How the ukulele makes me a better teacher

I play the uke almost every day. I’ve been doing this for almost a year now, but probably not for the reasons people think. I do it because I’m not very good at, because, being not very good at it, I get to enjoy the process of becoming less bad at it. I do it because my typically habile fingers turn into sausages on the clear nylon strings and because this hamhandedness transforms me for a few minutes, into a student, a learner, an eager newbie. I do it as a lark — because my cheap plastic uke is sweet and silly and fun — and because being this bad at something others do with such astonishing ease helps make me a better teacher.

Like so many academics, I have spent time in Carol Dweck’s fixed mindset category, one of those learners who operates as if ability were a set part of identity — natural talent — rather than a new friend to be welcomed in and nurtured over time. For such people, Dweck explains, persistence can be especially challenging. We try something, suck at it, and because it doesn’t come easily, assume we lack the gene for it and move on. For us — and there are lots and lots of us in academe — there is little joy in casual amateurism. If your ego is badly bruised by the inevitable false step or off note of the novice, then why pursue new activities for fun? And remaining so safely competent, we can, of course, forget what it’s like to be unskilled, uncertain beginners.

My relationship with the uke symbolizes and exercises my desire to become comfortable with being inexpert. Of course, we’re all accustomed to leaving things in the hands of more and less capable others — the auto mechanic, the dental hygienist, the jumbo jet pilot — as a matter of survival. But the uke represents my chosen foray into playful amateurism, a place where I must rely on skilled teachers to inspire me and and show me the way. And, just as importantly, I recognize and name my own internal resistance, including my ego’s near constant craving for a quick hit of self-esteem, as I reach for my four-stringed friend. Each day the uke invites me to do something I am not good at, and know I may never be good at it, but to put in the effort nonetheless, simply because this is what I have chosen to do.

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And perhaps most importantly, I come to remember that becoming an expert is not, and cannot, precisely be the point, not of playing the uke, practicing photography, learning Spanish, or of life. There will always be others better at everything I do than I am, except, of course, as Mr. Rogers taught, of being ME. And it is a tonic reminder to face that, contrary to American fantasies of being NUMBER ONE, a WINNER, and a true CHAMP, the point is not for one to be the best at every activity one deigns to undertake. Nor should it be for our students.

Can I embrace mediocrity and failure without abandoning hard work and ambition to improve? I think I can and I have the uke to thank for the insight. In some sense I now engage in healthy magical thinking. I make the commitment to repetition that learning the uke requires. I pick it up each day as a matter of course, give it a quick tune and then ten or fifteen minutes of this or that lesson. I do not, for the most part, stop to ponder my level of improvement, or fantasize either about how I will or will never be a virtuoso. I just pick the damn thing up and bang away at it, trusting, in the background, that the spirit of repetition will carry me through. My real success, then, is in developing a kind of “grit,” much more than becoming a great musician. It is not, in fact, so different from how I go about cleaning my house, maintaining my bicycles, or writing this blog.

I do get better at it, of course, but my improvement is more a byproduct of the mundane habit than the goal. I am not, then, that person who aspires to be good at the uke but simply one with a daily habit that involves this little guy. And it impacts my teaching. These days I focus much more on encouraging my students to develop unsexy, repetitious practices than on fanning the flames of their incipient and erratic brilliance. Some would say that the point is to see life as a marathon and not a sprint, and that is part of it. But for me life has become not even a marathon but a kind of meandering walk in which it is the rhythm of both the steps and stops — and not whether one runs or crawls or even “finishes” — that count. If there is a finish line, then I do not think much about it. The joy these days is in the journey but in the “failed” parts of the journey just as much as the successful ones.

For the first few years I lived in this house, I watched a a rangy, craggy old gentleman inch his way around my block with a walker each day, sometimes followed by an equally arthritic and grizzled black Lab. Their regularity and tenacity were somehow spellbinding. I came to see, not a failing old man, curved and pathetic in his final years, but a living representation of how to persevere. All our talk of objectives, goals and outcomes is well and good — and for teachers there is tons of such rhetoric — but it would be an insult to describe the value of this man’s walk in such terms. He didn’t get better — he just stopped coming one day — but it is with both admiration and gratitude that I remember him now.

