Friday, August 14, 2015

have pedagogy will travel

I am a kind of traveling teacher; I go where the work is. Lately I have been teaching various composition courses, intro to creative writing, and working as a writing center consultant in the Writing Program at The University of Michigan-Dearborn; teaching a variety of creative writing classes at Eastern Michigan University; teaching a basic college writing class at a local community college; and teaching a preparatory writing class through the Sweetland Center for Writing at Univ. of Michigan Ann Arbor. One year I also taught a two-semester creative writing class at The Univ. of Windsor in Canada. In many ways these various experiences have made me a better teacher, while I also struggle to maintain the time and energy to engage each class and student as fully as my personal philosophy of teaching would entail.Two goals I have are working to create better stability for myself, and working to become a stronger teacher by learning how better to engage students to become more active in their own learning practices.

Reflection Question: what do my students need better and/or more?

This is a question that I have been thinking about a lot, and nonetheless it is difficult to write about. I teach different classes at different institutions and although there are similar practices and patterns among students from one place to another, there are also great differences. Teaching creative writing at EMU to students who may be first-semester, first-year students (there is no pre-req to take the intro course), and sometimes (often) underprepared is especially challenging in so many ways. Firstly, the class is different every time. I have had a number of classes with really great, engaged, interested students. And I have had classes with a high number of students with few “student skills” and little interest in doing any of the work. Another factor is the number of students in each class who don’t want to read and they only want to spend time working on their own writing; sometimes these students feel like they are already practicing writers and so they are less interested in learning, and more focused on gaining editorial feedback, or some simply want praise and not constructive criticism. It can be very confusing; I’ve been teaching this same class for about six years and feel like I still haven’t figured it out. The greatest challenge I have had is getting students to think of the class as an academic class and not simply a free-for-all space of personal expression, and in which reading is crucial to learning in general and to writing in particular. I have been working on revising the syllabus and to try and include more reflection writing and alter the portfolio assignments, so that students will become more responsible to make the connections between reading, writing, and their own development as writers and students. And I am trying to figure out how to give them the space to make the class their own while also maintaining an academic atmosphere so that student skills, critical thinking, and practice with terminology and strategies in creative writing (within this academic context) will still be important elements of learning.

My composition classes are so much easier in a sense because more of the students are coming in with similar skill sets and engaging with the material from a more even perspective; the field in basic comp. classes seems a little more level. I also think the assignments seem more clear to students in a comp. classroom where in creative writing things are more open to interpretation. I think my syllabus and expectations in the creative writing class are especially clear, but because I am not succeeding in giving the students enough ownership somehow, there seems to be more confusion than clarity at times. I think over the years I have been more successful at designing the comp. class to build (scaffold) skills and ideas from one writing assignment to the next and directly in relation to the reading assignments. This works a little more naturally in the comp. class, whereas I am trying to figure out how to better help students in creative writing to make those connections on their own, and to make them more clear through the course material.

to see the beginning of this pedagogy project go to:

(critical) (digital) pedagogy

I spent a few weeks this summer doing this:, an online course in digital pedagogy with Kris Shaffer and 10 or so other amazing teachers from all disciplines and various geographic locations/schools...

Earlier in the summer I did a week-long, in-person intensive workshop on Writing Across the Curriculum through the Writing Center and Ann Blakeslee at EMU.

Between these experiences, led by fabulous and brilliant teachers, I have learned and thought a lot about teaching and engaging students in their own learning. I have often been frustrated when I have felt as if I fell short of getting ideas and information across to students in ways they could actually use and relate to. Although I don't think that one's approach as an instructor should entirely be to make material "relatable" (a word I totally hate in fact), there is a lot to be said for helping students into work and ideas they may at first not feel like they relate to, but will engage with and learn from. In teaching, there is often information or skills that need to be presented and practiced. But figuring out how to give students more agency and possibilities for investment in the presenting and practicing is really a key goal, especially if one is invested in a critical pedagogy. Teaching is not lecturing, but should be geared toward creating a community in which each member of the class feels comfortable participating and in which everyone has the opportunity to learn from one another.

I'm going to post here some of the writing and thinking I've been doing lately in relation to these ideas.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Let's Finish This Thing

I started writing this mini-essay project on contingency at the beginning of the year, and thought I would continue for the duration of 2015. But now I think I am done here. I will say, it has often helped. Writing can often help. There are so many issues in the higher ed world, the rise of contingent labor a major cause and consequence of some of them. Writing about this helps lessen my stress. I am a poster child: teaching at multiple institutions, juggling my schedule to get the jobs to get the pay to pay the bills... And on my own time I work hard to negotiate what might be good moves for me professionally: to improve my teaching, to publish creative work, to research and write papers on academic writing and teaching, how to make my CV make me look employable.

