Friday, October 24, 2014

Self Love (rated G)

A couple of weeks ago when I was cooking dinner one night, one of my kids mentioned that they had overheard that some of my students were saying things about me that were not very nice. They didn't know specifics, what was said, who said it. And that really did a number on me. My own child was not trying to make me feel bad-- he was both curious and concerned. I said something at the time about how students don't always love their professors, blah blah blah, but inside, I was crushed. Because now, every time I was walking into my classroom, I knew that people in that room don't like me and say mean things about me that my children then have to process. So, I wasn't very happy, and I wasn't very happy especially about my teaching.

I generally love teaching, but this was nagging at me. I finally had to shake myself and have a little come to Jesus meeting with myself. "Look at how many students you still keep in touch with," I told myself. I decided that I was going to have to approach the situation the way I approach dating:

"Lots of people would be THRILLED to take a class with me. You are LUCKY to be in my class. If you don't appreciate me, then that is your problem."

I'm not a perfect teacher, but damn, I am interesting, I am enthusiastic, and gosh darn it, I actually care about the little lambs. I suspect they say mean things because I scrapped the syllabus and started over. I'm not the most organized person. I extend deadlines and due dates. I confuse the poor things. Their second papers ... how do I say this gently? Ah, the way I phrased it to them: needed more attention and discussion before I felt comfortable assigning them more graded work. So, even though I had already given them the prompt and pre-writing assignment for their third papers, I suspended the deadlines for that papers so I could slow down and actually talk in some line-by-line detail about good and bad writing. I found four examples of bad student writing online and went through them one by one and talked about them. I find it is definitely better to critique writing samples that do not belong to anyone in my class. I am just hoping they can apply what I have said about those other papers to their own writing. But day after day, my students keep asking me when the third paper is due. One day I told them to stop asking me that and try to damn learn something, so now they ask me because they think it's funny (their rough drafts are due Wednesday, if you are curious too). So, my class and its execution are anything but conventional and linear. They send me these snotty, snipey little emails about how confusing everything is because of the syllabus change. Well, suck it up. I give them detailed feedback, I'm honest with them, and I try damn hard to be interesting. I don't really care about their obsession with deadlines and grades. Jesus, we are trying to break them of that.

Topics that were covered in class today were:
  • Michelangelo digging up bodies and performing autopsies to learn about how to sculpt the human form;
  • assessment tools and how the criteria for them are created;
  • House, MD and the formula the show uses weekly / Ira Glass This American Life;
  • qualitative research versus quantitative research;
  • political ads and how to develop criteria to evaluate their effectiveness;
  • Hook, by Blues Traveler;
  • Nazis;
  • the right to vote;
  • felons;
  • privilege;
  • the Disabilities Non-Discrimination Act;
  • No Child Left Behind;
  • Amendment No. 3 on the Missouri ballot
Yeah, that is a lot to absorb. And I hope that some of the stuff we talk about in class will take them years to unravel. I don't want to give them answers. I want to teach them HOW to question, how to link themes and ideas, and sort of how to *think.* I know that for me, having things mimicked for me helps me to learn them. At my copy editing job, I spent five hours sitting right next to my boss as she trained me on doing the end notes and works cited for our history books. She sat at the computer and explained things and talked for hours without looking up a single thing (except a few details we had to research). It was amazing. I absorbed maybe half of it. Then, I sat at the computer and took a whack. I had lots of questions. There are still entries that I can't figure out on my own. But the learning process is very exciting! I'm learning a ton. And it helps that she and I are both such big grammar nerds that we think the minutiae is fascinating. I learn from a combination of watching, explanation, and doing. If I thought I could get away with it, my ideal way to teach a writing class would be to use an overhead projector and actually go through papers with students line by line by line. Every day. Over and over. And then to have them write and revise. Do it again. Again. Because this is how I learned to write. By thinking about it carefully and constantly. Again, big grammar nerd. But they would all revolt and kill me after the second class. Even though, I daresay, if they cared and paid close attention, they would learn how to write over the course of a semester. But that method if writing instruction probably doesn't work for everyone.

