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Torn

Torn

Well, I have to say I’m rather torn about the plethora of information I have to make use of as I plan for class. I recently assigned students an investigative report, as part of a larger group of assignments that span the semester (a reflective piece on the topic they chose, with a number of initial sources, followed by an Annotated Bibliography, then the report, and now the argumentative paper). The report helps hammer home the need for careful, thoughtful, and correct reporting of factual information. This assignment also provides the opportunity for me to talk about how important the fourth estate is to our democracy, and also to talk about what can happen when that estate takes an extended lunch break in which multiple alcoholic beverages are consumed.

We talked about Watergate (and I used a great documentary, which resulted in stellar discussion after viewing) and we talked about the likelihood that it could happen again. Well, let’s rephrase. That it IS happening again.

My students were in pretty much 100% agreement that yep, Watergate will happen again. I was unsurprised. What I was surprised about was how very dark in that classroom it becomes when all the students are so engaged with something that their computers go to sleep. I’ve never seen this level of “not asleep” students.  If I were a republican, or associated with Trump, that would scare me a little. These kids are not having it.

But I’m torn about this. I don’t want my students to become jaded and think that this is indeed the norm. None of this is normal. It is not normal for people to chant “Lock her up” at rallies. It’s not normal for people to hold rallies for reelection within days of being sworn in. And it’s not normal for politicians to be willing to ignore foreign groups meddling in our elections. My students have told me, repeatedly, that this was the first election they were able to vote in. I apologize to each one of them when they say this, and assure them that at one time in our country’s history, politics was not such an unbelievable clown car.

I am so excited to have so much information to use to help teach my students about the importance of writing, truth telling, and the fourth estate. I am so incredibly sad to have so much information to use to do this. This is not what I want for my students, or for this country.

Poking Garbage

Poking Garbage

I’m continuing my reading and working with Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I’m finding it helpful for me, as a writer (how weird is it to apply that title to myself, even though that’s what I am, and have always been), but also I’m trying to see it through the lens that my students might use. I know that they struggle – as do I – in finding ways to make their writing work for them, and to make it do the things that they plan or envision. Where I think we differ is that I already trust the process, and know that if I keep doing what I’m doing, I’m going to get at least a reasonably decent bit of writing out of this exercise, eventually.  They don’t have the experience with writing that I do (obviously – that’s what school is for, after all), and my job is to (among other things) offer them opportunities to engage with the process, and develop that trust.

That’s a big part of what Goldberg is discussing when she talks about “composting,” because basically, you’re getting out there and working in the dirt, and not seeing any real improvement, you’re just poking around in the soil. That’s what composting is – it’s bringing air to garbage, bringing important bits together like a recipe, even if you don’t quite see how that’s going to be any good at all later.

Goldberg reminds us that this sort of work takes time, and she offers us a definition of that work as “composting” when she writes that our “senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this ‘composting’” (15).  Trying to write about something before it’s been fully composted is going to get you a bunch of…well, garbage. I tried to write about some life experiences that I knew were important, and that I knew could be useful to other people in my situation, and it was just flat. The words were “thrown-out egg shells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones” without the opportunity that I was able to give myself to think on the whole thing (15).

Obviously, it’s not possible to compost things for your writing only after the experience is done. Some things are things that don’t ever end – you can’t wait to write about them until you’ve navigated the entirety of the experience because that will never happen. The experience continues throughout your life, and at no point will you have time to compost it in its entirety – we do eventually run out the clock, after all. But we can compost the various bits of it, and I think that for me this is important to do. I’ve got to work on seeing My Story as discrete parts that make up the larger whole, but ultimately, it’s not ever going to be done, even when, according to the world, the laws, the people around me, it should no longer affect me. So I can’t compost the whole thing – I can’t save up all the bits forever. If I tried to do that, I’m afraid that I’d wind up hauling this garbage around with me forever, and part of my intention in actually telling My Story is to unload all these damn egg shells, coffee grounds, and smelly garbage.