I want a full-time job teaching. But this has become a pipe dream. I know the stats, that 75% of college instructors are now part-time or otherwise contingent, even if they are in what are called full-time positions... And there are new articles coming out every day about more travesties in higher ed, like the rise of administrator positions, salaries, benefits. What this looks like from school to school differs. But I have met and talked to so many people suffering from this system. We have to teach at different places because there are course limits and terrible pay-per-class. There is little job security, professional development, resources, collegiality, etc.

I had some optimism this past year. I was involved in a number of professional development workshops and opportunities. I have been able to talk to peers and really spend time thinking about how to better develop myself as a teacher. But it's all been a ruse. I'm still in the same contingent, multiply-employed situation this fall as I have been for some years now. It's possible this is why I can't get a full time job. I've been doing this at too many places, for too long, or something. I don't really know what the problem is.

I've had some interviews that resulted in rejection. And I've seen lots of other people get jobs, teaching and non-teaching jobs because they have experience and they are good at what they do. I feel convinced that having over 15 years of teaching experience has not actually helped me at all. The system is broken, so totally broken, but the circulating narrative informs me that if I just work hard eventually things will go my way. If I want the full time job (because so many people teaching part-time in higher ed don't actually want full-time positions) then I just have to keep working toward that. And if that doesn't happen, then it's because of something I've done wrong or what I could have done better. It's entirely my fault if I am not getting a real job, not getting my work published, and etc. 

Regardless of the systemic challenges I'm now pretty sure that the fault lies within me. I got the wrong degrees. I spend so much time teaching that I am no longer good at teaching. And I'm not good at writing because I don't have time to work on and develop my writing. I am trying to do too many things that I feel like I should be doing to help me be an attractive candidate for real jobs, but I'm failing at that or doing it wrong or I don't know what I really should be doing at all. And if I quit teaching for a job in another industry, I'll likely just fail at that too.

The system is broken, but the narratives it dispels are working. We do this because we can see no other way. And when we do this it seems there is no other way but to fail at it. I want to believe I am good at something, but instead I can only work on building my endurance and resolve in the face of rejections and seeing all of the ways I fall short.

Friday, July 31, 2015

I Am Tired Just Thinking About It

The last day of July. Sometimes when August happens, I panic. But I think I have already been panicking. Lately. Maybe all summer. Let me be clear: I have no reason to panic, about anything. I work. I have money. I pay my bills. I have some cash in the savings and occasionally put some into retirement accounts that I have set up myself. I own a house. I have a loving if high-maintenance dog. I have an excellent and supportive domestic partner. Although I have spent a lot lot of time working this summer (on writing and professional development, mostly unpaid, and some union work), for the most part my schedule is my own and it is flexible. 

I am or will panic because I am not ready to go back to teaching full time in the fall semester. I say full time, but really I will be working more than a full time teaching load at three campuses. I will have five classes as it now seems, though the final details are still working out. Some people freak out about doing four classes at one time, at one place. Last year in the fall semester, I had seven. I am feeling especially grateful that I don’t have to do that again. I’m not even sure I could. I already feel exhausted just thinking about it. I was trying to consider teaching only four at two campuses this fall. It would be financially possible. But the numbers on paper are not the same as when they come in the check, after taxes. The bills that I have to pay don’t give discounts because I lost 30% of my check to taxes. When I say I am making 35k or 40k per year, I really mean it’s only about 20k or 25k or whatever is about a third less. And now, electricity costs more, groceries cost more, and my partner and I are trying to buy a different house and also put money into retirement. But I am made to feel like I should be grateful to earn 30k. That money in a retirement account is a privilege and a luxury. I have to get special permission to teach an extra class even though the full time load for part-time instructors doesn’t actually pay a professional full-time salary. I am supposed to dedicate my full time working hours but the institution won’t actually pay me a proper full time salary. I would like to quit the third job, but the two campuses of the same school won’t allow me to work enough to make enough money. 

So many people have it so much worse. A lot of people would be ecstatic to make 30 or 35k. I shouldn’t complain. But in fact, these are related issues. The service industry is fighting for $15 because the current min. wage is not a living wage. More people with families and mortgages and bills are working min. wage jobs. The educational system is being decimated for so many, a majority, who don’t have access to private schools or who don’t live in the few wealthy neighborhoods with superior public schools. The reduced value on and quality of education has put more people into the service industry instead of into professions. And people in professions like nursing and teaching have been turned into contract employees with lower pay and less job security and benefits.  The service-industry world serves the profits of a few but not of the many. 

