Retention, or When a Student Disappears

As any reader of this blog knows, I teach Developmental Writing (some excellent posts from my archives linked right there, folks). These are, studies have shown, some of the most vulnerable students in higher education; the statistics show that these students typically drop out and never finish a degree of any kind. I work at an institution that has dismal completion rates. With public pressure mounting, we are becoming more and more aware of the issue of retention. More and more, the pressure to “retain” students is trickling down to the individual instructors. 

Anyone who has been following me knows that I care about my students, perhaps too much. Does this mean that I am perfect when it comes to doing everything and anything I can to “retain” students? Not in the least, but I’d like to think that I am there for students who are ready and willing to help themselves. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. But for all of our efforts, additional services, councilors, tutors, advisors, and financial aid options, students, good students, still disappear. 
Last semester, I had a pretty good student in my 200-level writing class. Not the best student, but a solid student who was willing to do the work, ask questions, think, and improve. She also happened to live just in behind our house. We would often see each other on weekends or in the evenings when I would be playing outside with my kids. I got to know her a little bit. She was from out of state, wanted to be a nurse, spent her summers on Christian missions, had a job working back home as a waitress, and was generally a good person. She was planning on living in the same place this year. I even contacted her over the summer to let her know that the windows of her back door had been broken. She got back to me to thank me and told me she was looking forward to seeing me in the fall.
Fall has come, and we’re three weeks into the semester. I have not seen her. I have no idea why she’s not back. Did she run out of money? Did something happen to her, or her family? Did she transfer? None of these things matter in the grand scheme of things, at least to those who do the counting; she has dropped out, thus hurting our “completion rates.” But how do we plan for students like this, students who seem to be most prepared to succeed in college? Our university has a high rate of first-generation and poor students and most of our resources are focused on their success. We, on the ground, know how hard it is to get students to understand the importance of attending class, of making university their top priority, when their families are pressuring them to work or take time off to support those back home. When a student who seems well-equipped to succeed and then doesn’t, what could we have done differently? 
I teach five section of writing-intensive courses. I have trouble learning my students’ names, but I do try to get to know each of them as well as I can, but often its the ones who are having the most difficulty that I get to know the best. When a student who was doing well disappears, it’s difficult for me because I wonder if we were set up to help her succeed. I despair: if we can’t even hold on to the solid student, what hope do the rest have? I know that people look at a school like ours and point to it saying that we are wasting taxpayer money, that we’re failing at our jobs, and that we need to be held “accountable.” 
I’m not really sure how much more I can do. 

Peer-Driven Learning: Accepting Where We Are

This week in my peer-driven classes was amazing. We finally put in concrete terms what was going to be expected of them during the semester. We decided what our major and minor assignments would be and how much of their final grade each part would be worth (yes, we decided to go with good, old-fashioned grades, awarded by me. One class pointed out that they didn’t want the responsibility and the other saw it as too time consuming).

Each class is going to be completely different. The first class (the class that is less self-motivated and less vocal) will run in a much more conventional way. We decided to get our “required” paper (the essay that all students must write) out of the way first. In preparation, we will read the section of our textbook on “Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class.” We will decide collectively which readings we will do for homework and what sort of discussion questions we should address. Homework in this class will be worth 50% of their final grade, as an incentive to stay on task. Once we have completed this section and the required paper, we will move towards being a little more non-traditional in preparation for a final “project,” which can be done in groups.

The other class more closely to what Cathy Davidson imagines for her next peer-driven class. The students are already in groups (with one exception; the class decided that they wouldn’t force anyone to be in a group, so there is one student working solo), working on different sections of the textbook that they found the most interesting. Each group will come up with a proposal for a two-class lesson plan and project on their section. Once the proposals are approved, they will work on their lesson plan and project. Each group gets two classes to teach/present, with the rest of the class expected to read and participate. Once that is done, we will move on to working on our “required” paper, our final task. This class also decided to put together a rather draconian attendance policy because, as one student put it, how can this class be peer-driven if you’re not here?

I was so proud of my students. They recognized their strengths and their weaknesses, developing a class that met their needs. One class wanted more from me as their instructor, the other class, not so much. While they were intrigued by the idea of contract grading, at the end of the day, this class as a concept was radical enough; it seemed they wanted the familiar comfort of grades, as something to hold on to. I can’t say that I minded; it gives me something to hold on to as well, some remnants of “control.”

