Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spring Break 2011

We had a wonderful spring break. We enjoyed every part of it, from the brief visit to the beach on Monday to the fireworks and last few rides on Space Mountain on Friday. The week was just what a break should be--restful, fun, and excellent family time.

Now back to work, right?


Friday, March 11, 2011

Next phase

So.. I cut short my note yesterday about butterflies and teaching because I had to go teach.

In fact, I spent the whole day in one-on-one conferences with students about their essays. That kind of interaction is one of the most meaningful kinds of teaching (I believe), but it also takes the most out of a body. I was exhausted by the end of the day.

It was a happy, satisfied kind of exhaustion for the most part however. In such conferences you can see that most students are trying pretty hard to meet the instructor halfway and make the work count for something.

Very, very few students are in English 102 because they love writing or because they want to be there, so their good humor and good efforts mean more, I think. For most students, that class is a hoop, a gate, a game-- instituted by the college--that they must play if they want access to the other parts of the college experience (and the grades, jobs, and money that are assumed to come with those things).

So when students play the game well--as if it really matters (and of course I believe that it does), I commend them for it. Yesterdays conferences seemed to go in that direction anyway. Most of the students were serious and concerned about what the rubric says, how the reviewers evaluated their papers, and what to do next.

All in all, it was a pretty satisfying day.

I still wonder, though, about this change I feel in myself about the whole teaching endeavor. I'm really not trying to talk myself out of my job or anything here. Don't misunderstand. In fact, I want to do my job better. I want to either recapture the fire in the belly that I've felt for teaching for more than 10 years now, OR I want to understand what other kinds of passion will substitute for that fire.

It might be the case, for example, that fire in the belly (whatever that means) isn't the mode that's "right" for me or for my teaching right now. I'm okay with that. I'm fine with the idea that it's time to reconceive the way I look at and carry out this grand experiment called pedagogy. In fact, I welcome the chance to see the whole endeavor with fresh eyes and fresh motivation.

I'm reading Malcolm Gladwells What the Dog Saw. The title essay of that collection is about Cesar Millan, a "dog whisperer." Part of Gladwell's claim about Millan is that he has "presence" that commands the attention and respect of the canine troublemakers that he specializes in helping. The way he stands, the way he moves, the way he uses his eyes, his hands, his head, all make a difference in how the dogs respect and attend to him.

This semester I've noticed that some students don't seem to have much compunction about talking over me and blathering on about whatever even while I'm trying to get class started and "tell them what's on the quiz." Part of that attitude might be a consequence of "their generation" (a post for another day (and an attitude that I try not to adopt, btw)), but I was thinking about whether or not my current lack of "butterflies" or "fire in the belly" contributes to a lack of "presence" in the classroom. Can they tell that I'm less "there" than normal and do they therefore take advantage of me in subtle, unconscious, unintentional ways? I wonder.

In any case, my attention is so very, very divided these days that I'm not sure where to start in reassessing or reconfirming what it is I believe about teaching writing and literature. I'm glad to say, however, that even that prospect-- of working out who and what I am as a teacher and scholar-- is part of the delight of the job I have.

I hardly dare tempt fate (and I may soon regret saying so)-- but I say "Bring it on."

Thursday, March 10, 2011


The first day I ever taught a college course, I put a piece of strong mint gum in my mouth just as I was walking into the classroom. I didn't want to "breath 'em all to death" the first time I met them, right? Well... the gum was too strong, I was nervous, I swallowed funny, and I ended up choking and coughing all the way through that first class. Not exactly an auspicious start.

The first day of the first class I taught in my doctoral program (that first class I mentioned above was in my master's program), I leaned against the edge of the table at the front of the room to introduce myself. The thing was, the table top was not attached to the table legs and I very nearly fell to the floor in front of that first group of students at ISU. Not a great start either.

The truth is, I've always felt a certain amount of fear about going into the classroom--- particularly the first day. No... it's not fear exactly... It's more like nerves... like stage fright. Going in to the classroom has, from the very beginning, given me a big case of butterflies in the stomach. Every class, every time.

Well... not every time... anymore.

Not long after I came to CSI I started saying something blithe and sophisticated like "the day those butterflies go away is the day I stop teaching." You see, I was of the opinion that the butterflies meant that I still respected the responsibility and the weight of teaching. I was taking it seriously if my body was responding with a certain amount of trepidation. If I felt fear or stage fright or whatever, it meant that the process was still "honest" and "real."

 Something has changed recently. The butterflies are mostly gone.

Last semester, fall semester 2010, was a pretty good semester. I had lively, interactive, respectful students who actively engaged in the process of getting their own educations. The material I was teaching was mature, well-thought-out, and students responded well to it. Lectures, class discussions, small group activities, etc. were obviously worth the students' time. They stepped up and did their part very, very well. Note every student in every class every day, of course, but with a high degree of regularity and a high level of engagement.

I still felt the butterflies last semester. This semester is ... different; and I'm worried that the thing that's different is me.

In Act 2 Scene 2 of Hamlet, Hamlet is trying to explain to his "friends" Rosencranz and Guildenstern what he's been going through since his father death. He says, "I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth." I wouldn't exactly say I've lost all my mirth, but I certainly not "feeling it" like I have in the past. I feel like I've lost something, and "wherefore I know not."

Part of the deal, I'm sure, is that spring semester students are a different breed of cat that fall semester students. In the fall, particularly here at a CC, fall students are afraid of their own shadows. They're more malleable and "teachable." By the time they get to the spring semester, however, they're world-wise and savvy. They don't need classes or professors anymore. They know what's what. It's always harder to get a class to "gel" in the spring than it is in the fall. None of my usual tricks are working this term, though.

But, blah, blah, blah. Here I blather on while I need to be finishing my prep for class.

More on this another day, perhaps.

(BTW, don't send the intervention teams yet. I'm not quite ready to slit my wrists or anything. Just musing, I guess.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

March's theme - Basic Needs

I was shoveling the walk a few days ago and saw this brilliant blue sky. It's been so overcast so much lately that this glimpse of sky was an especially beautiful thing.

Of course the basic need portrayed here is having a safe, warm place to blog... I mean sleep.

Imaginary neighborhood

So... February is over now, but before it ended I did post one more item to the photo blog for the "neighborhood" theme. 

This one is about the neighborhoods I carry around in my brain– Brontë, Dickens, London,Card, Stegner, Wells (Dan, not Herbert George). Ah, the life of the mind.