Category: Academia

Teaching: Year Two

(This entry is brought to you by the fact that Tim O’Brien is going to read my short story and I’m freaking out and not writing and not writing and procrastinating and not writing and this is one of the products.)

The fall semester just concluded its fifth week of classes, meaning we are ~1/3 the way through already.  It’s kind of hard to believe; I’ve kept myself more busy than usual and time is flying.  Teaching feels a lot different this year, a lot easier, and so I’d like to take a moment to jot down some of my guesses as to why (although I am not entirely sure).

Repetition.  First of all, most obvious, repeating some of the things I taught last year means less work for me, because I don’t have to replan those lessons that went well.  Second, I’ve been given a chance to remove the lessons that didn’t go well.  Third, the stuff that I’ve kept from last year I’m able to anticipate a little better what is going to bring the most discussion, what is going to cause the most tripping.  As an example, last year we went to the library for a class on the basics of research, and it didn’t go very well because most of the class didn’t even know what their topics were yet.  This time, we spent a whole class on picking out a topic the day before the library, and I assigned them having a topic as homework, and that made our visit to the library much more focused.  Not perfect, but better.

Confidence.  I don’t just mean being in front of a room full of people – I think I got used to that fairly quickly.  I don’t mean confidence in being a voice of authority, or confidence in the material, which, again I felt I had last year.  Instead, I have a confidence in where we’re going as a class.  I can tell the students what I think they’re going to get out of the writing, I can tell them where I think they’ll have difficulties, and I can tell them what they’re going to wish they had taken notes on.

Building on confidence, I’m able to be a little bit more candid, a little bit more honest.  If your first year of teaching is all about faking it as you make it, then the second year, in my experience, is about dialing that back until you find a comfort zone.  This is stupid little things like “I don’t like teaching this part, but you’re going to be glad I did when you go to turn in a paper for x.  Let’s work through it together.”  I think a lot of people confuse being candid with being the students’ friend, which is a dangerous territory.  I can be up front with the process of teaching the class without losing my role as guide.

Not taking it personally.  Definitely my biggest problem last year (and something I’ve written about here before) was thinking that I did something wrong every time a student didn’t do their reading or missed class.  It took a while for me to remember that when I was 18, I missed a lot of classes and I didn’t do a lot of homework, and it rarely had anything to do with the professor.  You forget the varying levels of commitment that people come into a classroom with once it’s your job, I think.  Actually, being in graduate school and sitting next to people who are paying more attention to their phone than the seminar helped ground me.

Giving up some battles.  I’m definitely less stressed this year because I’m not worrying about cell phones and I’m not sending out as many reminder emails and I’m not picking up as many in-class assignments.  The person who did our training has a great mantra – “You should be doing less work than the students.”  That wasn’t true for me last year, but I’m working on it.

Part of my better feeling is just residuals from last year, e.g. seeing a student randomly in the wild who was excited to see me and tell me about his second year of college.

I get my first real batch of essays on Tuesday.  Let’s see how I feel after those are digested.

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Hey Hey! Ho Ho! These Cellular Phones Have Got to Go!

Every fall, the graduate students who have taught first-year composition help out with a little workshop for training the next wave of instructors.  The volunteer trainers give little mini-lessons to help ease past the deer-in-the-headlights stage.  Today, I think I decided what I want my topic to be, when my time comes to be a trainer.  I want to give a run down of the two biggest decisions I think you have to make as a teacher: How do you get your students to read? and What do you do about cellphones?

Reading:

As an instructor, you have to make a decision about how you are going to get students to do the reading.  Last semester I started it telling myself that if I was engaged enough in the lessons that the students would WANT to read.

HA!

There are a few students who might do this, some of the time, but overall this just isn’t going to be the case–if there’s no grade associated with an activity, they generally won’t do it.  So, both semesters, I’ve given a little speech where I explain to the students why them not doing the assigned reading is disrespectful.  Namely, that I plan lessons around the assumption that they’re doing the reading, and if they don’t then they’ve wasted my time planning and screwed up me attempting to do my job.  Last semester, when frustration set in, I started giving quizzes about every other reading to keep them honest, on top of the already assigned reading responses (maybe 1/4-1/3 of the readings had a reading response assigned).  I hated giving quizzes.  I didn’t think they were productive in teaching the students how to write, I didn’t like using class time on them, and it made me feel like an asshole.

