teachers, students, and empathy

Last week I was waiting for one of my students to make me a drink at the campus coffee shop when another university employee, who is my fellow student in the online faculty training course I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, came over and started chatting with me about the course. I mentioned that I’d lost a lot of points on one of the assignments because I didn’t cite sources. I said that even though the rubric (“which I know I should have looked at”) specified the research requirement, the instructions did not, and I made the comment that requirement should have been stated in both places. My classmate agreed and said that she had lost points on the same assignment because her APA format wasn’t correct. This had been news to her, since she’d done APA that way all through her online master’s degree program, and no professor had ever told her the formatting was wrong. She said that there should be more consistency among the faculty, and I agreed. Oh, and somewhere in that conversation, I made a comment like “I know this isn’t a real class.” I meant that it isn’t part of a degree program, but as someone who used to teach a zero-credit course that many people did not consider “real,” I should have thought about how dismissive such a comment can sound.

The embarrassing part about all this, I now realize, is that my student was hearing all this as she stood there making my dirty chai. We were making the exact same kinds of comments that students make in my class and that I tend to respond to with stock answers like “The rubric was there the whole time,” or “I can’t help what your previous professors did, but this is what the APA manual says,” or “What do you mean this isn’t a real class?” I’m not going to presume to guess what was going through my student’s head while she listened to our conversation, but contemplating the irony of the situation has taught me an important lesson–well, really reinforced something I already knew: “Do unto your students as you would have your professors do unto you.”

This lesson was driven home for me today with humbling clarity when I decided to ask the instructor of the training course for an extension of the homework deadline this week. I laid out all my reasons in a polite email, explaining that I’d had an unusually heavy grading load over the past week and that I’d had family visiting over the weekend. I said I could probably rush to get everything turned in tonight, but it wouldn’t be of good quality. I apologized for not turning in “timely” work. This was all quite surreal for me because I have never been the sort of student who asks for extensions. One time, my sophomore year of college, I was excessively late for a class because I was finishing up the paper due that day in that class, but I did arrive about halfway through class, my paper in hand. That was probably the latest I’ve ever turned anything in. So today, for the first time, I found myself on the other side of a negotiation I’ve engaged in many times from the teacher’s side.

My instructor granted me the extension, but there’s one more bit to the story: I almost forgot to thank her. I almost waltzed away with my wish granted and no word of thanks for the giver, like those nine healed lepers who didn’t thank Jesus…or like those “entitled” students we like to complain about in the breakroom.

Advertisements

the story roundup

One of my go-to strategies when I’m not sure what to write about on my blog is to briefly review some of the stories (books, movies, plays, TV shows) I have watched or read over the past week or so. Let’s do that now.

  1. Man of La Mancha: Although I read Don Quixote once and thought it was pretty boring (sorry if it’s your favorite book or anything), until this past Saturday I had never seen this musical theatrical adaptation of the story, which hits the main points but, unlike Oliver! (a musical that I have mixed feelings about), doesn’t try to mitigate the dark parts of the source text, nor of the life of its author. The musical employs a frame narrative, with the Quixote story being told by Miguel de Cervantes himself, who has been imprisoned by the inquisition. The musical ends with Cervantes, who is played by the actor who plays Don Quixote, walking offstage to meet his fate, along with his servant, played by the actor who plays Sancho Panza. Bucking the cheerful Rodgers and Hammerstein stereotype that the term “musical” evokes for most people, this one ends on a bittersweet and inconclusive (yet wholly satisfying) note. In the production I saw, by a local theater company in a very small space, the Cervantes/Quixote actor, an older man who gave a fantastic performance, had tears standing in his eyes throughout almost the entire musical and actually running down his face during the major number “The Impossible Dream.” I’m not sure if the tears were because it was nearly the last performance of the run, because of the heartbreaking idealism of Quixote, or for some other reason I don’t know about, but I’ve never seen an actor so sincerely moved. I cried too. While the entire cast did a great job, I also want to mention the young man who played Sancho Panza–a skinny guy, which at first made me doubt the casting, since this character is iconically round. But the actor quickly made me warm up to his endearing interpretation of the lovable pessimist.
  2. The Walking Dead, season 9, episode 1: I have long thought it would be interesting, and hopeful, to watch a community of zombie apocalypse survivors emerge from crisis mode and begin to build a sustainable society. (In fact, I am writing a story about this very scenario.) So the first episode of this season, which featured characters growing crops, making fuel out of corn ethanol, and conducting inter-community trade, made me happy. Politics–not entirely harmonious–also loomed large in the episode, but politics have (has? Isn’t this one of those singular words that looks plural?) been happening since the very first season of TWD, and I think we are now beginning to see the characters develop a more thoughtful, less reactive approach to leadership (the Hilltop had an election) and negotiation. Maggie’s sudden and single-handed execution of Gregory was troubling (even though it was REALLY time to get rid of that lying snake, in my opinion), but I’m holding out hope that people will get on board with Michonne’s idea of a charter that will help govern community relations in this new society. But maybe I’m just being naive and Quixotic. 😉
  3. Assorted Dickens: Rarely does a week go by when I don’t have some sort of mystical communion with Charles Dickens, and this week was no different. In my composition classes, we analyzed the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities as an example of all kinds of strategies, from semicolon use to comparison/contrast to topic sentences. At home, I tried watching a black-and-white miniseries of Barnaby Rudge, possibly Dickens’s most underrated novel, but the DVD kept freezing up, so I gave up in disgust. Now I’m watching the 1994 BBC version of Martin Chuzzlewit. Through all this, I’ve been reminded of Dickens’s absolute genius for creating memorable characters and the passion for social justice that permeates just about everything he writes. He’s amazing. I love him. That is all.