I realized that we hadn’t discussed a rubric or “scoring” guide in my second class. This worked out well, as we were going to be discussing rubrics during our weekly #FYCchat. As the chat progressed (check out the archive here), it became clear that we were of two very different minds about rubrics; some of us swore by them, while others shunned them as one more way we limit students’ creativity. I panicked; what had I done? I communicated with the students that we might want to develop a rubric. But clearly this wasn’t a concern of theirs. What if they were going to do one just because I had suggested it? Was I in the process of messing with a good thing?

And then the concept of badges (again from Cathy Davidson) did the rounds on Twitter. Why wasn’t my class using badges? Why were we using grades at all? My panic increased. The students decided, I said, but what if the students really didn’t decide, and they were just doing what was comfortable, or worse, what they thought I wanted them to do. Did I not present the concept well enough for them to feel comfortable with it? Am I still being too traditional, conventional? Was I failing my students? I’m not requiring them to put together a digital project or use social media. Should I? Am I doing enough to push my students outside of their comfort zones?

I could no longer see the success of my class, only all of the ways it could (already) be interpreted as a failure.

My students were able to accept where they were in terms of their comfort level with a peer-driven learning environment. One class needs more guidance than the other. I need to accept that my own level with peer-driven learning as their teacher is also evolving. I need to accept where I am just as much as they have accepted where they are. This is a learning process for all of us. In the same way that I try to provide positive support, encouragement, and patience to my students, I need to do the same for myself.

This will not be perfect. There will always be thing that get left out, left behind, and things that could be done differently. In a peer-driven learning environment, I have to trust that the direction my students have chosen to take is the right one. I also have to trust that I am doing my best as well.

Another way that this class is the most challenging thing I have ever done.

Teaching Ain’t Easy (or, Duh)

I think I’ve finally over-done it. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. After a summer of fabulous productivity in the writing department, I’m spent. I know I wrote basically the same thing exactly a week ago, but it seems that Thursdays, I hit a wall. Or, more accurately, Wednesday I hit a wall, but habit dictates that I face this reality on Thursdays when I try to write my Thursday night post for Friday.

Teaching, it seems, it taking everything out of me. I’m completely redoing all three of my classes (for a total of five sections) to various degrees. My peer-driven classroom is mentally draining; the uncertainty of what is going to happen in every class is unnerving and stressful, I’m not going to lie. My other classes are using texts and techniques that are more traditional but unfamiliar to me. I’m re-learning how to teach.
But I also think that I have never had a clear picture about just how physically and mentally taxing teaching really is. When I was a PhD student, I was young, unattached, and only had one class to teach (at noon, no less). I started my first adjunct position (four sections) when I was pregnant, so if I was tired, I “blamed” it on the pregnancy. When I went back to the adjunct position after having the baby, I just assumed I was tired because I had a small baby who was still nursing and not sleeping through the night. And then, my tenure track job was an even split between being pregnant and having a newborn. 
And then last year, when I started teaching full time after a year off, I was also taking care of my son part-time, trading off with my husband. In other words, I’ve never been in a situation where teaching can and is the only source of my complete and utter exhaustion at the end of the day. But now, I think that I’ve been getting it all wrong; motherhood is easy, teaching is the hard part. 
This semester, I have no excuse for not being able to find some balance in my life. I know that one of the reasons my energy levels are down is because I’m not taking care of myself. Because the kids are back in school, I just assumed I’d be able to maintain my manic writing pace I set for myself over the summer. But, I apparently can’t replace one set of kids with another with no impact. 
So, here’s what I’ve decided: I’m reducing the number of weekly posts here from three to two. One on Sunday night for Monday, another on Wednesday night for Thursday. Mondays will still be about my peer-driven classroom, while Thursdays will be whatever catches my fancy. I’ll still be doing my monthly posts for UVenus, as well as looking for other opportunities to guest-post (or even make some money!). And unless a call-for-submissions really catches my eye, I’m taking a break from academic writing, too. I mean, as soon as I get all of these essays I have left to write out of the way (seriously, there are two more). 
So thank you, loyal readers. My peer-driven class would not be nearly as successful as it has been if you had not been here for me, supporting me, offering advice, and just a sympathetic ear. I tell my students that this can have a ripple effect; I already know that I have inspired some of you to try this, and my students are also reaching out to their professors, introducing them to the idea that maybe they can handle having a voice their own educations. 
But, for tonight, I’m done. I’m going to bed.

