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Hassan Probably Had a Sand Maze

Hassan Probably Had a Sand Maze

I’m floored by how affected I am by listening to the newest installment of podcast brilliance (“S-Town“) by the folks who did “Serial.” I listened to “Serial” as I drove to and from a less than exciting semester of classes – I spent a lot of time driving that semester, I was somewhat unhappy about various things (not just work), and so I spent a lot of time attempting to soothe myself through the use of enormous amounts of junk food. “Serial” was a great distractor – I was less interested in stopping for donuts on the way home when I was able to listen to a new episode and see whether or not there was actually a pay phone in the entrance of that Best Buy or not.

But the compulsion I felt to find out more and more about the killing of Hae Min Lee is mere curiosity compared with the impossibility of putting down the tale of John B. McLemore and his incredibly precise rants, his brilliantly described disgust, and his kindness to others (or is it masochism? By the end, I wasn’t sure which it was, honestly). I know more about clocks now, I have been reminded of the young men I knew who sounded just like John (although stupid – always stupid, never brilliant like him), and I’m not sure what world I inhabit now. I am familiar with John’s world, in that I live in the South and I found John’s accent and cadence of speaking to be both insanely over the top but simultaneously familar, nostalgic and thus rather soothing. Even during his most epic rant, I felt I was on fairly familiar ground, but it was ground that felt familiar the way a dream feels familiar if you have it more than once – sort of ephemerally familiar if that makes any sense at all.

The gothic quality of this story is familiar to any of us who have grown up in the South, with a stereotypically southern upbringing. While I didn’t have an Uncle Jimmy to act as my hype man, we all have at least one slightly eccentric or somewhat damaged relative who can cause public outings to be a little awkward or embarrassing. I didn’t have an extended family myself, but I sure did adopt a family or two that wasn’t my own. And each of them had an Uncle Jimmy or a close facsimile thereto.

And truly, I felt about as Faulknerian as it is possible to feel (at least whilst also being sober) when I visited a family cemetery where numerous relatives were buried, as was my grandaddy’s right arm. Not all of him, mind, just his arm. I sent a picture of the headstone (armstone?) to my sister, who at the time happened to be visiting with one of our family’s adopted members – funny how that seems to be a thread among certain types of families. I wondered when Col. Sartoris was going to show up and beat me for being giddy in a graveyard.

S-Town is a live-action Flannery O’Connor tale, if she and Faulkner ever had a Frankensteinian love child. It’s haunting, and sad, and it’s so very human.

 

Fire Extinguisher

Fire Extinguisher

tumblr_o8xrcr0DaD1u8zsmfo1_400So part of my summer vacation was intended to be work on how I can best recharge my batteries during the semester. I do a very, very bad job of self-care, I think, and am in a constant state of forgetting that if I do not do at least the bare minimum of self-care daily, I am in actuality doing a detriment to not just me but my students. I have to remember the old “put the oxygen on yourself first” adage – I can’t do for others if I am not at my prime ability.

I realized at some point over the last few weeks that I had no idea as to what self-care actually meant. Does that mean doing what you feel like doing at a particular given time? Does it mean doing stuff that doesn’t necessarily seem “fun” but that you know needs to be done? That makes it sound less like a soul-recharging task and more like, well, a Pap smear or trip to the dentist.

So I turned to Dr. Googles and looked it up (exactly what I exhort my students, my father, my son, anyone who asks me to educate them on something without having done the bare minimum of work themselves to do). I was surprised to see that self-care is a little more specific and real than I had understood previously. Before I searched, when I heard the term “self-care,” I envisioned things like long days of video gaming, maybe a hot bath, reading…essentially all the things my Type A mind considers to be “goofing off.” But those things don’t necessarily replenish my batteries in the way that I am looking for. Yes, all those things are good for me, in moderation. When I video game, I am able to release some aggression, do some creative work, and leave my day-to-day world for a bit. When I read or soak in the tub, it’s another way for me to block the “real world” for a while, which I find very important and something that I need, rather than just like. The trouble comes if I do it too much, or with non-revitalizing mediums (spending too much time on Reddit is a real problem for me, and it’s not healthy in the slightest).

