Sunday, November 17, 2013

In Praise of The Instigator

Because Todd and I have already discussed next year’s 9x9x25 Challenge at length, I plan to use this space to accomplish a pair of long-percolating goals.  First, I shall curb my natural propensity for verbosity (staring now) and make this post exactly twenty-five sentences.  No, really, this makes three.  Drat; I had best get creative and conservative fast.  My second goal is to thank Todd for providing us with the carrot, the stick, and, yes, sometimes the whip, that is this project.  When he approached me with the idea over the summer I was flush with post-grading euphoria and a sudden surplus of free time.  It sounded like a great idea, in an abstract sort of way, and I readily agreed to participate.  The check didn’t come due until October, and by then (like most of you), I was staring at a full schedule and piles of work high enough to have their own ski lift.  Motivation was low.

Fortunately, my office is four doors down from The Instigator.  For those of you not lucky enough to exist in close proximity to Todd, it’s a bit like sharing a workspace with a cheerleader, an inventor, an optimist, a friendly IT guy, a happily misplaced John Muir, and The Cat in the Hat.  If this sounds like some sort of manic Hell, I cannot assure you it’s not.  Rather, Todd wanders the corridor of M building, poking his shaggy head in offices, dispensing each personality in just the right proportion.  Of course, the formula might not always feel right at the moment.   

When I’m three hours into grading essays, with another three soul-sucking hours to go, I’m not interested in hearing about Blackboard’s newest doodad, nor what cool things my apparently essay-less colleague has cooked up and put forth on the web for her ever-so-lucky students.  However, like some tech-savvy Johnny Appleseed, Todd knows that not every seed sown will bear fruit.  Instead, he relies on casual tenacity and repetition.  On Tuesday I am frightfully busy, but when he knocks on Thursday (and Todd is never afraid to knock), I’m sipping coffee and tossing around ideas for a new class.  When The Instigator walks in at that moment, he’s just what I need; in fact, he’s just what every good teacher needs. 

Though the life of an educator is rewarding, it can sometimes grow repetitious.  Each semester we teach students roughly the same material, using roughly the same techniques, in roughly the same spaces, and with roughly the same goal.  In this way we can fall into the role of an assembly worker at a large production plant, each day inserting part X into part Y2.  This is not our fault, nor necessarily a bad thing; we each delve deeply into our disciplines, and, over a few years, find effective methods of achieving our goals –after all, if it’s not broke, why fix it?  Nevertheless, we occasionally need someone to get us off our well-worn seats and make us tour the factory, to show us what happens at station X, to examine the finished product, to share what’s going on at the Dearborn plant.  This is what Todd does, and this is what 9x9x25 has achieved.  Perhaps that is why I’ve not felt some momentous change by participating in this project –with The Instigator around, I get to engage in it all the time.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Giving Thanks

Click on the Yavapai College homepage this week and the first image that pops up is this:

Yep, that’s my Hannah, and yes, this is going to be one of those “why I’m thankful to be a teacher posts.”  It’s Thanksgiving time.  Bear with me and I’ll try and keep it short.

Hannah and I started at YC together in the fall of 2009.  She was a wide-eyed freshman and I was a brand-new professor.  She was trying to jumpstart her life, and I was trying to jumpstart my career.  We didn’t know it at the time, but one day her march to pomp and circumstance, her well-earned cap and gown, would serve as supreme validation for us both.  Before we can appreciate her journey, though, we must first examine my own. 

Like most aspiring academics, I had entered graduate school with an eye on ivory towers.  I knew that I would someday be teaching (really, what else does one do with an advanced degree in English), but, as a student enrolled at a research institution, I assumed that such work would be ancillary to the more important pursuit of my discipline.  This mindset was shared by my classmates and encouraged by my professors.  Thus, when offered a Graduate Teaching Fellowship, I adopted the prevailing outlook and viewed it, not as a valuable learning opportunity, but as a meal ticket and tuition waiver.  I would attend class, and read, and study, and read, and write, and read some more, and teach on the side.  This was how it was done; this was the once and present way.
Indeed, my mentor called it a mandate.  Sitting in her dark and hallowed office, she looked at me and said, “Spend as little time teaching as possible.  Don’t dwell on their papers.  Your focus should be on your own classes and your own career.”  I considered this valuable guidance.  Obviously, it had worked for her; she had my dream job.  However, I would have been a fool to think that she wasn’t applying the same advice to herself.  As an associate professor at a research institution, her primary focus was not the two or three classes she taught but the articles and professional conferences that would bring prestige to the university and win her tenure.  Thus, she would only spend a little time teaching me and certainly wouldn’t dwell on my papers.  She wasn’t selfish, just invested -one more cog in a clock that’s been ticking since the 13th century.  I could read the time and knew what I had to do.

There was just one problem: I discovered I liked teaching.  After leaving a five-hour study session in the library, I was often bleary-eyed and resentful, but after teaching I was always energized and optimistic.  At first, this newfound passion was my dirty little secret, but in my teacher training program I found a few likeminded souls.  We gathered in the shadows to discuss pedagogy and scrawled out lesson plans on spare napkins.  One can endure a double life for only so long, and eventually I had to make a decision.  I could soon graduate with my MA and hopefully focus on teaching at a community college, or I could endure another three or four years of academic hazing, earn my PhD, and follow in my mentor’s footsteps.  Surrounded by brick and ivy, it was a difficult decision.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not) the deciding factor came from outside academia.  My wife’s career involved helping victims of abuse, especially children.  Though this job was emotionally challenging, she could never question whether or not it was socially valuable and important.  I was jealous of this assurance.  My teaching was not without meaning or relevance, but when I looked around the room, I did not see a vulnerable population.  Most of my students came from well-to-do families, with a number of safety nets, and even if I was Professor Keating in the classroom, my English 101 course would likely have little impact on whether or not they succeeded in life.  However, I was a first generation college student myself and had once attended a community college.  I well remembered that demographic and the challenges they faced.  My decision was made.

