Embracing the unknown unknowns

March 15, 2011 § 17 Comments

Sometimes, when I am at my most panicky, Robert will take my hand and soothe me saying, “Baby, we can’t panic about the unknown unknowns. We don’t even know what they are!” He is the incredibly faithful optimist–and not naively so. No, my husband is an optimist in the very best way. He is logical and practical enough to know that plans fall through, hopes often give way to disappointment, and nothing is ever perfectly executed. But he still believes that the outcome will be worth the attempt.

This is where we differ.

I constantly tell him that I wish I could just see into the future, or better, have my future self a la Marty McFly zip over to me on a hoverboard and tell me what I need to do to ensure utter lifelong joy. What’s the fun in that? You might wonder. That’s a fair thing to wonder. My answer: I like knowing! (I think this comes as no surprise to anyone else who has ever met me even for a moment….)

I have racked up several blog entries at this point on just how very confused I am–indeed, there’s an entire category of them, which you are welcome to peruse. And if there’s anything that the entries in this category will show you, it is that I do not like the unknowns.

What am I going to do with myself after graduation? I dunno.

Will we have enough money for our big, grown-up expenses (like a new car, a house, a family)? I dunno.

How will I contribute to the so-called “combined income” of this household? I dunno.

How much will I contribute to the so-called “combined income” of this household? I dunno.

How long will be my full-time unpaid job be to search for salaried full-time jobs? I dunno.

How long will we go in this state of uncertainty? I dunno.

What state will we be in when we come out of the uncertainty? I dunno.

See, folks, these are the unknowns. These are the actual questions I can ask myself because I am aware that there will be answers for them at some point in the unknown future. But then, there are the unknown unknowns, the things that I don’t even know I don’t know. I can’t ask questions for these unknown unknowns because I don’t know enough about the unknowns in order to develop those questions in the first place (and then they wouldn’t be unknown unknowns, would they?).

This is what I struggle with: not knowing what I don’t know. I guess I can handle it if I know the question and not the answer. But to know that there is some mysterious other question I will be or should be asking myself and not to know the answer to that unknown question is terrifying.

And it’s in the midst of these anxiety-provoking thoughts that I remind myself: A.Hab., your life did not come with a roadmap…neither did anyone else’s!

All you other people who I admire and look to as examples of got-it-together-ness, I envy your ability to hold things together (or at least to hold together the appearance of holding it together) in the face of possessing absolutely no roadmap. How do you do it?

I’ll tell you how I attempted to do it this past weekend. When extended family members came up to me to ask me how my dissertation and degree were going, when I planned to graduate, and what I intended to do with my life, I tried very hard to smile (with my mouth and my eyes, thankyouverymuch Tyra Banks!), and say with pretended confidence, “I’m halfway through my dissertation, I will graduate on August 6th, and I think I’d like to give teaching a break for a while, go into editing or working with theaters in an educational function.” I must have convinced them because frequently, conversations would turn to, “Oh! How interesting!” And then we’d move on from there. I found no resistance, no judgment, no admonitions about what I waste I had made of my life. It was oddly…rewarding.

Look, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I just don’t. Some days I think I could probably not hate teaching. Then other days I remember that it’s not the classroom-time I don’t like. Then other days I think about all the options that are out there (maybe I should work in a library, or maybe I should tell people what’s wrong with their documents so they don’t embarrass themselves, or maybe I should find another way to tickle my educational urges). And there are so many more options than the ones I’ve rattled off here…I don’t know what the options are (unknown!), but I’m determined to find out. And any assistance to that end would be greatly appreciated, seriously.

Here’s what I’m getting at, though: maybe if I can just take a deep breath, stop fixating on the unknown unknowns (the poor residents of Japan on Thursday the 10th, for instance, did not know that they did not know that their lives would be in ruins on Friday the 11th), then maybe I can at least prepare myself for the eminent unknowns as best as is humanly possible while maintaining sanity. (And my deepest and sincerest condolences go out to those in Japan who were affected by Friday’s horror-storms that were the earthquake, aftershocks, resultant tsunamis and potential radiation exposure. You couldn’t have done anything to prepare, and I hope that you’ll forgive me the absolutely disproportionate example.)

So, I pose my question again to my readers: how do we break free from the cycle of fear-based living and instead embrace the unknown unknowns?

Cannot brain…too exhausted…

March 11, 2011 § 4 Comments

I feel like I’m going to pass out here any second. I’ve had a little bit of an emotional couple of days (much related to stress, unnecessary panic, excitement, and finally relief)…and now I’m left just tired.