So that’s how I understood self-care:  essentially having cotton candy for dinner, you know? This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Here’s how Dr. Googles explained it at the top of the search:  “In health care, self care is any necessary human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated. Some place self care on a continuum with health care providers at the opposite end to self care.”  This was singularly unhelpful for me insofar as figuring out how exactly to do this self-care business for myself. What it did do for me was help me understand that this is a more substantive thing than just “goofing off.”

I found loads of helpful writing on self-care, including the frequent exhortations to get outside, into nature, around some green stuff, and to think about and reflect on the beauty around you. This is something that I do regularly when I run (unless I’m on the treadmill, and I really dislike running on the treadmill, honestly, but when it’s hot as Satan’s testicles outside, I don’t have much of a choice). I love spending time at Fisher Farm, with Straxi, running or walking, taking pictures, or just looking at how beautiful the world is. When I’m running in town, I’m overwhelmed frequently by how fortunate I am to live in a town that is as soothing and beautiful as Davidson is. I feel so terrible for people who are not surrounded by the beauty that I am so lucky to experience, and I include that in my gratitudes every time I consider them. Just the ability to look around and see thriving nature is a boon, and being able to go outside and interact with that beauty is a recharge for me. Those folks who can’t see that beauty because of poverty or other social/class factors are poor in ways that exceed financial ways, I think – even the wealthiest of the world who are unable to appreciate what they have are included in my understanding of poverty. Of course, that’s a completely different discussion, but financial poverty is a form of violence, imo.

I recognize that I have a great deal of privilege in being able to live where I live, do what I do, and exist the way that I exist. Whatever quirks my life has and that the world tosses at me (like a bouquet or a hand grenade), I am still so incredibly fortunate.

But I seem to have wandered a bit from my discussion of self-care. I ran across this Atlantic piece, “The Internet Wants to Help You Take Care of Yourself,” and was…well, stunned, honestly, at how succinctly the author has related my own experiences with thinking about and attempting self-care.

The author, Julie Beck, opens her article by describing the self-care tag on Tumblr as being similar to coming in from the rain and being offered a towel and umbrella when you didn’t realize you were drenched. I spent some time flipping through the posts (I have very little experience with Tumblr) and gasped when I ran across the one I have featured here – it captures my own struggle here with this concept really well.

The author shares a link (I have basically bookmarked the essay, the links in the essay, and have spent some time with all of it just as I am trying to write this) in which the user is guided through a checklist of things to think about when trying to establish why she might feel bad (“You Feel Like Shit”). For someone like me, without an active group of friends (okay, okay, without any friends) upon which to call when having a shit day, this is very similar to what I remember of sitting down with Courtney and saying, “Yeah, I am having a hard time.” It’s like the internet equivalent of a cup of coffee with a friend. This is alternately cool and depressing to me. I ran through the initial part of the flow chart and was reminded to take my meds as I was doing it (Thanks InternetFriend!).

Towards the end of the article, the author discusses whether or not we really are discussing this self-care concept more, or if it’s just a trick of the eye. She writes that she believes “that there’s a growing acknowledgement of the fact that there’s little about modern society that prioritizes, encourages, or facilitates caring for yourself or treating yourself well. It’s all, ‘Buy more things!’ ‘Work harder and at any hour of the day!’ ‘Click back and forth uselessly between the same five websites and call it leisure!’” This is where my own (mis)understanding of self-care comes in. Basically, I had conflated consumption and self-care.