I was soon hired at Yavapai, willing and eager to teach and contribute to the social good.  Fortunately, validation was not long in coming.  As stated above, Hannah arrived at the same time.  She was a single mom with a troubled past, no child support, and plenty of people, including herself, telling her she couldn’t cut it in college.  And they were almost right.  That first semester there was late work, and tears, and forgotten weekends, but there was also intelligence and drive.  A busy university professor with writing to publish would likely have had little time for this student, but I was in a wonderful environment that encouraged teaching and supported making connections.  My office hours were for students and my primary purpose, really my sole raison d'ĂȘtre, was to help them succeed.  Hannah was my demo and Yavapai gave me a chance to make a social difference, the opportunity to help a young woman climb into the middle class and forever change her life and the life of her daughter.  I relished this chance and did the best I could to help.

Let me be clear though: Hannah did the work, Hannah suffered through the difficulties, and Hannah made the sacrifices.  She deserves the credit.  I was just lucky enough to have a job that helped make such dreams possible, and that’s certainly something to be thankful for.

Friday, November 1, 2013

What's the Point?

I have a confession to make: I hate the exclamation point.  This is, of course, an entirely inappropriate disclosure for an English professor, and I sincerely apologize for denigrating the archetype, but it’s true.  I dislike it for all the same reasons I love It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s rude, indiscreet, unsophisticated, and a bit pushy.  As Peter Griffin would say, “It insists upon itself.”  Or, to quote a more traditional literary figure:

And like all good bigots, I’m passing my intolerance on to young people.  Include an exclamation point in your English 101 essay and you’ll likely earn this comment in the margin: “Avoid exclamation points.  If the writing is strong, the reader will recognize the emphasis without being instructed.” Burn, right?  Call me a pedant if you like, but unless we’re in a Monty Python skit, we don’t go around shouting at one another in casual conversation, and so why should we do it in our writing?  A screamer-free piece of prose is a civilized piece of prose.  It exudes grace, speaks eloquently, and requests attention.  It does not simply hand everything to you, crying in its best subaltern voice:

Lookie here

but rather engages you in polite and meaningful conversation. 

Perhaps I’ve gone too far.

Regardless, the point I’m trying to make (emphatically as I can –if only there was some way that I could indicate how strongly I feel in a concise way, maybe even with a single mark. . .) is that I do not like exclamation points.  I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.

And yet, I use them.  I use them in a very specific way and for a very specific purpose.
If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know that I strongly encourage enthusiasm in the classroom.  After all, if I’m not excited and interested in the material, how can I expect my students to be?  Thus, when at the front of the room, I speak louder and with emphasis.  I move around.  I gesticulate.  I smile –all the opposites of Old Man Stein.  Enthusiasm is more than just good modeling though.  At its best, it’s charismatic and inspiring.  Do you remember Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter?

As his '80s predecessor first taught us, there are a number of khaki-clad Australian men happy to wrestle reptiles for a camera crew, but what earned Irwin worldwide fame was a level of boyish enthusiasm that was obvious and attractive.  He loved what he did and that love inspired others. 

I’m not entirely saying that we should all adopt this Trix Rabbit personae in the classroom, but if we can show excitement and energy to our students we are far more likely to garner their interest and engage them in the material.  In other words, know your stuff but don’t be afraid to be a fool for the subject.
That's all well and good in the classroom, but how do we accomplish this online?   One solution is simply to create videos, and I highly recommend this approach.  However, it’s not practical or even best practice to film everything, and so one must resort to, sigh, distasteful measures.  One must resort to exclamation points.  Though I loathe them in serious or professional prose, I use them dozens of times daily when interacting with online students, and it makes a difference.  Because I cannot be physically there to smile at them, welcome them into my space with body language, and create a comfortable atmosphere with my demeanor, I compose emails like this:

"Good morning, Sally.  I received your assignment this morning and can’t believe how much improvement you’ve shown!  Some work still needs to be done on the analysis portion, but you are headed in the right direction.  Keep it up!  Next week we will be looking more at punctuation, so feel free to get a jumpstart on that reading if you can.  Until then, good luck and have a great week!"

Those three exclamation points are more than I would use in three years in my personal writing, but here they do good work.  They convey positivity, congeniality, and encouragement. As human beings we often overanalyze written communications borne of a power differential: 

“Does my boss really think it’s okay that I come in late on Monday?”
“She seems to be excited for our date, but I really don’t know for sure.”

However, there is little chance of misinterpreting my example above.  The exact nature that makes exclamation points boorish in serious writing equips them perfectly for interacting with students online; they are overly clear and a bit Pollyanna-ish, and this pair of traits perfectly suits them for teaching.

If enthusiasm evinces happiness and interest in the classroom, then the roots of the exclamation point express how the excited little glyph accomplishes this in writing.  The best origin theory states that punctuation derives from the Latin exclamation of joy (io), written with the i above the o, and when the mark first appeared in English printing in the 15th century, it was known as the “note of admiration.”  Though some serious students may find my liberal use of the punctuation a little over-the-top, I’m happy to err on the side of joy and admiration, and I think that's something worth shouting about!