Let’s take those anti-college Republicans at their word

Maverick educator though he was, Plato’s Socrates fretted about a new fangled technology known as writing. Relying on quill and papyrus, he worried, could wreck men’s memories and send his beloved Athens into a spiral of dull-witted decline. His concerns seem quaint, even silly, until we consider the recent Pew Center Report suggesting that most Republicans now think that college is bad for society. Certainly, it captures something about the red-blue divide since, at the same time, 70ish percent of “liberals” still think higher ed is pretty nifty.

On the one hand, there’s nothing to see here. Conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, have long made a hobby of vilifying education, aware enough of its radicalizing potential to pursue radical means to control it. After all, Socrates died for his supposed heresies, to say nothing of poor Tycho Brahe, the long house arrest of Galileo, and the beatings inflicted on enslaved Africans learning to read. There are, unfortunately, endless examples of outraged conservatives silencing intellectuals and creatives in the name of God and country. The current anti-intellectualism in the U.S. too is grounded in a values divide with unbearably high stakes, including attitudes and policies about climate change, the rights of people of color, women, and immigrants, and what it means to be a free citizen.

If this weighs especially heavy on my mind, it is partly because I am a professor from a red town in a red state in a flamingly red region. I am, ostensibly, a veritable case study of the kid who went off to college and emerged unrepentantly and permanently dangerous to society. For anyone who thought I should have married a local boy, become a P.E. teacher (my mother’s early vision for me), and raised a few blond kids, college did, in fact wreck me. From the moment I arrived on campus — supported and encouraged by my father and step mother — worlds opened, intellectually, creatively and socially. Although I avoided the freshman weight gain, college helped me expand in every other respect. New paths led to new roads of experience and perspective that made me and my hometown ever stranger to one another. There was never much chance I would return to it or that it would welcome me if I did.

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The narrative of the Republican far right — with much help from the kajillionairre Koch brothers and their ilk — is that colleges are left-wing cults, inculcating young people into extreme political liberalism and libertine lifestyles. And I guess the supposed divide between the values of small town America and the dangerous “college type” is perfectly realized in me, a lesbian in a Subaru who eats organic, reads a ton — I am a philosopher — and hasn’t set foot in a church since MC Hammer rocked those iconic pants. As a professor who teaches such “politically charged” courses as LGBT Studies and Queer Theory, I am the poster child of what conservatives object to about higher ed today, a threat to their very way of life.

Except that, as an independent-minded critic of unearned social and economic privilege, my hard working father helped radicalize me long before I went off to college. And my uneducated mother’s eclectic and open-minded approach to friends, food and books set me up to embrace the ideological and aesthetic challenges I encountered on campus. Anyone who blames college for ruining me has no idea how annoyingly philosophical and incipiently political I already was before college had its way with me. It’s probably just as fair to say that college made me a more mature version of myself than that it fundamentally changed me. I suspect this is true for most college students though, of course, I can’t say. But it does seem that those extreme, anti-college Republicans both underestimate and overestimate the influence that the experience has on actual young people.

Anyone truly surprised by this “new” anti-college stance underestimates the power and tenacity of America’s grand tradition of anti-intellectualism, its ties to religious fundamentalism, and the impact of economic disparity and the public disinvestment in higher ed (which is, of course, partly a product of anti-intellectualism). When one adds in the concerted anti-college media campaigns of college-educated fat cats, it is a miracle that all of red America is not disgusted by professors like me. And, no surprise, it turns out that it’s mostly the non-college educated Republicans who are so vehemently against it, like those home-bound Americans who insist with great authority that Europe is overrated. The way to get more popular support for college, as for most worthwhile experiences, is almost certainly to make it more available which is, perhaps, partly why so many Republican fundamentalists fight to make it inaccessible.

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At any rate, this current flare of anti-intellectualist religious fundamentalism does us professors and society great harm. It can result in our being harassed, fired, and much, much worse. But what it cannot do is compel us to reason with it, or, in hand-wringing fashion, to psychologize it in some pseudo compassionate attempt to understand those benighted red-staters. We need not debase ourselves or our critics by second guessing or applying deeper motives to such proud ignorance. There is nothing shameful about ignorance, of course, but I can say with perfect ease that the proudly ignorant should damn well be ashamed of themselves. Though I can strive to understand the climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, and the new crop of flat-earthers as a sort of sociologist or anthropologist might, it is not as one citizen respectfully engaging with another in healthy, authentic dialogue.