Turning Group Work into Collaboration

I was desperate to find a way *not* to blog about some very real drama that is hitting one of my Peer-Driven Learning classes. It’s amazing how one bad, poorly-prepared, attention-starved apple can spoil the whole bunch. And now the class has decided to break out into working groups, with the Bad Apple’s group suffering from a horrible case of regression. Unlike the other groups, where learning and discussion is taking place at a fast and furious pace, this group’s other members have regressed back into sullen, defensive silence, the kind that I’m met with in most ordinary classes when asked to participate or do anything at all. 

(I’ll be writing more about what each of the classes is doing on Monday, as well as how tomorrow goes, trying to mitigate the damage.)
No, this post is going to be about turning group work, something most of our students see as a burden or tedious, into a collaborative unit, which most see as a positive force for good in the world. It’s timely, as last week the #FYCchat was on exactly that, and much of what we talked about was how to create an environment conducive to collaboration, creation, and collective wisdom, instead of competitive units of who-did-more-than-whom. 
Coincidentally, last week’s episode of Project Runway featured a perfect case study on how group work doesn’t work and collaboration does. For those of you who don’t know, Project Runway is the brainchild of former supermodel Heidi Klum. She pits a group of designers against each other in weekly clothes-making challenges, eliminating one a week until the next-big-thing in fashion is declared the winner. The challenges can be ridiculous (clothes made out of materials found at a pet store!), and the drama…Oh, the drama. Sleep deprivation and other physical hardships often push designers to the brink, and the contestants are fighting for their creative and professional life. 
Last week’s episode, Off the Track, is no exception. If you don’t have an extra hour or so to spare to watch the episode (which is what I linked to above), you can read a pretty good recap here. Unlike most weeks, where the designers work as individuals, in Off the Track the designers are forced into teams of three and then expected to create a three-outfit cohesive line. Two groups in particular dissolve into complete and total chaos. One group gets completely wrapped up in drama, and while the team member  (Bert) certainly deserved their ire, the other two forget to actually design clothes and the trouble-maker creates the “best” garment. The other group, equally drama-filled (Him: You’re designs are dowdy. Her: TEARS), but the team leader sucked it up, said he was sorry, and she sucked it up and accepted it, they put their differences aside, ending up creating one of the winning dresses
(Personally, that dress is a big “Meh” for me, but compared to a lot of the other designs, it was the least offensive. I honestly think Heidi was rewarding the group that was able to work through, or at least get past, their differences.)
I really invite you to watch the full episode to see how the “group work” mentality can deteriorate and destroy the final product while trying to really collaborate can produce good results, in spite of conflict. The team that found a way to work together was rewarded. Another important lesson is that you can only control the work that you do within the collaborative setting. While certainly a trouble-maker who doesn’t play well with others, Bert still remembers that the purpose of the challenge is to create good clothes; the other two didn’t even seem to bother, focusing instead on complaining about how useless and difficult to work with Bert is. 
I don’t know why this realization about Project Runway has eased my mind; I still have to teach tomorrow and I still have to deal with the Bad Apple group. But at least now I have an external example to think about and refer to in order to work through the issue. A few hours ago, I was despondent. Now, I’m hopeful. I need to get my students to become the successful collaborators, not the petty group workers. 
Eat your heart out, Heidi!

Peer-Driven Learning: Readjusting Expectations

Programming Note: I’ll be taking a break from writing weekly Bad Female Academic posts, mostly because I don’t have anything left to add. That’s probably because I’m teaching again and am trying something completely new, trying to create a course based on peer-driven learning. So instead of Monday posts on gender in academia, you’ll be treated to posts on my ongoing adventure in allowing my students to decide for themselves what we’re going to learn and produce in our class.