Self-care is a task that is intended to make me stronger, better, more capable of finding and nurturing the me I need to become. Whether I need to become that me for the purpose of being of better service to others, or just to be of better service to myself, or a little of both is immaterial. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t all try to understand who our best selves are, and to make those best selves a reality (other than the obvious ones – it’s hard to do anything outside of survive when survival is a real question). I’m finding as I research this that self-care for women can have a political and activist aspect to it as well – we aren’t encouraged to care for ourselves at all. We are, actually, encouraged to do the very opposite:  to engulf ourselves in flame, use our self as tinder and fuel for a flame intended to benefit others.

Self-care is not multi tasking.

Self-care is a radical act for a woman, especially a woman of color.

Self-care is not accessible by everyone, regardless of what we might think.

Self-care is one of the most important things we can do for other people.

Self-care is the most important thing we can do for ourselves.

Self-care is made up of both large and small actions, and is not always comfortable.

Self-care is daily gratitude, daily affirmations, and specific goals that I can reach.

I am worth the time and effort that self-care takes. I am not kindling for someone else’s warmth.

In Which I am Not

In Which I am Not

briefcase

I’ve run across a pattern here in Goldberg’s book, or at least a pattern for me, one that resonates in me: owning whatever we want in our writing, and then freeing it (31). She expands on this in her chapter “We Are Not the Poem” in ways that ultimately don’t work for me (she applies the discussion to gaining too much recognition for a particular type of writing, and reading that work too often in public – problems I don’t have, and don’t ever anticipate having, to be honest), but where it does work for me is earlier, in her establishing, clarifying discussion of the issue:  “the problem is we think we exist” (34). We think that our words, once we get them down on paper/bits & bytes/whatever, that they are frozen and permanent. This isn’t the case, at all, and as writers we need to remember this (or learn it).

For instance, my first class as an undergraduate was a literature class, and it was one of the really, really basic ones – a good way to start, honestly, and as it dealt with such an array of writers (Langston Hughes and Shakespeare both were represented) it must have been a survey class. Amazing the things that stick in the brain, isn’t it? Anyway, in this class, we discussed “Battle Royal” (a part of the novel, “The Invisible Man”) and much as I would later be frustrated by wondering what exactly was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, I was frustrated mightily by the discussion of the briefcase Ellison’s protagonist receives.

The instructor was a graduate student, working on his thesis (I was SO IMPRESSED by this, that he would just so blithely toss this out, like it was nothing), and I always referred to him has “Mister,” even though he was miles younger than I was at the time. This didn’t feel strange in the least. But I asked him what the meaning for the briefcase was, pointing to a specific line describing the case, wanting more, and specifically wanting the “more” to be an absolute. He responded, “What do YOU think it means?”

This was not helpful to me at all, at the time, I thought. I understood in general terms that the meaning of the briefcase was mutable, and that the instructor wanted me to apply my own critical thinking skills to the reading and my new knowledge about Ralph Ellison and Ellison’s purposes in writing and come to some greater understanding of the briefcase as more than just a leather satchel. Yes, yes, yes, all fine and dandy, good, great, stellar. But what does it MEAN???

You would think that as a child I skipped to the end of a book and read the ending first, but I never did.

The words Ellison wrote in “Battle Royal” that confounded me so much were full of intention, purpose, and meaning, but they weren’t concrete at all. They changed, depending on who was reading them and what personal experiences the reader brought to the reading. That wasn’t what was important, though, and that’s not what is important in my writing either. What’s important is Goldberg’s description of the freeing nature of writing, and “that moment you can finally align how you feel inside with the words you write” (34). That moment is what was important for Ellison, I bet. His book, “Invisible Man,” is full of terrible metaphors for how life was for brown folks in his day, and what life was like as a young man trying to make his way in a horribly racist world. I bet there was some power for him in laying all those words down, describing how it was, but not making it so explicit that people were locked in to one reading. Goldberg says that that moment is key, because once you mesh your words and your feelings, “ “you are free because you are not fighting those things inside. You have accepted them, become one with them” (34). I don’t want to put words in Ellison’s mouth, or his pen, but I do like to imagine that even if he couldn’t be free from the situations that lead to his writing “Invisible Man,” he could at least feel some momentary power just through the articulation.

