Anti-Social Media, Parenting, and Teaching about Modern Rhetoric

Last week, I had a massive argument with my almost-four-year-old daughter about (wait for it) whether or not a piece of bread had butter on it. It did, but because she hadn’t seen her father actually spreading the butter on that particular piece of bread, she refused to believe me. I call it an argument, but it devolved into a stressful version on Monty Python’s The Argument Sketch (note how the next sketch featured is “Hitting on the Head Lessons”; it was that, too). The argument devolved into foot stomping, yelling, door slamming, tears, and a lonely little piece of buttered bread waiting on a stair to be eaten. In my role as mother, I wanted my daughter to calm down, see reason, and eat some food (one of the reasons she was being irrational to begin with). In her role as head-strong toddler, she wanted to be right, even if the bread clearly was covered in butter.

I used this example in my class to show how having the best interests of your reader or listener can really change the tone and content of an argument. We have been discussing the differences between Sophists and Philosophers, then moving on to Gertrude Buck and her essay, “The Present Status of Rhetorical Theory.” (On an aside, why isn’t there a wikipedia page for Buck and her writings? Lack of female contributors, indeed. People, get on this!). She talks about how the Sophists were anti-social while the Platonists were social. The reason? Sophists only had their best interests in mind while arguing, while Platonists were arguing for the benefit of the listener. I asked my students, although we talk about “audience”, do we really write for the benefit of that sometimes real, sometimes imaginary audience, or do we really write for our own benefit?
In school, typically, we write for our own benefit: for the benefit of grades. We’re not writing to inform or enlighten our professor or teacher, we’re writing to get an A. Imagine if your students actually wrote for your benefit, rather than their own? My students couldn’t imagine, but they saw the difference. Imagine if we assigned papers or presented an assignment in a way that had students consider a benefit other than their own? Isn’t there the potential to read papers that truly offer some insight in perhaps an engaging way? Tenured Radical makes a similar argument about how simply using the word “prompt” causes students to write in a way that truly benefits no one, other than being awarded a good grade.
When you write a paper for publication, are you writing it for the benefit of the reader or the benefit of your tenure case?
I tell my students that this line of thinking isn’t just limited to the papers they write for class; what about the discourse we see, hear, and read regarding politics and other “hot button” issues of the day? How many times to they hear arguments that aren’t about them, the listener, but have everything to do with benefiting the speaker? How much of the vitriol that goes on in the comments sections of newspapers and popular blogs have nothing to do with “enlightening” the author or other readers, and everything to do with either establishing the superiority of the writer or ensuring their privileged position? Is the openness of the Internet really an “anti-social” form of rhetoric? 
I think my students are really thinking more carefully about their education, their ways of communicating, and the rhetoric, be it visual, aural, or written, that they consume every day. As for me, I wonder if I genuinely had my daughter’s best interests at heart as I continued to argue with her over that stupid piece of butter bread; her logic (I didn’t see Daddy put butter on it, thus there must not be butter on the bread) was sound, if simplistic. Was it so important that I win this argument? Was it for her benefit that I tried to show her that she was, in fact, wrong, or my own, in order to maintain my dominant position in our dynamic? I’m not sure anymore. But I do know that I want to engage in more meaningful, beneficial, and productive forms of rhetoric with my kids and my students. 
Here’s to really being social. 

Wasting Time? Try being a little more active

One of the first things I talk to my students about at any level is active reading. They’ve all had the experience where they’ve gotten to the bottom of a page of reading and realized that they have no idea what they’ve just read. And then they keep trying to re-read without any change in the situation. So they go through the motions of looking at the words on the page, feeling good about having technically done their homework, but showing up to class with little to no ability to participate in the class discussion.

