Tag 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



Big League Academia

New WriterTwo months into my first year of graduate school, I think I’ve finally started to settle in. The workload is not beyond my management (I somehow function better with less sleep), the faculty are just as thoughtful and thought-provoking, and my descent deeper into the cult of academia is going smoothly; soon, I’m told, I’ll be a card-carrying postmodernist. The support my writing receives is frequent, and the possibility of a writing career is even starting to take shape.

For example, this past week I had the opportunity to meet with two agents and two editors, to have them critique a section of my novel-in-progress and discuss the publishing industry. They told me what they liked about the short section, offered insights, made revision suggestions, and allowed me to see the project in grander terms. I learned that when I eventually get an agent and editor, publishing becomes a collaborative effort, a group project. They offered to stay in contact when I have a polished draft. Suddenly, the fantasy of publication no longer feels so impossible.

Is this it? Is this the next step for my writing? Or is this just the next phase in my hike up the ranks into academia? I ask myself this question because I’m surrounded by people who have it figured out already. I’m surrounded by serious academics, doctoral students devoting years to studying, students fulfilling long-term plans. Many of them took a break after college to figure out the rest of their lives, get married, travel, go on adventures, experience things they can then write about. And here I am, fresh out of my undergraduate career.

Am I here because I want to be a writer, or because I want to be an academic? I feel like a kid who doesn’t yet know what he wants to be when he grows up, and time is running out. Do I teach? Get a PhD? Another MA? An MFA? Is there life after publication? Or should I let my ambitions dictate my future? Tired of studying tragedy but never taking that study out of the classroom, I still want to join a charity, volunteer in a hospital in Palestine or Afghanistan or Jordan, or work on an organic farm in Chile or Brazil. I want to see the world, because I know if I stay in the confines of an English Department, I’ll run out of things to write about.

I’m still just a kid, academically speaking, and I’m surrounded by intellectual adults. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked about my PhD, as if that’s the only end in sight, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve silently shrugged and changed the subject. I only have until next fall to figure it out, though. Do I become a career academic? Teach? Work? Let me know in the comments your own thoughts or plans.


Once Upon a Time, Graduation Meant Something

Empty It finally happened. I graduated. I shook hands with the Dean of Arts and Letters and some of my favorite literature professors, and was handed a fancy diploma case for after the real one arrives in the mail. I went through the whole ritual, but when I left the Skydome amidst Flagstaff’s annual early-May snowstorm, I felt about as empty as the diploma case they gave me.

Most of my friends and family expect graduation to be a time of great joy, relief, sadness, and memory. I reflected on many things, but I tend to be reflective in general. For me, graduation offered no profundity. It was a mess of finding the right place, shaking the right hands, and enduring vague speeches about the future. Walking onto stage, having my name (and other information) announced, and receiving a diploma case should have been meaningful experiences, but I couldn’t keep myself from thinking that it was all a show.

Commencement was a self-congratulatory performance for the university, and the profiteering involved in the current education system was not only evident but ever-present. All students were required to have a cap and gown to participate in commencement, and the only way to obtain them, short of cheating and borrowing them from a friend, is to purchase them from a company; I was among those who cheated. After receiving an empty diploma case, students were ushered into two photo shoots. I was literally pulled into position, but I cannot get any of the photos taken unless I spend more money to purchase them. The commencement speeches had nothing to do with any of our own problems, our crippling student debts, an unnavigable job market, a scary world with an even scarier future. Instead, the speeches were about the university’s accomplishments, its growth and benefits, all at our expense.

College is no longer about advancing art and science and law; it’s become a business for the corporations benefiting from the on-campus dining, the corporations who make and sell caps and gowns, the construction companies profiting on new buildings the school can’t afford without cutting valuable tutoring and learning initiative programs. Education is one of the most important assets of the modern world, but the education system has become a method of exploitation.

All through commencement, I felt exploited. That’s not to suggest I did not receive an adequate education. Indeed, my professors exceeded my expectations, and they’ve changed me immeasurably. But college, as a system, profits regardless of anybody’s intellectual, scientific, artistic, political, technical, or social improvement. Instead, it encourages us to bankrupt ourselves so it can grow. In the end, NAU’s leaders do not care whether or not I graduate; they care about getting my money, and that realization hurts. I’m fortunate to have worked with professors who sincerely value their students’ collective improvement, to the point that they run themselves into the ground physically and emotionally by the end of each semester just to help us. But NAU, and the modern college-industrial complex, has done little, if anything, to contribute to its students’ intellectual improvements. I owe nothing to my university, but I do not blame it. This is a national pattern, and all of us are caught up in it. How long will it last? How long can it last before students realize that they are on a conveyer belt for the profit of private firms with no investment in literature, law, environmental science, political science, understanding globalization, or the development of compassion?