I want my students to have a good experience in my class, but I actually find it very difficult to talk about how to write well. I start to lose my vocabulary for how to talk about it, because there are so many nuances and because so much of it is so complicated. I would have to tell you all of my thought patterns as I write and edit in order to teach you how to write. The best and worst advice I have for them is that I learned to write by doing it. A lot of it. And by paying attention to the suggestions my professors made. But I honestly can't think of many things that have interested me more in my life than words and reading and writing and how to do them well. So, I'm lucky. It comes, not easily, but sort of compulsively for me. 
I just ran home for a quick lunch break and to say hi to the kids, because the younger two are out of school today and Monday. Thomas was home, so I mentioned to him that I am always happy to look at his papers before he hands them in. He told me he doesn't like how I edit them without his go-ahead. I told him my reasoning (see above) for doing so. He doesn't like it. Wow, I didn't expect to be proven correct so quickly about not everyone benefiting from that method of instruction.

You know I said above that I was hoping that my students will be able to apply some of what I have said about good and bad writing to their own assignments. I think this is also going to be one of the things it may take them awhile to unravel. But particularly about all of the stuff that I have thrown at them that is a lot to absorb: I have been repeating themes about rights, privilege, social justice, education, the pedagogy of the oppressed, manufactured consent, etc. In today's class, one of my best students demonstrated that it's going to take awhile for any of this to sink in (if, in fact, it does) by indicating that (paraphrasing broadly here) stupid people shouldn't be allowed to vote. It's more complicated than that, but it made me realize that a lot of the things I have been trying to say about social injustice and inequality and privilege is kind of going in one ear and out the other. When I was that student's age, I had similar ideas to these, and I told my class that. I told them that it had taken a process of years and experience for me to change my ways of thinking. The student honestly believed that this view is simply pragmatic. It is. Obviously it is. But I said, and I don't know whether this will sink in either, something to the effect of: "Remember how many people in the U.S. are college educated? The majority are not. But we cannot contribute-- via our complicity and dare I say lack of voting?-- to an infrastructure that leaves some adults illiterate and uneducated and then remove their right to vote their way out of it."

I might have also suggested that this student was being a little bit of a Nazi. 

But I look at them looking back at me sometimes and I feel like I have been speaking Greek and they are all afraid to tell me that I am not speaking English. 

It could also be that I talk so fast, they actually do *wonder* if I have been speaking Greek, and they are especially afraid to tell me, just in case I am actually speaking English very very fast.


I woke up at 5:30 a.m. I am becoming a nocturnal being of the morning. Wednesday night, I had been thinking about Pride and Prejudice (the movie with Keira Knightly, in particular). This is in part because I have been listening to the soundtrack at work. And both of those things are in part because the actress who plays the eldest daughter, the lovely, gentle, and all-things-good Jane Bennett is Rosamund Pike. She also portrayed the cold and psychotic Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (did I actually really take the time to link to things once?), and I think I just needed to get the psychopath out of my head. So, even though usually I have been falling asleep before 9 p.m., I watched P & P and stayed up til midnight. Do you have comfort food books and movies and tv shows and music that you return to during times of stress? I do. Mostly books. My comfort foods are the Little House on the Prairie books, Pride and Prejudice (in all forms), Sense and Sensibility (in all forms), Little Women (in most forms, mostly the extended book), and Anne of Green Gables (in all forms). These books have all been instrumental in showing me who I wanted/want to be.

So, I stayed up til midnight watching it, but I really really needed it for some reason. Last night, I was also able to stay up a little later than usual for some reason as well, and I got sucked into a new program on Hulu that is called the Red Band Society. It's about a group of teenagers (astonishingly good looking teenagers) who are all chronically ill and all living, for the time being, in the same hospital. I had seen the name of the show, but for some reason the name really irritated me, especially because it was cryptic. Of course, I understand it now that I've watched it. But I was dismissive of the show for no good reason before I'd even seen it, and wow, it just sucker punched me right in the jaw. I was surprised, because not many new shows catch my eye anymore unless they have gotten really good buzz ahead of time. I wish I weren't so tired all the time-- I watch TV more than I read because I'm in less danger of falling asleep during it. However, lately, I've been falling asleep watching TV and that disturbs me because it cuts into my down time! I know tons of people who both read and watch TV and movies, so maybe you can relate to this: I seem to thrive more when I have a narrative my brain can turn and return to during the day. I like to mull over storylines and characters. It is soothing to me. And it actually gives my brain something to focus on besides anxiety and stress. Obviously, my brain is focused on work a lot of the time most days, but there are always those peripheral drips leaking in. And I'd rather them be about whether Olivia Pope should tone down her rapid-fire monologues a bit because they are losing their effectiveness with the constant repetition. Or whether Regina is going to get back together with Robin Hood, because she deserves a break. Those are much saner for me than, "Can I order pizza tonight? Will I have enough money to get through til payday next week if I do?" and that whole disastrous spiral of bullshit that not enough pondering in the world can change or fix.

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