Category Archives: Academia

Relearning to Teach in a Windowless Room

ClassroomMy second year of teaching, now in my second Master’s degree, is keeping me busy. Last fall, I took a class on pedagogy and read selections on composition and rhetoric theory by Peter Elbow, David Bartholomae, Janice Lauer, and Paulo Freire. Mostly, though, I learned how to teach by rapidly switching from my role as an instructor to my role as a student, wearing several hats several times a day. This fall, I’m in a similar pedagogy class and teaching similar composition courses, and I find myself learning the basics all over again, with perhaps a better sense of how to fail with grace.

But until now, I have never taught in a windowless room. One of the composition courses I’m teaching and the pedagogy class I’m taking are both in windowless rooms, lit from the ceiling alone with white incandescence, the kind of electricity I can hear when the room is silent, which is often the case when I teach. Even the basement classes I taught last year had basement windows, sometimes covered in snow but letting in shades of morning year-round.

A class on rhetoric should, I think, require windows. How can I teach rhetoric in a room that tries to block out the world? Rhetorical composition is an interior process that requires thoughtful contemplation of the overlapping layers of the world in which we find ourselves. When I assigned an article on the cost of fighting wildfires, I could not point out the window to the thick clouds of smoke that sunk over the Palouse from fires in Montana to demonstrate the concept of exigence.

Composition is introspective, and introspection is improved by a window students can stare out of. Without a window, where will my students glance wistfully? Where will they look when they finish a free write? White boards are only so interesting.

Maybe I’m overthinking this. In fact, I’m fairly sure I am. Personally, I feel uncomfortable as a student in a windowless room, but it’s unfair to assume my students are the same. To do so robs them of their own context. Do they prefer windowless rooms? Do they even care? The problem, then, is that I have trouble seeing beyond the limits of my comfort zone, just as my students have trouble seeing beyond the limits of their comfort zones when I ask them to think critically about the arguments they make. Nevertheless, it feels like an imposed form of denial about the world to teach rhetoric in a room with no windows, as if education is an un-real space that cannot be infiltrated by the external, “real” world. As if college should be so sterile.

To wear many hats, to be a student and a teacher, is to recognize that I am still learning how to teach, and maybe this is true every semester for every teacher. As a student, I walk into each new class to be surprised at how different instructors and groups of peers change the way discussions and my own writing develop. Likewise, I’m sure my approach to teaching (lots of high pitched squeaking about context and self-deprecating humor and self-referential meta-lectures) differs from the teaching styles of my students’ other professors, so much so that they have to relearn how to learn in my class just as I need to relearn how to teach them on some discovered common ground. I should learn that my students might not have windows where they learn, and they will hopefully learn the value of glancing up at the world while writing.

-jk

Grad School Reboot

booksIn May, Grad School ended with an undramatic series finale in which the protagonist received his degree, went to a few low-key parties, then went home. The writers worked a possible spinoff involving Idaho into the plot, and this Fall that spinoff will appear as a reboot of Grad School, starring the previous series’ main character and, as far as the writers know, nobody else.

In the era of rebooted shows, many of which ended several decades ago, a reboot of Grad School is only the next logical step. In the upcoming Season One/Three, the protagonist will attend an MFA program in Idaho’s panhandle, the only untapped part of the Pacific Northwest not used by modern television’s fascination with the region, ranging from Portlandia to Twin Peaks to Northern Exposure to Twin Peaks: The Return. Critics wonder if Idaho’s panhandle qualifies as the PNW, and many more critics wonder if Idaho even qualifies as a state rather than several disunited principalities ruled by various Mormons, libertarians, and seventeen armed lumberjacks from Montana, all of whom are named Slim. Our protagonist will have at least three seasons to figure this out.

The reboot’s narrative arcs will be predictably similar to those of its first two seasons in Nebraska: the protagonist will take classes, teach classes, and spend most nights grading, reading, and writing. Most episodes will begin with him walking to campus and end with him walking home. Critics wonder if the show can sustain itself for the intended three seasons of Grad School: MFA, but hope that the introduction of more creative writers will create more quirky dialogue and probably melodrama. The show could also do with more humor and lightheartedness to balance the protagonist’s late-season arc toward nihilistic cynicism, and some critics are even expecting a full-fledged comedy to emerge. But one can only hope.