Why not read more actively, I suggest. Take notes, do some research, even just write questions in the margins, anything to make the readings more meaningful. But, they protest, active reading takes so much time. Really? How much time do you spend simply going through the motions over and over again? And how much time do you spend at the end of the semester not sleeping, cramming for your final exam or paper, trying to complete all of the reading you didn’t have “time” to do properly during the semester? How much learning do you end up doing when you spend a week living off of energy drinks and little sleep in order to do everything you didn’t do during the previous 15 week semester?
My students can be a little more active in all of their course-related work. One of the biggest complaints about homework is that it is a waste of their time. And while I don’t claim that all homework ever assigned during a student’s academic career is meaningful, the student should at least try view homework as a positive learning activity that, if taken seriously and done well, can help you learn. Same thing with in-class activities. 
I tell my students that every exercise in class or at home is an opportunity for them. If they choose to see it as a waste of time, then it will be. And thus it is the student, not me, who is wasting their time. I can only set up the conditions for the students to learn and be successful. It is up to them to take advantage of those conditions. I can entice them with promises of a more meaningful education experience, and I can threaten them with a failing grade. But I try to get my students to come to understand that the choice is ultimately theirs if they are going to actively engage in their education.
I care about my students and I care about their success inside and outside of my class. I know my students care about their grades, but I wonder about their commitment to their education. If they don’t get more active in their learning, then we will all have been just wasting our time.

My Awesome Week

My week has been awesome (see title). Both the professional and the personal have gone better than I could have hoped this week. Here’s a brief run-down:

Monday: Latest post for the University of Venus appeared. Snarky/mean comment on said post lead to a show of communal support and solidarity, which was most gratifying. Also lead to my next uvenus post finally coming together. And an invite to guest post for another site. Received an email offering me some advice and moral support on my Laferrière research idea/project.
Tuesday: Worked out with a colleague/neighbor/fellow mommy. We’d been meaning to get together more during the fall semester, but both of us were felled in our efforts by the demands of the job and taking care of kids. Now both our sons are going to preschool together, leaving us time to workout and talk about our kids and our jobs. Also had a lunch date with my husband. Was accepted to THATcamp Southeast. Found a book where the main character shares the same name as my son.
Wednesday: Essay on reading to my kids and how it teaches me as well appeared on the New York Times Motherload blog. My son actually took a two hour nap at school, making our time together at home in the evening much, much, much more enjoyable for all. Finished reading a book. Had a student in my class raise a thoughtful question that showed she was really thinking about what she had read, and she made a promise to reread it again to more fully explain what she was trying to figure out. Had most successful #FYCchat to date.
Thursday: Worked out and fostered actual face-to-face friendships. Was told by a student that he really enjoyed my class and my teaching style. Had one of my posts appear on the NPR On Campus blog. Another lunch date with my husband. Finally found a computer chair for my office that does not cause back pain when I type. This may be the thing I am most excited about. Figured out how to integrate a  piece of writing into my over-all argument for an essay I have to finish writing this weekend.
Friday, Saturday, Sunday: Who know? It might be a disaster. I hope not. I have to finish writing two essays, due Monday (one more informal, one academic). My daughter is also doing a dance clinic and will be performing during halftime of the basketball game. I’m excited for that. I’m also excited to write. I’ve been reading, thinking, and more informally writing in preparation and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all comes together (or not).
I am grateful for this week, even if it didn’t necessarily start off fantastically. I want to record these moments, these events, so I can come back to them when things aren’t going well. Life doesn’t always cooperate, but these highs make it so much easier to deal with the lows. I’ll stop now before I descend into the realm of even more tired cliches. I just wanted to share the good news. 

January Blahs

There is something really different about the energy of students in January versus their energy in August/September when Fall semester starts. It’s not the same enthusiasm, optimism, and excitement. No, January starts in opposition to how December ended: full of relief and the holiday spirit. All of that get left behind when they head back to school and start their classes.

