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.

From the Other Side of the Desk: Obtaining textbooks

January 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

“Mrs. H!” a student hollered over the general din as students packed up after dismissal. “What about our Pushkin reading for Tuesday?”

“What about it?” I responded, my voice not quite as loud as hers because it carried greater authority and made students quiet down.

“Well,” she said, embarrassed by the sudden quiet, “I can’t find the book. Do you think you’ll upload it to Blackboard for us?”

I sighed, annoyed. Yes, I allowed my students to see that I was annoyed, but it was clear that I was not annoyed at her…just the simple situation. I ultimately decided that, yes, I would upload the Tuesday Pushkin poems.

After I did the job, my fourth uploaded reading assignment at this point, by the way, I made a decision. Strange as it might be, considering they are still struggling to obtain the required book and will need it for Thursday as well, I decided that the upload for Tuesday’s reading will be the last one I do. I sent my students an e-mail letting them know it was available…and that it was the last one they can expect from me. I reminded them that it is their responsibility to obtain all of their textbooks on their own. If the bookstore does not have it in stock, then they must themselves make arrangements–borrow the text from a classmate, order it through the bookstore, order it online, check the library’s holdings. It dawned on me that what was originally a gesture of good will had so quickly devolved into coddling.

I’m not a coddler when it comes to my students. I want them to take responsibility for themselves; I want them to struggle to find sources, and then feel triumphant when they finally do. I want them to fret over delivery deadlines versus homework deadlines. These are part of growing up. My book list has been available to view from the university bookstore website since November. The snow did not incapacitate the southeast (and, incidentally, our main delivery hub) until January. My students had plenty of time to acquire the books on their own without my assistance.

This is why I was so hesitant in the beginning to upload the first reading. I worried that I would succumb to their pouty little faces and their needs…and be drawn to upload absolutely everything. But our delivery hub has thawed out, and the snow has melted. I am no longer interested in helping them figure this one out.

So, what do you all think? Am I being too hard on them? How would you handle (or have you handled) a similar situation?

If you could feel a question mark, this would be it: good teaching days

January 27, 2011 § 5 Comments

Today I had an incredible day. Class was amazing. My students were engaged, alert, talkative. I went in and explained my agenda (as I always do), and then said to them, “So, I was reading your blogs and I noticed a common theme…so I wanted to turn today’s class over to you.” And boy did they deliver.

Days like today leave me feeling like a confused Sim. Instead of a giant green diamond hovering dangerously over my fragile cranium, I’m shaded by a massive gray blunt question mark. Although the sharp diamond, if dislodged, would crack my skull and finish me in mere seconds, the edgeless question mark would cause severe trauma if it came crashing down. At the least, I would suffer a concussion. At the worst, I would be left to live with the recollection that I was beaten down by my own confusion…and that it still exists.

Here’s the trouble, friends: I don’t want to be a college professor. I know this to be true. I don’t like writing, I don’t like the idea of publishing or perishing, I don’t like the political nonsense that is guaranteed in any department. Although I’m competitive, my competitiveness seems to begin and end with myself–I mean, I compete only against my own accomplishments. If I made a low grade on the first paper, I would compete with myself to improve upon my grade for the second paper. I couldn’t care any less about the grades of my classmates. Class standings meant nothing to me in high school–I can’t even remember what my class rank was when I graduated. I know it was high enough to allow me to graduate with honors, but I only cared about that because in a class of over 600, it gave me the opportunity to graduate before the average students with last names that started with an A. I was a W. This was significant mostly for my family’s sake–nothing’s worse than alphabetized graduation when you’re waiting on a W to graduate. In college, I didn’t compete with my peers, not really. I didn’t care how they did on an exam. If someone performed better than I did on an exam, I buddied up with them to help me study for the following exam. I wasn’t trying to reduce their score. In graduate school, I cared even less about my fellow classmates’ grades. (Well, and to be fair, in English graduate programs, grades mean very little. As long as you are performing above a C, then you’re fine.) The only time I showed any flare of competitiveness to a classmate was when she attempted to poach my topic for a seminar paper. She actually invited me to reconsider the topic and graciously offered me “to tell [her] if [I] didn’t think [I] could do the topic justice.” Bah. That paper was one of my favorites I’ve ever written, and it also ended up going to a conference presentation.

Other than that, though, I am not motivated by competition among my peers. I can see this as a potential drawback in the academic world. Oh sure, your college professors probably (for the most part) exhibit a standard of professional collegiality at the undergraduate level that would leave you with the impression that the department is one big happy, respectful family. That’s their job. Of course, when you get to graduate school…that’s when the claws come out. As a graduate student, I did not expect this sort of shift in the rosy presentation of academic life. There were really no warnings to speak of. Sure, everyone sort of dissed on this one creepy journalism teacher, but he was a creepy journalism teacher. (No, I’m serious. I didn’t like going to his office alone and would often ask one of my male friends to accompany me and wait out in the hall if I had to go to a meeting with him.) He was a creepo. But I just figured that the other professors generally disliked him because he was just a creepo. Maybe there was more below the surface. When there was a shift in the department head position at my undergrad, it didn’t feel like the coup d’etat that it felt like when my department in graduate school did.

With that impression of the gritty underbelly of academia fresh in your minds, you must be asking yourselves, “Well, if that’s really what it’s like and you’re so committed against it, then where’s the confusion?”

Thanks for asking. It’s brought me back around to my point.

Today was an amazing class. We discussed cross-dressing, social standards, sex(uality) and identity, gender. These are among the buzz words used in my dissertation, so of course I was flying high. My whiteboard looked like a frenzied mess. Something akin to an English version of Russel Crowe’s windows in A Beautiful Mind. My insides were trembling with excitement. I was at my peak! Here I was, an expert in this specific field, making my expertise matter! For God’s sake, I was finally doing IT!