So, here you go for your daily post from A.Hab.:

I am going to apply for the dissertation completion fellowship for this summer–this means that I would be fully funded by a “scholarship” so that I do not have to teach the semester I plan to graduate.

This is just generally good news, even if I am nervous as hell to apply for it. V is certain that we are well-qualified applicants. I literally cling to those words for encouragement and motivation to apply in the first place. I meant to send my materials to the committee before the end of the day today, but I don’t see that happening now. I’m unsure if I’ll be able to submit everything tomorrow either. It might be Sunday or Monday. Either way, the gist is this: I am applying. As much as it scares me to compete with other graduate students, I’m going to apply anyway.

Good night everyone. It’s way past time for ol’ A.Hab. to get herself to bed.

I don’t know about teaching, but I’m pretty good at being bossy

February 25, 2011 § 4 Comments

One of the traits I was always qualified as having when I was a young girl (ah, who am I kidding? This is a quality I’ve been described with even into my adulthood) is bossiness. When I was quite small, my parents thought perhaps I would be a lawyer or a teacher, the way I commanded my sister and our friends in play. Of course, I was often a bit mean about it…so I don’t know why teacher crossed their minds, but there you have it.

At any rate, I am still quite bossy, even today. Even as an adult, I like to tell people what to do and am satisfied when they go off to do what I so wisely commanded of them. So, here I am a teacher. And I tell people what to do, and they do it.

And I don’t enjoy it.

(Turns out that teaching isn’t just all telling people what to do. Who knew?)

Tonight Robert and I went up to his community college and saw their production of Tartuffe. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a religious hypocrite (Tartuffe) who swindles a guy out of house and home by his charming, smooth-talking ways. The students did an admirable job at the play, but it was severely cut (curtain rose at 7 p.m. and fell at 8 p.m.), and there were moments where I thought to myself:

Gee…if only they knew that that bit they just said was funny, they might have delivered it this way.

So, I’m left wondering this. If I don’t want to be a director and I don’t want to be a theater teacher, do you think I could have a job as the bossiest person in the auditorium, just telling people how to deliver their lines and why the jokes are funny?

What’s that job called?

(P.S. You might have noticed that this is an extremely late, extremely short post. I spent the entire day working on a draft of my introduction that I am e-mailing to my director tomorrow morning after a couple more edits. It’s crunch time; I’ll explain more later.)

Midterm Exam Thursday: my second-favorite day of the semester!

February 24, 2011 § 5 Comments

I don’t have much time for a blog update, but I couldn’t let my second-favorite day of the semester go by without any notice. So, just because I’m so pressed for time, here’s a quick rundown as to all the marvelous reasons that Midterm Exam Thursday deserves so much praise.

1. It breaks up my semester nicely.
No, seriously, it does. At this point, my students have written a ton of blogs, they’ve taken a few quizzes, they’ve written half of their papers (okay, one of two), and have officially taken half of their exams (okay, also one of two). Throughout all of February, my sights are trained on Midterm Exam Thursday. Just make it, just make it, just make it, I tell myself. Well, it’s here! The rest of the semester will fly by now! (This will either be a wonderful thing or a train wreck. Let’s be optimistic, though, shall we?)

2. I get a whole class period all to myself while the students sweat it out.
Sure it’s stupid boring to sit there and watch people take an exam. But if you come properly equipped either with a fantastic imagination or personal work, the time can fly by beautifully. Do not misapprehend my meaning–I am still very much mentally present in my classroom, looking up every few moments. I didn’t say that I get a lot of work done during the exams, but that never stops me from bringing it along anyway. Today, during the exam, I worked on compiling a master bibliography for the dissertation.

3. Because I stayed late on Tuesday to make my copies, I had no preparations to do before the 8 a.m. exam.
I always do this. I make sure that my exam is written, copied, stapled, and properly collated on my last on-campus day before the exam so that I don’t have to come in early or do any prep work whatsoever beforehand. This habit is particularly useful for 8 a.m. classes because our departmental copy room does not open up until 7:45 a.m., and there’s always a line (or the copier malfunctions on my most important copying days). Today, I strolled in at 7:30 a.m. and finished grading blogs. Easy-peasy.

4. When I stay a little bit later after the exam, I finish my grading immediately.
Know what’s easier to grade than essays? Exams. Because for much of the exam, a student’s answer is either right or wrong. There’s very little room for interpretation or bias when a student says the French Revolution took place in 1879 instead of 1789. Wrong is wrong. Quick, quick, quick. Sure, I have my short answer portion and my short essay portion, but even those can be graded more quickly than a paper because I don’t leave comments on exams. I figure interested students will ask me about it.

