Category Archives: education

Another Summer, Another Syllabus

WorkingThis fall will be my third year teaching first-year composition at the college level, and my fifth time drafting my syllabus from scratch. Some instructors keep a syllabus, but so far, I’ve opted to rebuild and try something new. Fifth time’s the charm, or maybe not.

Each time I teach an introductory writing class, I have made significant changes to the syllabus, the assignments, the readings. I change the amount of points that participation is worth, because I am still redefining what qualifies as sufficient participation. Should I have more shorter assignments or just a few really long essays? How can I get students to read what is required? I’ve never believed in reading quizzes, but this year I may try them out.

I am returning to some of the standard readings I’ve used from my first semester in Nebraska, way back in Fall, 2016, during simpler, less stupid times. I will still assign Stephen King’s “What Writing Is” and show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” But I’m also adding new readings, like Tiffany Midge’s essay “Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s” and Joy Castro’s essays “Grip” and “Getting Grip.”

Every semester is a tri-weekly exercise in trial and error, and to a degree I regret doing this to my students. I have been in classes where professors try new things and talked excitedly about their brand new syllabus, and now, after three years on the other side of the classroom, I wonder if I shouldn’t just repeat what is familiar, but I know that repeating even the most familiar trials will still result in plenty of errors. Every class is different, and within those classes are unpredictable factors.

Students might hate what I assign. They might not. Conversely, I might hate teaching something they end up loving. It’s rare that we’re all in agreement. The question is how can I teach them this lesson–that speakers struggle to connect with their audiences in the most ideal circumstances–without simply telling them it’s the case. Teaching is like writing in that showing is preferred over telling, but just like writing too, honesty is the best policy.

So, this year, I will write at the top of my syllabus “Please anticipate technical difficulties.” Extra credit to students who pay enough attention to notice it.

-jk

Teacher Sweat Solutions, Ltd.

shirt stainIf you’re a first-time college instructor, you may have heard this piece of encouraging advice on your first day: “Don’t sweat it!” Well, studies have shown that this is physiologically impossible. In fact, the classroom setting is designed specifically to create more sweat among teachers through a combination of lights, stress, and projectors to overheat the exact spot a teacher teaches in, and nowhere else. As a result, within minutes of teaching, teachers are inevitably drenched in a thin layer of sweat they know their students can see, even those students who spend entire classes with their eyes directed into their phone screens.

We here at Teacher Sweat Solutions, Ltd., would like to offer you, a first-time sweaty teacher, a variety of solutions to alleviate what scientists and Rick who always shows up late to meetings have dubbed “frequent sweating issues.”

  1. To reduce the visibility of FSI, consider wearing only black clothes. This will make sweat stains visible only to the first two rows of students.
  2. Strategically reduce the heat in the classroom. Recent studies cited offhandedly by Rick that might have come from NPR but he can’t remember where suggest that body temperature increases the more teachers realize just how many of their students are judging them for mumbling or for saying “um” or for being a humanities professor who sometimes uses critical thinking. Consider turning down the heat and cranking up the AC. Your students can cope with it.
  3. Be careful with your layers. Wear a really tight undershirt and a really loose top over that, so that your undershirt can become a towel that almost never comes into contact with the rest of your clothes. No sweat stains! However, this solution only works if you do not move during the entire class period.
  4. Head sweat is a growing concern these days. Just ask Rick, who pointed out to you in the meeting he was late to that you look uncomfortably sweaty and offered you a tissue. Consider wearing a beanie or a bandana while teaching to mop up the sweat. Longer hair can also catch sweat, but be sure to wash it regularly.
  5. If all else fails, teach online classes only. This will make it impossible for your students to see the sweat you produce typing emails explaining to them that the answers to their questions are in the syllabus.

Teaching is a risky career fraught with pitfalls and existential anxiety, and not just because tuition waivers are about to be taxed pointlessly while professors are scrutinized by petty, ideologically driven politicians. We can’t help with that, but we can at least help you reduce the visibility of your sweat while you anxiously watch the news unfold during your in-class free writes. We can’t reduce your stress, but we can help you deny that it’s there, like you do with the rest of your problems, Rick.

-jk

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