Growing The Readers You Want

But what kind of readers do we want?

It’s the beginning of the semester, and we professors/instructors of any and all ilk are always faced with the same challenge: getting our students to read. I addressed it a little bit in my previous post about homework, but at the end of the day, we can (eventually) get our students to write because of a big fat grade attached to it, but it’s really, really hard to get them to read. I went to a PD session this week that addressed this very concern. We were told the session was going to be about our State embracing the Common Core Standards, but instead we learned about “Growing the Readers You Want.”

The PD was given by a wonderful literacy professor from WKU, Dr. Pam Petty (please don’t judge her by her Geocities-looking website). WKU has done a fantastic job of creating a university-wide literacy program that is also available to professors looking to improve the reading skills of the students they teach, regardless of the subject matter. She painted us a depressing picture of what the true literacy levels of our students are (way too low) and asked us how we expected our students to read at college-level when they were barely reading at a high school level? But she also chastised us for allowing the students to “drive the bus” so to speak when it comes to developing our courses: slowly eliminating the need to read, or at least read anything challenging. 
We, she told us, needed to keep the challenging, college-level readings in our classes but help the students with their reading, giving them more guidance and direction in how they should read. She also reinforced the need to somehow hold the students accountable for the reading. We discussed various methods (guided reading forms with general and specific questions, visual keys, etc) and saw how one professor almost double his retention and passing rate for a large Intro to Psych class. 
I think it’s important for those of us who teach writing to keep these things in mind as we design and teach our courses. I tell my students much of the time: it’s not that you can’t write; it’s that you have nothing to write about, and that’s where active or critical reading skills come into play. Technically, we’re not supposed to teach reading skills in our developmental writing class; there is another class for developmental reading. But if I want my students to be able to write a college-level paper, I need them to be able to do college-level reading. I cannot and will not divorce the two. And most of the advice she gave to us were variations of exercises I already do with the students (but she also reminded me of the importance of letting go a little on the guidance by the end of the semester). 
So now I’m torn again about the readings I am going to require my students to do this semester in their 100-level class and even in my developmental writing course: pop culture and short op-ed essays are more interesting, relevant, and accessible, but do they suitably challenge my students? Am I doing them a disservice by asking them to read Fahrenheit 451 (I hate spelling that word) instead of 1984? Should I even be asking them to read fiction in a college writing (and reading) class? Is it fair to assign them to read a textbook “Everything is an Argument” when only one form of argument (and critical reading) is even acceptable in higher education? Have I, have we, allowed them to take the wheel of the bus?
I am so glad that I haven’t invested too much manual labor (as in typing and formatting) my syllabus for the upcoming semester; I would have junked it more than a few times now. I just got my student evaluations back from last semester; one of the comments that kept coming up was that I genuinely care about my students and that it shows in my teaching. I do genuinely care about my students, which is why I take forming my syllabus and selecting the readings so seriously. And why I am worried about pushing them to be their best and succeed in college. 

What “Text” Do You Teach?

This semester, I’m teaching Freshman Writing for the first time at my “new” institution; I’ve taught the class before at other places, but as anyone who has taught the “same” class at different schools knows, it’s never the same. New requirements, new textbook, new guidelines, and thus, a new class. I also know that I have a lot of students who took my Developmental English class with me signed up for the class, so I want to make sure I keep things fresh, so to speak, for them. I chose an entirely new and different textbook for my class (we have to choose one, out of an approved list of three); usually, I chose a textbook that has lots of readings and I focus on teaching the writing part. This time, I chose a textbook that exclusively focuses on the writing (and critically reading) part, but is light on texts provided as examples and for students to “practice” on. I selected Everything’s an Argument (searching for the link for this book, I just noticed that there is an edition with readings; that’s not the one we’re using, for whatever reason).