Goldberg says that there is no permanent truth that can be captured and held in a poem, and I believe her. We, as readers, change all the time, and she, as author, changes along with us, just like we do. The words stay the same, but the meanings they bring with them are constantly changing and shifting. I guess my question becomes whether or not that makes me more or less intimidated by the act of sitting to write?

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???
Giving Natalie Goldberg This Moment

Giving Natalie Goldberg This Moment

As Natalie Goldberg asked me to do in her chapter “Writing as a Practice,” I’m going to sit down right now and give her this moment. What’s running through me?

I’m alone in the house, with just two sleeping pets, and I’m surrounded by calm, and green, and music. I’m writing – a thing I didn’t expect to ever get to do, and haven’t done for myself, in a very long time. I get so caught up in worries about what I’m writing and doing and thinking – what would other people think if they could hear inside my head? I’ve worked for a very long time to shut those voices down (and that’s a large part of what led to my drinking – shutting the Peanut Gallery in my head up). I guess I could track my learning to be concerned with what other people thought about what I was doing to the influence of various people in my life, in the past, but does that really matter? I get caught up in the why, and the fixing of the problem sort of gets shuffled to the background while I try to understand why.

Sometimes we don’t get to understand why. Sometimes we just have to do, and go, and be, and let the why remain an asked question, but be comfortable with no answer, or no answer that we can hear (I believe we get answers more than we realize, but that frequently, they just are outside of our range of hearing).

Am I warmed up now? Am I excited to start? Do I believe I can? Let’s go see.

In Which I Consider Writing as a Practice

In Which I Consider Writing as a Practice

This is the practice school of writing.  Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run.  It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop. And you stop, hungry for the next time.

(from Writing Down the Bones)

Well, if this isn’t right on for me, I don’t know what is.  A little backstory here…

So I have no classes to teach over the summer – none. Nada. Nothing. Zip. Not by my choice, really, but just the way things worked out with my schools (my father, the alarmist, rang up my sister saying that the family had to be prepared to help me out since I had “lost my job.” Yeah, Dad, that’s not EXACTLY how adjuncting works, but that’s apparently how overreacting works, so it’s all good).

The up side to this is that we are ok financially for me to take off the summer. I have a list of things I want to do over the summer, largest of them being to write.  I have a story I need to tell, and it’s one that’s mine to tell, and no one else’s, and it’s important to me that I tell it, and I own it (I came to understand this after reading this amazing memoir:  Straight Pepper Diet, which I heard about on the Rich Roll podcast). But it’s hard work, writing about something painful, and that made you cry when it was going on, but it’s also good work. My arms and legs and back are sore from the work I did in the yard yesterday (work I did to avoid the work sitting in this damn chair, apparently), so it’s obvious that ALL work makes us hurt, but some types of pain are actually positive – they remind us that we are changing, growing, and effecting our world in some way. I made a mark on my yard, which is good and I can feel it in my body.

So I have this whooooooole long summer (that I realize, no, is not really that long, in the grand scheme of things, but on this side of things, it feels pretty long, especially when I think NO MORE PAYCHECKS), and the main, biggest things I want to do this summer are (1) train for the 10k in September (longest run I have done is a 5k) and (2) write/work on my story. So those are my two goals, and while I haven’t been out of school long (a week maybe?) I have noticed a tendency to do anything – and I mean ANYTHING – to avoid doing the two things I ostensibly WANT to do most of all, since I made them the point of the summer.  Here are the things I did yesterday to avoid writing:

  1. Organize my music on my phone
  2. Organize two cabinets in my kitchen
  3. Play my video game
  4. Take Straxi out
  5. Mow the back yard
  6. Weed the garden

Apparently the way to start writing is to do every possible chore in the world, twice. After you finish, THEN you can sit in front of the computer screen and put bit-pencil to byte-paper. I understand now why good writers have gone to such extremes to ensure that they have uninterrupted time in which to write:  we are really, really good at not writing, and we sure don’t need help from anybody else (I’m looking at you, Straxi) to distract us from our intended daily page count.