5. It’s second to the final exam day, which is my favorite day of the semester for many of the same reasons plus it’s the last day of work.
When we hit midterm, the glorious news is that the semester is halfway over and we’re almost to the final exam, which is my absolute favorite day of the semester. I get two and a half hours to myself to “work,” entirely interrupted, of course, because I’m constantly looking around for cheaters. And I always try to get exam grading completed as early as possible so that I don’t have to bring it home with me; that way, the day of the final exam really is the last day of work! It’s wonderful!

For the rest of the semester, our upcoming texts in order of assignment are:
“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Wilde
Anatol, Schnitzler
From the Deep Woods to Civilization, Eastman
Naomi, Tanizaki
Persepolis, Satrapi
Song for Night, Abani

I think they’ll enjoy the rest of the semester. And even if they don’t, I know I will because I’ve already read most everything on this list (okay, all but the Schnitzler), and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Although I’m probably the only one celebrating today, Happy Midterm Exam Thursday to you! 🙂

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And they ask me, “what are you so afraid of?”

February 16, 2011 § 17 Comments

This woman is braver than I am:
Pa. teacher strikes nerve with ‘lazy whiners’ blog

And so is this woman, who first shared the above article:
Dr. Amanda Morris of “American Puzzle

I have about five minutes to blog today because I have quite a lot of work on my plate, but I know this topic is worth weighing in on.

When I was younger, teaching to me was something out of a movie. I wanted to be Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society. So desperately. I wanted to inspire my students to read poetry from the tops of their lungs while they traipsed through the quad, completely oblivious to the (envious) open-mouthed stares they received from other students. I wanted to turn them into proud, beautiful, Bard-quoting, theater-loving, free-thinking nerds. I wanted to be that reference point they would always recall when reminiscing on the most influential forces of their lifetimes.

That was silly. It ignores the entire ending of the movie where Mr. Keating is canned for his creative methods. It truly was a fantasy; it was not reality.

Reality is much, much darker. Much, much scarier. To me anyway.

Some people are made of the stuff it takes to play the teaching game. Some people are not. Teachers are not the people who simply “can’t do.” No no. Never kid yourself into believing that teaching is easy-peasy, carefree glorified babysitting. Sure, sometimes it does feel like babysitting. But teaching is increasingly less about the time in the classroom and more about time outside of the classroom, particularly in terms of higher education. Teachers are researchers. They are writers. They are published authors. (Hopefully.) They are book reviewers. They are conference speakers. They are guest lecturers. They are committee bitches. (All of you know it’s true.) These qualifications that I’ve mentioned are just a smattering of the most common requirements for tenure-track faculty members…anywhere in the United States. This, not the classroom experience, but this is the life for which I’ve been trained these past six years.

The teacher featured in this article, Natalie Munroe, is thirty years old. I’ll be thirty years old in a matter of months. To me, this is topical, folks, in more ways than one. Munroe has been suspended (with pay, the lucky scamp) from her job teaching English at Central Bucks East High School in Feasterville, Pennsylvania. Although the only way I would teach a group of high schoolers would be if I were forcibly dragged there and held at gunpoint to educate, I can still relate to Munroe’s problem here.

You see, Munroe has on her hands a bunch of disengaged, disinterested, entitled, lazy students. And she is getting in trouble for calling them those things anonymously in public…on her blog. Apparently her students located her blog, identified the writer as their teacher, and presented the most scandalous entry (which has since been taken down) as evidence to their principal. (Although, let’s be honest here–it was probably the parents who encouraged their kids to raise a big stink.) I can relate to Munroe in ways that I wish I couldn’t–I have had the college version of her students. And they are horrible. They truly are. You want to know what is a nightmare to teach? A student who actually says to your face, “I am paying your salary, and you need to give me an A.” This is a direct quote from an angry student meeting in my office in Spring 2007. How do you teach that? If you have the magical answer, I beg you to tell me because after six years, I got nothing.

Do you know what it feels like to be scared of your employers and your clients every single day? Do you know what it means to wake up in the morning with a pit in your stomach so heavy that you can’t bring yourself to eat breakfast? Do you know how it destroys self-confidence to have to whisper to yourself before walking into work, “Take a deep breath. It’s okay”? Every day. I’m not talking about on those occasions when you have to talk to an irate client or make a presentation or beg for a raise. I’m talking about the daily grind. You’re just going about your normal routine, and you’re utterly petrified.

That’s my reality.