The idea was that this would provide me with more freedom to allow students to find their own readings, encouraging them to take ownership of their education, engaging them in critical research activities, and providing materials that they themselves are interested in. Or force me to do so. I will be looking for my own texts to provide for them, in order to make sure that they are being challenged in their work and in their thinking. I’m also thinking that their final assignment might be to critically “read” and critique the argument in anything of their choosing, reality TV, sports, a novel, the healthcare debate, a video game, whatever they want. This could be controversial.

The issue, for me, comes down to this: is a Freshman Writing class supposed to prepare students for college writing (and reading), or is it to prepare students more broadly for the challenges and reality they will be facing after they leave the university? If my only job is to prepare them for college writing, then asking the students to write about “texts” that aren’t written is a mistake; as many have already pointed out, the university is not the center for curricular innovation. We like our textbooks, we like our academic essays, and we don’t really like all of these trendy topics (like media studies or digital humanities) encroaching on our turf of the classic liberal arts. I’m, of course, not speaking for everyone, but for many, dare I say, most, I should be teaching “the classics” over Jersey Shore.

That’s an argument that holds a lot of power for me. I think that part of higher education is being exposed to (read: being forced to read and examine) texts that we probably would never have picked up on our own, and for today’s student, that usually means anything written over 20 years ago that doesn’t involve a vampire or wizard. I’m being glib, but how many students really enjoyed reading Shakespeare in high school or picked up a copy of Plato’s Republic for the fun of it? I know they’re out there, but they are not in my classes. If we, collectively, in higher education, don’t expose students to the wealth of knowledge and the richness of the written word, who will? It isn’t just requiring that the students read the works, it’s also providing them with the skills to be able to appreciate the work, engaging them in a way that makes the experience meaningful.

This is where I think pop culture can come into play. The “classics” are always concerned about human behavior, for better or for worse; pop culture just seems to exaggerate those arguments writ large. For example, when talking about manly nihilism, we discussed both Nietzsche and Fight Club. If we want to talk about social mobility and empty materialism, then why not talk about The Death of Ivan Illyich as well as our current obsession with game shows and give-aways? Afraid of run-away technology? So have authors as far back as Rousseau, but most “recent” examples can be found in dystopian fiction. These are just a few examples, and I’m sure you probably have better ones (please, share, that’s what the comments are for).

And to say that the works and authors who are generally understood as being a part of the Canon didn’t concern themselves with base interests or popular culture, then what were they writing about when they critiqued religion and religious practices, the popular playwrites, poets, and musicians of the time, or the morality of the population in general? What is popular has certainly changed, but our need to analyze and understand it has not.

I think critical thinking is critical thinking. I think that students are too passive in their consumption of all media: written, visual, aural, etc. It used to be that only those who were in a position of power or affluence could afford to engage in such activities. No more. If we can get students to critically “read” the texts they usually only consume for enjoyment and entertainment, then we can also get them thinking critically about their discipline, their education, and whatever it is we have asked them to read/consume for school. If they can write a well-organized, well-thought out, well-researched, clearly argued essay about reality TV, then I think it’s safe to say that we’ve done our job of preparing them for college writing and beyond.

(For a great example of critically “reading” a show, check out “Should We Watch ‘Bridalplasty’?” I love how the author shines the light back onto the viewer; the show is really informative about what it says about society, but we have to be willing to go an extra, self-critical step)

My (Virtual) Experience at MLA ’11

I didn’t go to the MLA this year, at least not in person. There are a number of reasons: I’m not on a job search, I wasn’t presenting, I spent Christmas at home in Canada with my family instead, I couldn’t really afford it because we have just bought a house and moved immediately before the holidays, etc. But the truth is, I didn’t even submit an abstract to be on any panels; each previous year, I submitted PILES of abstracts and my rate of acceptance is dismally low. And when the abstracts were due, I thought I was kissing my academic career goodbye (I’m pretty sure I’ve kissed any hope of the tenure-track goodbye, but anyway). All of this to say, I wasn’t planning on having anything to do with the MLA this year, or perhaps any year after this (unless by some miracle, it comes to Kentucky, which I doubt). 

