Tag Archives: teaching

Wait, where am I?

28 Feb

Freshmen are precious little gifts from the academic g/God(s). While I empathize with (now more than ever) the individual challenges and personal issues each student has that I’m blissfully unaware of, I can’t help but find it funny — and maybe a little bit of offense — in the things that come out of their mouths.

I recently gave a lecture on Salvador Dalí to prepare the class for their evaluative essays on art, thinking that they would enjoy writing about pretty paintings and sculptures more than books (plus it forces them out into the community to actually look at local art). A student who’d been absent for the last two weeks looks at me and say, “I thought this was English class.” Confused, I looked around the room, and replied, “Wait, where am I?” Then gave my best really?! look and proceeded with my (Sur)really awesome lecture.

Puns!

Today has been one of the most difficult days of teaching so far, probably because everything seems to be culminating all at once in every aspect of my life.

Academically and professionally, I’m completing my thesis, still waiting to hear back from PhD programs (any day now!), preparing to organize and present at a conference next week, staring at stacks of 100+ student papers and annotated bibliographies to grade (which I’m constantly reminded of during each class when a student asks when they’ll get back the papers they turned in last class), and preparing to go to a huge national conference in two weeks which adds more work because now I need to figure out alternate assignments for the days I’ll be gone.

Romantically, (hah! I say that in jest, of course) there’s not much going on aside from realizing my selections keep getting more and more outlandish. I did, however, write a long, heart-wrenching letter to Red Ranger who I’ve loved for years, telling him exactly how I feel. He wrote an equally long letter that explored the philosophical underpinnings of romantic love vs. universal love. It’s probably the best written, most philosophical “it’s not you, it’s me” piece of bullshit I’ve ever come across.

Personally, and the impetus for my complete love of all of my students despite the nonsensical things they say, I found out last night that a long-time family friend committed suicide.

He was 20.

To write about it and see these letters come together to form that sentence is bearable, only because I’m not entirely sure it’s real. But to say it out loud destroyed me.

Teaching today was damn near impossible because in every one of their faces, I saw his face. He was a student. An RA. He sat in classes, made excuses for not having his work done in time, rushed home to finish the assignment before the extended deadline. He laughed at corny jokes made by desperate professors.

And as much as I wanted to be a hardass on them because they had annotated bibliographies due today and I knew a lot of them still weren’t following directions, I couldn’t. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s okay to be more human and forgiving in classes, because it really should be okay to be more human and forgiving in the “real world,” where second chances are given and we don’t have a set formula for how to deal with circumstance. All too often we take this prescriptivist approach to teaching or simply being citizens in this global community, rendering in “Situation 1, Action A correlates with Consequence B,” rather than taking into account the thousand, tiny multipliers to the human element.

I wanted to give each one of them a hug and tell them that they’re important, because they are — to me, to each other, to this entire experience of life. I wanted to tell them that even though I know very little about their lives, they’re all going to be okay. They’re allowed to make mistakes. They’re allowed to be hurt or disappointed. They’re allowed to be human.

What today reminded me is that while I have all of these extracurricular issues going on in my own life, I put my business face on and be the most helpful, cheerful, positive teacher I can be.

And so do so many of my students. I forget that sometimes.

So I hang onto their witty quips (“Look who decided to show up” when I’m exactly on time rather than ten minutes early due to a snowstorm), random statements of truth (“Snow makes me believe in the possibility of unicorns”), and grateful emails (when I am made aware of their circumstances and make arrangements to help them successfully complete the coursework) to tide me through and remind me of just how human they can be.

–AM.

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That, my friends, is what “failure” sounds like.

7 Nov

My office door faces the lobby of our departmental offices. I use the term “office” loosely, because it really serves as a glorified storage closet. I’m currently staring at two stacks of about 36 boxes holding 6,897 books from some program that happened who knows how long ago. Other “office” decor: antiquated binders, cassette tapes, an archive of anthologies, pillows, and a broken coffee maker.

My desk is ridiculously and unnecessarily huge. There’s also a “conference” table which is made of two square tables with a set of six uncomfortable, foldable chairs. Last year, I had the office to myself because I worked for a federally funded program that paid for the room, and due to sensitive information, I was justified to have it all to myself. Since the funding has been cut, I now share it with two other instructors (one of which is BFF). As I said before, I don’t like to share. We’ve pushed the “conference” table/s against the gigantic desk to form a “collaborative workspace,” or what I like to call it, MegaDesk.

It’s not so bad sharing an office, except I’m easily distracted and easily distractible, so whenever I’m in here with anyone else, I get absolutely nothing done. For example, I’m currently sharing the office with BFF who is grading. I’m listening to 30Rock on Netflix and writing this blog. I would be grading, but I keep getting distracted and wanting to tell BFF things, like making smartass comments about the paper I was grading (“Many individuals believe they’re capable of operating a vehicle after one or two drinks until their car is totaled or worse, dead.” To which I reply, “Car is dead?”)