Why don’t I want to teach? Because I am afraid. My friends, these women, Munroe and Dr. Morris, are brave because they know they do no wrong when they exercise their freedom of speech, protect specific identities, and call attention to glaring problems in their work. I am a coward because I am shaking just writing this blog post. Have I been known to blast a student on my blog before? Absolutely. It’s happened more than once. Do I ever use names? Absolutely not. But my first inclination after reading Munroe’s story was to go through my entire blog history and delete every post (or at least password protect them) that even mentions displeasure in the classroom. I won’t do that. I’m more foolhardy than that.

But I am afraid.

For me, this raises a complicated question. One of her former students says that Munroe’s blog was within her rights to put up, but that she behaved in a way that was inappropriate for a teacher.

Here’s my question: if Munroe had broken a law, fine. Punish her. String her up. But just because she has behaved in a way that is out-of-line with the fantasy image people have of their educators? Is that a fireable offense? Really? (Granted, she hasn’t been fired yet…and her lawyer is prepared to help her fight back if she is fired.) At the very least, is it a punishable offense? She never directly alluded to her full name, her school, or her students. According to FERPA, that’s okay. As Dr. Morris points out, as long as there is no clause in her contract stating that she cannot talk about work on-line, then it seems Munroe has not broken any laws.

And believe me, friends, other professionals behave “inappropriately” too. You think your medical staff doesn’t laugh over crazy stories from work? Of course they do. Would it insult you to know that your favorite nurse told her friends about your hilarious diatribe when you awoke from surgery? Probably. But if she doesn’t say your name or give any details about the procedure, then would you recommend she be fired? (If you answered “yes,” then the reality is that you are over-sensitive. Professionals are also people who require a release valve, too. Just as customer service reps share horror stories of terrible complaints, those in the professional world also need to release a little steam.)

These people are not saints. And it’s sweet of the general public to imagine they are. Sweet…but delusional.

But nevertheless, I’m scared. When I know I have an angry student, for instance, I actually will sit in my office, visibly shivering (at least in my extremities) every time I hear the elevator bell ding outside my door. Just how angry is this student? Is this a student who will come to my office and sit and listen patiently while I explain, yet again, the difference between a B paper and a C paper? Will they come in and scream at me for an hour? Will they stand over me, using their height, musculature, and tonal inflection as threats until I relent and give them the grade they want? (These have all happened…more than once. The second one is the most common, or at least a mixture of the first and second.) Ding! the elevator cheerily announces another arrival. Or…is this the last straw? Have I angered the wrong student? Will this student come into my office with something else in mind? Will I go home tonight? (I was particularly frightened last semester when I held evening office hours that extended past the close of the main English department office…and subsequently past when most people were around to bear witness.)

“Grade complaint,” an e-mail subject line announces from one of my higher-ups; this time it’s the one in charge of world literature studies. Immediately, my blood pressure spikes…and then plummets. I am filled with dread. I want to curl up and fake death. Maybe it’ll go away if I don’t acknowledge it? Is my coordinator angry with me? Am I in trouble? What did this student claim about me? Will I lose my assistantship? I open the e-mail…and I read a simple message, “Please handle this.” Below my coordinator has pasted an angry student’s initial communication. I want to cry. I want to hit things. I want to run away. I am not the things this student claims I am. I am not stereotyping him based on his religion. I am not grading him based on a difference of opinion. I never refused to meet with him. I never even knew he wanted to meet in the first place. But I have to handle it because my coordinator has asked me to. So, I do. And I meet with the angry student. And he proceeds to scream at me for an hour…until I finally have a chance to calmly respond to him and in fifteen minutes he’s gone, muttering obscenities under his breath. Will he come back? Will he go over my head again? When will this fight be over?

I e-mail the Provost to gain some understanding in regards to the university’s attendance policy, after an e-mail has gone out to the entire student body seemingly giving them permission to skip classes. In polite, professional terms, I ask the Provost as much. He responds, CC’ing my dissertation director (who also happens to be one of the deans in my department’s college), my department head, and his secretary. His response is curt, “encouraging me” to take into account special circumstances when I consider my attendance policy. My blood runs cold. I feel like a child who’s in trouble with her parents. How did he know who my dissertation director was? (It doesn’t occur to me until two hours later that he’s CC’d her because she’s one of the deans, not because she’s associated with me in any particular way.) But am I in trouble for bothering the Provost with an apparently stupid question? What happens if I stick to my initial attendance policy and don’t make special allowances? Will I face consequences? Could this become a bigger issue if I fight this thing? Or should I just lay down, against my ethics, and go with it? I go with it. Because I’m scared.

