’ve only lived here for four years, but it’s “home.” But only for another 11 months.

***

Goodbye, blueprint.

***

I’m thinking this thought and more as I finish the dishes. But I’m also looking at the many plant cuttings and baby plants in my mini “greenhouse.” Several thoughts occur to me at once, not the least insightful of which is the lesson these plants can teach me. Not two days ago I trimmed a jade—chopped it, really—in order to help it grow. I took the pile of stalks, tidied them up, and placed them in some water to root.

before and after

When I went back to the plant, I noticed my other jades, one of which I had trimmed last week. I remember that it was a small plant, from a trimming, not six months ago. And it had undergone it’s first trimming this summer.

planted and trimmed again

***

There’s no such thing as “home,” Georgia. And you say as much later, after I’ve already worried over my “blueprint” and its now-constant state of fade. I think I’ll stick to my jades and roots, which remind me every day that there’s a system, a process to keep in mind. Root, plant, water, ignore, tend, enjoy, trim, root, plant, water…

Reminds me of notice, think, read, daydream, draft, savor, revise, notice, think, read, draft…

breaking it down

August 14, 2007

Today has been less than productive. Okay, it’s been almost entirely unproductive. I think I’ve refreshed every single website and blog I frequent at least 50 times today, which is only about ten fewer than the number of times I’ve hit “Send/Receive” on my email. And while I would ordinarily beat myself up for my inability to focus on my writing (can’t pass up an opportunity to self-flagellate!), this time I’m not at all certain I’m entirely to blame.

When’s the last time you wrote an abstract? Seriously. Abstracts suck. It’s just not natural to distill 35 pages down to one 50-word paragraph. Not only have I been reduced to, gasp, fumbling through a thesaurus for the right word, but I’ve also been writing in a voice that sounds to me like it comes from one of those academics who introduces himself/herself as “Dr.” when you first meet. Think Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop—“Not gonna fall for the banana in the tailpipe”—and you’re there. Yuck.

As I made my 700th trip to the kitchen to see if something other than lemon lime Canada Dry and carrots had materialized in my fridge, I had a pretty horrifying thought about abstracts and my inability to produce one. It began with a question:

Why is this so freaking hard? Why can’t I just crank these little paragraphs out like so many spoken explanations of my work? What is my basic problem?!!!?!!

Continued with a defensive response:

You know, I’ve never really learned how to write an abstract. It’s not as if I’ve had much guidance or practice…

And culminated in this solution:

Maybe I’ll force my first-year writers to create abstracts or précis of all of the readings we’ll do for class this fall. So they don’t suffer like I have today.

You know those parents who, being unable to accomplish something in their own youth, project onto their children their desires? Little Susie may not want to be a cheerleader, but dammit, she’ll jump around whether she likes it or not. And Tom, well, he better set his origami to the side because he has to play tennis or else. Yeah, those parents. Uh huh. Yeah. How creepy is that? Discipline and punish.

(This post burned approximately 15 minutes. I’m that much closer to hanging it up and giving myself over to a run/walk and the Pixies…)

taking the turn to negative town

April 24, 2007

My students and I are blogging in our English 225 class. The assignment for tomorrow asks us to post an entry describing our feelings about writing in general, about drafting the final long paper (a position paper on an issue of personal significance or a manifesto—a great writing exercise despite recent events), about writing online, or about any old thing they wish. Right now, I’d rather write about my feelings for salt (love it!) or people who drive slowly in the left lane (hate ‘em), but I’ll try to tackle the writing thing.

The other day, I had a conversation with one of my colleagues about the romanticizing of writing that occurs in upper-level writing classes. I’m probably as guilty of this practice as the next person—I think a lot of people who enter a PhD program in Composition and Rhetoric believe they have something important to say, that they need to write to live fully, that they possess a special passion for writing, that they write to understand themselves and their world, blah, blah blah. I’d be lying if I said I never felt (or, perhaps more truthfully, wanted to feel) those things. However, there are other, less beautiful reasons I write. And, sadly, on this day, the ugly reasons are overshadowing the romantic ones.

Case in point: If I had to pinpoint my feelings about writing at this moment, I’d identify “obligation” as the strongest. If I don’t finish my stupid dissertation, then I don’t get my PhD. And if I don’t get my PhD, I can’t teach. And, since I’m not fit to do anything else at this point, write I must. Oy.

My colleague? He told me he writes because he’s good at it. That’s it. He chose his career because he’s a good writer. By that logic, I should be putting something in alphabetical order right now (or some other organizational task). Too bad I can’t get my PhD in California Closets and ordering Crayola crayons by color.

Shoulda posted about salt.

will i ever learn?

April 9, 2007

Painfully aware of the rapid disappearance of whatever modicum of cool I ever had, I tend to imagine my students on some cutting edge that I’ve long since renounced as remote and unreachable. I can’t understand their IM speak, their video games are too fast and confusing for me (I miss Punch Out, Tetris, Super Mario Brothers), and, as I’ve already confessed, I can’t keep up with their music.**

In no place is this feeling of being “out of it” more persistent than the realm of technology. Seriously, I sent my first email when I was in college, in 1997, and even then I was late to the game. I don’t own an iPod, use Tivo, understand HTML, download music, use Facebook, or have a Blackberry. I only began blogging last year for a class.

My students, on the other hand, have probably been blogging since they were in knee pants, posting their thoughtful musings, video clips, graphics, and photos on their own websites (built from scratch, of course).

Or so I thought.

Like last year, I’m teaching a composition class wherein I ask my students to create their own blog in order to write for a broad public audience. And as this sequence of assignments approached, I had some serious qualms about asking my students to blog. I worried that (certainly already having blogs of their own) they might not find anything of use in this process, that they might resent having to cover old ground.

Turns out, as a class, they have relatively little experience with blogs. Really, almost none. So much for my stupid assumption.

At first I was elated. I find blogging such an interesting writing exercise and I like the way it forces me to rethink composition (and rhetoric) as systems of communication. But now, after reading some of their responses to blogs they found for class, I have a new fear:

Is it ethical for me to ask my students to publish their writing on the internet?

Many of them wrote about stalkers, privacy issues, disclosing their identities, the consequences of blogging on their future careers, etc., etc., etc.

In my mind, I see a continuum of safe to risky blogging techniques, and I’ve been trying to highlight the different strategies bloggers use to attract and/or repel particular audiences (to say nothing of practical advice about how to keep one’s identity shielded.) But I’m now wondering about the ethics of asking a student to publish online as part of a grade. Something to consider…

**Last year, after admitting that I still loved the Beastie Boys, a student laughed at me and stated with disdain, “they’re so old.”