It’s not the same for professors, I think, because we see each beginning of semester as a chance to start again. A class didn’t quite work as your thought it would? We can try again with some modifications! Didn’t like the classes you taught last semester? Here is a new one to keep your interest! Didn’t like your students? A fresh batch is waiting! Not to mention that Decembers ends with hours of grading, grade grubbing, and last-minute administrative work.The first few lectures are usually well-worn territory as well, so prep time might not be as stressful. And we don’t know the students yet. There is something invigorating about the potential that each new class brings to the table. At least for me, the excitement of the beginning of the semester is rarely diminished. Especially when a class works well, I can’t wait to get back in there with a new group to do it again.
But the students, well, they don’t see it that way. Maybe they went home at Christmas and realized just how homesick they really are. Or they got sick from the cold/lack of proper sleep and care and start off the semester feeling terrible physically. Maybe they hate their roommate and so are coming back to a lot of drama that they just didn’t know existed in the fall. Or their semester didn’t go as planned and they are bringing a defeatist attitude to the new semester.
Or all of these freaking snow days are making it hard to get into a good routine. No wait, that’s me.
In August and September, the weather is nice, the days are long(er) and the mood is full of optimism. In January, the days are colder, shorter and gloomier (even in California – I taught there). Two weeks sometimes is just enough time to remind you why you love your family but not enough time to remind you why you left for college to begin with. It’s really not enough time to put any disaster, both personal and academic, behind you to be able to really start fresh.
I’m not arguing for a longer winter break; we started really late this January, and while I welcomed the time off, I am not looking forward to teaching until mid-May. But I have to continually reminded myself of the reasons behind the January Blahs when my students keep looking at me like I’m crazy with my enthusiasm and energy. I didn’t get those looks (or at least not as many) in the fall. It’s a bigger challenge in January to get my students to buy in to what I am selling them. It just means I have to work a little harder and remember where they are coming from.

How Not to Prepare for your On-Campus Interview

Or, how to lose the job before you even get to campus. 

Postacademic.org just did a post on making sure you are prepared for the inevitable A/V snafus during your on-campus interview. It got me to thinking about one of my on-campus interviews and why I might not have been offered the job. Of course, there are lots of reasons and none of them may have had anything to do with my on-campus performance specifically, but for some reason a light finally went off in my head about what I did wrong not while I was on campus, but while I was preparing for my teaching demonstration.
I should also note that I thought I had already largely figured out why I hadn’t been offered the job: when I got the phone call inviting me to the on-campus interview, I asked if I could bring my infant daughter. I have to say, the people at the university went beyond the call of duty, trying to find a way for me to bring my daughter and have her cared for while I was interviewing. But I had always thought that when push came to shove, they decided that they didn’t want someone as “family oriented” as I had proved to be (I ended up leaving my daughter at home with her father with no problems; chalk it up to first-time mommy panic). Looking back, I think I have been unfair (not that I thought badly of the institution; I didn’t blame them, I blamed myself) because while I was so concerned with my daughter, I neglected to focus on what I was going to be teaching.
I wasn’t as proactive, as they say, about getting all of my ducks in a row about what I was teaching in the Intro to Literature class: I am ashamed to say that I expected them to present me with the information I would need. Instead, I ignorantly asked questions (like, how do I get in touch with the professor?) that I should have just gone ahead and done myself. And when I found out what I would be teaching, I didn’t ask if it was in an anthology or what edition they were using, I just went out and got a copy myself. Turned out, they were using an anthology, so when I referred to a certain scene or passage, I couldn’t tell them which page to turn to in order for them to be able to note it and follow along. I also didn’t think to ask for a copy of the class’ complete syllabus so that I might have been able to provide links and contrasts to what they had already read and studied. In short, I made my class into a mini-presentation on the play they had read, completely neglecting to make an effort to integrate the lecture into the larger frame of their class.
It didn’t help that it was the Friday before Spring Break. But I digress.
The lecture itself went well and I was complimented on it; I chose one or two quasi-thematic and related arches to focus on to get the students to think and reflect critically on what the playwright had set out to do. A few members of the search committee noted that I was a fine teacher and felt I deserved to get a job, if not there then somewhere. But, alas, I did not get that job. Again, with all of the rhetoric surrounding how I should have been hiding the fact that I had a baby/family, I just assumed that that was my undoing. Looking back, though, I would have done things very differently when it came to preparing for my teaching.
I hope this helps some of you preparing for your own teaching demonstrations for on-campus interviews.