My solution for this semester, which I like so far, is that I have half the class writing a reading response every single reading, AND I have 1-3 students giving a brief presentation to launch our discussions for readings.  The presentations break the ice and offer possible avenues to begin further conversation.  The reading responses means at least 1/3 of the class has really done the reading, every single time, and they can pull the weight for the lesson I have planned.  This is in opposition to last semester where there were days where NO ONE had done the reading.  So far, I like it better, but I’m going to bet my evaluations will suffer because of it.

Of course, the lesson for new teachers is to tell them to be realistic from the get go and realize that you need to incentivize reading or it just won’t happen.  That means they need to make hard decisions about how much reading they assign, how tied in to the lesson plans it’s going to be, and what they hope to accomplish by assigning it.

Cellphones:

Both semesters my syllabi have included a tag line that I don’t allow technology in the classroom.  There’s a good reason for it and one that I explained to both classes, and that’s that I’m easily distracted.  When I see a student on a cell phone, I start to wonder what I’m doing wrong to bore them or I start wondering how that student is doing in my class etc. etc. and I easily lose my train of thought.   However, both semesters I’ve eventually had my classroom inundated by cellphone usage (although I made it further this semester) and next semester I will not have a technology-free rule.  The reason is simple: I am not willing to kick a student out or severely punish them some other way because of cellphone usage, so I’m not going to be able to stop it.

Here’s what happens.  The first couple of weeks, a few students will sneak out their cellphone.  I’ll catch them, and ask them politely to put it away.  Then we get to the first group activity, and a group finishes early.  The phones come out, and again I ask them to consider the assignment in a different light and try to get them refocused.  Eventually, though I don’t say something because either I feel like I don’t have the right to ask them to be bored, or I don’t want to interrupt myself to ask them to put it away.  It’s all downhill from there, because I start doubting myself about whether I can say something the next time and still be consistent, etc., etc.

So, I’m giving up, and I’m not sure how much it will hurt.  This week, in one of my graduate seminars, one which has a similar no cellphone policy in the syllabus similar to my own, I sat next to an intelligent fellow student who was on their phone the entire class.  She is younger than me–maybe it’s a difference in how the brain works–but she was also able to participate in discussion, despite the fact that she was constantly shuffling her phone from inside her boot to the side of her leg to behind her book.  So this, combined with the fact that she was willing to ignore the instructor’s request of no cell phones in a graduate level class, pushed me into thinking that I’m wasting energy trying to fight it in my own class.

We’re also in an era when people fear boredom and free time.  I’m reminded of two podcasts: 1) “Technological Evolution” from The New Yorker Out Loud wherein the authors and editor discuss our relationship with technology as something that takes out annoying parts of our lives but might be replacing meaningful things along with those annoying parts and 2) The “American Football” episode from Radiolab which included a number of youth football coaches who blamed video games on the decline of young people interested in playing football, not because of time issues but because in video games you don’t lose, you just start over, and so no one is interested in losing in football.

In short, pulling out their phones is the easy thing.  It would take a significant punitive measure for me to change that.

I know this is stuff that’s already been hashed out and beat to death but I think as new teachers we have an instinct to try to do something different, to try to account for perceived failings in our teachers.  The truth is that there are some things that are the way they are for a good reason, and that we shouldn’t ever underestimate how much of the class is in the hands of the students.

Outside Content: 

I’m in love with podcasts lately, if you couldn’t tell already, and the Valentine’s Day episode of Death, Sex, and Money was pretty fantastic.

With regards to the latest inflammatory essay about MFA programs and the predictable bland responses, I’m going to have to side with Split Lip‘s tweet.

Finally, a question to the audience.  I have my presentation about narrative choice in video game stories coming up in the near future, but I’m already looking ahead to my next topic.  I’ve been kicking around doing something with performative art as a plot point in video games, thinking primarily of Final Fantasty VI (or III)‘s opera scene and the play from the Kentucky Route Zero extra content.   What examples can you think of?