I don’t like the MLA. In fact, I don’t really much like academic conferences at all, big or small, despite my writing to the contrary. And I don’t like them for reasons that are unique; I am completely incapable of interacting normally with my fellow academics. I get so nervous that I end up blubbering and babbling and gushing and sticking my foot in my mouth. I act overly-familiar or too distant. I don’t know how to make “friends” and I never really know anyone and no one really knows me. I work in a weird field (Haitian-Canadian/Caribbean-Canadian writing, among other things) and teach in a completely different area (composition). I’m usually a very social person who is at ease in groups of strangers. But when those strangers are my intellectual “superiors,” I turn into a mess. 
When #MLA11 turned up in my Twitter timeline, I was sucked in. I followed along and got involved in the discussions about Digital Humanities and how technology is changing the profession (#openprof and #newtools). I asked questions that I may have been too shy or blubbery to ask otherwise (seriously, 140 characters is a blessing for me). I read blog posts about other presentations (a big, big thank you to Dr. Davis of Teaching College English for being such a diligent blogger). I learned a lot, was challenged and I think was able to pose some challenging questions in return, especially in regards to those of us off the tenure-track. I made new “friends,” got some new followers, and basically got over myself through the semi-anonymity of the web; you can’t see my blush online. 
Now, I want to meet all of these fabulous people I follow on Twitter or whose blogs I read. I want to have my own discussion group/panel (maybe about using social media to improve our teaching/creating PLN in higher education – #FYCchat plug!).  I want to go to Seattle next January and, for the first time, enjoy an MLA conference because I don’t feel intimidated or like I don’t belong. I’m sure I’ll still stick my foot in my mouth or ramble on too long with someone I’ve greatly admired from afar. But, hey, I’m looking forward to it now. 
So thank you MLA Convention for having Wi-Fi and to that handful of Tweeters and bloggers. You reached at least one person and convinced them to join the party next year. 

The Homework Paradox

This week, in honor of #FYCchat, and the fact that I’m working on my syllabi for the upcoming semester all week, I’m posting all about some of the decisions we face as instructors, trying to come up with a plan for our students for the semester. First up, homework!

I have a love-hate relationship with homework. When I was a student, in the dark ages, before computers and word processing programs, I used to be reduced to tears, writing and rewriting my essays and other assignments because I am a terrible speller. “Good copies” could only be written in pen, and we were only allowed three White-Out marks to correct mistakes. I used to sit at the kitchen table as my mom proofread my work, dreading the inevitable: the fourth spelling mistake which meant I would have to start all over again. 

I was lucky, because I had parents who were very involved with my school work and education. I always had help with math, French, or whatever else I was tasked to do. But, my parents also never over-stepped their role as tutor and coach, much to my dismay. Every piece of writing, every problem solved, every verb conjugated, it was all done by me, but if I got stuck, I would sit with my mom she would guide me as to how to figure out my problem. When I had trouble with biology and she couldn’t figure out how to help me, she hired one of my swimming teammates who was older and studying biology to tutor me. The idea was always to help me become self-sufficient in my learning and studying.

(A quasi-relevant aside: my friend who tutored me in biology figured out that I needed a narrative in order to learn; biology was hard for me because it was a lot of memorization. I always complained that I didn’t understand biology, when really, there was nothing to understand, only things to memorize, at least at the high school level. So we wrote stories about the cell and all of the parts and their functions, a tool I used to study for all of my biology tests from then on. I would start each biology test by writing down whatever story or stories I had come up with and then filling in the blanks. It worked, as I passed biology, and my friend went on to become an excellent university professor.)