Snow Days and On-Campus Childcare

We had another snow day today, after three last week. The kids got to stay home from preschool, which is the worst news in the world for my 3.5 year old daughter who adores going to school. Add to that that today was supposed to be Fun Friday, well, you can imagine how devastated she was. How much snow was on the ground, you ask? About an inch, maybe two.
Ugh.

I grew up in Canada, aka The Great White North. Snow days were unheard of when I was growing up. It didn’t matter how much snow was on the ground or how cold it was outside, we went to school, often walking there. And we went outside at recess and after lunch (at least in elementary school). The buses may have been late arriving, but you got on and you showed up at high school. I can remember driving home for the weekend from university in one of the worst snow storms; there’s nothing like an hour and a half trip that takes four hours in a beater car where we have to pull over every couple of miles to scrape the windshield to prove how brain-damaged young adults really are. And I was back at school on Monday. 

Our local schools serve a large and largely rural population, so while I live in town where there is little problems with the roads, I understand that people living out in the hills and off of essentially dirt roads would have a little more trouble and why we wouldn’t want the buses to try making their way up there and back. But the problem isn’t with the local schools, it’s with the university.
As pointed out by Dr. Crazy, many universities don’t have a very good plan in place for the inevitable and eventual arrival of snow. Ours is no exception. While every single campus, school, and daycare around us was shut down, our university was only on two hour delay (in other words, any class before 10 AM was canceled, but any class/meeting/activity scheduled for after ten was on). This is no big deal for us, as my husband doesn’t teach on Fridays, but on other days, this would present a problem when we have to go to work and our kids aren’t going to school. You can tell a snow day on campus because it’s either crawling with kids or devoid of professors and students, many of whom have children of their own to care for. 
One of the first questions, for better or worse, that I would ask a search committee when I was doing interviews was if they had on-campus childcare available. It’s one thing to leave your eight-year-old in your office watching DVDs or playing computer games or (even better) reading, but it’s something all together different when you have to figure out what to do with your toddler while you teach or attend an important (or required) meeting. On-campus childcare ensures that faculty and students have a place that is safe and close by for their kids. It also means that on days were everything else is shut down, parents can still get the work done that is expected of them, be it teaching or being a student. 
Every year, there are snow days for most but not for us at the university. Where I live, we’ll never get more snow plows. But maybe we can hope for childcare that is more responsive to the hours the university demands we keep. 
Never mind. I’d have better luck getting more snow plows.

It’s OK to Fail

Today, I had my usual second-class lecture on the advantages of active reading and how students usually read for pleasure/emotion and thus need to change how they read “school work” in order to engage their brain. It always goes over well, as students realize that basically staring at words on a page for two hours every week  and then living off of energy drinks and little sleep for a week while they cram for finals is really not a pleasant, effective, or ideal way to spend four years and thousands of dollars. But today, I added a little unplanned and wholly instinctive wrinkle to the second-day lecture: I don’t expect perfection and it’s ok to get the answer wrong.

I mentioned this at first in regards to their in-class free writes and homework: they get credit for making an effort to understand and engage with the materials, regardless if their engagement takes them in wildly strange directions. It might seem really touchy-touchy to reward effort, and I always shudder when students cry about a bad grade on a paper, claiming they worked so hard on it, but when we’re talking about the process of learning, then mistakes and misdirections are as important as eventually getting it right. Their mistakes are as important to me in my process of helping them learn so I can adapt my teaching in order to meet them where they are. 
I’ve always tried to set up my classes in such a way that if the students give an honest effort, they will produce work that is of good enough quality to have earned them an A. We read and reread. We discuss and debate. We write, revise, and rewrite. We give and get feedback. I am the first person to admit a mistake when a class or assignment clearly didn’t work the way I had envisioned. I’ll meet them where they are, but I’ve got to know where that is. And that means I need them to be honest about what they are learning and what they aren’t.
In other words, they have to be ready to possibly fail the first time they try something. They don’t want to think too hard about what they’ve read in case their reading is wrong. They don’t want to try something different in how they read/write/study because it might not work and thus their grade will suffer. They don’t want to put too much effort into something that might not pay off. I think a lot of students’ current apathy or laziness stems from fear: fear of being wrong, fear of wasting their time, fear of looking foolish. I told them today that if they learned something, even if that something is “this really didn’t work”, then they are further ahead than when they started.
I try to remember that lesson myself when I teach. It’s never going to be perfect. And sometimes it will fail. But as long as I am open to recognizing and then fixing whatever went wrong, then I think I’m doing ok. I hope to get my students to understand that, too.
PS You have just read my 100th post here on College Ready Writing. Thank you so much for reading, sharing, commenting, and generally participating in my ongoing conversation about teaching, higher education, and beyond, mistakes and all.