On the Search for Sponsorship

The writing online community has been abuzz with this recent article from Salon wherein the author discusses how a lot of writers are able to write full-time primarily because they have an outside source of financial assistance, whether that be from their spouses or their families.  I love this article because I too have seen allusions to working hard and giving up other parts of your life is enough to make writing “just work.”  I do think being realistic about what it takes to make a living as a writer is something we could use more of, and I think it’s harmful when young writers compare themselves with others without fully seeing their situation.

The Salon article prompted a significant number of responses, both on social media and in other venues.  Two of the more interesting ones are over at Brevity.

The first, “A Word from My Sponsor” by Allison Williams (Brevity‘s social media editor) describes the author’s experiences with putting potential partners’ ability to financially support her at the top of her priorities in choosing.  The article is a little unclear if she knew she was going to need that support or if it was in case of a difficult stretch.  Unusual disclosure, but disclosure all the same, so I’m a fan.  I was also a huge fan of a comment in response, wherein a reader remembers an “entire story collection I was directed to read in my program contained not one main character with a job.”  Other comments discuss the guilt of not contributing equally financially in a relationship.

Brevity‘s managing editor then wrote a response to both pieces in which she generally agreed with the premise of disclosure but worried about the implied advice that writers should seek out partners who can financially support them.  Despite being against seeking out financial support, she does make the case for at least ensuring your partner is going to able and willing to contribute equally.  She cautions against sponsorship with strings and gives a success story of someone who is able to support themselves while writing.  She also points out that she has only heard of women being sponsored by men – all commenters to both Brevity pieces at the moment are women, as well.

I’ll be an exception.

There’s a lot of different factors coming into play here: gender roles/dynamics, society’s ideas/images of writers/artists, guilt over uneven relationships versus not being able to pay the bills (and even more broadly emotional health versus meeting basic/nonbasic needs).  It’s kind of weird that we’ve shifted to this mentality that hard work and the occasional corporate selling-out is enough; so many famous writers of history were sponsored or born into wealth (or maybe it’s not a shift at all, maybe public perception has always been at odds with the reality).  I’ve openly disclosed the fact that my wife makes significantly more money than I do.  We could get by if we both made my income, but our lives would be much, much different.  I’ve written about overcoming the guilt of our uneven financial arrangement: part 1, part 2.  Really, though, this question of finances touches way more than relationships.  From here we can jump to the whole paying/nonpaying publication deal, the current nonpermanent faculty explosion, the expectation that being a good writer means that you’re also good at: teaching, editing, fundraising, and so on.  It’s a tricky world out there to think about money and writing.

My two cents in the matter is that yes, we need more disclosure, because unrealistic expectations hurt everyone and only help a select few seem more sympathetic.  But I also don’t think we should spend much time or energy looking at what the ideal situation/relationship for a writer should be.  That doesn’t seem like a very useful discussion.  Beyond that, I don’t know.  Sometimes I feel guilty over publishing things I’m not paid for, because that perpetuates the practice.  Sometimes I’m thankful my MFA program makes me teach.  Sometimes I feel guilt over the summer writing programs I attended, and sometimes I feel guilt that I don’t feel like I can apply for them this year (this is like double guilt: I don’t feel like I can responsibly spend the money on them and I simultaneously don’t feel like I can responsibly apply for the financial aid to attend).  Sometimes I wonder what would happen if my wife woke up one day and decided she hated her current career path and wanted to switch to something less lucrative and with a long start up time, just like I did six years ago.

Outside content:

James Joyce was sponsored, but not by his wife.  Today would’ve been his 133rd birthday.  Here he is reading from Ulysses or from Finnegans Wake.

Today is also Groundhog’s Day, which means we should celebrate that crossover of Borges-ish fiction with Bill Murray deadpan: Groundhog’s Day.

Finally, check out an essay I wrote that was born out of a frustration with the perpetual division between so-called literary fiction and genre fiction: “How to Write Like George R. R. Martin

Cycle Beginnings

First rule of successful blogging is to write regularly, and definitely to never go four months without a post.

No matter how many first weeks of the semester I go through, they always make me kind of excited.  I’ve been addicted to fresh beginnings my whole life and being a perennial student and now an instructor gives me the opportunity to go through them twice a year.  I’ll have a mostly new batch of students, I’ll be in new classes with mostly new professors and a few new classmates.  I’ll have new shoes.