my teaching philosophy

I’m taking an online class about how to teach online (it’s a totally understandable standard requirement for first-time online instructors at my new school, even those of us who have taught online elsewhere), and I have to write a paper about my teaching philosophy! With sources! What? I didn’t sign up for this! And now I feel exactly like my students feel in every single one of my classes. It seems the course designers were trying to teach us a lesson in empathy (ya think?). I think I have a teaching philosophy somewhere that I wrote for a previous purpose, but I thought it might be self-plagiarism if I turned it in for this class (again, this is the kind of stuff my students worry about). So I thought I’d try out some ideas in this post.

The first aspect of my teaching philosophy [Comment: This is kind of a clunky transition. Can you think of a way to introduce your topic without announcing?] is that teachers should model their expectations. If I want my students to get into the habit of consulting a manual for APA format, I should show them how to look up information in the manual, not pretend I know all the APA answers from memory because I’m the teacher. If I want my students to be able to perform a close reading of a story, it’s okay if I spend most of the class period retelling Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (which I’m not sure if my students read in the first place even though I told them to) with an open textbook in front of me, pausing to ask questions (and admit that I don’t know all the answers and explain that some questions have many possible answers) and point out the kinds of literary elements I want my students to be looking for. If I don’t want my students to be on their phones during class, maybe I shouldn’t always be playing on mine while they’re taking quizzes (yikes, that’s a hard one!). [I don’t have a source for this. Can we use personal experience in this paper?]

Teachers should also make themselves available to their students, but with boundaries. [Comment: There, that’s a better transition!] During the workday, I try to respond to emails as quickly and as thoroughly as possible; I keep my office hours even though students rarely come by (and I keep my door open during office hours, which seems obvious to me but apparently isn’t universal practice), and I will always pause during class to answer a student’s question (but that’s mainly because I’m pretty sure I have adult-onset ADD and can’t ignore a raised hand). I see myself as an approachable helper, not an elusive oracle who speaks only in enigmatic proverbs. But I also set boundaries (e.g., I usually don’t check email in the evenings and on Sundays) not only for my own mental health, but also because I want my students to develop problem-solving skills and patience and learn not to panic when they don’t receive an immediate response from me. [Still no sources. Maybe I can throw in a gratuitous reference to Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend?]

