focusing on focus

Yesterday I responded to a journal prompt, and I decided my response wasn’t too embarrassing to share here on my blog:

The word I want to focus on in 2019 is “focus.” (How very meta.) I’m almost always thinking about the next thing I’m going to do. My work suffers from this, my walk with God does too, and certainly so do my relationships with other people. I don’t even go to the bathroom anymore without taking my phone. But those short tasks (brushing teeth, etc.) are great opportunities to practice mindfulness. I’m not wasting my mind when I think about brushing my teeth; I’m letting it be quiet and rest.

I know that focusing on whatever I’m presently doing is a habit of mind that comes from practice and prayer (another thing that’s hard to focus on), but there are adjustments I can make to get my life to be more conducive to focus, and one of them is to do fewer things. One reason why I was so eager to hit “reset” on my life by moving to Michigan is that I felt like I was doing many things and doing okay at them, but I wanted to do a few things really well (and joyfully). True, I’m doing fewer things than I was before, but I keep coming up with new things to make me busy so I can avoid focusing on important things. This appears masochistic when I really consider it.

My flexible work schedule is both a blessing and a curse. I’m so thankful I don’t have to be in my office 40 hours a week. But that doesn’t mean that those few hours when I’m teaching are the only hours I owe to my job. I know there are ways I can enjoy my flexibility while still working productively (e.g. checking email in a coffee shop, reading for class in a park, having online “office hours” for 1-2 hours on weekends). By spreading out my work this way and priming myself to enjoy it (and I really do enjoy most of the actual work), I can avoid that rush to get things done at the last minute and come to class better prepared.

I want to experience “flow,” that state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about, when I don’t feel like I need to look at my watch or daydream about what I’m going to eat later or obsessively replay conversations in my head. I want to enjoy Tuesday instead of wishing it were Friday. I want to enjoy February instead of wishing it were May. I don’t ever want people to hear in my voice or see in my eyes that I’ve stopped listening to them and started thinking about something else, because that feels really crappy. I want to do whatever I’m presently doing with no shame or dread about what I “should” be doing instead.

I want other people to see me as an integrated person, not necessarily a busy person. I want to stop treating busyness as a virtue. I want to model self-care for my students by having boundaries and letting them know I’m not always working, but I also want it to be evident to them that I respect them enough to prepare for class, reply thoughtfully to their emails, and really read their written work. I don’t want my default response to be “Oh, I forgot you asked me about that” or “What page are we on?” Being an absent-minded professor isn’t cute; it’s lazy (for me).

This year, I want to really learn to focus. I’m tired of making false starts on this. I want to write in December about how much more focused I became in 2019.

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writing for joy

My grandfather, John Vernon Stockslager (we called him Pappy), passed away last week. My uncle preached his funeral sermon on Monday, and he mentioned something I had almost forgotten about: Almost 20 years ago, when Pappy first got a computer, he created a series of comic strips about two birds named Tweets and Blu. Technically speaking, they’re simple and even a bit rough–he used the Draw program in Windows to create them–but they’re funny and big-hearted and short, just like Pappy. Also at the funeral, one of my cousins read aloud a poem that Pappy had written not long ago. (We had also read one of his poems at my grandmother’s funeral nine years ago.) At some point during the service, I was struck by the sudden realization that although it had always seemed normal to me that my grandfather, a retired electrician and farmer, drew cartoons and wrote poems for fun, it’s actually not that common for adults to do these things. Kids do these things, and then when they grow up and decide they’re not good enough to get paid to do them, they get embarrassed and stop. Pappy never stopped.

I see this same impulse to write for the pure joy of it in Pappy’s children and grandchildren, particularly in my own immediate family. The examples range from the short-lived family newspaper my sister headed up when we were kids–The Fine Five–to my brother’s songwriting to my dad’s extensive reviews he posts on Goodreads for every book he reads. I see it in my own blogging and fiction writing. None of us are getting paid to do these things. Maybe we could, if we worked harder at marketing ourselves or knew the right people. But while I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, I can say that I’m content with writing for a small audience of family, friends, and Facebook connections–and for the delight it brings me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m content with this, like when I see colleagues’ blogs and YouTube channels going viral or when I watch other people in my Facebook writers’ group (which I feel like a poser even belonging to) finding great success in self-publication through a combination of persistent marketing and real writing skill. I admire those people, and what I’m about to say is not, by any means, meant to fault them. But for me, I think it’s a useful discipline to be able to see the value in sharing my writing with the people who matter most to me, even if it reaches no further than that. That’s what Pappy did. I remember there was some talk of looking for a wider distribution channel for Tweets and Blu, but his family was always his favorite audience, whether for his comic strips, his poems, or his music, which I haven’t even mentioned in this post. (And he did get to play and sing in front of a wide range of audiences throughout his life.)

I’m not trying to make the worn-out, false argument that getting paid for doing something makes you love it less. But I do think there’s something to be said for writing–or drawing, or singing and playing–for nothing but joy. I’m thankful that Pappy taught me that.

a Christmas thought

This year, I thought a lot about people who had to spend Christmas alone, or far from home, or working, and that made me think about a scene from A Christmas Carol that hardly ever gets dramatized or remembered. The Ghost of Christmas Present, after having taken Scrooge to some of the bleakest places inside London, takes him to some of the loneliest places outside of it:

And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed, or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse rank grass. Down in the west the setting sun had left a streak of fiery red, which glared upon the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye, and frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.

“What place is this?” asked Scrooge.

“A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth,” returned the Spirit. “But they know me. See!”

A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song—it had been a very old song when he was a boy—and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.

The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade Scrooge hold his robe, and passing on above the moor, sped—whither? Not to sea? To sea. To Scrooge’s horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.

Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birds—born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water—rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.

But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.

Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea—on, on—until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.

–Charles Dickens, 1843

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.

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.