Another important aspect of the concept of composting is that it answers a concern I have had myself, and have encountered in much of the academic discussion of personal writing: it’s just damn navel gazing, and what good comes of that in academic work? Goldberg addresses that nicely when she writes that her students who are clearly composting “are raking their minds and taking their shallow thinking and turning it over. If we continue to work with this raw matter, it will draw us deeper and deeper into our selves, but not in a neurotic way. We will begin to see the rich garden we have inside us and use that for writing” (16).  I see part of my job with my students to be introducing them to new tools they can use in their lives to help them navigate tough decisions, and to help them think in my complex, nuanced ways. Writing helps us to do that, and our first and best area of consideration (we can’t help it, as humans) is always ourselves. I have worried myself that the writing I have my students do is too fluffy for academic vigor, and that it’s not working the muscles they need to develop enough, but Goldberg has connected the dots here for me in a way that I had not considered previously.

Finally, I have to comment about the visual with this page. As you can imagine, if you Google image search for compost, you will get scads of pictures of piles of dirt. You’ll also gets lots of photos of dirt with hands either IN the dirt, or offering the dirt to the viewer. I had to scroll WAAAAAY too far down the page to find a set of brown hands. My privilege astounds me sometimes, and really pisses me off a lot.

Finally, a non-white hand. WTF? No brown people compost???
Finally, a non-white hand. WTF? No brown people compost???
In Which I Consider Truth and Deception as Pedagogy

In Which I Consider Truth and Deception as Pedagogy

 

So amidst the avalanche of end-of-semester emails I received this go-‘round (“my grandma’s cousin’s brother’s goldfish died tragically, and I couldn’t write my paper and I know that the semester is over, but I need an extension” – do these kids think that the bills never come due? Things can just be put off and put off without question?), I also received a link to a list of Magna Publishing’s top 15 teaching and learning articles.

There are so many great articles there (ahem, yes, fifteen, indeed, yes, I see that in the link), and I’m reflecting on two in particular right now – the first being the one about students lying (“Research Highlights How Easily and Readily Students Fabricate Excuses”) and the second being the one about mindfulness in the classroom (“Moving from Multitasking to Mindfulness”).

The general take away from the first one is that students lie – a lot – about their (in)ability to complete various tasks they are set for class, regardless of the weight those tasks carry. I have been considering this a bit recently, as I continue to develop my teacherly husk: that thick skin that allows teachers to look into the tear filled eyes of a (usually mediocre to poor) student pleading for more time, some flexibility, just a day or two more for that assignment because my mom/dad/grandma/grandpa/myself has become ill/died/suffered a mysterious ailment/unlucky or lucky event at which said student must be present to give support/weep/provide medication/give away the bride. I know this isn’t new – all teachers have stories of students who have sidesplittingly hysterical excuses, threadbare in detail or as intricately plotted as Sheldon’s Maggie McGarry alibi for Leonard (which failed, I might point out, due to Leonard’s own inability to continue the lie).

I have had students request extensions due to serving jail time (at which point they got bronchitis due to the a/c being too high), deaths of various and sundry grandparents (I myself dread the day my own grandson goes to college, because I am sure that will signal my impending demise as soon as he has an inconvenient due date), and of course the old standby of computer problems (regardless of the fact that all campuses are filthy with computers for student use).

Passing judgment on a student’s honesty is a real problem for me, because I recognize my own weakness in this area. I am very much an empath, and really do understand what’s going on with my students — both the honest issue – that they didn’t do the assignment and now want to avoid the consequences — as well as the student who legitimately has troubles that cannot be avoided merely by planning better. I get it – life happens, and this is just a writing class, just college, just something that they have paid to take part in. So I tend to be very forgiving with my students, and I always go into the semester with the intent to regularly wear my “bitch lips” even to the point of wearing uncomfortable shoes and tight panty hose to help me remember to be “mean.” This rarely works, partly because I try to treat others as I would want them to treat me (honestly, and as helpfully as possible) and also because I fear I’m somewhat of a pushover.

However, with this article’s rather depressing takeaway – that students lie regularly, frequently, and without compunction, I think I have develped a bit more of that teacherly carapace. The research done by the authors of the paper reveal that “fraudulent claim making was utilized by as many as 70% of American college students” and that this places the problem squarely on par with that of plagiarism (“Research Highlights”). I would be (a) lying myself and (b) crazy if I said that I didn’t know students were lying to me when they offered excuses. I recognized before reading this paper that the number of legit excuses I was offered was probably pretty small; however, I didn’t think it was this high.