As a professor, homework is essential if we, myself and my students, are to be able to accomplish our learning goals. I remember my mother’s lessons, and I try to help my students see how they can become self-sufficient learners. But it is nearly impossible to get my students to do their reading or take any active reading exercises I assign seriously. While they complain about how they are bored by lectures, they fail to see the connection between being able to have meaningful class discussions and exercises if they haven’t done their reading. One day, I really will stand in silence for an entire class period waiting for students to answer my discussion questions to show I am serious a) about students doing their readings and b) that I want to do more than just lecture.
But I also understand my role as a coach for my students in their learning (see the above parenthetical aside). For example, when we are working on editing and revising their essays, I have them do their peer reviews or self-assessments in class, so if they have any questions or need any help, I’m there to give some guidance. What do I hear from them? Do we have to do this right now, or can we just leave and do this at home? Really? I can’t get you to do homework because of a variety of excuses (no time, too much other work, etc) and now all of a sudden you have time to do this? It frustrates me, but I tell the students that they can take the time now or take the time later. 
I understand the argument that students (children especially) need free time to explore and play, and that homework often drills the love of learning from them. But in university, I don’t see my students every day, and the time we spend together is very limited. I don’t have the time in class to learn all about the students’ strengths and weaknesses, and how they learn best. Tasks assigned to them to be completed outside of class is also one of the ways I can gage what tools work best for certain students. And, because we don’t see each other every day, it forces them to practice and reinforce what we’ve been doing/reading/learning. 
Homework, especially in college, isn’t going anywhere. But I remember my 10-year-old self, and I work to make sure that every exercise we do, inside and outside of class, has a clear purpose. I just wish my students would actually do it.

On The Outside Looking In on the Digital Humanities

*I wrote this about a month ago and it was meant for the University of Venus. But given the “debate” going on at this year’s MLA Conference (specifically the panel #openprof and #newtools, and in particular the post on the Chronicle Brainstorm blog), I thought I would share my own perspective as an “outside” looking in (and trying to figure out how I fit in).
When I started my PhD, there was a new program just getting started, called Humanities Computing. Students in the program pursued Masters degrees, taking a mixture of HuCo (as it was called) classes and classes from their “home” humanities department. There were a few students in Comparative Literature who were pursuing a Masters in HuCo. The rest of us had come from traditional literature departments, and we viewed our HuCo classmates with curiosity. What, exactly, are you doing?
One student analyzed a short story according to how many times certain words occurred in the story and at what points. He proudly showed us the graphs he plotted and showed that the graph exactly pinpointed the climax of the story. We all nodded impressively, but wondered to ourselves if you couldn’t figure it out with a good close reading. We also wondered how this could possibly compare to the complex theoretical readings we were doing, which was obviously more intellectually strenuous.
One thing stuck with me, though. When I asked the HuCo student what he could do with his degree, he told me that he had already received a number of lucrative job offered. The technological and analytical skills he was acquiring was in high demand. So much for our intellectual superiority.
There has been an explosion in interest in the digital humanities. Say what you will about the decline in traditional print media, but it still stands to reason that when the old Grey Lady, the New York Times, features something, it means it has hit the mainstream. And so it would seem that the digital humanities have hit the big time, such as it is. (And yes, I do see the irony in this).
Despite my initial condescension towards (one) idea of what digital humanities is, my own dissertation benefited from the increased digital availability of electronic archival resources. I would never had known about the various archives I visited, in which I found never-before analyzed letters and drafts, had it not been for the electronic availability of searchable archive databases (and Google). And, while I loved going through the old letters and manuscripts, if the materials had been completely digitized, I would have been able to avoid taking out a $10,000 line-of-credit in order to pay for the travel to the archives so I could complete my research.
But some skepticism still remains. Recently, a video made the rounds, questioning the sanity of any student who would look to do a PhD in Political Science. The student wants to study politics; the professor warns that the student will spend his days doing “regression discontinuity.”  My husband has a PhD in Political Science and I know first-hand the pressure he faced to do more quantitative research, rather than the qualitative work that he loves. I worry that this is the direction that the digital humanities will take all of the humanities.
I love the idea of making documents (aka data) of all kinds more accessible to interested parties (and not just “scholars”), as well as discovering more innovative ways of presenting the data. But I hope that we haven’t moved into a “post-theoretical age” in that we go back to a time where simply making an observation was good enough, even with the help of a computer.  We still need the theorists to help us interpret the increasing amount of “data” we are able to access and reorganize.  As was asked here on Inside Higher Ed, where are the humanities in the digital humanities?
Finally, I worry that there will be an even larger generation of “lost scholars” than there already is. We know the number of tenure-track jobs in the humanities is dwindling. What happens to academics whose traditional academic training has left them entirely ill equipped to compete for the new (if still tiny) number of jobs that are available. Do we go and get another PhD?  Try to radically reframe our research interests to fit a rapidly evolving field? Or just give up?
For me, I have the luxury of being able to try to adapt. Can I create a website/database that allows readers and researchers to more fully explore the inter- and intra-textual references that an author has across their writing and other artistic output, one that is crowdsoured? I have no idea. I am still on the outside of the digital humanities, trying to hack my way in (haha). But I have some stability in order to explore the theoretical questions and technical aspects of the project. What of the adjunct teaching an overload of classes at multiple institutions? I hope there’s space for all of us at the increasingly small table. 