-jk

 

Welcome to the University of Hell; Here’s Your Parking Pass

ParkingOn behalf of Satan and his minions and CEOs and several charitable people who donated buildings to us, we would like to welcome you, personally, to the University of Hell.

You’ll find your freshman orientation packets in your complimentary tote bag, along with two coupons for two free meals in the Hell Union. The cost of the tote bag and coupons will be included in your student fees, which will be calculated in total for you at the beginning of Finals Week. You will also find information about parking, which will become much easier with our new Henry Kissinger Bill Gates Memorial Super Tennis Parking Lot, located on south-east campus near the Ninth Circle Dorm. This year, parking passes are $786, which will also be included in your student fees. For those who don’t have a car, you’ll be glad to help pay for the parking passes of your fellow peers, or else.

The University of Hell is honored to serve our new students. Our Beelzebub Administration Center is located in the middle of campus, at the suggestion of UH graduate Jeremy Bentham, and our administrators are always open for questions, suggestions, and even concerns during their office hours from 3:00 AM to 3:15 AM every fifth Tuesday of the month. Feel free to direct all questions regarding student fees, parking, jobs, recreation, and housing to one of our 4,000 departmental administration management directors (we call them the DAMD for short). You’ll be paying for their salaries and Satan’s swimming pool of virgins’ blood with your student fees, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of their time.

Please feel free to tour our new Adam Smith Institute for Pharmaceutical Studies, or the recently constructed Brett Favre School of English Literature and Mass Entertainment, or our Walt Disney School of Criminal Justice and Gender Studies located next to the Pit of Eternal Fire, where football practice is held.

If any of our guests today find a lack of toilet paper, please do not be alarmed. We are working on a new system in which students pay for the necessary quantity of toilet paper with their student ID cards, and their student accounts are then charged for the toilet paper they use on the spot. If students lose their ID card for any reason and are unable to pay for toilet paper, they will be reminded that it is useful to carry their class syllabi with them at all times in the event of an emergency.

The University of Hell values you. Ever since its founding by Satan, who received his Hotel and Restaurant Management degree from Yale, UH has prided itself in the quantity of its students. We are here to help you help us, and we want to help you in doing so.

From all of us here at Hell, welcome to higher education.

-jk

Soft-Spoken in Academia

HallIs there a place for soft-spoken introverts in the competitive fast-paced aggressively limited-time-offer college-industrial complex? The short answer is no. The long answer is no, thank goodness.

I don’t speak often, and when I do, people usually tell me to speak up, and when I do, I try to hand the conversation to someone else. I don’t dislike contributing. What I dislike is overtly dominating conversations, steering them in one direction or another, or making an effort to gain control of the dialogue if I’ve somehow lost it. More than introversion, I prefer to be independently passive, rather than participate actively. I am neither competitive nor aggressive.

What I noticed in teaching an introductory rhetoric class last semester is that students primarily want to know how to win an argument. They want to know how to prove they are right, regardless of whether or not they are in the first place. My pedagogy class last semester reinforced the notion that rhetoric is a competition, and that arguing is an ideal way to participate in society. Academics I have interacted with in higher ed reflect this way of thinking, and it is reflected in the academic system as a whole. A recent conversation I had with scholars (in which I listened exclusively) about recent trends in academia emphasized the need for scholars to publish early and often, to make themselves known through websites and social media, and to compete aggressively for funding and jobs in an already over-saturated market and in fields (the sciences and humanities) that the President and Congress intend to attack in purely symbolic anti-intellectual gestures.

This institutional turn coincided with tuition hikes that have mostly funded increased college administration rather than faculty. The college-industrial complex imposes competition onto both students and faculty, but industrialization might be an overused metaphor, one that is accurate from an outsider’s perspective but does not reflect experiences on the ground level. Instead, it feels like an ecosystem, some stretch of the Great Plains where insects, birds, prairie dogs, and vegetation compete for survival. Academia feels Darwinian because those who do well are those who are aggressive, loud, eager, quick, and uncritical. The push to publish early and often requires faculty to sacrifice either quality or spare time, and students are pushed through an assembly line toward a diploma to simply qualify for numerous jobs, with no time for learning outside their designated specialty. Describing undergraduate requirements as paths and timelines also reinforces the need for students to specialize rather than explore. It’s no wonder so many of my students last semester said they enrolled in an English class to add to their ability to compete, by winning arguments.