The fundamentalists burned Tycho Brahe at the stake, but they could not compel him to make apologies for their murderous behavior. If the Republican fundamentalists wish to scapegoat higher ed, then let’s college types respect them enough to take them at their word. We do them no favors by talking about them or to them as if they were children or fools to be placated. Such pious “understanding,” of course, is the very bleeding heart liberal strategy that they despise. Instead of trying to argue with them about how awesome we are, we should continue to do our jobs well and focus on higher ed accessibility. Those who go to college may not fall in love with the ivory towers and ivy-covered walls, but very few will leave concluding it is professors, or knowledge itself, that is responsible for the rising tide of greed, nastiness and national insecurity.

Beyond (merely) mindful teaching

I hesitated when I first chose “mindful college teaching” as the subhead for this blog. On the one hand, it’s a great virtue of Buddhism that many of its most powerful insights can serve people of myriad spiritual, cultural and temperamental leanings. On the other hand, though, is the sense that terms like “mindfulness” pale and weaken when applied to every imaginable situation, much as “addiction” has lost force over the years. It may be useful sometimes to describe people as addicted to love, failure, and shopping, as well as to nicotine and OxyContin, but the term loses some diagnostic specificity and therapeutic power when applied so broadly.

Similarly, it has proved irresistible to describe nearly any effort to focus or pay attention as an exercise in Buddhist mindfulness. There is mindful dieting, mindful parenting, mindful weightlifting, mindful communication, mindfulness for stress relief and even, of course, mindful college teaching. Probably each of these applications is more or less salubrious. Certainly, I have found lots of mindfulness self-help books to be insightful and helpful. I wonder, though, about the ultimate impact of so many different mindfulness books ostensibly applicable to subjects of every shape and size. My concern is partly about missing the point and has been well illustrated for me by tussles I’ve had with my backyard bushes.

When I moved into my century-old house seven years ago, I inherited a yard that was some combination of a Tudor garden and Jurassic Park. What was, I think, originally supposed to be a sort of hedgerow around the periphery had long since become a jungle thicket, choking out the yard’s open center and pushing upwards with such tenacity that many of the so-called bushes could pass for spindly trees. Taking control of the situation — which is, when I think about it, exactly the wrong way for me to describe my haphazard process — has taken years of unceremonious lopping, selective pruning, and a tenacity that ebbs and flows. Still, I have reclaimed some open yard space, and am now mostly in maintenance mode.

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What I had not understood when I began, though, was that bushes are not discrete, individual, well contained entities — though they appear to be so in carefully groomed yards and when they’re bundled neatly for sale at garden nurseries. As I learned from the green shoots venturing well outside the boundaries I had arbitrarily settled upon, some bushes are more like viruses or mushrooms or schools of fish in that their identity is communal, diffuse, and unbounded. It’s as if my bushes, having tasted the frenzy of unrestrained growth, are permanently feral. At any moment, I can still find dozens of new tendrils pushing up through the earth like a zombie’s fingers. While it’s an impressive demonstration of pure life force, it’s also unnerving, as it was when an ivy vine slithered and nosed its way under a window frame and into my living room in the snowy dead of winter.

But I digress. My point is that while the swamp of mindfulness-in-context material — including my own “mindful college teaching” blog — may be useful, one risks becoming forever caught up in addressing only the scattered symptoms of an unfocused life and consciousness, while ignoring the heart of the matter. For several years, I just mowed over my bushes’ insistent new growth, even after I’d recognized my bandaid approach to the problem. It was so temptingly easy to merely push my mower along and make these visual reminders disappear for a while — usually just a few days — but overwhelming to face the full extent of a challenge (this yard! this old house! these bills! this job!) that I would never, could never, really control.

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In short, my yard work, like many so many of my “life changes,” was mostly cosmetic, often superficially focused on the most unsightly, or easily addressed, issues rather than the most important ones. Like the guy searching for his lost car keys under the street lamp simply because the light is better there, I was busily, sometimes comically, missing the point. What I wonder, then, is if it may be too easy to get distracted by the idea of mindfulness in this or that particular, sometimes superficial, context such that the truly awesome power and life-altering efficacy of mindfulness is bypassed. I feel a bit guilty as I write this because mindfulness is such a hot topic I’ve been able to exploit the term to attract people to my work. But perhaps it’s not as crassly self-serving as it sounds. As I’ve also acknowledged from the beginning, this blog, the Virtual Pedagogue, is only sort of about college teaching.