Gotcha! How Open is too Open?

I’ll admit it. I made a mistake this past semester. It’s the kind of mistake that seems trivial at the time but can quickly escalate into a crisis. And I should know better. I’ve been warned repeatedly against making the kind of mistake that  I made. I’ve read about other professors who have made the same mistake and paid dearly for it. Yet, there I was, unable to stop myself, only seeing the error of my ways after it was perhaps too late.

I talked about politics with some of my students. 
My students are chronically unable to find my office, so twice a semester, instead of class, I have informal meeting time in my classroom where students can come and talk to me about the paper I have just handed back, the assignment they are working on, and their progress thus far during the semester. I get more students than just my office hours, but not much. This past semester, a few students hung around the classroom and started talking about politics. Let me reiterate that this was not a formal class nor was I offering a lecture. I joined in their discussion about politics. I explained the Canadian parliamentary system. We compared the Canadian Left and Right to the American Left and Right. We had been talking about education reform, and so discussed the various politics of the current wave of reform. 
I admittedly said some inflammatory things but made sure that a) I made it clear that this was only my opinion and b) I backed up those opinion with some pretty solid reasons.  I played devil’s advocate with my students and their ideas and opinions, regardless of their political views. This is my job as their teacher; to help them improve their critical thinking skills by, in one way, challenging them. They, in turn, challenged me and taught me about American and local politics. I was enjoying myself and enjoying the opportunity to get to know some of my students and to have them get to know me.
One of the students, however, was continually playing with his iPhone. It didn’t alarm me; students are almost always doing something on their phones, even when I’m lecturing, let alone when I’m having an informal discussion. But I did think it was strange that he kept holding it up periodically. Trying to get a better signal? It only dawned on me after everyone had left and I was walking home that he may have been recording me on his phone. Recording our discussions on politics. A recording that could be edited and posted on web.
Shit.
If you are at all paying attention to higher education, I don’t have to go into the recent scandals involving professors who have been video recorded and then dragged through the mud online (like him or as described here). There have been questions about how much “freedom” a professor has in their classroom, especially with organizations such as FIRE ready to pounce (and rapidly disseminate) any evidence of bias or academic misconduct in the classroom. All I need as a contingent faculty is to have my face, voice and (probably misrepresented) politics all over the blogosphere. 
So far, so good. I’ve set up google alerts for any variation of my name and my university’s name (it’s only damning if it names names) so I can (maybe) be one of the first to know if it hits. And I might just be acting paranoid because of all of the attention lately to the illicit video taping of professors. But it scared me. And it made me wonder if I would have to fundamentally change who I am as a teacher.
I have written elsewhere that what I always admired in my favorite former teachers was their openness with us; they were human beings who shared with us their personalities and showed us a little bit of their lives outside of the classroom. I want my students to know me so they feel comfortable taking chances, offering opinions and even challenging me in my class. How can I ask them to trust me if I don’t trust them? But with the risk of being taped and misrepresented, how open is too open now for me with my students? I include time in my office and when I run into them outside of class or even off campus (it’s a small town) because who knows who is watching or listening? 
I can’t let the fear of being caught (caught doing what? Offering opinions? Asking questions? Being human?) change how I teach. But I will definitely now think twice before opening my mouth to talk about politics. At least when a student is paying a little too much attention to their phone while holding it up like they’re trying to take my picture.

