Category Archives: education

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

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

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

The Novel That Wasn’t (But Will Be)

library-books-2The last time I wrote anything for NaNoWriMo this year was November 8. After November 9, I mysteriously lost interest in a genre-bending crime-western about four elderly women who witness a murder and can only recall the gritty details of a bad acid trip they had together in their college days in the late 1960s.

I still have that overwhelming disinterest now, as I apply for more graduate schools in the humanities, an area continually asked to justify its existence to university administrators who want higher salaries for themselves at the expense of faculty and student budgets. We’re constructed as the enemy, put on watchlists by paranoid Internet users, and made to be reminded that our pursuit of art is a waste of time in a fastpacedgrabitall economy. What good is an MFA to a post-apocalyptic society struggling to save the last bee colony? What good is a genre-bending novel to a pipeline oil leak? In a few years, will we even be publishing novels?

So I put it aside. I was also busy studying and teaching. I want to enjoy the rest of my education; I don’t know if I’ll have an opportunity to enjoy it again. It’s a lot of work for little, if any, profit. I’m lucky I have no student debts, but every time I look at the news, I can’t help but feel that I’ve squandered my education for a pursuit that now only exists to sustain itself. The power of the written word has betrayed us. The written, texted, tweeted word can be undeniably a lie, and people still believe it. Meanwhile, if a poem goes viral, it only reaches the people who already love it.

I still have the urge to write, though. I enjoy it, when I manage to find the time and peace. Even this meager blog is satisfying. It’s work, pleasurable work, but it can’t exist only for me. The most successful writer, as I’ve heard, is the one who can write a story and put it in a drawer forever. Until I reach that level of inner peace, I need an audience. Maybe this post will reach someone who needs it, or at least enjoys it. Probably not. I want to be realistic about my prospects, but the pleasure I derive from writing propels me forward through this muddy, hopeless, disgusting month.

I’ll get back to my novel soon. I don’t think a genre-bending novel will make a difference, but if I ever stop writing, the anti-intellectuals win. If they want me to justify my existence as a writer, reader, and academic, I’ll have to give them one hell of a novel full of well-written dynamic characters and compassionate portrayals of inner conflicts and meticulous attention to the beauty of environmental and historical landscapes. I’d rather write hopelessly than not at all.

-jk

Silence in the Classroom

rain

It was only by coincidence that my class’s week on  ecological nonfiction essays coincided with the first presidential debate, back in September. That week, I decided to overwork my students by asking them to watch the debate and research issues not discussed in it to present informally to the class. This was in addition to numerous readings by environmental writers, including Terry Tempest Williams, Donna Haraway, Edward Abbey, and Alison Hawthorne Deming. My students watched the debate, but we did not discuss it extensively. Instead, at the end of a long week about nuclear testing, the meat industry, and communication between species, my classes presented numerous, often unspoken issues.

Many of them chose to research declining bee populations. Some researched eroding coastlines, others the Dakota Access Pipeline. Alongside these topics, the debate somehow felt too disheartening to discuss. I did not assign the second debate; I have avoided discussing the content of the presidential election, because much of it is ugly and dehumanizing.

I think I can take a lot, intellectually speaking. Maybe it’s numbness or being a grad student, or the erosion of my soul to coffee and rum. It’s not that ugly and dehumanizing rhetoric is unimportant; it’s that, lately, I’m having a hard time stomaching it, as well as the important environmental and geopolitical issues that are too frequently sidestepped in order to create more time in the media for quotes, scandals, emails, videos, or tweets. Such issues are important, but hideous, and I don’t know if I can impose them on my students if I myself am frustrated by their imposition on me.

Me! I’m not a cynic, but I read about atrocities with considerable ease. I can sit through a Werner Herzog documentary and feel only minimal anxiety about the impending digital apocalypse. I can stomach a lot. What I find frustrating is that the capacity to discuss serious issues remains very much a choice, but not for long. Even now, classroom discussions about climate change take place in the present tense and not the future tense; women’s suffrage could soon become a past-tense moment; digital public shaming over five-year old tweets could become a common, inescapable practice. I don’t want to be silent about important political issues in the classroom, but I now recognize the comfort of silence.

It’s easy. It’s pleasant. It’s satisfying to turn off the noise, the rhetoric, the verbal and psychic and physical violence. Silence may be irresponsible, but now I understand its appeal. We are only halfway done with the semester, and there is still much left to discuss. Silence is appealing, but dangerous.

-jk

It’s in the Syllabus

Calander 2In a week, I’ll be teaching two sections of an introductory English class using a syllabus of my own design, for my graduate program. I can choose the readings, assignments, and discussion topics, all within reason, of course (I probably wouldn’t be allowed to teach my students math; lucky them). While I’ve been a TA and writing tutor before, I’ve never been in charge of a class for a full sixteen weeks. And now I’m charge of two classes.

For a while, I thought of syllabi as surreal artifacts that came from thin air, or maybe from elves living in the College of Business. Even until recently, I didn’t think too much about the amount of work that can go into a syllabus. Some good friends have given me advice, and while a few peers have suggested I improvise the whole thing, I’d much rather work with a script.

Drafting a syllabus felt like writing a script more than anything else. There are formal parts, class goals and policies on plagiarism, but most of it is a kind of script. I worry that I may not play the role of “teacher” well enough, but at least I’ll have a day-to-day plan to navigate my way through the semester.

As a student, it’s easy to jump to the most important parts of a syllabus, the due dates and assignment descriptions (so we can know which days we should study and which days we can party), but for a teacher the syllabus is more than a binding contract with students. It’s a way of making the act of teaching much less daunting. I can worry less about sixteen weeks when I see those weeks compartmentalized into individual blocks of time: here, a discussion about a short story; there, a brief note about logos, pathos, and ethos; after that, a short paper is due.

I look forward to teaching in a week, and I’m terrified of teaching in a week. By next Monday, I’ll know what to say one day at a time, and if I get stumped, I’ll know the answer is in the syllabus.

-jk