“So…what’s the confusion?”

Yeah. Well, I want to feel THAT all the time. But I know I won’t because that’s not real life. Today is the last day of our eighteenth century texts (and, really, socially speaking the eighteenth century shares so much in common with the seventeenth century). Next week, we move quickly on to the nineteenth century. And I will no longer be an expert. Sure, I may have another fully-engaged, attentive, alert, and excited class session. I expect to. But I won’t be The Expert that I’ve truly enjoyed being these past two weeks.

How is it that I can enjoy THAT so very very much and despise the other so very very much? I’ve said to many friends and colleagues over these past few months that my ideal job would be one in which I could teach the cool things I learn about cool books but in which I would not have to grade or evaluate my students’ performance, or compete against colleagues, or be forced to publish my research.

I fear that that job does not exist. And this leaves me confused.

Anyone hiring a seventeenth-century expert to come and talk about the cool things about that period? Anyone?

The Would-Be Invalid: a farce of pharmaceutical proportions

January 19, 2011 § 3 Comments

Before I begin this post, I want to remind you that you were previously warned this would happen.

Right now, the only thing on my mind is Molière’s The Would-Be Invalid. This is the text we’re reading this week for World Lit. II, and I have never read it before; naturally, I’ve never taught it before either. If you’ve also never read The Would-Be Invalid, then you are, like I was, truly missing out! If a World Lit. II professor chooses to include Molière on the syllabus, the chosen text is normally Tartuffe. I’ve taught Tartuffe before, and it was pretty good…the students were able to grasp the themes pretty well. But I truly wanted this semester to challenge myself and my students–I wanted to teach works that are not popular in the anthologies, authors who haven’t been anthologized in a while or at all.

Molière, though, probably doesn’t have a single bad work in his entire collection. The Would-Be Invalid continues Molière’s brilliant mastery of the farce, choosing as his victims of mockery this time seventeenth-century physicians and pharmacists (or apothecaries, as they were once called). These people received little education compared to the rigorous training they can expect today. (Having a sister in a Doctor of Pharmacy program has certainly opened my eyes.) A seventeenth-century physician would educate himself in the theoretical practice of medicine (probably like an early-year pre-med, pre-pharm student these days)–most medical students in the 1600s would not have ever even encountered a human patient by the time they received their doctorate in medicine. As long as they could speak and read Latin, could quote the Ancients (particularly Hippocrates and Galen), and composed a thesis on humoral theory, then they were apparently equipped to diagnose patients. (And some, the barber-surgeons, would even operate–oh, the Sweeney Todd-like horror!)

Using humoral theory, physicians would diagnose patients entirely on a system of guesswork for the body’s level of four fluids or humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The bodily fluids were associated with the four elements (air, water, fire, and earth), the four seasons, and specific organs (liver, brain/lungs, gall bladder, spleen). Judging on your symptoms (feverish, chills, aches, coughing, etc.), the physician would then diagnose an imbalance in one of the bodily fluids. The common methods of treatment were bloodletting, enemas, purgatives, leeches, and herbal concoctions. (I suppose the herbal concoctions were the closest things to real medicine that we have today.) If a patient died by one of the treatments, oopsy-daisy! If a patient miraculously healed, then it became evidence that treatment worked properly.

Molière had tuberculosis, which eventually killed him with a lung hemorrhage. He actually played the lead character in The Would-Be Invalid–Argan, the would-be invalid himself. Unfortunately for the Parisian theatrical world, Molière succumbed to a coughing fit during the finale of the fourth performance and died in his home a few hours later. Molière was highly critical of the physicians and apothecaries of his time period, which becomes strongly evident in The Would-Be Invalid. Argan, the hypochondriac “invalid,” not only buys into the therapies and treatments recommended to him by real quacks, but he also seems to revel in them, delighting in the tallying of his bill for many enemas and purges. He looks forward to his stomach cramps brought on by the purgatives he is prescribed to ingest; he eagerly climbs on his bed and assumes the position when his apothecary arrives to perform the enema.

Argan’s family, however, voices Molière’s real opinions. In the third act, Argan gets into an argument with his brother Béralde over whether or not patients should trust their physicians in the first place. When Béralde tries to speak some sense into Argan, explaining that he really isn’t as ill as he seems to be and that his physician is really just a kook, Argan fires back:

Argan: That is to say that all the knowledge in the world is shut up in your head, and you think you know more than all the great medical men of our time.
Béralde: In speech and action, your great medical men are two different sorts of people. To hear them talk, they’re the most skillful people on earth; but in action, they’re the most ignorant men alive.

After a long-ish argument and a great deal of folly to prove Argan wrong, the play ends with Argan receiving his own doctorate in medicine by speaking fake Latin in front of a fake panel of doctors. It’s really quite the perfect deal. Argan is the worst kind of (modern) patient (always seeking unnecessary treatment, shorting his physician and apothecary on the bill), but if he can be his own doctor, then the problem is resolved. If all it takes for proper doctoring is the ability to speak gibberish (in this case Latin) and to possess a charismatic spirit, then Argan is destined to be an amazing doctor. He actually strikes me as the textbook example for why medical (and psychology and pharmacy) students should avoid the temptation to self-diagnose. When you know all the worst possible symptoms and the worst possible scenarios, it’s really easy to imagine that a simple tickle in the throat is actually the early stages of pneumonia.

Read the play–at the very least, you will appreciate the advancements made in modern medicine. I have to go now. My leeches are starting to fall off.

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