Yesterday, I taught Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. As a white female teacher in the South, I do struggle to teach slave narratives. Not only do I have a great deal of white guilt (something that these days seems silly and just as inappropriate as racism), but I also never know what would cross lines and get me in trouble. As I rode the bus in to campus at 7 in the morning, it dawned on me: the institution of slavery and the subsequent slave revolts (both on the docket for discussion) were really just governed within the culture of fear. I introduced this concept to my students, explaining what it means to govern one’s subordinates by threatening them, wanting to maintain power over them because one is fearsome. We imagined what a “culture of fear” classroom would look like–what my “culture of fear” classroom would look like. And we laughed at how ridiculous a notion it was.

I do not want to imply that I feel as though I have been governed by a culture of fear. That is not it at all. I have never actually been threatened or verbally abused or anything similar to those lines. But I behave as though I have been. My fear comes from within…and it’s not going anywhere. Not even when I get e-mails like this one from yesterday evening: “Thank you for your input, I really appreciate that you are helping us out with our papers.” It’s sweet. It warmed my heart. I even smiled. But it did nothing to ease my fearfulness.

To any and all educators who are brave enough to be honest about the problem with students today: I support you and applaud you…from behind the screen. Please don’t tell anyone that I’m there.

(I categorized this post under “bullying” for a very specific reason. In many ways, educators are subtly bullied by their administration, their students’ parents, as well as their students. I don’t believe this should go unnoticed, but I don’t know what to do about it.)

From the Other Side of the Desk: I want you to succeed. No, really!

February 15, 2011 § 9 Comments

Part of what makes me question my career path is just to what extent I am invested in my students’ personal successes. I know we all want our students to do well. We teach them how to write a great thesis statement, how to compose a cogent, thought-out and argumentative paper, how to edit so that a rough draft transforms into a final draft worthy of our pride. We wouldn’t teach them these things if we didn’t want them to learn these things, if we didn’t want them to succeed at these things. If we truly wanted our students to fail, we would refuse to meet with them, refuse to look at any version of the paper at any stage, refuse to elaborate on an assignment past handing out the assignment sheet.

I have never known a single professor like that in my decade-long career as a student nor in my six-year-long career as a teacher. Even the hardest, most frightening professors held office hours and would be willing to meet with a weepy student to discuss her paper or report or exam. I know students who have exaggerated when recounting horror stories of stony-faced professors who engaged them in silent staring contests. And I don’t buy those stories for a second.

As a teacher, I want my students to succeed. I want to look back at the semester and discover with glee that my students all earned A’s in the class. Is this wishful thinking? Obviously. Is this dangerous thinking? Sadly, yes.

The danger in my desire to see every one of my students succeed lies in my capacity to care more for their personal success than they themselves care. Although theoretically it sounds like it ought to be the standard for all teachers, in reality it’s a detrimental practice. It leads teachers to spend their free time (what little of it they actually have) fretting over their students’ work–have they e-mailed me? are they going to meet the deadline? should I stop leading this particular student with questions and just give her the thesis statement I’m thinking about? (Obviously this last question stays in my head–I don’t ever give my students the answers.) This can lead the over-attentive teacher to feel stress on her students’ behalf regardless if they themselves are stressed. As an over-attentive teacher myself, this is extraordinarily distracting and detracting. I spend too much time helping them formulate their thoughts and then worrying about how well they will pull it off, and next thing I know my day has been spent answering e-mails rather than accomplishing my own goals.

Take one student I’ve been helping as an example.

She has come to my office twice with a rough introduction and thesis statement. Both times, I had to try to help parse meaning out of her jumbled thoughts. To say her word choice is imprecise is an understatement. Most of the time, I have no idea what she’s talking about. And then I discover that she got the words mixed up. (For instance, she used the word “inception” when she meant to use “deception.” This happens a lot.) In our meetings, I was mostly concerned with attempting to understand her opinionated argument for her thesis statement. She is an eloquent enough girl. In fact, I had no trouble understanding her meaning when she spoke about her paper. And then she left my office, after she took notes on our discussion, and set to work. And then e-mailed me. And I have no idea what she’s talking about. So, I said so…in kinder, more educational terms. Then she e-mailed me again. And I responded that I still had no idea what she was talking about. And then she e-mailed me again. And I could tell that she was getting frustrated, but her meaning was surprisingly still muddled. I finally helped her along (“delete this sentence, reword this portion, delete that entire section”) until she came up with a thesis statement just a few minutes ago that I think we’re both happy with. However, I encouraged her to see someone in the Writing Center so that she can have further assistance with her obvious word choice problems. (Again, I said this in a nicer, more educational way.) She assured me that she has been seeing the tutors of the Writing Center for the entirety of last week…and will see them again tomorrow.