Work/Life “Balance”

That’s right, I used scare quotes. I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about the work/life balance in higher education. I think about how many of my female academic role models were childless, never-married, or divorced.  About how unreasonable the expectations are when it comes to the “life of the mind” in academia. (Check out this excellent post on expectations and priorities and this one on the two-headed problem). I usually think that I’ve done ok with the work/life balance, and I end up feeling pretty good about myself.

And then I have a day like today.
As I have written before, I left a tenure-track position so that my husband could take a better tenure-track job. I now have a full-time instructor position at the same university as my husband, so most days, I’m ok with the sacrifice. But at the end of the day, his job and his career takes priority over mine; I don’t have to do anything except teach, so whenever there’s a conflict in our professional activities, his take precedent. In other words, my ability to go to conferences is wholly based his schedule because of our two very young children. We live in a small town, far away from family, so childcare is basically one of the two of us. 
And because conferences, regardless of discipline, all seem to fall on the same weekends, I typically have to pass up opportunities in order to take care of our kids. Last semester, I had to teach with my then-almost two-year-old son strapped to my back. Other times, I had to cancel classes because there wasn’t anyone to take care of the kids and my husband had something he HAD to do.  Today, he announced to me that he was probably going to apply for a summer fellowship that takes place the same weekend of a conference I am presenting at. We may have agreed that this was a conference I would attend, but if something better comes along for him…
Now, my husband has been incredibly supportive most of the time; he’s brought our son to meetings with him because I was teaching, he moved across the country for me when I took my tenure-track job, and he agreed last semester that what was best for our son was for him to stay home with him while I was teaching (my daughter was attending preschool). But when it comes to the more “professional” side of my career (conferences, research trips, professional development), he has trouble. I don’t have to do any of these things for my job; but I want to do these things because while I am not on the tenure-track, I haven’t stopped being an academic. 
When it comes to work/life, it’s not a question of balance, at least not a simple question of balance. Think of it as balancing on a stability ball; it’s always moving, shifting, and you are constantly adjusting. I am continually negotiating my work and my life, modifying my perspective and expectations. There are good days and bad days. There are days where I miss the city, miss having a career just so I can have an excuse to do those activities outside of teaching that I want to do, miss being able to call up family and say, you take the kids, please! 
I’ve consciously avoided writing too much about my life and my kids on this blog. But I realize that I need to start talking about the sacrifices and compromises I make in order to keep things together and keep things working. How wearing my son to teach made me feel like I was being judged as both a poor teacher and poor mother. How I was somehow able to teach five classes while also taking care of my son 65% of the time and publish two papers. How it’s not easy, but it isn’t impossible either. 
The following appeared as satire in the Times Higher Education:

Targett [fictional administrator at the fictional Poppleton University] also pointed out that female academics were “more likely” than their male colleagues to have a range of outside interests such as cooking and child-minding. He believed that to burden them with further duties might be tantamount to discrimination.

This cut a little to close for comfort for me. Higher education often tells aspiring academics, men and women, that outside “interests” such as family are not acceptable. I think I internalized this attitude and it is manifesting itself in what I choose to write about on this blog. No more. While you won’t hear about every snotty nose and cognitive milestone, I will start writing about how my family impacts my work, for better or for worse.