Finally, I believe [Comment: No need to say “I believe”; I know you are the author.] that teachers should show the mercy and grace they have been shown. For example, the necessary flip side of my being unavailable on Sundays is that I’m usually a little lenient with Monday deadlines (shh…don’t tell my students)–i.e. if a student is waiting for a response to a question he/she emailed me over the weekend, I will usually allow that student to turn in the assignment a little late and/or resubmit it if it was submitted incorrectly. (Unless the question was stupid. Wait, there are no stupid questions! Don’t we all tell our students that? It’s mostly true.) I know some professors who approach students with skepticism (at least claim that they do so), muttering comments like “I bet his grandmother really didn’t die; he just doesn’t want to come to class.” I have to admit that I’ve had similar uncharitable thoughts before, especially about online students, whose faces I don’t see and voices I don’t hear, so it becomes far too easy to think of them as machines rather than people. That’s why I believe that it’s imperative, especially with online students, to assume positive intent and give students the benefit of the doubt. I’d rather be defrauded by one student (even though I HATE the thought of being lied to) than take a disbelieving stance toward every student. Like Albus Dumbledore, I want to believe the best about people, and it’s usually a good policy, except when hiring Defense against the Dark Arts teachers (Rowling, Books 1-7). [There! I got a citation in.]

Well, hopefully I can copy and paste some of this into my paper and just add some big words make it sound a little more academic. But would that be self-plagiarism?

the dig list

It’s time for one of my periodic lists of stuff I dig right now.

  1. Music with close vocal harmonies. Throughout the past week, I have been listening to two bands whose music showcases the capabilities of the male voice in harmony with others. One is Queen. Have you ever noticed–well, I’m sure you have; I’m stating the obvious here–that if you stripped away the wailing guitars, many of their songs would make wonderful barbershop quartet numbers? The other band is Lord Huron, whose moody music conjures the lowering darkness of an overcast autumn day–specifically, of clouds gathering over a lake, probably Lake Huron. (Some of their songs reference lakes too.) Their harmonies are tiiiiiight (in two senses of the word).
  2. The Pickwick Papers. I decided that while I’m reading Michael Slater’s biography of Charles Dickens, I’m going to watch, in order of novel publication, my collection of BBC Dickens adaptations. Saturday and Sunday, I watched the 1985 Pickwick Papers miniseries. I can’t put my finger on what’s so delightful about watching rotund middle-aged men act like adult children and get into the same tight spots (figuratively and sometimes literally) over and over again, but maybe it’s that in this novel and only this novel within Dickens’ repertoire, everyone is so genuinely good-hearted. Even the blood-sucking lawyers Dodson and Fogg are ultimately harmless. Pickwick and his friends triumph because they choose to believe the best about everyone. Maybe that’s not the way the world really works, but it’s something to strive for. Watching this mini-series is kind of like watching Parks and Recreation, which manages to be hilarious even while being refreshingly un-cynical. All the duels, lawsuits, and other confrontations in Pickwick are funny in the same way that it’s funny when the other characters make fun of Jerry on Parks and Rec. They’re like little kids trying to be mean but succeeding only in being cute.
  3. Fazoli’s. Okay, look. It may not be “authentic Italian food,” though I’m not sure that phrase really means much in America, where we’ve adopted Italian cuisine as one of our own and enacted tons of bizarrely creative, often successful variations on it. (I mean, just look at pizza.) But I ordered a Caesar side salad, baked ziti, breadsticks, and a blood orange Italian ice online, picked it up, and was back home within half an hour. It was faster than flying to Sicily. And it was good.
  4. Peer review day. One of my favorite things to do as a teacher is to walk around the classroom and briefly engage with pairs of students as they read and constructively critique each other’s papers. My short attention span appreciates the short interactions, and instead of standing in front of a classroom babbling until my throat hurts, I get to swoop in, answer questions and sound very knowledgeable, and move on to the next group. All kidding aside (not kidding about that stuff, though), peer review can be a great instructional strategy, teaching students the important life skills of reflection and of giving feedback without being vague or unkind. Fortunately, I’m teaching two writing classes and have lots of peer review days to look forward to this semester.

What are you digging right now? Let me know if the comments.

back to school

Today was the first day of classes at my new institution. Last time I wrote about the first day of classes, I wrote about being so scatterbrained that I could barely organize my thoughts for a blog post. While I wasn’t exactly a chilled-out guru sitting on a mountaintop in mountain pose with a cup of green tea today, I was considerably more focused and less stressed because now teaching is my entire job, not something I try to fit in around meetings and administrative tasks.