I refrained, but I desperately wanted to respond, “You’ve had appointments for the past five days, and this is what you’ve come up with???”

I am worrying about this student. I am spending my evening thinking about her argument and imprecise word choice, wondering what on Earth she’ll present me on Thursday when she turns in her paper.

The worst part? I’m doing this twenty-eight times over.

I have colleagues, hell…I have a husband, who do not go through what I’m going through. And they all have more students to worry about than I have. Maybe it’s because they have more students than I have that they are somehow magically freed from the concern? Except, even when I have more students (like 60), I still do this. This is who I am. This is what I am like as a teacher, and it is torture.

But at the end of the day, I am tortured because I really really want to see my students do well.

I celebrate myself and sing myself

February 7, 2011 § 10 Comments

Tomorrow, we will be covering the first 25 sections of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” As I reread those sections tonight to lesson plan, I remembered a line that has never failed to evoke a tear from my eye, a prickle in my nose.

from Section 13

“My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck on my distant and day-long ramble,
They rise together, they slowly circle around.

I believe in those wing’d purposes,
And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing within me,
And consider green and violet and the tufted crown intentional,
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.”

The poet (the poet who is himself and herself and all of us all together) describes traipsing through the country, disturbing the country and the animals within it. He (I’m choosing a pronoun here) imagines those disturbed animals flying away, passing judgment on him (the bay mare in particular), but he does not (cannot?) pass judgment on them.

I love the line I emphasized here. This is the line that has always grabbed my heart and given a good tug. Here, the poet promises (and admonishes those who do not follow this advice) not to pass judgment on the tortoise when she is not a bird and full of fluttering colors. He goes so far as to say that he will not call her “unworthy.” “Unworthy” is such a loaded word, full of the most painful implications. “Unworthy” of what? Consideration? Life? A line in a poem? Being seen? Being appreciated? Being loved?

I am that (un)worthy tortoise. I see myself as that tortoise. I spend too much time telling myself that I am not worthy because I am not something else. (Better, thinner, stronger, prettier, kinder, smarter, funnier, more loving.) But what we are asked to do here is two-fold. First and most obviously, we should not pass judgment on something because it is not something else. (“Damn you, chair, I hate you because you are not a horse!” Ridiculous, yes?) The second is that we should not pass judgment on ourselves or each other because we are not something else. If we are tortoises, we will never be hares. If we are hares, we will never be dragons. If we are dragons, we will never be the sky. At the end of it all, we had better love and let love (or live, depending on your mood, of course), because otherwise we sure have wasted a precious lot of time.

So, here’s a promise, to Amanda from Amanda: I will not call you unworthy because you are not something else.

Whitman also reminds us in Section 20:

“I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.”

Isn’t it enough to just exist? It shines all new meaning on Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”), doesn’t it? Let us all alone to think and exist, and let us all alone to be content in that existence.

Also, before I go, I found an audio recording of Lucille Clifton reading Section 3 online, and I plan to share it with my students tomorrow morning. For those of you who might be intrigued by the prospect of this reading (and believe me, you really ought to be), then please follow the link, press play, and read along (Section 3 is reproduced on the website): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20277.

Another shorty

February 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

Here it is: I don’t feel well. 😦 I am currently fighting off a cold, but I am absolutely drained. Rather than break my week up into 2 pages a day, I decided to go ahead and finish my four pages for today and tomorrow so that I would still complete the ten for this week while giving myself an opportunity to rest tomorrow.

I hate that I am feeling so gross today. I think I am trying to fight off a head cold, and I am trying very hard not to let it develop into a sinus infection or bronchitis. But, I suppose, if it must, then at least I’ve finished my ten pages for the week. Particularly crummy with not feeling well is that it makes getting up at 5:50 a.m. that much more difficult. As someone who absolutely despises mornings (with a ferocity second only to Garfield), having to wake up before the sunrise while feeling ill is just not…encouraging.

Tomorrow’s class should be interesting, though. We’ll go over the paper assignment a little bit more (it’s due two weeks from tomorrow), and then we’ll discuss Pushkin and the formation of a Russian identity during a time of social upheaval. I think a lot of my students can relate to social upheaval and revolution, which…is a little surprising and disheartening to me. When I was learning about the French Revolution, for instance, I wasn’t drawn to make comments like, “Yeah, they had the right idea.” I thought the revolutionaries had gone too far and were really rather frightening. (I mean, the Parisian streets themselves bled!) Although I have truly enjoyed my class this semester, I do find myself struggling to get them to understand that this was not the kind of political tummy ache that America is currently experiencing. This was dangerous. People were being killed–by their government, by their neighbors.