And now I’m going to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Now I’m plunging myself back into the factory.

Am I wrong about all this? Is it not the case that my friends have been placed on a conveyer belt for the past four years? For the next fifteen? Will the education system ever be returned to the hands of the educators and not the businesses? In a perfect world, the students gain more from a four-year program than the university they attend; we’ll never make it to a perfect world, but I think we deserve more than we’ve been given. We are more than crops with full pockets to harvest from. We are more than fruit to be drained and dried. We are scared, we are angry, we are curious, and we seek understanding. We are passionate and seek the means to express. We are knowledgeable and seek to use our knowledge. We deserve to be treated honestly about what we’ve been given, what we can do, and where we are going. Although I’m disappointed in my graduation, my university, and my country for voting the universities into such positions, I’m far from disheartened. Behind the curtain and the profiteering are professors who still work hard to teach and improve us. It is because of these professors that I have the means to express my discontent, and it is only through these means that I see any possibility for change.


A Brief Note About the Best Weekend of the Year*

*or, That Time I Went to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2015 Conference in Minneapolis

Conference 1

“Listen to the language you start with in the first paragraphs. That will shape the rest of the story more than you are aware.” –Pamela Painter on first drafts.

Every year, thousands of writing programs, small presses and literary magazines, publishing companies, writers new and old, writing teachers, and students flock together to share their books, writing programs, new releases, and innovations in the literary community. Thanks to the NAU Honors Program, I joined several friends in attending the conference, and it was one of the most beneficial experiences of my academic life.

“The MFA program is useful because it’s a break from the capitalist shitstorm. It lets you work without giving you black lung, and lets you focus on writing. The problem is that it doesn’t prepare you for life back in the capitalist shitstorm after it’s over.” –Claire Vaye Watkins.

Conference 2

Despite our travel plans going wrong, we made it. Because Arizona does not acknowledge daylight savings time  (but Greyhound does), we missed our bus by an hour. We decided to take a shuttle to Phoenix and ended up taking two different shuttles an hour apart, but eventually gathered in Sky Harbor with enough time to bankrupt ourselves from airport food. By late afternoon and with much applause, we landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, amidst rain and snow.

“One of the hardest things for an Arab to accomplish is to live apolitically.” –Hayan Charara on whether or not writing should be political.

The conference has two features, an exhaustive list of panels and a colossal book fair. I spent most of my time in the less popular conferences, and tried to explore as rich and diverse a selection of topics as possible:

conference swagLiterature from communities in diaspora, featuring Vietnamese-, Korean-, and Arab-American writers; a reading of flash fiction, from six-word memoirs to 1,000-word short-shorts; a reading from Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and a signing of his newest collection With a Strange Scent of World; a set of memoir readings from U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a discussion on translating Brazilian minority poets; a lengthy discussion from MFA teachers about the usefulness of seeking an MFA in Creative Writing in the first place; a panel on the usefulness of historical fiction and the rules one can break with it; a beautiful poetry reading from Iranian Farzaneh Milani, Syrian Mohja Khaf, and Iraqi Dunya Mikhail plus a list of historical women poets in the Arab-speaking world; a panel on writing as advocacy; and a reading of creative nonfiction about the value of speculation in nonfiction works.

“The ‘other’ for the writer is simply everyone.” –Elizabeth Kadetsky on the relationship between writers and the world.

The conference reinvigorated my love of writing, but unmasked a great many myths and expectations upon which I had previously built my understanding of the writing life. I now understand that the MFA racket is not all it’s cracked up to be; though certainly useful if applied correctly, MFAs are neither necessary nor financially sustainable if one wants to be a writer. I now have a greater appreciation for the need for good translators, and how deeply politicized translations can become when meaning and identity are at stake crossing the thresholds between languages. Flash fiction is more than an exercise in economizing language but a growing form of art itself.

Lastly, and most importantly, being a lone writer, while romantic, is terrible; good writing can only ever come from the experiences a writer internalizes and interprets, so I must accumulate as many experiences as possible, good, unpleasant, awkward, funny, humiliating, beautiful, terrifying, or calming. Time is not what I need as a writer; a community of friends, loved ones, people who inspire me, are what I really need. This trip generated more ideas for stories than anything I’ve done inside a classroom, and it is to my friends that I owe my ability to write, if I can say I possess such an ability in the first place.