Tag Archives: teaching

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

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

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

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