*I wrote this post before Christmas. Last night, I participated, on Twitter, in the MLA panel “New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Economic Crisis” (check out the backchannel here). Apparently, I’m already too open by blogging as myself. The take-away from the rise in technology in higher education? Don’t be yourself. Sorry, Academia, I can’t, I won’t, do it. 

Loyalty or Desperation, Revisited

In honor of the job numbers coming out of the MLA regarding potential jobs for all of us PhDs and ABDs, I want to reexamine an idea I put forward this summer. Last July, I wrote about how loyalty to a university can just as easily mask desperation in contingent faculty (the university that I mention in the post is not the same university where I am currently working). But I have been rethinking the ideas of loyalty and/or desperation in faculty members as it relates to the students I teach. I hope and wish that my institution would show loyalty towards me because of the loyalty I feel towards its students.

I have moved around quite a bit during my career. Being one half of an academic couple has lead to my traveling to multiple universities for work. But I am tired of moving around, tired of learning and relearning a new academic culture, and, most of all, I am tired of never knowing how the students I have taught have done in their academic careers. Teaching developmental writing, especially, creates a type of bond for me; I have invested a great deal of time and effort getting to know these students and trying to help them be successful in college. And I want to be there for them if they ever need me during their four or five more years in college. I want to be readily available to write letters for them if a reference is ever needed. I want to help my student who wants to get a PhD in Economics achieve that goal, even if it is just cheering him on from the sidelines. And I want to be there at graduation when they cross the stage and finally achieve their goal of getting a degree and becoming a teacher, a nurse, a vet tech, or whatever else they are hoping to do with their education.
But I can’t do that, at least not easily, if I am not employed at the university. I told my students that even if I didn’t have a job on campus next year or beyond, chances are I’d still be around because my husband is on the tenure-track and we have just bought a house in town. But how much weight would a letter carry from a former instructor, versus a current one? How easily could they track me down to ask for help, guidance, or a pep-talk, or would they even bother, if my campus email was shut down and I no longer had an office? I hope that I am still an employee, even as an instructor off the tenure-track, for many more years, not only for myself, but for the students I have taught and will teach.
My loyalty is to them. Many of them have come from very difficult situations, and I really want to help them succeed, or at a minimum smile proudly when their names are called and they cross the stage to receive their diploma, knowing I had played a small role in helping them achieve that goal. So, to my institution I say, your students have won me over. Now, are you going to show me a little bit of loyalty in return?

What Can We Expect From Freshmen?

I asked, in a recent post, what do we expect from Freshmen? I was responding, in part, to the criticism, that I had expected too much of my students in their final assignment. And then, today, I came across (or rediscovered) the following essay by Alfie Kohn, explaining “How to Create Nonreaders.” In it, he radically proposes that we empower students and allow them to shape the curriculum in their language arts/reading and writing classes at the K-12 level. 

Now, imagine if we did that in our Freshmen Writing or Introduction to Literature classes. Based on the comments on my blog post about allowing students to propose a fictional course, I don’t think that it would go over very well. 
Here is the paradox that Kohn points out and that can be extrapolated even further into higher education: 

The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools.  In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day — than do kindergarteners.  Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.

We expect even less of students in college classes. Part of it is the institutional tradition: students come to higher education (and pay a lot of money) in order to benefit from our (the professor’s) expertise. If they wanted to direct their own learning, they are free to do so, for free. You get what you pay for, and they are paying for my wisdom, experience, and knowledge. But why does it have to be that way? As Kohn points out, the instructor is not removed from the equation; they are important guides in the process of shaping the educational experience. Why does our experience have to be shared with students in a top-down approach?

When I ask the question, however, what can we expect from freshmen, I don’t just mean what could we reasonable expect a freshman to do in a class. I don’t think that it would be entirely unreasonable to immediately ask a freshman to take control and ownership of their education in order to prepare them for not only the next four years, but their professional lives beyond their degree. No, I am also asking what are we allowed to ask of our freshmen.