We’ll see how tomorrow goes; we’ll be discussing the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 a little bit more.

That’s all I have energy for tonight, folks. My apologies for a lame entry. Hopefully I’ll feel well enough tomorrow to top this one. Otherwise, at least you’ve been warned enough to expect another weak entry.

Undoing the damage done: learning how to write outside of Academia

February 1, 2011 § 6 Comments

Fairly fresh to blogging in the beginning of December 2010, I came upon the blog of a bright, hilarious young mother who challenged me (well, not me personally) in ways I never before expected to be challenged. I happened upon this blog when I was just coming to grips with what it meant to own the words “I don’t want to teach anymore.” The blog that was featured was Tori Nelson’s “The Ramblings“, and especially the post “War of (BIG) Words / Battle of Smahrt.” What Tori did in this post was something remarkable. Without meaning to, she held a mirror up to my own speech and writing patterns. In fact, I found myself on the side of pretentious speech, attempting to win the so-called Battle of Smahrt. But, Tori so wisely concludes:

“Do not feel trapped by these word-twisting, outsmart-ing whackos because, in the end, whatever you say can be said one hundred different ways, most of them better. But you say what you say the way in which you say it…. small words and all.”

I think we might even be able to play with her quote here a little (and only do minor damage by mangling the meaning…hope you don’t mind, Tori), and we can even apply it to the word-twisting, outsmart-ing, whackos themselves. In short: You pretentious linguistic snobbish pig-dogs, stop hiding behind those massively inappropriate and unnecessary words. Your meaning is all the more clear, your message all the more endearing, when you appeal to the broader audience who, by the way, is not mentally incapable of translating your words. You simply look verbally foolish.

The “you” in the above paragraph really stands in for “Mrs. H.” You see, as a graduate student I learned how to write. The right way. I learned how to verbalize my rhetorical arguments with such vigor and force of vocabulary as to purposefully leave my adversaries’ heads a-swimming. I was trained to dominate linguistically. Professors expected judgment, so-called “rhetorical discernment,” wherein I would exercise my intelligence and deem this argument worthy or that one dreck. Scholarly writing, it was demonstrated to me, is a style devoid of humor and “plain speech.” Unless you have “made it” and are a tenure-track professor at a top-notch university and constantly published. Unless you, like Stephen Greenblatt, have a veritable nine rings of an entourage, the degrees of which determine how intelligent you perceive the individual yes-man to be. (Oh, and yes. I have seen Dr. Greenblatt, premier Shakespearean scholar extraordinaire, at a conference…which is to say I have seen the cloud of people surrounding him all jockeying for a better position within the entourage. Those physically closest to Dr. Greenblatt are his intellectual near-equals; those further out are mere sycophants.) Only if you are Stephen Greenblatt or someone of his ilk do you even conceive of breaking the rules of Good Academic Writing. A young Master’s student who chooses to emulate his easy-breezy, personal style in the introduction of her thesis may be told at her thesis defense that such a choice was “interesting.” And that is not a compliment. For example.

And here I am facing the reality that I might not want to be an academic when I grow up. I might not want to emulate Stephen Greenblatt or Lisa Jardine or Valerie Traub. Sure, I admire the mess out of them. But I do not want to be them when I grow up. (And, ladies and gentlemen, I am near-grown.)

So, where does this leave me?

This leaves me trying out a new voice. Writing with a different purpose, a different edge. Finding a new audience. Hell, enjoying writing at all. I gather great inspiration from Tori’s blog in entries like “I still write.” (Tori’s honest look at herself as a writer, in response to a sort of call-to-arms issued by Kathryn McCullough…mentioned below.) And, also by Tori, “Man Van & The Hip Husband Demographic,” which is a hysterical analysis of recent ad campaigns. Tori represents to me the writer that I could have been had my humorous, creative voice not been so sufficiently stifled. Of course, I am really kidding myself if I have the gall to claim that I was ever as humorous as she is…but who’s to say I might not have developed more in this direction than in the academic one? Tori inspires me to try new things. To loosen up. To play with words and laugh. To invite my readers to laugh with me. I don’t believe I have accomplished this yet, and I am not so arrogant to believe it will happen overnight. After all, it took six years to become the proper scholarly writer that I sort of am. But there is an obvious unease in my academic writing; it is clunky…like a child plodding around in her father’s loafers. Maybe it will be easier to shuck this writing style that drapes over me in an embarrassingly pretentious way.