It’s an unusually hot day in western Michigan, and this morning it was raining, so my office has been a little damp all day. But at least it has air conditioning, unlike the room where I taught this afternoon. (There were fans blowing, but only the students who sat in the back of the room got to benefit from those, I realized when I went over to talk to one of them after class.) I like to wear a cardigan while teaching because of the pockets, so there was sweat actually dripping down my back and my legs after about an hour of class. On the positive side, my classroom has windows, and it also has an upright piano, which I doubt we’ll ever use, but it looks cool to have in the background. Actually, maybe I’ll see if any of my students can bang out a rendition of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on October 31, when we have the Reformation/All Saints Day party that I really did schedule on the syllabus. (It may end up being a Halloween party as well, but I wanted to get a sense of who my students are before I start foisting pagan celebrations upon them.)

All classes here are 90 minutes long, and I was worried about filling that much time on intro day, but I neatly rounded out the first hour by taking attendance and rambling about myself, the syllabus, and the textbooks (I am a champion rambler), and then I had my students write a literacy narrative during the remaining half-hour. I’d read about literacy narratives in composition journals–apparently they are rather passe now–but I had never assigned one myself. My off-the-cuff version of the assignment probably didn’t exactly conform to the standards of the genre, but not only did it use up a good chunk of class time; reading the results also taught me quite a bit about my students as writers and readers (e.g. several of them are Harry Potter fans; some lack confidence about writing, and all of them have decent handwriting)–and my students got a 10-point completion grade. Win, win, win.

Eleven of my twelve students are women, so I promised the token male student I would not single him out in class. All but two are brand new freshmen, though a couple of them have parents who work at the university and/or took pre-term classes, which means they probably know more about this school than I do. Still, they all looked sincere and eager to learn, many of them were taking notes during my course introduction (and I didn’t penalize them for doing so, like Snape did to Harry Potter), and one of them asked approximately ten questions during the syllabus review. She apologized for having so many questions, but I thanked her and told her that others probably had the same questions. The best student feedback I received today, though, probably wasn’t meant for my ears. Before class, I heard one of the students saying to the person next to her, “I’m so excited about this class.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a student say that about a freshman writing class. I wonder if she still felt the same way after class.

I wrote a brief note on each student’s literacy narrative, and in many of them, I asked the student to talk with me about something–not incorrect grammar or ineffective transitions, but Harry Potter, creative writing, or some other such enjoyable topic. I hope they will come see me, even the ones who are shy about their writing or terrified about starting college. Especially those ones.

I don’t have any classes tomorrow, so I’ll have time to prepare for my Wednesday classes, which I think are in a room with air conditioning. Every time I walk into a class for the first time, I’m nervous that I’ll be met with faces that are judgmental, sarcastic, or completely checked out, and occasionally that happens, but most of my students really want to be in college. I just hope that after sitting through my class on day 1, they want to stay.

celebrate good times

My sister got married on Sunday, so I would like to write a blog post about the profound meaning of celebration. Unfortunately, I am exhausted from the wedding (the early-morning hair appointment, the frequent unbidden weeping throughout the day, the dancing), but also from the drive from western Pennsylvania to my new home in western Michigan the morning after the wedding and the effort since then to carve into the mountain of furniture and boxes that resulted from the condensing of a three-bedroom house into the two-room (plus bathroom) apartment where I am living until my home in Virginia sells and I can buy a new one. And now I’m sure you feel exhausted from reading that grammatically correct but epically long sentence.

So I’m just going to make a couple of observations about celebration and hope they make sense. While I’ll be focusing mainly on the wedding in these remarks, I also want to note that I participated in a celebration of another kind on Friday when one of my online students successfully defended her master’s thesis in a conference call with her committee, of which I was the chair. Witnessing this victory got the weekend off to a celebratory start!