Week one is over, and I’m staring down the reality of week two. Last week was hit and miss. The students seemed to really respond to Paulo Freire and the idea that there is, in fact, a different way to learn (well, lots of different ways to learn, but you get my drift). When I told them to pull out their cell phones and start texting their answers to question and that those answers would appear (anonymously) on the overhead, it was like I had just cured cancer. A teacher who was encouraging them to text, to use the technology that was most available to them and with which they were most familiar with? I blew their minds. 
Their blog posts (sorry, not public) on their initial reactions to the class and the readings were positive. One of my favorite quotes from a student was that they’d been trained to sit and not talk in class the same way a dog is trained not to pee on the rug. Another student also astutely observed that learning technology is only useful if it allows us to learn in new and different ways, instead of recreating more efficient versions of the banking concept. There seemed to be a consensus that the class was different, exciting, terrifying, would be a lot of work, but it was work they were willing to undertake because they “knew” (or at least claimed to know) that it would mean that they would learn more. Students were emailing me to ask about contract grading or if we could use tumblr instead of blackboard. I was psyched. 
Then came Friday. This, I said, is where the hard work begins. Now we have to start making some decisions and actually designing our course. What, I asked, do we need to decide? In my first class, there was silence. Absolute silence. I am proud to say that I waited it out, but it was painful. I have a number of students in the class whom I had last year, students who I know have something to say from reading their blogs, and yet, there was nothing. We finally got through a list, and their job over the weekend (I didn’t want to call it homework) was to participate in a discussion (online) about each of the elements we need to decide on, offering ideas, brainstorming, and, you know, discussing. Communication, I reminded them, is a key element in making this class work.
My other class was better; I barely had time to get the question out of my mouth when a hand shot up and said: “Grading! How will we be graded?” We all laughed. This class had already proposed to break off into smaller groups, and each group would/should have a technologically savvy person in it to guide communication and innovation. They also want me to agree to learn something; one student offered to teach me how to weld. Another student asked if we were limited to our physical classroom in which to hold our meetings. We got threw the list and they, too, had the responsibility of discussing their preferences online so that next week, we can start narrowing our options and making choices. 
The discussion, thus far, at 9:30 PM on Sunday night, has been a relative failure. Very few students have even post or participated. I created an internal wiki to share other innovative class and project ideas, so they could be inspired (I know, make it all public! I’m working on it; most of this is really, really new to me, too). I’m not even sure anyone has looked at it. Most of the suggestions that were made were vague and not well articulated (We should read about Class, Poverty, and Wealth because it looks interesting). I was ready to throw in the towel, declare this whole experiment a failure when I took a step back and remembered that this is really, really new for them, too. No one has ever asked them their opinion on what they should learn or why they should be learning it. While I might have been completely exhilarated by the opportunity as an undergrad, I was a massive dork (still am, obviously). My students will need a little more patience and guidance before they believe that this is for real and that this can and will work. 
I also have to remember that I no longer run on a student’s clock. Did I honestly expect an excited and intelligent exchange of ideas by 2 PM on Saturday afternoon, the first weekend of the school year? I did, and there is my problem. As the weekend has drawn on, the discussion has gotten more interesting, and more people have posted. I half-expect to wake up tomorrow morning and find that the whole class has been decided while I slept (not likely, but you get the idea). The whole idea of this class is to let the students run the show. Of course the students aren’t going to work at the same times I would do my own work and preparation for the course. I need to readjust my expectations to meet their reality. My only fear is that they won’t give themselves enough time to actually discuss; they will just post something and forget about it. 
Communication, true honest communication that represents an exchange of ideas, is something that is completely foreign to these students, both outside, but especially inside, the classroom. When I told them that I had commented on each of their blog posts, they stared at me in disbelief. It never occurred to them that one of the great strengths of social media and other technologies is to truly level the playing field between professor and student. I am just one voice in a sea of voices all sounding off on the issues in this course. The work that they produce isn’t simply to earn a check mark or credit towards a letter grade at the end of the semester. We’re all readjusting our expectations, and these things take time. 
Time, and patience. And, the strength not to lose faith at the first sign of trouble. 

Fall Burn Out: Uninspired Writing

I’m stuck. I don’t have writer’s block, but I am suffering from some pretty uninspiring writing. I volunteered to do a guest post on a pop-culture subject that I am (or at least I was) pretty excited about. And then, I sat down to write the thing. The words came, but once I got about three-quarters through, I stopped, re-read it, and hated it. It wasn’t bad; it was coherent, followed the rules of standard written English, and communicated what I had intended it to say. But it was so…boring. 