And here I am, a shy listener who wants to learn from others more than I believe I can teach them. I won’t thrive in the ecosystem because I value quality over quantity, patience over immediate feedback, and listening over contributing. I consume more ideas than I produce, and as such, I’m not making anything universities can exploit for advertisement or prestige.

I do not contribute to the system, because the system does not run on patience and scruples. It is fueled by the production of ideas, the teeming blue schools of links clicked on a given day, the riptides of steady marketable publications. There is not an overpopulation of ideas, and I do not mean to dismiss self-expression. But there is not a place in the current scheme of things for the soft-spoken, for people who are here to learn regardless of what degrees I may or may not get out of it. I don’t fit in. Maybe that’s a good thing.

-jk

Exciting Spring Break Plans for Grad Students

Spring BreakLet’s face it: Spring Break is an undergrad’s game. Most of them flock to some sunny island whose painful history of colonization you learned about last week in a story form PRI’s The World. Grad students just don’t have the time or money or energy for a ritzy vacation, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a glamorous Spring Break from the comfort of their university. There are many fun activities grad students can enjoy.

  1. Grade! Spring Break is a great time to catch up on the forty papers your students turned in three weeks ago. Knowing that two thirds of your students will probably go to the obscure Caribbean island you mentioned in your lecture about neo-colonialism will make it easier to point out their spelling mistakes.
  2. Enjoy the library! There’s a fifty percent chance your university library will be torn down to make room for another Business Administration building, so enjoy it while it lasts! Remember, the triple-major out-of-state undergrad running both checkout desks at the library during Spring Break is probably as miserable as you are.
  3. Find places to publish your articles! It’s an exciting time be writing in academia, almost as exciting as a train wreck, but finding the right journal takes time. Whether it’s a case study proving that spiders have more successful dating lives than you do or a new argument about something Shakespeare once wrote, academic journals are eager to publish high quality caffeine/wine-fueled work.
  4. Enjoy public broadcasting! There’s a seventy-six percent chance that NPR and PBS will lose all their funding soon, so enjoy them while you can! Remember, the new administration probably won’t imprison you for supporting them, but if you stream PBS on your laptop or listen to NPR while microwaving your last hot dog, the government will know.
  5. Taxes! You still have time to file your taxes, and between grading forty papers and apologizing to your committee for the typos in your 400-page dissertation about John Carpenter’s The Thing and applying for the same teaching position that 250 more qualified graduates are also applying for, this is your chance! What could be better?
  6. Binge watching while binge drinking! Catch up on your favorite obscure foreign-language Caribbean documentaries you heard about on PRI’s The World or rewatch your favorite sitcom for the seventh time! Remember, one bottle of vodka per season.
  7. Find conferences you can’t afford! You have an idea for a paper to present at the Fall Interdisciplinary Shakespeare in the Caribbean Conference held in the ever-lovely Fargo, North Dakota, and even if you can’t afford to attend, you can still submit your proposal and fantasize about the bus ride to Fargo.

This is your time. You’re a grad student; you’re socially awkward and prefer the company of cynics and hipsters, and you prefer dedicating your time to research and analysis, because without it, you’d go crazy. What is there to do on a sunny beach with hours of boring free time, anyway?

-jk

My Heroes Have Always Been Teachers

archivesAs a child, I wanted to be a scientist. Astronomy called to me, but so did biology, zoology, ecology, geology, and entomology. The world was colossal, and to a youngshysmallguy, science was a way to make it less scary. Diseases, meteors, and volcanoes didn’t have to be terrifying as long as someone could show me how to figure out how and why they worked.

Scientists were my heroes because their superpowers (analysis, facts, cool lab coats) were all things I could acquire without being bitten by radioactive nerds or being born on another planet. They used logic and knowledge to solve problems, and I wanted to do the same. The world was colossally scary, and knowledge made it more comfortable to live in.

When I realized that my existential angst about politics and terrorism could be alleviated the same way, I started to study history, religion, geopolitics, literature, and somehow wandered into writing. I left behind old heroes for new ones, but my heroes were still teachers helping me make sense of the world.