  1. Celebrations can be hard work. Although I was my sister’s maid of honor, I live relatively far away and so did not participate in much of the logistical preparation for the wedding. I know my sister and mom put many hours of work into acquiring decor, putting everything into labeled boxes for the wedding coordinator to set out, and taking care of innumerable other tasks. The result was gorgeous–my sister has great taste, and it showed in both the ceremony and the reception. As I mentioned earlier, the day of the wedding, though joyful, was also hard work–I know the bridesmaids will testify along with me to the difficulty of standing on chunky gravel in thin shoes throughout the ceremony, and I know the groomsmen were sweating in their long sleeves and vests. (I realize that sentence sounds silly, but it’s true! Outdoor weddings are beautiful but no picnic!)
  2. And then there’s the emotional labor. The bride and groom are marking a major life change, so they’re undergoing massive emotional stress (the good kind–eustress) that probably doesn’t really hit them until the honeymoon. But there’s also emotional labor for the others involved. My immediate family members and myself were surprised by how hard we were hit by the realization that Sarah was joining a new family and things would never be quite the same again. That night in the hotel room, which I had shared with Sarah the two previous nights, I kept bursting into tears when I saw something that reminded me of her. It was kind of ridiculous–I had to remind myself that she hadn’t died. There are other sources of emotional stress too: the worry that things aren’t going to go exactly as planned, the sadness of remembering family members who did not live to see the occasion, and the melancholy that many single people experience at weddings, wondering whether they will ever have their own. (I’ll be honest; I felt that a little bit.)

Well, shoot. I didn’t mean for this to be such a depressing post! I guess I was just trying to process why I feel so incredibly drained right now, because I know it’s not just from driving the Ohio Turnpike for hours (although that is rather soul-sucking) and moving boxes around. I am very happy for my sister and her new husband, and for my thesis student, and I’m happy about the new beginnings I’m celebrating in my own life. Celebrations are wonderful; I’m just thankful we don’t have to have them every day!

Unite my heart

Yesterday, I was looking at some notes from a solitude retreat I took last August. At the time, I was feeling overcommitted and distracted, and I was trying to decide which of the good things in my life were helping me to glorify God by living a fulfilled life and which were not. So during the retreat (which took the form of a solo hike), I spent some time praying for focus and looking at scripture about having an undivided heart. Let me quote a few of the notes I took at the top of the mountain:

Today’s theme: asking God for focus. I feel like my mind is scattered among tasks and passions and I’m not giving my best to any of it (or truly enjoying any of it). I’ve often said that God’s promise of wisdom in James 1 is one of the only places in Scripture where God promises something without any qualification (e.g. You must be an Israelite). But that isn’t true–the qualification is that you must ask without doubting–“because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (Jas. 1:6-8). (I didn’t do a very good job clarifying this in my original notes, but the key word there for my purposes is “double-minded.” God’s gift of wisdom comes to those who are single-minded.)

“Be thou my vision” = Be thou my focus?

This mountain is a good place to be thinking about perspective. The birds are flying below where I’m sitting right now.

Ps. 86:11–“Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (KJV–“Unite my heart to fear thy name.”)

Then follows a discussion of things I was going to quit and other things I was going to commit to instead (almost none of which really happened) and a list of things I needed wisdom about, most of which are no longer relevant (which I guess is an answer to prayer?).

This deep desire to be single-minded and united in heart, to be able to focus on one thing and stop my mind from racing down crossroads, is one reason–perhaps the greatest reason–why I decided to “quit everything” (the title, incidentally, of a Dawes song I’ve been thinking about a lot) and move to a new state where my only commitment, so far, is to my job (which is only three days a week this fall!). I’ve been describing this move as “hitting reboot on my life”–a cheesy metaphor, I know, but it’s what this feels like to me.

We’ve been talking about this united heart thing for a long time in Christian circles. I remember I used to feel so guilty when we would sing that song that goes “Give me one pure and holy passion, give me one magnificent obsession”–until I realized that the song is a prayer, not a declaration that we already have one pure and holy passion (“Hey, God. Check this out.”). But I think the secular world is also beginning to articulate the deep discomfort we feel when we are distracted, inattentive, and trying to justify our place in the world by showing all the different ways in which we can contribute. Lately, we have been seeing data about how multitasking is bad for productivity, studies about “flow” (the phenomenon, named by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of getting caught up in a fulfilling task), and radical suggestions for strategies like putting our phones away during face-to-face conversations. As is so often the case, the Bible gave us a really good idea thousands of years ago, and we’re just starting to get it.

I know that having a heart singly focused on God is not the same thing as eliminating distractions and getting in the zone while completing a fulfilling task. But the two confirm the same truth: We were created to serve one master, to do one thing really well, to have one ruling passion under which all of our other passions are ordered. We were created to have a united heart.