I’m not questioning the research itself – I’m questioning whether or not I should tighten up my own approach, being less flexible, and engaging in more “no, because that’s the rule” type of dealings with students. That has always seemed to me the epitome of poor form – telling anyone (other than a toddler) that your response is predicated simply on an arbitrary rule seems…I don’t know, petty, I guess.

My own understanding and appreciation for pettiness changes, though, when I am looking at a list of page after page of papers to read that other students managed to create, revise (hopefully) and submit in a timely manner (yes, some so timely that they squeaked in with seconds to spare, but timely is timely). I am troubled by this as it pertains to me and my classes, and my own approach to pedagogy, and I am mindful even more of the learning opportunity this provides to my students – that is, learning that they can pull the wool over my eyes.

This is especially true when we consider the closing paragraph of the article in which the authors specifically address the students’ assurance that their lies will be accepted by the teacher: “the study described here found that individuals do engage in reporting claims in an attempt to deceive their instructor even when motivated by academic tasks with low academic consequences and, possibly more alarmingly, that many students possess great confidence in their abilities to “get away with” reporting fraudulent claims” (“Research Highlights”). If my students believe that they successfully floated a lie down my river with nary a cocked eyebrow from me, will this alter their approach towards their schoolwork in other classes? Will it make them bolder about their lies, and encourage them to move on to other, more damaging forms of dishonesty? Is the excuse that grandma fell and can’t get up just a gateway drug to the intoxication of plagiarism?

I have a Power Point I use at the start of the semester to review the high points of the syllabus and what’s expected, and the final slide says that I will trust and believe in them unless and until they give me reason not to. I think this slide may have to get the axe in this semester’s revision, and that makes me sad. To deal with my students from a framework of distrust seems like the wrong way to enter into the student/teacher dynamic.

This brings me to yet another portion of the article that seems to be underplayed, but that might be the most important part of the article: students say that they don’t believe that their own truth spoken to a teacher will have the result they want – an extension of time to complete a task (or, to put it more simply – an avoidance of the consequences of their actions). On the one hand, that troubles me greatly, that students don’t trust their teachers to work with them rather than to be hardasses about the arbitrary rules.

On the other hand, I return to the ultimate issue here – students wish to avoid unpleasant results of their own actions, and with each lie they tell and pass off, they learn that there are even less repercussions. That’s not what we want school to teach students at all. I vascilate, but I ultimately return to that – I have a responsibility to help students become better people, not just better writers, and that means holding them to what they agreed to do by signing up for class and not immediately dropping it when they read the syllabus.

And in keeping with the theme of my blog, I want to acknowledge the rhetorical choice I have made in choosing to write about this problem using terms eschewed by the original authors of the paper – for me, people (regardless of whether they are students) don’t “fabricate,” engage in “dishonesty,” or make “fraudulent claims.” There is the truth, and there’s a lie – perhaps I am being entirely too strict in my world view, but I don’t see the help in calling this anything other than what it is: a student lying to a teacher. Speaking words that didn’t happen, or that shade the situation to lead someone to believe something contrary to what they would if given all the facts – these are all pretty ways to say that a lie is being told. So yeah, that slide is coming out of my Power Point.

In Which I Consider Rhetoric, Rejuvenation, and Recharging

In Which I Consider Rhetoric, Rejuvenation, and Recharging

I know I am so incredibly lucky – I have so many things in my life that bring me joy: my puppies, my running, my work, my family (“joy” might be too strong a word there – let’s shoot more for “it’s complicated”). All those things, all kidding aside, do truly make me happy and recharge my batteries when they are low (but then again, some of them also drain my batteries sometimes, too, so…hmmm. Perhaps I should limit the asides I’m making here – I won’t ever get to the point).

Work is one of those things that brings both exhaustion and rejuvenation into my life. Working as an adjunct is one of those states of being that you can’t really understand until you actually do it, and for longer than a semester. First of all, it’s never certain. The length of a semester is all the job security I have, and 16 weeks isn’t a long time (it’s even shorter when it’s over the summer and magically turns into 8 weeks, but we are expected to convey in 8 weeks what normally takes 16). The little things become all the more trying as the semesters pile up: packing and unpacking my “office,” multiple times throughout the day, for instance. At first I thought of it as working from my car, but it’s not even that. I work from my rolly bag, and while it really is bigger on the inside, it’s only moderately so. The problem comes from the constant state of impermanence. It’s exhausting.