I’m thinking that this blog will be a great way for me to limber up before I start off on my “real” writing, because when I actually did write day before yesterday, I found that as I was finishing up, I was really starting to find my cadence.

So far what I’ve written on My Story is really pretty horrible, but it could just be that the material I am working with is really hard for me to work through. I think it’s important for me to do it, though, because it’s MINE, and I want to own it and understand it, inside and out, and also because I don’t want to forget it. It was horrible, but it’s MY horrible, and actually, not all of it was horrible.

So I hope to use this blog as an opportunity to stretch, sort of, before I start training on my story. After, when I have said my piece for the day, I will move to training my body and working on that 10k race. I can use it as a treat, sort of, for me and for Straxi.

My view as I try to work...
My view as I try to work…
I Resolve…

I Resolve…

In the process of filling out this reflection of the past year and planning for the coming year, I discovered a list of resolutions I made after my birthday this past year. I’m sort of surprised at how well I did in keeping up with them, although (as is fairly normal) I failed on a few. But this year part of my work is going to involve treating myself more nicely, and not allowing the demands/desires (perceived or stated) of others to beat out what I want.

Of course, this requires that I actually **know** what it is that I want. This is a challenge for me, as I have spent the entirety of my life pretty much existing to please other people.

As Roger Murtaugh famously said, “I’m too old for this shit.” And yeah, I’m thinking I’ve reached the age where if I don’t stop caring what other people think about my choices, I’m going to have a bad time.

So that’s one of my resolutions, essentially. I want to know what I want, and then I want to do it (if I can – yeah, I want to be Wonder Woman, but that’s NOT in the cards, obviously, and wings would be epic, but we have to stick with the laws of physics here).

As an aside about the pictures I’ve used in this post  – I am constantly amazed that my pop culture touchstones involve women who look so different from those of today. Wonder Woman, the bug woman, none of them seem to have the super-desirable thigh gap of today. But yet I still managed to develop such an unhealthy relationship with my body and with food. What gives?

So as a result of this thinking and planning, I’m going to take my running and training more seriously. I want to accomplish more this year, both physically and with my work, and neither of those things is going to happen if I’m playing Fallout 4.

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.

I Do Some Reclaiming

I Do Some Reclaiming

So I told my sister I was writing again, and gave her the address of the blog. She texted back and said, “What’s that?” Seeing as how my sister is definitely smart enough to know about the second part of the title, I figured she must be asking about the first: Rhetorica.

So I decided to dedicate a little bit of time – finally – to writing about this scary, sad, ultimately wonderful elephant in my room: rhetoric. I love writing, and I love reading, and I love thinking about how each of those activities are done, and what they bring to our lives, and…well, everything about them. So it was no real surprise when I went off to college (later in life, yes) and wound up (sort of by accident) in a program centered around rhetoric. I had never heard of rhetoric, other than when we talk about the rhetoric of politicians, and their lofty cries for us to “cut through the rhetoric and talk about the issues!” Well, rhetoric IS an issue, and it IS a legitimate field of study, not just a bunch of pontificating wind bags yelling about whatever social cause best raises votes for them.

When I say rhetoric, I’m thinking somewhat of those things and actions, but more I am thinking about why we write the way we do, and how we teach students to write the way we do, and what writing does for us as humans. I’m thinking about the reasons we put this word in front of that one, and what actions that brings about. It’s a study of the philosophy of communication, essentially (put very simply) and it’s an area that I came to late in life. Nonetheless, I love it.
In college, I wound up studying rhetoric sort of by accident. I attended school in an area where there were multiple colleges around, and since the school I was not attending offered an English program, the college I was attending did not. It did, however, offer a program in Rhetoric. Since I had already tried out the college WITH a lit program, I most certainly had no plans to return – that college and I had come to blows. I found, instead, a college that (oddly enough, given how much I hated the state I was living in) was home. It fed me intellectually, and I even made some friends. Suddenly realizing you are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing just what you should be doing is a really strange sensation when the rest of your life has been mired in questionable choices and even more questionable consequences.