First Day of School!

Yup, I finally started teaching today. Finally. The syllabus was done yesterday afternoon while the children napped. I used a great deal of “Readings: TBA” in part so I can be more flexible as the semester moves on and in part because I really have no idea what we’re going to read. Yet.

The good? I was able to move all of my classrooms into rooms with a smartboard (I still don’t know how to use one, but maybe I’ll learn this semester), a computer, and Internet access. I also found out that there is a computer lab that I can use with my students. Time to revise papers on the spot! I am very excited about this.

The bad? Blackboard was acting weird, and so I had to actually go over the syllabus in more detail than I would have liked because my course was still reading “unavailable” and thus the students couldn’t access anything I had put up there. It’s fixed, but it’s still annoying.

The ugly? The textbook I selected for my 100-level class, the one without readings?  Turns out, we could have selected the one with the readings, and that is the version that the bookstore brought in, charging the students more money than they needed to spend. I didn’t even know we had the option. So now my students have “wasted” money, or I have to change my syllabus (hey, Readings TBA, right?). Or, some students may have bought it with readings and some without. Ugh.

Live and learn.

But it’s great to be in front of the classroom again. This semester, I’m a lot more confident about the courses I’m teaching; when my 200-level students’ eyes glazed over when I said that we were going to be discussing education reform, I knew with a decent amount of certainty that I will have won most of them over by the end of the semester. You know, why high school sucks.

Now if I could only get a chair in my office that puts me in a good position to type and work on my computer…

What’s Your Attendance Policy?

As I have admitted before, I was not the best undergraduate student. I routinely didn’t go to class. I can count on one hand the number of courses where I attended every class. Most of them were taught by the same teacher. She was an adjunct, and she taught some of the most thankless courses. Our first course with her was Technical Writing. And yet, we all attended every class, did every assignment, and were usually lined up around the corner to see her during her office hours. I don’t remember if she had an attendance policy in her syllabus (she probably did), but it wasn’t for fear of punishment that we did or did not attend her class. We wanted to be there, and we saw the utility of attending her classes. 

Another instructor (another adjunct) that I vividly remember also got me to attend every class. But it was because there was a severe penalty built into the syllabus if you missed even one class. We hated it. Everyone in the class resented the fact that we were being “forced,” through threat of punishment, to attend the class. We would sit through his long lectures and plod through his boring exercises wondering why it was we absolutely needed to be there. It didn’t help that it was Editing at 8:30 on Friday mornings, but if our Technical Writing teacher had been the instructor, we would have been there, no matter what.
This is the problem I have with attendance policies; it gives students the wrong incentive to attend class. if I am doing my job as an instructor, students will understand the utility of my class, enjoy (or at least appreciate) the learning process, and willingly attend. If a student at this level doesn’t yet understand that attendance matters, then docking them a few grades won’t help; if anything, they’ll end up resenting you, your class, and your policy.
A number of my students have told me about the zero tolerance policy their high schools have developed in regards to attendance; if you miss a day for any reason not deemed acceptable, you get detention or suspension. Most of the time, however, those students who are “forced” to go to school are disruptive or don’t bother doing the work required of them. No amount of punishment seems to change their attitude towards school and schooling; they see it as a waste of their time. I want to make sure that my students don’t think that I am wasting their time.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a stick that goes along with the carrot. The students learn very quickly that every day we do a variety of activities in class that directly relates to their upcoming (or in progress) essay assignment. All of these activities count in their final grade. For me, the incentive isn’t that they lose marks by not being in class, but that they miss out on important practice and preparation for major assignments. Doing well in my class isn’t about just attending, it’s about actively participating and working on what we focusing on that day. I have a number of students who show up and either sleep or just stare at me during class. The quality of their writing has not improved. 
I want to be more like my Technical Writing instructor than my Editing instructor; I want students to want to attend my class, not feel that they have to attend but are wasting their time in doing so.