In the end, I am quite happy to lure people into the dark thicket where, it seems, there is only one question to be asked, the question that most of us, simply by virtue of being frightened, distractable, voracious humans, try so hard to avoid. It’s the Buddha’s question, of course, and that of many other psychological/spiritual explorers, and it has both everything and nothing to do with teaching, trimming bushes, or elaborate meditation practices. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we come to this big question by way of teaching or praying or tending the garden, so long as we come to it somehow. What a tragedy, though, if we become so enamored of and distracted by the “little” practices of mindfulness that we overlook the deeply transformative question that stands just behind them, right under our very noses.

When instructors and students despise one another

Professors and students have lots of reasons to resent one another, many of which have little to do with academics. While students have learned to see themselves as customers and instructors as mere service providers, we instructors are often urged by our institutions to woo and placate students to maintain the flow of tuition dollars. With an anti-intellectualist, and anti public education zeitgeist as our backdrop, it is probably inevitable that many students and instructors have become wary, and even disdainful, of one another. Still, it’s worth examining the complaints so that, at the very least, we might be more intentional and self-aware about how and at whom we grumble. Some complaints are almost certainly legitimate while others are closer to mean and petty.

On the meaner side of town, it’s evident that some instructors gripe about students to establish and solidify our own elite identities, as when a wine connoisseur complains about the mediocre bottle he’s been served. He keeps drinking it, but openly shares that and how it doesn’t meet his elevated standards as he sips. Instructors’ negative remarks about students, then, sometimes function to remind others and ourselves of our own specialness in an environment in which decent university teaching gigs have become an endangered species. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that in many disciplines there’s a glut of available professors so that even solidly mediocre institutions may have their pick of candidates. And, of course, newly minted, pedigreed professors with elite backgrounds can easily end up shell-shocked in classrooms with students whose skills, resources, and ideas about education differ wildly from their own.

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But there is, of course, a difference between merely speaking critically or negatively about someone and disparaging them. I remember complaining years ago that I’d had to focus my teaching so much on rudimentary academic, and even quasi-social, skills. “I’m more social worker than professor,” I griped. I said it bitterly back then, but came to express it more sanguinely — or perhaps just more numbly — as underprepared students continued to pour in each year. I was complaining, to be sure, but primarily about the lack of institutional investment to help these students, and their instructors, properly succeed. Given the challenges, I’m often impressed that professors and students at public universities work together as harmoniously and respectfully as we generally do.

And it’s probably only when we overlook or forget the systemic and institutional challenges that we’re tempted to actually disparage students, that is, to disrespect them. Sweeping, snarky diagnoses of the “problem with millennials” are like this, and I confess that I have indulged in such simplistic and insulting speculations. Here, the older instructor, probably a Gen Xer or Boomer, crankily blames every student misstep on vaguely general character flaws: “The thing about these students is….” Whether students are ridiculed for their helicopter parents, purportedly bottomless thirst for affirmation, or freakishly short attention spans, this qualifies as denigration. Its only appeal is that whatever failure and misery I suffer as an instructor need not result in self-scrutiny and pedagogical adjustment — or social and institutional reformation — but can be blamed on my supposedly lazy, immature, unserious students.

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To be sure, our political and educational institutions have done much to fan the flames of student/professor resentment. When, for example, universities nickel and dime students with increasingly complex, ever-rising fees, how are students and their families to avoid relating to professors within a crassly consumerist model? When I’m charged extra for guacamole at a restaurant, and then also for sour cream, I become more vigilant; it had better be worth it. And when instructors are pressured to assign passing grades to failing student/customers to keep the cash flowing, it can feel as if we are being pitted directly against the student. A battle of wills can erupt about grades — which students often think they have purchased — that subverts and bypasses genuine learning.

My aim these days is to be mindful of the difference between expressing legitimate complaints, and letting elitist nostalgia fuel disrespectful grumbling. I also continue to speak up about the need for adequate student support, especially in the areas of basic literacy and numeracy. If our universities are going to accept tuition dollars from underprepared students, then they are obligated to do more to help them and us succeed. We instructors shouldn’t have to be told, though, that rejecting contemporary reality as such is a losing game, and my reality includes underprepared students. And it’s hardly fair to blame them for a landscape they’ve only just inherited. At any rate, if I choose to routinely wax disparagingly about my students then I ought not to pretend it is more high minded than it is. The line between defending high standards and scapegoating is not, I think, an especially fine one in this case.