I don’t know what to do. It’s due tomorrow and I want to send them something. But I also would like them to accept guest posts from me again in the future. Will a boring (seriously, this thing is so dry) post be worse than no post at all? Or, should I just chuck it, start again, and send off whatever I come up with (which, I have to admit, will have to be better than what I’ve already written). But what if it isn’t? What if it’s worse?
The timing of this guest post couldn’t be worse. After a summer of writing, I am a week into classes starting, meaning I am absolutely exhausted. I had forgotten just how physically and mentally demanding teaching five classes (three preps) can be. Add to that the fact that I am trying to completely and radically reimagine one of my courses, well, it’s not the best time for inspiring prose, even about a subject that I am excited to be writing about on a platform I am thrilled to be (potentially) a part of. 
This is rare for me, the inability to write and write halfway decently. This summer, starting in May, I’ve written 43 posts for this site, 11 posts for Chasing Laferrière, 5 University of Venus posts, 3 academic essays, 2 book proposals (one of them based off of my dissertation, one on my next project), and…I think that’s it. This is the most writing I’ve done and longest sustained writing period I’ve had since I finished my dissertation days before my first-born showed up. So, maybe I should give myself a break if I’m a little burnt out. 
I have one more day this week of my peer-driven classes, and perhaps after I get that done, I’ll be able to take a deep breath and try to write this piece again. But, I don’t think I’ll be doing much writing this fall (save for here and for UVenus). And, you know what? I’m really, really ok with that. I think I’ve earned a little break.  

Peer-Driven Learning: The Challenges of Letting Go of Control

Tomorrow is my first day of crowdsourcing my course, or, perhaps more accurately, working with my students to create a peer-driven course. We had our first class(es) on Monday, where I introduced the concept and we went through the syllabus, such as it was. I assigned two posts from Cathy Davidson’s HASTAC blog, as well as the Paulo Freire essay on the banking concept of education included in their reader, in an attempt to inspire and challenge them, to help them see things a little differently. 

First, the good news. One of my classes seemed really excited about the possibilities. I could see them smiling and nodding their heads and wheels starting to turn. One of the students (he took me for both of his English classes last year) has already emailed me about “contract grading” and if we could do something like that in the class (my response, after shrieks of joy, was to say that it was up to the class and if he thought it was something we should do, then make the argument). Tomorrow, I’m going to use a text messaging instant survey service to gage my students’ attitudes and see where we stand on some general issues in the course. I am very excited about this. No one has seemed to have dropped my course (yet).
Now, the less good news. My other class showed little enthusiasm and looked more terrified than invigorated by the possibility of deciding the direction of the course. I feel unmoored by this experience; usually, I’d have my first two weeks of classes down cold and I could skate through the first few weeks on my charm and well-practiced lectures and exercises. Now, I’m completely without a rudder. And, apparently, relying on heavy-handed, cliched symbolism. I have a plan, but I don’t want to have too much of a plan, in case I fall back on my well-trained habit of lecturing and steering the course where I think or would want it to go. 
And I, too, am terrified. There are few places in my life where I feel completely and totally comfortable; one of those places is the pool, another is in front of the classroom. When I stepped in front of a class for the first time to really teach, it didn’t take long for the nerves to disappear and for me to feel like I was right where I was supposed to be, right where I wanted to be. In the same way I had always felt “right” in the pool, I felt “right” while teaching in front of the class. This is a rare feeling for me. I’ve always felt slightly awkward, slightly out of place. Even in academia, I don’t quite fit (that’s one of the things that Bad Female Academic has been about). But put me in front of a group of students and tell me to teach them…
Maybe it’s because I was in a position of authority and (relative) control; so much of my life growing up felt outside of my control that it was nice to finally be somewhere where people respected me, listened to me, and (dare I say it) had to do what I said. Don’t get me wrong, I never took that for granted or took advantage of my position of authority, and I work hard to make sure that I deserve my students’ respect. But that power, the feeling of being in control, it’s something that I am already worried about missing. 
I know this will make me a better teacher. But will that be as personally fulfilling to me? This is a selfish, selfish question to ask, but I think it’s a question we need to ask ourselves as educators because this could be one of the reasons we are so resistant to radically changing how we teach. There is a sense of fulfillment and pride in seeing our students learn and succeed. But, if we’re really honest with ourselves, there are other reasons why we teach, more personal, more selfish reasons. Those reasons often remain hidden, unexamined. 
I am giving up a large portion of the control in my class. I am re-learning how to assert my authority in ways that don’t involve dictating what my students need to do and when. And it’s really, really hard and really, really scary. 
I must be doing something right, then. 