But that’s where I met rhetoric – if I was going to study language and writing, it would have to be from the standpoint of rhetoric – the philosophy of writing, essentially – and not what I thought I wanted: literature. I wanted to learn how to parse a poem, how to pull apart the threads of Crime and Punishment and The Yellow Wallpaper. Instead, I stumbled into my real love: Women’s Studies. That’s where I wound up, and returned for my terminal degree in rhetoric later.
Rhetoric and women’s studies are a synergistic fit, if you will pardon my dip into business buzzwords. Women have typically been understood not to have had any place in speaking or in creating texts, and have systematically been placed in situations and given “choices” that keep them from speaking from a place of authority, or even speaking at all. So I began by studying those things – societal things – that prevent women from being taken seriously as speakers, creators and conveyors of knowledge, and instead focus on the thoughts and communications of men.

Of course, just like with so many other things we try to prevent people from doing, we can try to prevent all we want, but human nature being what it is, if someone wants something badly enough, it’s going to happen. Women, even while being constrained to the home, the parlor, the menial serving job (usually women of color), went on and created and spoke, even as they were limited in so many other ways. Those speaking women who ultimately were successful, though, gained that success by working within the bounds around them, and stretching them just enough to wiggle a bit but not enough to raise (many) alarms. Next thing you know, Nellie Bly is doing the Journalist’s Sidestep and then women are wearing pants and dogs and cats are living together.

So I developed somewhat of a love affair with not just rhetoric, but with Rhetorica. Rhetorica is the female embodiment of rhetoric, and it was Andrea Lunsford’s book I saw, constantly, in my head, as I tossed around names for the blog. Of course I knew I would pull out Reclaiming Rhetorica from my shelf and revisit it as I was working on various pieces for this blog. But as I thought about names, I couldn’t get the concept of Rhetorica out of my head. Rhetorica represents, in female form, the purposes and canon of rhetoric.

When Andrea Lunsford published her compilation of essays about women in rhetoric, Reclaiming Rhetorica, she pulled together writings by some of the big names in our field: Jacqueline Jones Royster, Jan Swearingen, Cheryl Glenn, all women writing about other women writers – important writers, not just to the study of rhetoric, but to the study of the country and our history. Ida B. Wells, Margery Kemp, Aspasia, Sojourner Truth are all included in the thinking and writing done for Reclaiming Rhetorica. Women writing about ignored and forgotten other women, doing something that classical rhetorical studies says doesn’t and didn’t happen.

We teach our students that women didn’t write, communicate, create, due to their standing in the world as the softer gender, but that’s a fallacy. We wrote, and we wrote a lot. We communicated, conveyed our thoughts and our fears, we taught and educated ourselves and each other. We didn’t limit ourselves to the standard, classical, masculine idea of communication and rhetoric, but instead we blurred the lines and definitions surrounding rhetoric, and we began to slip some spies behind the lines. But they weren’t bringing information back to us – they were digging in in the trenches, and taking information inside, sort of like Jeff Goldblum smuggling the virus into the aliens’ space ship in Independence Day.

I couldn’t shake the image of Rhetorica, holding her enormous sword, bound in her robes and barefoot, with horn blowing cherubs on each side of her, and I knew I would have to revisit this text. I sort of dreaded it and looked forward to it, honestly. I dreaded it because it was on my exam list when I studied for my terminal degree (a very apt name, I think, for this state and stage of education). But I also looked forward to it because I wanted to see if I could understand it better than I did the first few times I read it.

Because it was important to my Master’s thesis I wrote, I did spend a lot of time with it. But it was also important to the Ph.D. exams I sat, not once but twice, and failed both times.