The loneliness of the online teacher: Is anybody out there?

As another intense summer semester comes to a definitive conclusion, there’s time to breathe and let the reality (and unreality) of my latest online class wash over me. Though I’ve become a skilled practitioner, and sometimes advocate, of online teaching, I am still unsettled sometimes by the physical distance from my students. Here I am about to assign final grades, without ever having developed a strong sense of connection to them. The breakneck speed of the summer semester and the online modality itself have helped nurture a pedagogical loneliness that, like an itch or pain, I reactively want to scratch or anesthetize.

It’s been a while since any of us could gape in wonder at the voices emerging from electronic boxes — radios, TVs, and computer speakers — so it’s not as if my students and I experience one another as utterly mysterious. But though we are all sophisticated enough to know there’s an actual person out there somewhere, how much do we experience each other as really real? I can’t help but compare and notice I feel more affection for and rapport with students I worked with months ago in a face-to-face class than for these I’m finishing up with just now. And this slender emotional connection reminds me of the nearly compulsive tendency to compare online education to brick and mortar classes and find it wanting.

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I am reminded, too, that my online students and I don’t even experience one another’s reality in the same way, partly because of the asynchrony of our interactions and contributions. Much of what I share with them has been prepared in advance, sometimes months ago, including recorded mini-lectures sprinkled with my personal anecdotes and bad jokes. In a way, students experience me like a starship crew trapped behind the horizon of a black hole — or maybe I am in the black hole? — in that communication and intimacy are distorted. I am struck by this each time I see my slightly obsolete profile photo. Do my students still imagine me as that broadly smiling white woman with the super short hair? Do they imagine me at all? Still, despite my own sense of isolation, in communications with me this term, students have been unusually expressive and warm. I have no reason to think that they share my sense of disconnect.

I’m inclined to say that the emotional distance I feel is not necessarily a problem, but this doesn’t mean that I like it or that I rest easy with it. For just a moment, though, I want to focus on my compulsion to try to recreate the (apparently deeper) emotional experience of my face-to-face interactions. As a long-time brick and mortar professor, I have an urge to run quickly back to what I know, to what helps me feel competent, confident, and fulfilled by my teaching work. Whatever pedagogical value connecting emotionally has from the student side — and I don’t doubt there is a great deal — it also helps boost my self-esteem and satisfaction. But I’m not entirely sure I want to rely on my engagement with students to prop up my emotional well being in this way and not only because emotional connection can be harder to cultivate in the virtual classroom.

When soap operas migrated from radio to television, they did it with the conventions of stage and radio firmly in place. Television and movie programming were both made possible and, initially, limited by the basic assumptions of the older modalities, including visceral issues such as what counted as funny or sad. But just as we no longer regard a car as a horseless carriage or require a snare drum “bah-da-bing” to signal a joke’s end, I don’t want to create and judge my online classes primarily by the rules, conventions and rewards of face-to-face. Until we let the newer modalities really stand on their own — and this includes, for me, facing down the demons of virtual loneliness — they will be found utterly inadequate. We will be like the stage actor who moves to the big screen only to find she is paralyzed without the immediate response of a live audience. It’s not that she has failed as a movie actor, but that she never really left the stage at all.

Busy, busy, busy! When a professor’s work is never done….

If you’ve ever used a can of spray insulation, you know how the toxic goo expands to fill every hole and crack. It’s like bread dough rising in a time lapse film, still creeping towards you long after you think you’ve sprayed it in place. As I teetered on a step ladder in the searing heat last weekend, watching the stuff grow like a kitschy movie blob, I knew I’d found the right analogy for this week’s post. I tried not to wipe my sweaty brow with a foul, sticky glove and thought, “This is how work can expand to fill every space if I’m not paying attention.”