And then there’s Kathryn McCullough’s blog “reinventing the event horizon (notes from the edge).” In her current life, she lives in Haiti with her partner Sara, and she writes beautifully descriptive and informative posts about Haiti’s current struggle to right itself (if it ever was before aright); one of her most moving posts was one that left me shaking in my boots: “An Event Horizon for Haiti? Baby Doc’s Mind-Bending Return From Exile.” In this post Kathy not only informs her readers of the frightening and tumultuous political upheaval poor Haiti is now enduring, but she also makes this specific, singular experience relevant to the rest of us. What I love about Kathy’s writing style is that she is the perfect example of someone who has been where I am now, too. In her past life, she was an instructor of college composition; and, in fact, our universities are in the same football conference. Kathy is the kind of woman who not only taught strong writing to college students, but she demonstrates it in her own blog. She does not write in the voice of the pretentious, over-educated, Ivory Tower elite. She writes in a way that is engaging and interesting…and isn’t that the purpose of writing? In fact, Kathy devotes some time in her blog to exploring what it is to be a writer; when Tori wrote the post “I still write,” she responded to the questions that Kathy asks at the close of her blog post “Fear and Trembling in the New Year: A Writer’s Confession.” Thank goodness for Tori’s blog because it also introduced me to Kathy’s–I was doubly-blessed this day to encounter both of these women’s writing styles. She follows up this post with another that explores how writers defeat themselves with what she terms the “Writing Neurotic”–the part of us that sabotages our work before we’ve even had the chance to begin. This post is titled “Confessions of a Desperate, Writing Neurotic.” To give an example of Kathy’s Writing Neurotic (and I hope you don’t mind my reposting, Kathy), she bravely shared with her readers a piece of her personal brainstorming:

“When I have tried to journal recently I’m always bothered by the notebook I’m writing in—I know that sounds crazy—and surely it’s a mere excuse—but I truly believe I should be keeping my entries in another format—

Perhaps, typing them on my computer—if the paper is lined, perhaps, it should be unlined—if it’s plain—perhaps, it should be graph paper. If I write in blue ink, probably, it should have been black or green or gray—any other color than the one I’m using.”

And so she continues, finding fault with nearly everything she is using as a tool for expressing her thoughts on paper or in digital format. Finally, she concludes,

“Most everything about writing feels wrong—doing it—not doing it—doing it in the morning, in the evening, in the afternoon—equally problematic.

[…]

But I try to tell myself it doesn’t matter. It’s better to get it wrong than not to have gotten it at all.”

The perfect conclusion to the conundrum. It is better to get it wrong than not to even try to get it at all. My father used to tell me, “You might fail if you try, but you will absolutely fail if you don’t try.” Also true.

What does all of this have with “undoing the damage done”? Well, you see, whether intentionally on the part of my graduate school professors or not, I learned that some writing styles are better than others. That if you write in a relaxed, easy, loose, humorous way, then you are simply not taking your work seriously. And, as my immature early-20-something brain took it the next step further, if you are not taking your work seriously, then you are not taking your intelligence seriously. Whether or not it was said, I heard, “You must wear your education on your sleeve. Demonstrate to everyone that you are smart, you are educated, you are a budding scholar.”

Well you know what? Nobody cares. When I went home for Thanksgiving and Christmas the years between 2004 and 2010, none of my family members were impressed that I could elucidate on the valorous wordplay of Marlowe over Middleton. They wanted to know if I was close to graduation. If I was dating anyone. How teaching was going.

The training I have received to be a master of Academese (our very own language, really, replete with buzz words like “agency” and “gender” and “sophistry”) has served me to excel in my program, to be sure. But I am not comfortable with this language. Although immersed in the culture, I do not speak with the effortlessness of an Academic Native to the Ivory Tower. I have a funny accent, slow vocabulary recall, imprecise word choice. When I return to my natural home, however, my speech is tinted with an exotic tinge that smacks of long-term exposure to Academia. I struggle to communicate with my family while I speak a disjointed version of Academlish–occasionally I manage to piece together a coherent sentence in plain English but too often Academese breaks through and distorts my meaning.

I do not believe that all Academics have this problem. In fact, I know of several off the top of my head who are fully capable in their bilingual expertise, flowing easily from English to Academese with little effort.

I do believe, however, that as an Academic-in-training who does not intend to pursue her scholarship, I must relearn the proper method of communicating outside of the Ivory Tower. Maybe then my thoughts will be taken all the more seriously and less like elitism.

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