Drawing up my second semester’s syllabus, I thought about what I’d do differently.  Definitely thinking more pragmatic than I was six months ago.  For example, toward the end of last semester I felt lucky if even three or four students did the reading, so this semester I’m thinking about what I should do to raise that number.  I’ve decided to address it by having less readings overall, but more reading responses, and each student is going to present on one reading during the semester.  Another goal I have is to get my students to stand up at least once per classroom, even if I don’t have a reason for it besides to stand up and stretch.  I noticed that anything that wakes them up some like this really improved the participation last semester.

At Texas State, there are two semesters of freshman English.  The first is focused just on learning academic writing, but the second is focused on academic writing AND research.  I’m pretty excited about moving on to the second one, as I feel like it’ll give me more of an opportunity to craft prompts that allow students to explore things that they might not otherwise contemplate.  We’ll see what actually happens though.

My only serious New Year’s resolution was to read more women and more books in translation.

One upcoming thing I’d like to discuss: I’m presenting on choices in video game narratives at the national Pop Culture Association / American Culture Association conference in April.  I’m curious to here any input on meaningful choices in video games.  I’m focusing primarily on three types of changes: aesthetic (like Kentucky Route Zero), rhetorical (Spec Ops: The Line), and social (Fallout, Mass Effect).  Are there equivalents to these kind of choices in other media?  What choices were the most meaningful to you?

Outside content:  They show this video at the McDonald Observatory.  Pretty good for making me feel insignificant/significant.

Disappointees

I’ve been in enough workshops to not worry too hard about how my writing represents me… for the most part.  This Saturday I’m taking part in a different kind of workshop as part of the Rhetoric Society of America‘s conference’s Research Network.  Three of us graduate students have been in contact with a rhetoric scholar for the past couple of months, and we’ve already been through one round of critiques.  Last week, I submitted an updated draft based on some of their comments and we will be discussing those drafts in person at the conference.

And I can’t help feeling like I’m going to disappoint my group with my changes, mostly because I didn’t follow many of their suggestions.  Their comments were primarily urging me towards further entrenching the theoretical portions of the essay, and when I sit down to write more on it, that’s just not the part I’m interested in.  Which, ultimately, is a problem, given there’s not a whole lot of nonacademic venues for a piece that focuses on using Kenneth Burke for analysis.  FORTUNATELY, rhetoric has some really awesome publications that are not quite as worried about the theoretics as traditional journals – Harlot is primarily what I’m thinking of, although both the KB Journal and Kairos are also significantly different in tone and expectations than somewhere like Rhetoric Society Quarterly.  I love Harlot – the articles are so fun to read, but are also connected to the field in a meaningful way and illuminate something new with each piece.  I plan on working hard and trying to make my piece work for Harlot, but I’m not sure if I can get the tone right.  We’ll see.

Anyway, it’s hard not to feel bad about the whole thing.  On a small note, I want to impress these people.  The other students are PhD candidates, the professor is well-published and works for RSQ.  More importantly, though, the comments I got from the first round of drafts were super excited about the possibilities of my paper and all the directions it could go in, and they offered examples of things for me to read and such.  I did read them, but just wasn’t seeing it, and I know that’s okay.  I’m also fairly sure that they’ll see I’ve done some work on it and still be excited for what I’m doing with it and respect my decisions and all that jazz, but … guilt.

No small part of the guilt is me feeling like I should already have read most of the stuff they were suggesting for me to connect my piece to, and the fact that the pieces I did read lead to me feeling like I needed to read even more, and so on, and so forth.

Also, being on the internet makes me more interested in how a master recording is translated to vibrations on a needle which carve grooves into lacquer.  Bad for business.

Outside content:

Causation is not correlation.

Russia + Translation’s relationship status is “It’s Complicated.”

Austin is the only growing metro area that’s losing African Americans.

If We Talked about Architecture like Writing… (My favorite – “This particular building really surprised me. I mean, I designed it, and I approved it, and I oversaw the construction of it, but it still really surprised me. My buildings are always surprising me.”)

And, finally, a note to graduate programs about job training (that could also easily carry over to undergrad programs that train primarily for grad school instead of jobs).

Secondary Income, Continuation

I had a few conversations/emails about my last blog entry, which was unusual, so I’d like to expound on the subject a bit more.