Bad Female Academic: My Bawdy Body

I’m currently working on an essay about how Nalo Hopkinson uses the (postcolonial, black, queer) body in her short story collection, Skin Folk. The female bodies in particular in her works, both short stories and novels, are very physical; they are pregnant, nursing, menstruating, eating, going though menopause, coming, and they come in all shapes and sizes, lovingly described. This element of her work has always resonated with me. In my research for my current paper, I came across the book Rites of Passage in Postcolonial Women’s Writing from Rodopi. One of the essays deals with the difference between “female” and femininity:

If femininity represents the socially acceptable, aesthetic side of ‘woman-ness’, then femaleness exposes its socially unacceptable, abject underside, the undesirable leftovers of existence. Thus, while abjection deals in the undeniably physical – the messiness of the body’s materiality – so aesthetics traditionally shuns the corporeal in favour of the polished, pretty veneer of femininity. (267)

The essay uses Kristeva and goes through the ways women’s (particularly girls on the cusp of or going through puberty) are policed. Good girls are sugar, spice, and all things nice (but, not allowed to be seen eating those sweet things). We smell good, we look good, we are clean and fresh.

I’ve never had a problem with being “female” so to speak. As a tomboy or growing up as “one of the boys,” I never felt ashamed of the messiness of being female; it was just something that happened, like the messiness of being a male. Growing up with the boys and their locker room talk just meant, to me, that bodies and bodily functions weren’t anything to hide.

Of course, I quickly learned how wrong I was and what the double standard was for me and my female body versus males and their bodies. But being feminine just didn’t fit with my personality or my body. I loved to eat, which I could do when I swam almost 30 hours a week. One might be tempted to discuss eating as a substitute for…something I was missing growing up, but for me eating was a simple pleasure that I would not give up simply because it was “un-lady-like” to stuff my face with the boys after a long practice.

Things got especially difficult once I hit puberty and it became clear that I was, despite my best efforts, not one of the boys. I didn’t and don’t possess a boyish, athletic body. My femaleness became obvious, in fact, it became hard to ignore. It is one thing to be pretty and feminine (think Betty Draper on Mad Men), it is another when your sexuality is on display (think Joan Holloway on Mad Men). I’m a Joan. As the show observes, it is difficult for “Joan” to be taken seriously, and I learned that many, many times over.

Joan Holloway
Betty Draper
I am and will be forever grateful for my best friend at university. She and I shared many similarities (tomboys, Joan-esque figures, former athletes, distaste/discomfort with being “feminine”). We spent five years together as friends and later roommates, figuring out the balance between our female bodies and the feminine expectations of the world around us. I can still remember the times we got “dressed up” when we went out, putting on skirts or dresses and make-up. We were lucky that we grew up in a time when the predominant style was grunge, and thus we could wear baggy cargo pants and oversized plaid shirts, hiding those parts of our messy female selves while still rejecting the feminine rules we didn’t want any part of. 
As we got older and moved on, we had to embrace at least some of the rules, particularly if we wanted to partially fit in at our chosen professions (she is a successful communications account manager). But we also figured out that we could be female and feminine, and largely true to ourselves. I miss her immensely because she was someone with whom I could be myself: messy, bawdy, crude, and honest. There was never any pressure to be anything other than who we were, no female pressure to conform, to be more feminine, less female. 
I still love crude, raunchy humor. I have to remember to watch myself, that I don’t say too much about bodily functions, because I know that it’s not “proper.” But I still eat ravenously and unapologetically. And I won’t hide the fact that I’m a Joan. I’m still more female than feminine. I hadn’t thought of that when choosing the title for this series, but I’m glad I did. 

What am I still doing here? More Thoughts on Now I See It

In the comments of my review of Higher Education?,  capandgown notes:

well said, it’s a completely pernicious system in which everyone higher up the pecking order is incentivised to exploit those below. at the end of your piece i was wondering though – why DO you do it? possibly you will say, because you love it. I’m wondering when the tipping point comes : when love of one’s job becomes the privilege of those who can afford it?