It’s understandable, of course, that professors get swallowed up by actual and self-imposed overwork given that we are under the scrutiny of a skeptical public and increasingly out of touch university administrators. With a conspiratorial wink, an uncle informed me decades ago when I got my first professor job that it sounded like a “sweet deal.” And I’ve suffered through countless meetings with administrators who reactively push for higher teaching loads, quite certain that we professors just aren’t doing enough. They clearly do not appreciate the amorphous nature of the job, the pressure we are under to permit it to overlap with, flow over, and otherwise obscure the rest of our lives. To make this more concrete, I made a record of my activities on a typical morning last week — snippets below. The pace of my daily routine is especially striking to me when I keep in mind that, in the eyes of a critical taxpaying public, and, increasingly corporatized career administrators, this is the bon vivant, summer vacation chunk of my calendar.

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Many instructors never really leave their work. Their sense of responsibility to students and to the subject area they love, combined with the almost open ended nature of research and the teaching relationship, guarantees that there is always more to be done. Certainly, if lines and limits are to be drawn between our “work” and “life,” this will not come from the time clock, the setting sun, or the factory whistle. By and large, we must draw them ourselves. Being a professor is not unique in this way, of course — many other jobs share these qualities — and this lack of specialness is worth keeping firmly in mind.

That setting priorities and effectively drawing boundaries is hard for most people is clear from the glut of self-help books on this topic. I’ve read and appreciated lots of them, especially those that reveal the deeper questions at play, psychological, and maybe even spiritual ones. When deciding how to spend our time, we must, after all, decide what really and truly matters to us. If it turns out, say, that the very burden of work tasks we complain about actually serves to happily distract us from personal or existential woe, then we must be honest about that. It’s obvious that many privileged individuals who complain of being “busy, busy, busy!” are classic workaholics, with little satisfaction or even sense of identity beyond their career. Some don’t like their personal life much, but find it less wrenching and more socially acceptable to complain about their demanding job than about their husband or exhausting tween children.

Ultimately, then, though professor jobs are not the walk in the park that many imagine, they are also not intrinsically more demanding or diffuse than many other other jobs or activities that routinely swallow up peoples’ lives. Saying no or calling it a day is, for those of us with the luxury of managing much of our own time, as much an exercise in honesty, authenticity and courage as of practical time management. We must learn to tell the truth about why we’d rather send just one more email or grade one more paper, now, tonight. And, as one of my great teachers urges, “to tell the truth about whether or not we’re telling the truth about that.”

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Some of us have tried every trendy time management scheme — the hulking Franklin organizer, the Palm Pilot, or the understated iPhone or Moleskine bullet journal — but if I fear what lies behind all the planning (which often becomes an excuse for yet more busyness) — the silence, the uncertainty, the potentially bottomless mysteries of joy and grief — then nothing will ever really change. I’ll busy my life away with this or that VIT (very important task) complaining all the while — the better to establish my importance to others and myself — until a crisis forces me to make different choices. And if, as a relatively independent, privileged, well-employed individual, I focus only on the supposed grappling hooks that others have imposed on my life, I will overlook the agency that I do have.

I am not, of course, focusing here on the many who must work multiple jobs at the whim of others with little claim on their own time. In fact, I write this post partly in honor of adjunct instructors who piece together their livelihoods from scraps discarded by full-time professors, or stolen from professors and reassigned to adjuncts by jaded, penny-pinching administrators. And I write it in honor of the remaining academic collectIve bargaining units that support professors’ struggle to retain some measure of independence and dignity. We must continue to fight against the trends of increasing teaching workloads — for all instructors — even as we resist the temptation to make our jobs a scapegoat for why we never do whatever it is that matters most to us.

 

Excerpt from a typical summer workday (boring, but requested by a reader!)

I woke at 5:30, fed my dog and cat, and graded the first of four sets of assignments my students do each week (I’m teaching summer school). After 90 minutes of grading, I spent another twenty minutes composing a note summarizing the results of my grading and offering guideposts to my students for what’s coming next. Then I took my dog for a quick walk, showered, and got my books and computer packed up. On the way to the coffee shop where I’d planned to work for a few hours, I stopped to pick up some necessities for later — lemons and chocolate — and then at the hardware store for giant paper lawn bags.

At the coffee shop I ran into a junior colleague who wanted to chat about his upcoming tenure process. After a pleasant half hour with him, I opened my computer and began seeking and skimming articles I’ve collected over the past year for my upcoming LGBT Studies class. As I read, selected and rejected, I tried not to get sidetracked by the mostly fascinating material, but did stop to post one article to a professional social media site I’m responsible for and also emailed it to a colleague at another university. As I sent that email, I noticed an “urgent” message from one of my current students with questions about an assignment that’s due tonight. I responded to her and then returned to culling articles.

