As the semester draws to a tumultuous close, I’m looking ahead longingly at the month-long break of winter vacation and thinking about how to spend it. Of course, it’s not really a vacation. There are still book reviews to write, submissions to be made, a syllabus to write, and a book chapter deadline to meet, among the various personal obligations that accumulate throughout the semester. But it is a vacation insofar as I get to spend a lot more time working on writing projects as opposed to classes (both as a student and as a teacher).
Thus, as I look ahead longingly, I’m thinking about what things I’m not doing now that I want to do then and what things I’m doing now that I don’t want to do then. The former includes decisions between academic essays versus nonacademic prose, short-form versus long-form, revisions versus new writing, etc. Ultimately it will come down to what projects I’m most motivated to work on at that time, but it’s still nice to speculate.
The latter question, though, that’s the one I’ve really been turning over in my head. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve had a lot of struggles with controlling the time I spend playing video games. I’ve tuned it way down since starting grad school. What helped was not playing as many “endless” games (MMOs, PVP-oriented games, ARPGs, etc.) and, to be honest, having a lot of my video game friends stop playing and leaving me with fewer people to play with. Plus, I can justify some of my playing since I write about video games occasionally, so that’s no longer an issue.
That means I’ve turned my sights to my other modes of procrastination, namely social media/networks. Reddit is already fading from my life on its own: the racism/sexism is just too much, unless you stay confined to tiny subreddits, but even then it’s become embarrassing to talk about the site with anyone else because of how bad most of it is. Twitter and this blog feel important, as they should, in theory, contribute to my persona as someone who writes and researches. They also don’t take up much of my time (as is obvious by my infrequent entries here). Neither does Instagram, which I just use for personal fun.
Facebook, though, Facebook can eat some time. It’s become way too easy for me to jump from Facebook to articles and videos and god knows what else. It’s also just way too easy for me to procrastinate by opening a chat window with a friend or family member. On one hand, this keeps me in touch with people better than I probably would on my own. On the other hand, it also has this kind of relationship equivalent to slacktivism, where these tiny bursts of communication stop me from sending out meaningful missives or having a real voice conversation with people.
So I’m thinking about deactivating my account for winter break, to turn off that source of procrastination. We’ll see what happens, where that goes. I would like to add a caveat though, that there is one function of Facebook that I just love. Debra Monroe, in her latest memoir My Unsentimental Education, has this great line about how in reality, people disappear from our lives, and that’s tricky to write about in memoirs because characters in books shouldn’t just disappear. Facebook has stopped some of those complete disappearances from happening, for me. Maybe it’s just a voyeuristic thrill, but I love the occasional reminders that people who were once important to me but have drifted away due to the movements of time and space are still out there, are still doing okay. It’s really satisfying and one of the reasons I would probably never consider a permanent separation with Facebook.
I still need to send more letters, though.
Jason Segel’s interview on WTF has been my favorite aural experience recently.
Lincoln Michel has a nice compilation of thoughts on getting published in lit mags over at Buzzfeed. Probably nothing new there for most people, but a nice centralized repository of concepts.
Speaking of procrastination, I got kind of fascinated with Graham’s Magazine recently. Someone buy me an original copy or three.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?