This country is brutal to those who teach literature and art, but it is just as brutal to science teachers, who face an ugly twofold set of challenges: First, American traditional values that scrutinize and punish teachers for discussing science that disrupts the status quo, from evolution (contrary to religious conservatism) to climate change (a threat to capitalism). Secondly, there is the marketplace that teachers must prepare science students for, and competition for jobs and grants can be limiting. Humanities teachers face the same set of challenges, but they have enough irony and bitterness to make themselves feel better about it.

Obviously, education systems are far from perfect. Many public schools are underfunded, and university faculty face scrutiny from students, voters, and states. Even under ideal circumstances, teaching requires long, draining hours, and my own experiences with teaching so far attest to that workload. Individual teachers must work against these forces and use what intellectual energy they have left to assure students that the world, as horrifying as it is, can make sense. Teaching requires profound courage in the face of limited resources coupled with deliberate opposition. The best teachers  I had possessed a superpower, and only now do I realize that their superpower was the strength to keep teaching through the cacophony of discouraging voices.

It’s a power I may not possess myself. The new administration is making education even harder with its intentions to cut funding for the humanities and restrict scientists from making scientific facts public. Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education is a tangible threat to public school teachers, given the likelihood that she will push for cutting funds to public education while supporting education’s privatization, which potentially allows leaders in the private sector to control the education of their workforce.

And yet dedicated teachers push forward to understand the increasingly ugly world. I gave up science for writing, but they cannot be separated. Science meets politics and history, and we meet them back with art and social science and language. Teachers now face the full power of the state and its worst citizens, and it now requires even greater moral courage than before to teach science and literature. We need social studies teachers unafraid to tell students what their rights are, biology teachers who are not attacked for discussing climate change,  and history teachers who are not punished for pointing out this country’s hideous past and present of slavery and internment and anti-immigration policies. This country is a furnace of anti-intellectual interests, and it takes strength to teach despite those interests.

I draw my own courage from the quiet heroism of educators I’ve been lucky enough to know, the ones who brought me to this point, uncertain and bitter but not confused. Afraid, but not afraid to know more, to pull back the curtain and look for how and why and what now.

-jk

Reflections on a First Semester of Teaching

pedagogy-2To the astonishment of many, I finished my first semester as a graduate instructor, and I now have a break from graduately instructing people. I have ambitious writing goals for the break (two new stories, four revisions, eight submissions), and I intend to stick to those goals (not just because my nonfiction instructor challenged me to email her if I succeeded), and now that I’ve submitted final grades, I have time to think about my first time being fully responsible teaching forty-six people to write arguments.

I still mostly don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m learning and have learned plenty, and I now know what not to do (mostly). Even with a syllabus, plans change, and even when I realize a lesson plan is about to fail (much like hope or democracy) ten minutes into class, I still have to go through with it. Teaching is a kind of theater, and I can hide my uncertainties about a lesson plan well enough.

I should be honest with my students, but not too honest. Teaching is still theater, but actors bring pieces of themselves on stage when they perform, even in subtle ways. I don’t want to be a mysterious professorfiguredude, because I’m not. I’m a graduate instructor trying to figure out the mechanics of a syllabus and how to factor in participation. I should be honest with my students if I make a mistake, and I expect the same from my students (and despite this semester’s rough patches, I still have high expectations).

A good cohort makes teaching easier, and not just because it’s lovely to have a group of friends with whom I can praise and complain about students, plan lessons, work on assignments, and stay motivated. It also helps to have people who need to stress-drink as much as I do.

A bad lesson plan does not make a bad semester, and I often have a hard time remembering that. Mistakes might feel worse and worse as the semester goes on, but it helps to remember that over Winter Break, students will forget most of them, and in a few years I probably will too.

Hypocrisy is inevitable, and that’s also okay. I’m a quiet student, and when confronted with a class of people who, like me, are very quiet, I’m forced to be speak more, because avant-garde pedagogy in which students and teachers sit in a room silently meditating on a reading is very uncomfortable. It’s hard to fill fifty minutes three times a week with discussions and lectures, and it makes me want to apologize to all my professors for having been such an aggressively quiet student.

A new semester means a new syllabus, which means countless more ways to make mistakes and learn, but now I know what to expect.

-jk