In my last blog entry I discussed being our household’s secondary income.  I focused primarily on looking at what benefits our household gains by having me working primarily from home and with flexible hours.  I did this in the context of the occasional feelings of guilt I had experienced over being the secondary income, especially in the wake of the decision to spend three more years in graduate school pursuing an MFA.  Ultimately, by being aware of the benefits we gain and by being aware of what we value and want out of life, I’ve overcome that guilt for the most part.

Something I didn’t clarify, which I’d like to do, is that I’m not thinking about this in terms of gender norms.  When I say that I occasionally felt guilt about our disproportionate income, instead I meant guilt over not contributing equally to our finances as half of a 30ish-year-old couple.  It’s also a little more than that – there’s the guilt of knowing that if Carolina has any feelings about dissatisfaction with her particular job or a desire to go back to school, that she is obligated to place those feelings on hold (to a certain extent) for the seven years that will make up me finishing my BA and getting my MA and now MFA.  So, inequality over finances, inequality over opportunities and freedom.

Another thing that I didn’t really explore (but did mention) is the idea of transitioning from IT to academia, and more specifically transitioning from the expected salary path of IT versus academic work (especially in light of having had ~5 years of IT experience for the former and choosing to go through ~7 years of grad school for the latter).  This transition is something that I’ve more than accepted, though.  As I mentioned in the last post, happiness has a cost associated with it, and with that in mind, I’m well in the black.

I first went to undergrad at 16.  I wasn’t ready for it, I didn’t do well, I was dealing with other stuff in my life that stopped me from really taking advantage of my time there.  The same goes for my second and third years, at 18 and 19 respectively.  It wasn’t until I had grown up a little and went back to school that I was able to experience the joy that learning and being a part of a learning community can bring.  Growing up, I loved school, and it wasn’t until school became about things other than learning in upper middle and high school that I started having problems (for more on this, see “A Gifted Education”).

There’s a lot of factors at play, though.  I remember reading a discussion about the executive that quit his job and started the Cambodian Children’s Fund.  Someone in the discussion pointed out that if the guy really wanted to do the most good for the nonprofit, he could’ve stayed at his job as an executive and made more money with which to fund the organization’s efforts.  I see similar thoughts from people who want to pursue the most lucrative careers in order to retire early–essentially, people who view a job or a career as little more than a paycheck.  The truth, of course, is something a little bit deeper.  Journey, outweighing the end goal and all that.  There’s also an element of trying to live in the present, as we can’t account for the future.

In the end, I guess you could sum up this thought exercise with me having done a post-mortem analysis of my transition into academia as part of my decision to sign up for three more years of grad school, and I’ve found the pros vastly outweighing the cons.

Outside Reading/Further Thoughts: Last year when CNBC ignited a firestorm among angry bloggers by putting University Professor at the top of a clickbait slideshow entitled “The 10 Least Stressful Jobs for 2013,” (not directly linking as it’s got no substance) people were quick to point out how being expected to love your job came at a cost.  I won’t point out any specifics, but you should peruse some of them.  I guess I’m hurting the cause, in my case.  Doubly so, as I also write stuff that gets published without being paid for it.  That’s a discussion for later, as I haven’t entirely wrapped my head around how I feel about it.  Here’s an article that covers some of it, though.

 

Household’s Secondary Income

I’m approaching the 5th anniversary of a big turning point in my life, when I quit my job in the IT sector in order to return to college and finish my undergraduate degree in English.  Two years later, at age 26, I graduated from Southwestern University with a BA in English.  The year after, I worked in the IT department at SU, and the year after that I began the master’s program for Rhetoric and Composition at Texas State.  Now, in two and a half weeks, I’ll be graduating from that program, and I’ve made the commitment to continue on for three more years of grad school for an MFA.  It’s been quite the ride.

Dropping out of an IT career that was about as unsatisfying as it could get in order to pursue what I’ve wanted to do for most of my life (write, teach writing) has been a 100% positive experience.  Ask anyone who knows me; I’m  happier and healthier (on the complete psychosocialphysio spectrum) than at any other phase in my adult life.

