Wireless Weekend Reflections, Part 1: Losing My Words

As I mentioned in my last post, last week I ended up in the hospital for what we feared was a stroke. The symptom? I was no longer able to speak coherently. All of a sudden, what I meant to say and what I actually said no longer matched up. I was playing with the kids at the preschool, and suddenly, nothing I was saying to them made any sense. It wasn’t gibberish, but it wasn’t related to what I we were doing or talking about. Thankfully, kids are more accepting of silliness, so they were easily dissuaded from asking too much about what was wrong, and I was wearing sunglasses so no one could see the abject terror in my eyes. My head had been hurting and so I had previously texted my husband to come and pick us all up. By the time he got there, all I could manage to (haltingly) say was: can’t talk. He promptly took us home, scared one of his colleagues into coming over and babysitting, and we were off to emergency.

I was shaking and crying, full of panic and dread. My thoughts still seemed coherent, but the words couldn’t or wouldn’t come out of my mouth, at least not with a great deal of effort. Talking, you may imagine, has always been one of my strong suits. While others shuddered at the thought of doing presentation, speeches, or, say, an oral comprehensive exam, I run straight to them. A high school teacher once gave me a back-handed comment when I volunteered to read my writing, and she exasperatedly exclaimed, “Oh, you always make your writing sound better than it is.”  I teach, in part, because it involves public speaking, which I am very good at. What if I couldn’t talk anymore, at least not with ease?
I was losing my words. I couldn’t express myself. If I was having a stroke, what else would I lose? My other metal faculties? My memory? My intellect? After ten years, heck, thirty years of developing my brain and finally being able to really use it in a meaningful way, what would it mean to lose it? I recently wrote that ignorance is bliss, but, when faced with a very real possibility that I was about to once again have ignorance force upon me, I lost all bearing. This could not be happening.
(Looking back, I wasn’t worried in the least about either the loss of my physical faculties or losing the memory of my husband or kids. I was athletic in the water, but I have never been particularly adept on land, and while I have no doubt that any physical disability would be hard, it isn’t my most prized skill set with loads of money invested in it. My husband and kids, on the other hand, is much more troubling. Part of it, I think, has to do with the idea that “love” would transcend any sort of mental loss, which I know to be false. I’m still working through that question.) 
Who would I be if I was no longer a teacher, writer, educator, thinker? Would I lose my ability to speak, but still be able to read and write? Would I still be a quick study and enjoy pondering and asking questions, or would I stop being able to learn new things and form new ideas? What would be left of me? And a realization that I am not proud of ran through my mind: I could turn into my “worst” students. Or at least, the worst stereotype we have of our worst students. It was more than I could handle. When the doctor told me that my CAT scan was clean and that it was probably “just” a migraine, I wept with relief. 
I still have my words. But I am now at a loss as to what I am going to do with them. And I chose, in part, to be quiet for a few days. 

A Weekend, Unplugged

Sundown Friday saw the start of National Day of Unplugging. I didn’t know anything about that when I decided, on Thursday, to unplug as much as possible over the entire weekend, starting at about noon on Friday. Events this past week have left me…unmoored, and I needed time to think about what happened and what I want to do with the information. Some of it I will write about here. Other things will be referred to vaguely, much later, for fear of my job. 