Yeah, that was fun. Fun times for sure. Nobody was more shocked than I was when I bombed the exams the first time, but there had always been this knowledge in me that I wouldn’t finish school as I intended: with a Dr. before my name, on a train called Tenure, running along its own set of tracks. Nope, I knew that wouldn’t happen. Everyone around me acted like it was a given, I would move through all the requirements of school without problem, but I knew I was going to go to school until they told me I had to stop. I knew that it wouldn’t be “Please stop now, you’ve crossed the graduation stage, you can stop dissertating,” but instead it would be a “Please stop now, you’re out of mental quarters for the machine.” I knew when I went off to school that I wouldn’t be able to finish, but I was surprised that I managed as much as I did. But at the same time, when I sat the exams the first time, I didn’t expect to fail. How’s that for some cognitive dissonance? I didn’t expect to finish my Ph.D., but I was shocked when I didn’t pass my exams – that makes no sense. But there it is.

And don’t for one second think that I sabotaged myself – I tried as hard as I could, and worked as much and as hard as I could, with the tools and abilities that I had, but I was just in over my head.

I don’t really cry about it anymore, but I did for a while. When I got the call from my mentor asking me to come in to see her after I sat my exams the second time, I knew it was bad. I had, after all, failed once before, but that time I got an email from her, explaining what was to be done. So I waited all that long weekend – my mentor and the others on my committee had waited to let me know if I passed or failed until the very last day they had, which was a Friday. So we made arrangements to meet that Monday, and I lived through that long, long weekend, when I imagined all sorts of horror shows. Did I accidentally plagiarise? Was some of my work actually something I took from somehwere else and lazily didn’t mark it as such? I was horrified at this possibility, and it grew in size as I worried and fretted all that long, long weekend. I don’t think they did this on purpose – I never will be convinced to assign any malice to the women who sat on my committee. The fault lay in me and my own shortcomings, my own inabilities to want hard enough this thing that was ephemeral and that demonstrated itself through some letters after my name.

Ultimately these ladies were kind enough to let me revise my life plan to be a second Master’s degree in rhetoric and composition, and I wrote another thesis based on the one single set of exams I had passed: radical pedagogy. Again my love of activism and striving to right massive wrongs bailed me out, just as it had when I was so unhappy at Big Uni #1 and moved on to Small Uni #2 and transferred to study women’s studies. So I revised my exam (drastically) and turned it into a pretty spiffy thesis, and suddenly was graduating, a happy turn of events that grew from a sad failure.

I sat in front of Dr. Mentor’s desk, with Dr. SecondMentor beside her, both across from me, and was probably the least surprised person in the room when Dr. Mentor said, “Because you didn’t pass the exams, you’ll have to leave the program.” I actually was surprised, honestly, but not at what they said, but at how unsurprised I was. I knew this had been coming, but it never occurred to me that there was an official song and dance that had to be performed. Sort of like turn in a circle three times, say “I divorce thee” each time, then spit, and your marriage is dissolved. At one point, Dr. Mentor2 commended me for taking things so well – I don’t think either of them had ever recognized how fully I expected someone to pop out from behind a potted plant in the library and yell, “IMPOSTER!” I know that this sounds like I was suffering from a good dose of Imposter’s Syndrome, but I wasn’t. This wasn’t “I’m afraid I can’t do this,” but a knowledge. And it came and went in terms of strength – I knew after I had been in school a while that my Master’s (the first one) wouldn’t be a problem, so much, and when my graduation was put off because I hadn’t quite finished dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s on my thesis, I really DID have a crying jag and fit, one more suited probably to the later polite dis-invitation to study at Really Great Purple U, sitting at the desk of Dr. Mentor.

So it really stands to reason, I guess, that I chose a picture that’s on the cover of Reclaiming Rhetorica, to go with my love of running and of rhetoric, to be the central image of my blog. We’ve been through so much together, after all.