That said, there has been one aspect of this transition that does occasionally pop up and induce tiny tremors of guilt and anxiety.  The transition from IT to grad school has also meant a transition from being a two income household to an effectively single income (cost of university and employment during university have roughly equaled out).  This is something my wife (Carolina) and I have talked about and are both comfortable with in theory, but in practice it was still pinching at me every now and then.  Recently, though, I’ve started thinking about it in different ways, and I think I’ve finally made peace with it, and I want to share some of that thought process.  Some of this might seem kind of obvious, and I would agree.  I know there are things that I was telling myself a while back but didn’t really sink in until lately.

Cash flow is more than a paycheck.  “Working” is a weird concept for me these days.  I work set hours in the Writing Center and in classes, but my other work (writing, submitting) comes in 2-4 hour blasts at different times in the day, at different points in the week (and, of course, this fluctuates heavily).  Then there’s the things that are borderline work: reading books, articles, and websites related to my research and writing topics.  Add this all together and you get a number of “working hours” that is probably close to the standard 45ish hours.  My hours, though, are flexible, and while other people in academia may disagree, I don’t get to the end of a day of work feeling exhausted like I have at past jobs (not counting days where class ends at 9:30pm and is followed by an hour commute home).  This leads me to being able to do things that save/make money that I would not be able to (or not want to) do in a traditional job.  A few examples:  I cook.  A lot.  Lately, I even make our granola (which doesn’t really save money, but it tastes better and is healthier/more ethical).  Cooking is a great pairing with writing, because your kitchen can be ten feet away from your workspace, and you can keep turning over your topic in your head while stirring a pot.  When Carolina and I were both working in IT, we ate out 2-3 lunches a week and 2-3 dinners a week, and a lot of that was a feeling of not having enough time.  (Big aside here – we still had free time, but the limitations of that free time [tiredness, limited daylight hours to get things done] pushed things like cooking off the priority list.)  Now, we eat out maybe twice a week, and we get to be very choosy about when and where we go, because we’re eating out for pleasure, not convenience (not to mention the long-term cost savings by being healthier).  Besides our food, there were other things we were outsourcing but no longer do, such as minor car repairs, lawn care, tax prep, etc., as well as things we’ve encountered since I’ve started that we might have outsourced under different circumstances (financial planning, minor home repairs).

Time is money and so is happiness.  Above, I limited the examples to things that save us money. Saving time and adding happiness to our lives are just as important and just as possible.  Anything I get done during the day while Carolina is at work is one less thing we have to spend our leisure/off/together time doing.  We don’t have to use our lunch hours to get oil changes.  We don’t have to (but we still do, sometimes, of course) fight the 5:30 crowd at the grocery on our way home from work.  We can cut back on how much of our weekends get dedicated to laundry and errands.  If we need someone to come to the house for a service, I don’t have to take a day off to be home for it.  Same for pick ups or drop offs at the airport.  Our dog gets walked more, probably a lot more, than she would otherwise.  It opens up a lot and makes us more flexible, and this isn’t even beginning to account for the amount of happiness that the career shift itself has given me.

Not all of this has to do with a career shift or even a career at all.  Part of it has just been getting in a mindset of thinking about (or altering how I think about) what I spend my time doing, what my time is worth, and what I’m achieving when I do something.  Part of it is being very cognizant about my values and how my day to day life is matching those values.  Part of it is seeing the people around me who are happy and the people around me who are unhappy and looking at what is shaping that.  As far as the whole financial aspect, a shout out to /r/personalfinance (smaller shout outs to the more hit-or-miss related subreddits of /r/financialindependence and /r/frugal) and related sites that got me thinking about this.  And, of course, I can’t end this without mentioning how awesome my wife is for being amazingly supportive and how important having communication is in a relationship.

Outside content:

I’m really curious to see how the movement to encourage opting out of standardized testing will go (FairTest, Seattle teachers, United Opt Out).  I purposefully failed the standardized test administered to me in 9th grade, primarily out of defiance, and while I’m not sure if the short-term losses of large groups opting out is worth the long-term benefits (I hope they are but am unsure), it’s an accomplishable idea in a larger discussion about education reform that’s primarily theoretical.

Another cool idea I’ll be watching is the organization Sponsor Change which is organizing sponsors to make payments on student loans in exchange for “volunteer” work.

Finally, Harper’s pointed out that a man is going to jail for 18 months for peeing on the Alamo.