It started last Saturday when I stepped on a rusty nail in our backyard and ended up in the ER to get a tetanus shot. While the money would be reimbursed by my insurance company, a mix-up over my “official” name on the insurance made me pay my deductible out-of-pocket. Leaving me no money to attend this weekend’s THATCamp Southeast. I was fully intending to “attend” virtually, but when I landed in the ER again on Wednesday, this time with symptoms that could have meant I was having a stroke (it wasn’t; best guest is it was a migraine), I wasn’t sure I had the mental strength to attend virtually a conference I really had my heart set on attending. 
A few other events not related to my physical health forced me to think about what Faber, the old English professor in Fahrenheit 451, says to Montag about books: it’s about the time we take to think about what they have to tell us. I needed to take the time to unplug and think about what had happened to me over the past week, and even the past year. Without Twitter as an “easy” outlet for my venting and without the blog to allow me longer rants and rambling. Without the pages and pages and pages and pages of writing on education, higher education, and everything else to distract me with “meaningful” and “useful” reading. I love the people and blogs I follow, but this weekend, I needed to be with my own thoughts for a little while.
I’ll admit I didn’t unplug completely. An entirely different post is needed on the expectations placed on modern professors to be accessible at all times to their students’ via email or other electronic contact mechanism, but I had required that my students complete an online reading quiz over the weekend, and Blackboard is notoriously buggy (to put it nicely). And I didn’t want to return on Monday to piles and piles of email in my personal inbox. So I checked my email a few times a day. But I turned the wireless off my computer and ignored all of the vibrations on my phone. 
I also didn’t do any grading (even though I should have), nor did I do any reading for my class. I watched as little TV as possible. This weekend was all about my mental health. I went for a hike on Friday afternoon. I finally finished reading a novel I had been trying to get through (it was amazing). I wrote, long-hand, about ideas for a personal research and writing project. I baked. I played with my kids, a lot. I spent time actually talking with my husband (as opposed to right now where we are working next to each other). All of it was an attempt to try and figure out, what next? 
I still don’t have any answers. But it did feel good to take the time for myself. I’m hoping that I’ve gotten enough distance from the events of last week to begin to write about them. I can’t wait to read about everything that happened at THATCamp. I have briefly looked at my Google Reader and see a long (and interesting) reading list awaits me; Dr. Davis is blogging at a conference, which is always a treat! And, I think I might have finally found something interesting and not academic to research and write about. 
Absence makes the heart grow fonder (gag!), and I miss you all terribly. I hope you’ll come with me this week as I try to work through what going on. This time, back online.

Rhetorical Analysis Essays and Following Directions

I have just corrected the first batch of my students’ rhetorical analysis essays. They were…not as strong as I would have hoped. One of the most frustrating elements was the students’ inability to follow simple directions. They were limited to using the textbook and the piece of rhetoric they had chosen to analyze and needed to be approximately five pages long, double-spaced. 

For students, and even for some professors and instructors, the requirements of assignments often seem arbitrary; why the textbook and not online sources, if it’s the same information? And why five pages? What if we can do it in two? And why a rhetorical analysis?

Seemingly arbitrary assignments that ask students to fulfill certain requirements are not, in fact, arbitrary and actually teaches them practical skills like knowledge transfer and good, old-fashioned following directions. Placing limits on the students’ resources was meant to focus their attention on the task instead of research. The page count was framed to let the students know that the depth of analysis required will take about five pages. The one piece of rhetoric was, again, selected to allow students to focus, read and re-read, as well try and accomplish the proper amount of depth in their analysis. And finally, why a rhetorical analysis? Considering the amount of rhetoric students are exposed to, it seems like a worthwhile exercise to get them to think more critically and deeply about it.

Some of my students ignored the page count. Others, the resource limitations. And still others seemed not to bother with the analysis part of the assignment. These are all elements that we discussed at length in class, which they had been reading about for homework, worked on in small group discussions, and went through in the guided peer review and self-assessment. I prepared them as much as I could to fulfill at least the minimum requirements of the assignment. And yet.

They will probably never have to do another rhetorical analysis essay in their lives, although they will use rhetoric, whether they intend to or not. But they will have to follow directions, deal with seemingly arbitrary limitations, and produce quality work in less than ideal with even less guidance than I provided. Job applications, reports, presentations, bureaucratic paperwork, emails, and everything in between all have their own set of rules and directions to follow which can change in mid-stream. Plus, it’s not a poor grade that the student will have to deal with, but the very real possibility that they won’t get the job, promotion, sale, or even lose their job.

But students also need to be able to think critically and independently, because often they won’t receive direction but a set of parameters and expectations that they need to meet. The only advice that they will get is to figure it out. While I don’t expect my Freshmen and Sophomores to do their assignments with so little guidance, I do expect them to begin to actively work in order to eventually get there. It’s not just about the grade; it’s about their employment future.

So while I am fulling the student learning outcomes set forth by our university, I am also trying to get students prepared for life after college. Follow directions and meet parameters. There is nothing arbitrary about it.