These are two questions that I have addressed in the past (why I came back to teaching and who will be our future professors). I wrote the former post almost exactly a year ago, when I was about to start teaching again, full-time, after a year of under/unemployment. Many reasons I outlined there haven’t changed; I still need the money and there are very few employment opportunities where I am currently living. Why not move? My husband and I decided, very early in our relationship, that if we were going to decide to be together “forever” that we were going to be together. So I am still place-bound and limited, therefore, in my employment opportunities.

But, and Worst Professor Ever is going to be mad at me for saying this, capandgown is right insofar as that I love what it is that I do. I am invigorated and excited to have the opportunity to completely reimagine and reformulate my classes. I have written elsewhere that it is liberating to “only” be an instructor, and I wonder if I would have had the courage or conviction to do what I am doing this semester if I was on the tenure-track. This job still has something to offer me (other than money), and me to it.

I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. And, that might be the problem. I’ve spoken before about my failure of imagination when it comes to how I see and understand my classes. I have the same problem when it comes to my career trajectory. For so long I could only see myself in front of the class, in higher education, eventually moving up the administrative ladder. Of course, that vision has shifted somewhat, but not much. Maybe it’s in part because of where I am living, with limited economic opportunities. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been particularly entrepreneurial. Or, and I think Cathy Davidson would agree, the vision I’ve had for my life has never really been seriously disrupted enough for me to take a step back and really rethink things.

When I say that my job still has something to offer me, I mean that it allows me to go outside of my comfort zone, even if it’s only in the relatively safe confines of the classroom, a place where I feel most at home. Maybe these small steps I am taking to change the way I look at the educational experience will help me build up the courage and the vision to look at my own career trajectory differently. Four short months ago, I was lamenting my inability to radically change the way I teach. Now, I’m making it happen.

Eight months from now, maybe I’ll see more things just a little bit differently as well. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I love and what challenges me. I’m pretty lucky that way.

Now You See It: Get This Book. Right Now.

I finally finished Cathy Davidson’s new book Now You See It. It comes out today (August 18th). I am so glad that I decided to adopt this book for my Freshman Writing class on “The Future.” I am excited and invigorated by the hopeful and optimistic tone that the book takes. This is a book that everyone should read. 

But, here’s a list of the most important people who should read the book, and why.
1) Educators: This book outline where education reform needs to go, and for those educators who are already there (or desperately trying to get there) who face opposition or derision from administrators or parents, this book is your justification. We love “science” and Davidson makes sure that she has enough science to back up her claims about the benefits of things like social media, video games, and collaboration, to convince even the hardest skeptic. Teachers should assign it to students, it should be adopted as the campus-wide book assigned to students and faculty to read and discuss. 
2) Parents: All of that hang-wringing about how we’re raising our kids? It ends here. It might depress you to know that your child’s school is nowhere near as relevant as it could or should be in order to prepare them for whatever the future economy is going to look like, but at the same time the message (or one of the messages) that I take away is that it’s never too late. I’m making it sound like Davidson advocates a truly laissez-faire style of parenting, but what she explains is that those habits that we chide or don’t understand in this technological age are not to be feared, but embraced. That, and that we should learn from our children about those things that we don’t understand. Not what we want them to tell us, but what they are really saying.
This book is all about getting us to pay attention, to disrupt our perception of the world so we can learn something new and truly change and (to a certain extent) evolve. There was a passage towards the end of the book that brought tears to my eyes:

To believe that the new totally and positively puts an end to the old is a mistaken idea that gets us nowhere, neither out of old habits nor finding new ones better suited to the demands of that which has changed. John Seely Brown calls the apocalyptic view of change endism. Endism overstates what is gone…When I talk to my students about the way we select the worlds we see in our everyday life, they often ask how they can possibly possibly change the way they see. It’s easy, I always answer. I’ll assign you the task of seeing differently. And you will. That’s what learning is.

I needed to read that tonight, staring down the reality of trying to teach my course differently, in order to get the students to see things differently. I’ll be writing a more detailed review later, but I wanted a chance to be emotional, a little hyperbolic, and effusive in my praise for this book.

Buy this book. It will change your life because it does exactly what Davidson does with her students. She assigns you the task of seeing things differently in this book. It is a book that demands to be re-read, reflected on, and discussed. I hope you buy it, share it, talk about it, and have the courage to allow it to change you.

And remember, if you’re on Twitter talking about it, use the tag #NowUCit.