About the time the lunch crowd began to arrive, I went to a nearby park to eat outside and enjoy a quick walk while listening to a chapter from an audiobook version of a text I’m teaching in the fall. Next I went to my campus office to finish my morning grading, sort through some student papers from last semester and meet with a graduate student who’s doing an independent study. About 4:00 I raced off to a dental appointment I’d nearly forgotten and then went home to mow the front yard — the back can wait — and put out the trash, recycling, and lawn waste…..

Glitter and glue sticks: The playful pleasure of preparing new courses

One of the hardest things to explain to non-teachers is what’s involved in creating a new class. Non-teachers may only ever have seen teaching from the student side: lectures, activities and assignments that seem to appear magically, like an elaborate pancake breakfast prepared by Supermom on Sunday morning. Or, they may only recall the deflated professors who lectured from brittle yellow notepads and think that college teaching involves nothing more than cranking on the same rusty water spigot year after year. Given that some professors themselves underinvest in teaching, together with the popular societal view that professors’ jobs are easy, the stage is set to minimize the meaningfulness of our teaching preparation work.

This summer as I radically retool two upcoming Fall courses (one online and one face-to-face), I’m fully immersed in course prep and more aware than ever of its charms and challenges. Certainly, part of why I am so earnest and curious about course creation — from inception to design to implementation to assessment — is my recent rediscovery of online teaching. It has, in fact, pushed me to rethink the looser style of my face-to-face classes, just as my foray into backpacking — with its need for meticulous planning and minimalism — has affected how I regard and organize stuff in my home.

Given the exigencies of creating new classes or overhauling old ones, it surprises me a little that I find it so invigorating. But I notice right away that, because I’ve decided on a radical overhaul, I’m back in a student role, in this case a sort of intense, self-curated LGBT Studies summer camp. The exhilaration of reconnecting with the traditional course subject matter, while diving into the latest developments, is intrinsically pleasurable and will also be a catalyst for infectiously enthusiastic teaching. I’m actually eager to share this with students! Teachers who are unable to fall newly in love with the subject they teach, as I have often been, are surely cheated out of one of the deepest pleasures our jobs have to offer.

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Next, I discover that, for me, there is also satisfaction in the almost tactile process of laying out and executing such a complex creative project, from mere idea to concrete realization. The satisfaction of making my ideas come to life by expressing an abstract learning goal through various sorts of well-placed assignments and assessments, is perhaps like crafting a dress or a house. And maybe because I’m independent and intellectually-oriented, there’s something especially gratifying about the rare prospect of helping ideas live and breathe in shared, intersubjective space. That I think of creating a class as a sort of craft, then, is meant to express that, through this activity, I sometimes feel my most abstract ideas sprout legs, don shoes and take off running through the tangible world.

I think the comparison with crafts may be especially apt. On the one hand, part of why the richness and burdens of this creative work are often overlooked by professors is that intellectuals tend not to prize merely technical, practical or instrumental proficiency as we do intellectual insight. Secretly, perhaps, we may envy the skill of the plumber or electrician, even as we not-so-secretly believe we move in higher, more ethereal realms. Course design experts, I am told, often feel devalued by old school profs who are suspicious of what they see as window dressing and gimmicks. After all, for many college profs, including me, learning to teach meant nothing more than learning our discipline. In fact, we implicitly distinguished ourselves from K-12 teachers partly and precisely because we never focused on teaching in that way.

In addition to the elitist elements at play here, I wonder if it’s not also about sexism. When the quintessential educational course creator comes to my mind, it’s the female elementary school teacher. Earnest and bright eyed, she spends her own money and weekends at the crafts store, buying felt strips and foil stars. While most people can talk a good game about how important her work is — forming the next generation and whatnot — by and large, she is regarded as a glorified babysitter. This image stands in deliberately sharp contrast to the (serious, muscular, hard-hitting, deep) university professor. As I prepare for the new Fall semester, then, I wonder if professors’ (understandable) need to affirm our own specialness and status might not keep us from truly enjoying course preparation. As for me, I am discovering that, as I play with the glitter and glue sticks, as well as the big ideas, they are not really so different after all.