Tag Archives: university

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

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

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

After Two Years of Blogging, Your Guess is Still as Good as Mine

toastWordPress reminded me that today is my two-year blogiversary. I missed last year’s for the obvious reasons (grad school applications, Macbeth, mud wrestling, etc.). Today, though, I slide two years into the past when I was surrounded by the mess of my education: Beloved, essays on the Holocaust, a textbook on linguistics, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, and drafts of my own poetry. The liberal arts defined my life, but lacked definition; in a confused fervor I wrote my first blog post asking simply, why get a liberal education in the first place?

Two years have gone by. I created this blog to explore the liberal arts generally, the life of a wannabe writer specifically. At varying times, it has served as an open journal, editorial, bully pulpit, and archive of my writing. I started out posting short vignettes satirizing myself as a freshman, but moved on to better creative writing, philosophy, travelogues, history, and humor. If my blog feels eclectic, it’s only because my brain is eclectic. I move rapidly from Steinbeck to colonial Egypt to writing a short story. This blog is one part journal, one part art, and one part scholarship, with three extra parts marked “miscellaneous.” I strive to make sure no two posts are alike, which may be a bad idea when blogging is supposed to be about consistency and ritual, two qualities I lack.

I’ve explored numerous moments in my life on this blog: I mourned Pete Seeger, challenged myself to write a poem every day each April, founded a photography business, announced publications, had breakfast in Ireland, lunch in Jerome, dinner in Wisconsin, went to my first big fancy writing conference, broke up with my hometown of twenty years for graduate school in Nebraska.

For the most part, though, I’ve read, and written about what I read, and read what others wrote about what I wrote about what I read. An endless reading list is the bedrock of any good liberal education.

Liberal Education

On this blog, I’ve also reached many half-baked conclusions, but one thing has remained clear post after post: a good liberal education is worthless if it stays inside the classroom. Sitting around reading and writing is no way to be a writer, if it’s all I do. I have to experiment with baking or acting, work for a charity, travel, read for a literary journal. I should traverse the gridlock of cities, the innards of bars, the vast organs of campsites. My blog may be ineffectively unconventional; the only binding theme is the continual mess of my lifelong education and my desire to be a writer. But I know blogging has made me a better writer, a more considerate reader, a more confident thinker. It’s been an eclectic two years. I hope the next two will be even more eclectic.

jk

Why a liberal education? Your guess is as good as mine, and I mean that. If you’re engaged in the liberal arts, especially outside of academia, let me know in the comments what you study or write or create, and why.

-jk

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.

-jk

Out of the Frying Pan, Into Graduate School

book boxes A few months ago, I attended the AWP Conference where eager representatives from MA and MFA programs stuffed fliers into my hands. They all offered the same possibility: a few years in paradise with nothing to do but write, read, workshop, and inevitably publish. I was drawn into the illusion that ignored the work, the expenses, the debt, and the difficulty in getting anything published.

While preparing for life after NAU, I knew that graduate school was not the only way to become a writer. I could serve overpriced coffee to people in suits, slipping them poems on their receipts to show them my talent, or I could work as a governess for a rich man with gigantic muttonchops who helps me publish my sad story. Or I could take the realistic approach and work, write, and submit short pieces to journals, like most writers I know, gradually building up a longer and longer list of published works.

After I returned from the conference, I received an email from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I had applied to eight schools last fall, and all rejected me but UNL; late in April they informed me they would offer me full funding and a stipend through a research assistantship. It was a lucky break, and I took the offer, not because I believed it was the only path I could take, but because I believed it was the best path for me at the moment. It’s the opportunity to get a Master’s Degree in English without any debt, which is just short of a fantasy these days. I don’t believe I deserve such an opportunity over other applicants, but because I have the opportunity now, it’s my responsibility to make the best of it that I can.

I’m not going just to improve my writing, though of course my emphasis will be in creative writing, and of course I intend to come out of it a better writer. But I also hope to become a more scholarly reader, a better student, a more disciplined person.  I was born into academia, and I can handle it a few more years without losing my mind. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity. So I’ll buckle down, pack up my four thousand books and my no. 2 pencils, and plunge into the fire.

-jk