Tag Archives: Reflection

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.


Writing in the Rain

Rio de FlagI may not be jumping around like Gene Kelly in the rain (writing while dancing is ill-advised, and I would know, because I’ve lost four laptops that way). But I do like writing when it rains.

Growing up, I usually had plenty of free time during summer and Arizona’s monsoon season. In college, I took summer classes during the rainy months, and spent a lot of time indoors next to a window, writing. I associate rain with writing, and I enjoy desert rainstorms. The temperature drops, and the moisture makes everything smell more vibrant, the pine trees and shrubs and soil. Even an overcast sky makes me want to write, even if what I end up writing is terrible.

It’s safe to stay inside when it rains. Overcast skies mean lightning. In the Midwest, rain can sometimes mean tornadoes and flooding, and in Arizona the monsoons always accompany flash flooding, to the point that Arizona even passed a so-called Stupid Motorist Law, which requires drivers who enter flooded areas to pay for the cost of being rescued. I can’t write about rain like it’s a benevolent god when the opposite is equally true. Rain can destroy. But having grown up in a state that, in a few years, will have no water at all has made me appreciate the rain in all its destructive beauty. Noah had the better apocalypse. Drought is not the end I would choose, but it’s what I’ve been dealt.

Rain also feels safer to me, somehow. A swollen, grey-haired overcast sky stretching from horizon to horizon feels like a second roof over the roof over my head. I can hide behind rain curtains, like I’m waiting to go on stage and give a speech or monologue or stand-up routine. It precipitates anticipation, motivates me to prepare for something, but I never find out what. So I prepare by writing, and after the clouds dissipate, I wait for it to rain again.


Reading and Road Trips

Crested ButteTwo weeks ago, I graduated from UNL with a Master’s degree in English. It is the result of two years of reading, writing, and writing about what I read. More importantly, I had the pleasure of spending time with the friends and colleagues I worked with this past year. To celebrate the end of the semester and our program, several folks in my graduate cohort took a vacation by driving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a weekend next to a river. Soon, we will scatter and go our separate ways, and the slice of time we gave one another without responsibility, without the need to work for someone else, without tasks to fulfill, was a small slice of heaven (which is, as we all know, a place on Earth).

Right now, I have a summer of road trips planned ahead of me. I have been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Idaho, in Moscow (the fun Moscow). I’ll be driving there from Lincoln soon with part of my family, then through Montana and Idaho to visit a variety of relatives, then back to Flagstaff, Arizona, before driving back to Montana and Idaho a month later. I’ll be spending a lot of time in a car.

When a handful of English Majors go on a road trip, they take books with them, and for me it’s always been that way. As long as I can remember, I’ve taken long road trips every summer from Arizona across the Rockies to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, and I’ve always taken a book with me. One summer, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Another summer, I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. On this most recent road trip, I read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara, and to continue my step in the left direction through summer reads, I think I’ll take along Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, which I hear is a pleasant beach read.

I’ve spent the last two years reading more books than I expected, various novels, historical texts, books on theory, books on the Russian Revolution of my own volition, craft essays, and several Nigerian plays. It is telling that, on my first break from grad school, I continued to read. The same is true of my friends who went to Crested Butte.

I have a lot going on this summer, much to look forward to and much to fear. I could blog about going to a new graduate program in creative writing or the college-industrial complex after surviving it for two more years or moving to a new state again. But right now the only things I want to do are read and spend time (reading) with my friends. I even hear talk of a Kafka/Marxist reading group in the making.


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.


The Workaholic Catches Cabin Fever

author-pic-5This weekend, an ice storm fluttered over eastern Nebraska, coating Lincoln in thin layers of slick ice and making it difficult to drive or walk. It has warmed up today, but UNL cancelled classes. I left my apartment only once this weekend for the sacred ritual of movies and food. Otherwise I’ve been inside my apartment avoiding the weather’s risks.

Granted, Lincoln is usually dangerous because the sidewalks are coated in football players’ sweat and the ejaculatory spittle of Governor Pete Ricketts as he laughs at Nebraskan voters from the golden tower overlooking the city, but this weekend it was especially dangerous.

Regular readers of this blog know that I partly enjoy bad weather, especially if it involves snow. It allows me to stay inside, drink coffee, write, and read. I freely admit that I’m a workaholic. I maintain a strict work ethic, in part because it nags me to have unfinished tasks. Knowing I have a deadline coming up feels like hot, smelly breath on my neck, which is also the sensation I have when I look at the face of P. Ricketts. I work hard in order to avoid having things gnaw at me.

This weekend, though, I had few deadlines that I could meet from home. I have yet to receive papers for grading or major assignments to begin. I forced myself to plunge back into the habit of writing regularly, which I had lost over winter break, and what writing I did was weak and unsatisfying.

For once, I wasn’t productive, though society doesn’t normally benefit from my labor. The hours I put into writing, revising, submitting, and making fun of politicians usually go unnoticed, especially by politicians named Pricketts. I’m a workaholic, but I realized this weekend that I’m not a productive workaholic.

I realized that I deal in temporary moments. When I produce, it’s usually particular instances, things that dissipate into the air. As a teacher, I produce lessons, rather than capital. As a writer, I produce reactions and responses, usually from my loyal readership of five people, my dog, and maybe even Pricketts the Farmer of Nebraskan Tears. I’d like to think I produce moments of companionship, like the hairy dog I’m quickly becoming. What I obsessively create doesn’t last. Lessons, reactions, and responses always melt, one way or another, but I still enjoy producing them. Nobody gains capital as a result, but maybe they gain affirmation, if I work hard enough.

I could do very little affirming from my apartment while sheets of ice formed in the freezing rainfall. I still prefer the snowy weather, but I’m glad to be out and about writing, wandering, and listening.


For Me, the Year is Only Half Over

I won’t be making New Year’s Resolutions on January 1. To be honest, I never have, but not because I’m against resolutions. It’s because for me a new year won’t begin on January 1. As long as I can remember, I’ve never marked new and old years by the Gregorian calendar. These twelve-month chunks don’t reflect my own endings and beginnings. Instead, I’ve always marked years by the academic calendar.

I count school years instead of Gregorian years because summers have always marked the major changes for me: every June I leave behind classes and teachers and prepare to meet new ones in August. Friends graduate and leave, relationships end, and the next school year offers new possibilities. The end of 2016 means nothing to me. It’s still winter, I’m still in grad school, I’m still 24. What will actually change tomorrow?

Now, while folks wallow in the regret of not fulfilling their 2016 resolutions, I still have six months left until I have to wallow in regret, and even then I have the whole summer to do my wallowing. I have plenty of time to not get in shape and not get published in The Paris Review.

I also have half a year left to finish my MA, improve my teaching, become a regular at a bar where everybody knows my name, and find inner peace. Piece of cake. Then, in summer, I can start the next year fresh and accomplished. I still don’t know where I’ll be next year, how many publications I’ll have, and whether or not I’ll have to cope with martial law, but that’s fine, because I still have half a year to figure it out.

For the rest of you folks celebrating 2017 like it somehow means something, I wish you a Happy New Year. For me, though, kindly hold your New Year’s wishes until summer. The weather will be nicer then, anyway.



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.