Kohn talks about how it’s important that students are given “voice and choice.” Why? Two reasons:

The first is that deeper learning and enthusiasm require us to let students generate possibilities rather than just choosing items from our menu; construction is more important than selection.  The second is that what we really need to offer is “autonomy support,” an idea that’s psychological, not just pedagogical.  It’s derived from a branch of psychology called self-determination theory, founded by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, among others.  To support students’ autonomy is to meet their need to be in control of their own lives, to offer opportunities to decide along with the necessary guidance and encouragement, to “minimiz[e] the salience of evaluative pressure and any sense of coercion in the classroom” and “maximiz[e] students’ perceptions of having a voice and choice.”[10]

 How can we allow students to generate possibilities when the instructors themselves aren’t allowed to generate possibilities, allowed our own autonomy? Instead, we are limited to a selection of pre-approved texts, mandated assignments, and set learning outcomes? My fellow University of Venus colleague Afshan Jafar has written quite eloquently on the McDonaldization of higher education and why it is taking place, but I am interested here in examining the effects on the teaching and course development process. For Mary Churchill, the assembly-line teaching mentality caused her to choose administration over academia. For me, it means that I can’t at least try to empower and challenge my freshmen writers.

This next semester, I am teaching Freshman Writing at my institution for the first time. I’ve taught the course elsewhere, but of course, I have to re-learn a new textbook, fit in all of the mandated assignments, and this semester, the added pressure of being one of the courses whose papers will be evaluated for accreditation and evaluation purposes. Could I, would I, come to class on the first day with the long pre-formatted syllabus with all of the requirements, course goals, learning outcomes, and assignments already in place and pre-selected textbook, and say to the class, here are our guidelines, now we make the class together? I do have the flexibility to assign specific readings, come up with homework/in-class exercises, and a small number of major assignments, as well as the specific schedule for the semester. Could I, would I, hand over the small amount of choice and freedom I do have as an instructor to my students?

I worry about my job. I worry about the perception of me as an instructor. I worry about my students learning. I worry (in my most optimistic moments) that I will upset the expectations of other professors who later have my students, students who now expect a degree of autonomy that they will not receive in other classes. I worry about our accreditation; I have now been at two schools that have completely overhauled their Freshman Writing because of the demands of the same accreditation board. Of course, the accreditation board didn’t demand specifically that Freshman Writing change, but they did demand that there be put in place a program that would impact all students. Freshman Writing it is.

I have about three weeks to decide. I’m not going to lie; I’ll probably take the “easy” and safe way out, developing my syllabus myself, mostly dictating the readings and assignments, according to the limitations that have already been placed on me. But like I did in my 200-level class this past semester, I’ll push the envelope; blogs, self-directed reading and research, and at least one assignment that upsets everyone’s assumptions, students’ and professors’, as to what a freshman can do. It might not be much, but it’s a start. It is, literally, the least and most I can do.

An Admission: I am not a Geek

Out in the bloggesphere (I have no idea how to spell this and spellcheck is wholly unhelpful), there was a minor scandal in regards to Patton Oswalt’s call for Geek Culture to die because it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. The responses came fast and furious, but what stuck out to me through it all was that I really am not a Geek.

I’ve always considered myself a Geek. I was good in school, not tremendously popular, loved Star Wars, Monty Python, science fiction, Star Trek: TNG, played in the school band, and was on the debate team. I had a wide-eyed naiveté and immaturity that was increasingly socially awkward the further along in high school I got (seriously, what 15-year-old goes and sees Aladdin eight times in the theater?). Thankfully, I had a wonderful group of friends with whom I could “geek out” with. We wrote our own Star Trek: TNG scripts (fan fic, as it would be called now), had Monty Python movie marathons (with no booze or drugs) on Saturday nights, and generally did geeky, good kid things while many of our peers were out drinking at whoever’s parents were out of town/didn’t care.

