Tag Archives: College

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

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

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

Filling Office Hours

officeYou sit down at your desk awaiting students with questions. Some have already sent you emails with one concern or another; they have questions and it’s your job to answer them in office hours. So you wait.

You check your email; nothing. In looking at your schedule, you see you have readings, papers, and writing to do. You begin one project casually, expecting students to pop in. You’ve done that countless times to other professors, after all.

You finish your first project and check your email; nothing. Good. More time to write. You write. You write some more. You look up, and there’s a student, but she’s looking for another professor and is lost. You feel smugly accomplished as an educator for helping a lost student find the answer to her question (room 345, third floor, past the weird-smelling book case).

You revise an essay, check your email, and find yourself interested in the political spam in your inbox. You sign some petitions, feeling less accomplished than when you saved that student’s career that one time half an hour ago. No, ten minutes. Has it really only been ten minutes since?

You begin a new writing project and look up, just in case. Yes, you are happy you have this time to get things done, but what if your students have questions? What if they didn’t understand the assignments? What if their email just isn’t working? You want to be a good instructor; you want to be accessible. It’s the first part of your teaching statement, and you want to be like those other professors you had who were so available, so accessible, to save your life with their marvelous answers.

This time you simultaneously check your email and your syllabus to see if you listed the correct office hours and room number. Yes. Students can access it. You keep writing.

No students come by. Soon your office hours are done and you have completed all your work for the next week, plus submitted an essay to a literary magazine. Before heading out for lunch, you check your email one more time to find you have a new email from a student inquiring about the first paper’s requirements. Finally, you think, relaxing back in your seat, the work can begin.

-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

 

Graduate School, Season Two

teapotAmong the many things coming this Fall is the second season of me being in Graduate School. This next year looks promising, and I’m looking forward to the goofy Nebraska antics, the creative writing classes I’ll be taking, and finally teaching a class on my own.

I hope the next year of Graduate School corrects some of the mistakes of last season. For example, the protagonist last year came off as exceedingly pretentious, especially in his attitude toward the setting. The protagonist spent too much time complaining about the Midwest, and while the “missing home narrative” was compelling, it got old quickly. I for one hope the main character does more than sit around making bad jokes about the prairies.

The next season will most likely see more of the main character trying to get published, and the audience will enjoy the conflict between devotion to graduate studies versus the effort it takes to write, read, submit, and convince literary magazines to publish his work. Many of last season’s episodes focused on various low-stakes self-contained stories that take place in the protagonist’s apartment or the English department, which is why I hope Graduate School will venture out a little more this season. As a show with a whole city for a setting, it’s strange that so much of it uses only two interior buildings to shoot in.

The show has many strange components: the romance plots are all backstory, the drama is all internal, there’s very little dialogue, and the protagonist doesn’t seem to have changed in the first season, at least not in ways the audience would hope for. Where’s his arc?

The real question is whether or not Graduate School will go on for a third season, or if the show will wrap up with the protagonist just getting a Master’s Degree and stopping his college pursuits after that. Future years of Graduate School could be quite worthwhile, but without major character development, this could be Graduate School’s last year. In any case, I look forward to the season premier, and I hope the coming year will be, at the very least, entertaining.

-jk

The Nine Circles of Term Paper Writing

College students across the country are about to walk through hell, a hell of term papers and cramming and source-hunting. Many of you will not make it, but all of you can expect to pass through several of the dreaded Nine Circles of Term Paper Writing.

First is Limbo, otherwise known as procrastination. This is where most of you will die. Limbo is where you need fifteen cups of coffee before even looking at your sources, where you are forever logged into facebook no matter how hard you try to leave. It’s a place of endless scrolling, a place where the due date at the end of the tunnel is miles away. It takes a concentrated effort to work through this circle.

2

After sitting down to start, you will find yourself in Lust. Now you have a thesis that you want to prove, and it becomes an obsession. You really, really want to prove this wonderful thesis of yours. You want to prove it until the sun comes up. Maybe you want to write a postpostmodern analysis of the presidential race, or argue that Plato was just a whale’s intestine and Aristophanes actually wrote all his works. Whatever it is, it will consume you, no matter how ridiculous.

3

Moving on from Lust, you will find yourself in Gluttony. Here you will quench your desire to prove your thesis by binging on the various amenities college life offers: ramen noodles and your RA’s stash of confiscated alcohol. Gluttony tends to resurface throughout the rest of your journey.

4

Next comes Greed. Filled with calories and “inspired” by Rick the RA’s vodka, you will push yourself to secure more sources than needed. Your paper is on the American Revolution, but you will find a way to incorporate Mad Max into it. Or your paper is on Mad Max, and you just need the perfect Plato quote for the intro. If the sources and vodka don’t kill you, unless you revise extensively, your professors might.

5

Sobering up a bit, you will find yourself in Anger. In this circle, you are taunted by your computer screen showing that after three hours of work, you put your name as the title, misspelled the date, and have written nothing else. Filled with rage and sudden hunger, you will seek satisfaction by insulting your roommate who wrote his final papers last week like a total jerk.

6

Soon, you will find yourself passing through Heresy. Here, you begin to question things: the due date on the syllabus, the current day of the month, whether or not you need to pass this class. You even find yourself questioning petty things, like whether or not the nineteenth century even happened in the first place (it didn’t).

7

Failing to arrive at sufficient answers, you will move on to Violence. This circle will last only briefly, and if it doesn’t, your jerk roommate will bring Rick the RA in, and you’ll have to apologize and watch that jerk return to his video games while Rick cuts you off from the vodka like the dingo’s bladder he is.

8

Next comes Fraud. Seriously, run through this circle. Sprint through it. Fraud is perfectly acceptable in other circumstances, such as politics, banking, military spending, the EPA, trade regulations, local/state/federal elections, corporate taxes, government surveillance, international gambling rings, working as an RA in a dorm, and even important places like twitter, but it is not acceptable in an academic paper, so just move on to the next circle.

9

Finally, you will come to Treachery. By now you have a paragraph of rewritten thesis statements that somehow ended up in second-person plural. You remove every instance of “all ya’ll” from your intro and realize that your problems all started with procrastination. This is where you realize that you have betrayed yourself by putting off this paper for so long. Maybe you spent too much time blogging and taking stupid pictures of yourself for your blog. Who knows? Whatever the case, you have procrastinated yourself into a hole, and procrastination is a terrible way to climb back out. So you slap yourself in the face and focus all your attention on one valiant goal: a high C. After this, you vow to never procrastinate so much again, just like last semester. But this time it’s for real.

10

To my fellow academics, happy End of the Semester. Now stop wasting time reading this and get back to work.

-jk