I was talking with some of the students at the community college where I work, and as I believe we won’t ever start to chip away at the more insidious aspects of our class system until we start talking about our incomes openly and without fear, I told them how much I made per semester. They were sufficiently horrified, and one student blurted out, “Good god, why do you do it?” Her tone and her face revealed not a small amount of her belief that I – and many other adjuncts – were certifiable, if not beyond hope.

I explained why I do it – and it really is as easy as “I love what I do,” even as much of a cop out as it sounds. Teaching scratches my advocacy and activism itch very nicely, it offers me (some) freedom of scheduling, and if I am smart and spend my money wisely (ahem, perhaps “save” is the better term here than “spend”), I can actually plan to take a whole summer off, even if it means no pay check. I hope that happens, actually, whether it’s this summer or a future summer, because I would love to see what I got written with that amount of time on my hands. I have a manuscript sitting patiently in my brain, but it’s hard to work on, and having a large amount of time that I would dedicate to it might be just the thing I needed. I could give to my manuscript, and recharge through my running (with Straxi and without).

But a big part of why I do love what I do is the interaction with students. My grandma taught elementary school, and she said that the children kept her young. I understand that better now, and find that my time in the classroom (usually) lights up the burned out bulbs that develop in my internal string of Christmas lights.

I have a class at Green University that is made up of nearly all engineering students. It’s the advanced section of the university writing class, considered Honors, and you don’t get in this section without having a little more going for you upstairs than the average student. These guys and girls are young, all very traditional uni students in the sense of age, privilege, and diversity (I have a couple of students who are Hindu, some girls, a couple of mixed race students, but most of them are white males). There is a row of conservative, truck driving, boot wearing, country music loving, conservative Young Republicans who don’t usually have much to say in our loud, almost-diverse-but-not-quite class, but they know they are outnumbered, and as such, they don’t say much. This is fine with me, because I’ve taught my share of conservative, white, wealthy students – including the one who very memorably told me that Obama was not American, but Kenyan, and he was serious, straight up, this was a fact to him, without doubt, and he didn’t question that belief for a second. I am happy to have a group who is young, energetic, and who don’t make me question the future of our culture quite so much.

I can forgive myself for catering to the more open minded of my students in this situation, I think. They are just so rare, to be honest, and when I run into them, they are usually loners. This is a pack, and it’s a sight to see: a feral pack of independent-minded, open minded, questioning students who toe the line only insomuch as they dance on it.

So this group of students give me as much – if not more – than I give them. I haven’t taught a bad class with them (yet), and that’s largely because they are so present, and so willing to work and think and speak their minds – my energies aren’t dedicated to trying to keelhaul words out from between their tightly clenched lips.

Today we discussed genre, and we read Kerry Dirk’s “Navigating Genres,” discussed it for a while, and then launched into one of the more fun exercises I have found for helping students think about why genre matters, how it functions, and all the various vagaries that exist around it. I have the students write a letter to an inanimate object – but not just any type of letter – it’s a love letter. We have to guess the object, and they can’t tell us what it is in the letter.

I wrote my letter to my running shoes. I always try to do the work with them that they are doing, when I can, and in this instance, I felt like it was important. These ARE engineering students, after all, and I couldn’t be certain any of them would know for sure exactly what a good love letter sounded like, much less be able to replicate one adequately that could also be read out loud in the classroom. They might not have blushed, but I was afraid I would.

I noticed one of the conservatives waving his right hand around as he talked to his buddies. “Inanimate objects, only,” I stressed again.

One of the really great students in the class, and one of the more socially awkward ones, volunteered to read his love letter. He stammered and struggled, but soldiered on. Another student, whose hair has never been free from oil all semester, guessed what inanimate object it was addressed to (Metal Gear Solid, I think, or another one of the first person shooters that has just come out), and the two high fived.

Letters to cars, trucks, and laptops were read, and no one was teased. No one was forced to read their letter, nor did I have to “make” anyone read theirs. They were all volunteers, even happy volunteers, and the work felt less like work and more like just plain fun. They charged my batteries for me again.