But.

We weren’t the geekiest kids in high school. We didn’t play D&D, we weren’t a part of the stock market club, nor were we complete social outcasts (one of our core group went on to be senior class president). And while I was in the band, I wasn’t really a band geek, a la “This one time, at band camp…” I didn’t know how to speak Klingon, didn’t know what Middle Earth was (seriously), and was generally wary of those who, you know, seemed a little too invested in these things.

There was one area where I totally geeked out: swimming. My friends at school tolerated it, but I was obsessed with swimming. I never noticed my friends’ eyes glazing over while I talked about the sport. But I was even too much of a swimming geek for my teammates; my passion for the sport far outstripped my talent, and so I was that girl who killed herself swimming for no seemingly good reason. Because of my lack of talent, I was essentially bullied all through my tweens and early teens. I outlasted those naysayers, and once I was one of the team leaders, I tired to make sure that everyone felt welcome on the team; if you loved to swim, then you were embraced.

Hang in there. This gets back to teaching and higher ed.

So although I always considered myself a geek, I am quite happy to shed the title, if only because of the smug, self-satisfied, and, dare I say, elitist attitude of some of the responses to the essay calling for the death of geek culture. They, those who are outside, late to the party, wanna-be geeks, will never understand or could possibly ever call themselves real geeks. We, long-time, long-suffering, all-knowing geeks, will never bow to the mass media co-option of geek culture. And I agree that as long as there are weird (read: different), slightly obsessive, socially awkward teens, there will be geeks. To claim ownership, exclusivity, and superiority, however, is exactly the thing I hate about “geeks.”

And it is exactly that “geekiness” which can make academics insufferable and terrible teachers. Let’s face it, most professors are geeks in the sense that they are obsessed with their academic interest, which are typically highly specialized and often obscure. You’d have to be obsessed to get through a dissertation and then the demands of the tenure-track. This obsession can go one of two ways: the passion can infuse their teaching or the obsession can fuel a feeling of superiority caused by the idea that you are a persecuted geek whom no one could possibly understand or appreciate. But, let’s face it, the obsession also makes them excellent academics.

In part because of my own history of being bullied and not letting it destroy my passion, I am the type of teacher who wants to share their passion in the classroom. I geek out about teaching. I geek out about helping students become better writers. I geek out at the opportunity to teach students about literature. I geek out when I get to turn students on to “reading” again. And God forbid anyone ask me about my current research interest, Dany Laferrière.

But, it would seem, I am not a geek about it, which makes me a great teacher, but a poor academic.

Here’s to 2011

Over on the University of Venus Facebook page, the questions was asked, “What’s your word for 2011?” Most came up with words like adventure, change, whatever. For me, my word for is “stability.” 2010, the last five years in fact, have had enough change to last me for a little while. 

In 2005, I got married and moved to California. In 2006, I had my first experience teaching developmental writing and got pregnant. In 2007, I had my daughter and defended my dissertation. In 2008, we moved again to Florida for a tenure-track job for me, but not before moving into a bigger place in CA and finding out I was pregnant again. In 2009, I had my son, and we moved to Kentucky for a tenure-track job for my husband. 2010 saw me not teaching for the first time since I taught ESL in a summer program back in Canada. So I started my own business, started blogging, and got in Twitter. And then, I got a full-time job and we bought our first house. 
I’m exhausted just writing about it. 
To extend on my metaphor about trees, I want 2011 to be about putting down roots, providing a stable base or foundation for myself and my family. I want to grow what I have started, instead of continually uprooting and starting over. I want to give myself a chance to explore who I have become over these past five years. I want things to be a little (ok, a lot) more stable than previous years. All of the change has been a blessing, but I’m ready for a year where I can take a breathe and focus on what’s in front of me because I have a better idea of what that is. 
My adventure is ongoing. But I hope 2011 is about the lull that sometimes comes in the middle. Now that I’ve written that, something is going to come along and completely change it. Stability is my hope; as I have learned, I have little control over what the year has in store for me.