There was also one time when BFF and I were sharing a room on a study abroad trip and we were supposed to be writing essays in our hotel rooms in Athens, but I was distracted taking pictures of myself with a scarf wrapped around my head making angry faces in complete silence, causing BFF and other roommates to laugh and pass judgment, blaming me for their inability to write a paper. In my defense, I didn’t invite them to play with me.

The Scantron machine is right outside the office door, and every so often, another professor has a shit ton of Scantron tests to grade, so my brilliance is interrupted by the sweet sound of this:

It’s not unlike the sound my grandmother’s shih tzu makes when you blow in his face.

It makes me want to vomit on the stack of papers I have sitting in front of me that I grade instead of shoving it through a machine to tell me how well my students are doing. Such is the strife of teaching writing.

My only way of maintaining any semblance of sanity during these Scantron tests is to play little games with myself where I mimic the sound the machine makes, communicating mutual failure. I then pass judgment on the anonymous students whose responses anger the machine. I cheer inside when I hear only a few blips. It’s like I’m taking part of their victory because for a few seconds, I don’t want to strangle myself with a phone cord.

But, naturally, there is ne’er a thing to say because of my lowly, delicate position. The office is cold, it’s crowded, it’s poorly lit, but I have an office and I have a job. That’s something to be grateful about.

I also get to keep the sound of my students’ failures to myself, so there’s that.

–AM.

Like a cheap whore on a busy avenue.

6 Nov

One of the most delightful experiences in being a new instructor is the joy of having your superior observe your class, taking notes and scrutinizing on a four-page rubric that decides how well you function as a teacher, how well your students react to you, how well planned your lessons for that day were, and how well you “fit” into their design of the curriculum that you have the distinct honor to regurgitate to (un)willing receptacles of knowledge.

I recently had this exact pleasure. One of the chairs (yes, one of the chairs) sent me an email about a month ago wanting to schedule observations. I know it’s a terrible, terrible habit, but I really have a hard time planning out an entire semester for a class I’ve never taught, let alone at an institution I’ve never taught at. I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to cover the necessary topics. I pretty much wing it.

So I was faced with this pressure to come up with something brilliant that usually comes to me as I’m teaching or the day before I teach weeks ahead so my superior can come and tell me I’m good or a gigantic ball of flaming suck. I found a pretty fantastic lesson plan that I managed to tie into the assignment I had to teach, so I prepared for hours the night before, making copies, practicing the discussion in my head, imagining the worst case scenario where the angry racist student throws a chair that breaks into tiny pieces while the guy who hates me for giving him a bad grade pulls out a weapon of some sort — likely his fists — and begins attacking, bonobo style, the students around him out of sheer frustration and rage.

The superior came in and said “Just pretend I’m not here. I want you to act completely natural, completely normal. It’s not like you’ll get axed if today doesn’t go well.”

Yeah, sure. No pressure or anything, but that was basically a “don’t fuck up or you’ll be homeless and jobless next semester because you suck big time and you’ll get to live in a cardboard box and go to the shelter for food donations and all your pretty clothes will be worthless because bums don’t care how you look but the bright side is you’ll probably either get super skinny because you can’t afford to eat or you’ll get pulled into some sex ring where you’ll sell yourself for a quick score and you can die a cold and lonely death.”

Good thing my lecture went AWESOME. Every student spoke, they had smart things to say, they didn’t get side tracked, and most importantly, I didn’t even get yelled at. About an hour after class, I received an email from the other chair saying the chair who observed my class was delighted and my handouts were awesome and would I like to teach again next semester?? (Yeah, two question marks.) I said yes, of course, because being homeless scares me and I really like using make up and soap.

But through this experience, and many, many other days teaching when I had a bit too much to drink the night before/earlier that morning, and even days being a graduate student and asked to sit and write a few hundred pages on the spot to get ready for the upcoming assignments makes me realize just how much teaching/graduate-studenting is like being an actor, always performing.

Or it’s like being a trained monkey. I’m not a trained monkey. I can’t write on command. Actually, it’d be pretty cool to train a monkey to write on command. I’m sure someone, somewhere has done that. I’m sure that monkey could replace the seat of about 78% of my students. But, like a trained monkey, being a graduate student is all about performance.

In the precarious situation I — and all the other graduate student teachers delicately straddling the lines between student and teacher — face on a daily basis is the constancy of being on display, knowing superiors are lurking outside your doors or sitting in the back of your classroom, eagerly gripping their #2 pencils and frantically scrawling notes on a legal pad, or judging every word you put in front of them through papers you hand in or your contributions to classroom discussion.

Like a cheap whore on a busy avenue, the whole town’s watchin’.

–AM.

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