And so my point is, I did not expect to still be here come this fall. In many ways, I did not expect otherwise, but a part of me had hope. And I worked that hope into action: I have been trying to write and publish and do as much professional development as I can fit into my schedule. I published a teaching essay. I have failed at publishing other academic essays. I am failing at getting much at all of my creative writing published. At so at this point I am focusing my energy on teaching and academic/prof. development within the teaching context. I wouldn’t say I have given up on my own creative writing, but out of necessity I’ve had to push it to the edges of my time and effort to make space for kinds of writing that will help me to get a full time job. That means thinking and writing about teaching/pedagogy in general, and toward a full time job teaching composition in particular. My degrees are in literature, cultural studies, and creative writing. The composition world is friendlier toward cultural studies and creative writing, but I have a ways to go to “prove” myself as having converted to the field. A prejudice against literary people lingers in the air. And I just don’t have enough energy to keep trying to do all of it. Although to me these things all go together, and all go into my teaching and my dedication to that, teaching experience alone is not enough and apparently one needs to be able to market oneself. I don’t really know what that means. I’m just trying to refocus myself and my disparate experiences into a version of me that will make sense to hiring committees. I’m not faking it, or changing myself; I’m just re-packaging or something.

I have had two interviews for full time jobs at community colleges, which I have been rejected for. I am a weird fit for a community college even though I have taught at a number of them and am totally dedicated to teaching, and have many years of experience to show that. The last interview felt totally rushed and the questions were all questions that were a bit off in some way from the questions I expected, like it was a specialty test of some kind. I must have sounded like a rambling idiot trying to come up with answers I hadn’t expected to think about. I had another interview for a full time, though one year temporary position. The interview I thought was really great, and I would have loved working in that department. But as with most of these things, many people more qualified than me applied, and I didn’t get it. I also later discovered that I had a missed fixing an error on my cover letter. Could this have been the determining factor? I think not, but maybe. Maybe I am not a careful enough person to have a full time job. 

So I feel like I am giving myself one more year to keep doing this. But I feel like I keep saying that. This summer, I didn’t want to give up my summer and so didn’t apply for other, non-teaching jobs that would start before Sept. And now I have a full teaching schedule for Sept. so the need for a different kind of job seems lessened. But how will I feel in Dec.? And I have spent the summer basically working on developing myself further as a teacher and academic/writer, so every time I think about doing something else, I think about how much I have invested in doing this over the past 15 years. And I keep seeing other people land jobs that they love or have been waiting for, some in teaching and others in other fields. Other people apply for jobs and get them. I am trying to be hopeful and work toward some kind of professional success but it is draining, disheartening, like trudging through mud sometimes. It is hard to continue to be motivated when the potential results are so ambiguous, and when faced with so many rejections all of the time. Even though I now feel like I do have some stability in terms of work and making not-entirely-terrible pay, I still feel relegated to the kiddie table. This is not a world in which teachers are given any professional respect. And for part time teachers, the ambivalence is even more apparent.

In the meantime, I have now over committed myself to writing papers to present at a number of conferences this fall, one or two papers to submit as possible book chapters, and since I’ve now been working on pedagogy and teaching through some amazing workshops and online classes/discussions, I now have to spend some time carefully revising some of my syllabi. I am excited for some new approaches to teaching. And I am daunted by the time and energy I’m going to need to get any of it done before the semester actually starts…

To find out more about this mini-essay project see the Introduction:The (Contingent)(Academic)(Teacher) in 2015

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

from the archives...

After dividing by

I am living between languages. Landscape and geography, space and new falling leaves. It is October and there are no real jobs. Having moved out of and into location, into and out of work. Now settled into life on this new east coast, I learn there are groups of fibers within particular subsets of groups. A fiber in this sense is a set or column of everything that gets mapped to a single number. Any integer divided by 3 will fit into 0, 1, or 2. Write it down:

map …-2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3…into 0,1,2 with the rule X maps to the remainder of X after dividing by 3.

This gives us columns of numbers for each of 0,1,2 (for example for 0 we get a set that includes: …-6, -3, 0, 3, 6, 9) and this makes a fiber.

I think of fiber optics, another topic I don’t entirely comprehend. But this is different from sending digital information through time and space. This is about how each fiber, made up of all of its elements, exists. In some sort of social discipline this group theory would make sense to me. We are divided by seemingly random factors and placed into sets. We are parts of sets and subsets. We are defined through location, relation, the connections we form. We find our places on the individual fibers of the larger social tapestry.

Though defined simply, mathematical groups are complex in structure.  In group theory you can only add or only multiply or only subtract or only divide. Whereas, in the finite fields the possibilities are more unlimited, though possibly not totally unlimited. In the finite fields everything behaves like you expect it should. You can add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

To be or not to be finite. When really, nothing seems to behave as it should.

The infinite fields include all of the numbers as we know them, all fractions, anything with a decimal point. The possibilities are…infinite.
I am by default in a dialogue with myself. And even a group of one can be infinite in its concerns. Sometimes I can’t understand my own words. Languages circle and swirl. Everything is not easily divided by 3. I have landed between columns.

I once heard someone say that a person’s values change depending on the group s/he is with. For example, when you are in high school you may have a set of friends and acquaintances and then when you go to college you acquire another set. Because of this new group of people by whom you are influenced, your own personal values may change. It is inevitable. No one lives in a bubble.

In group theory numbers map neatly into a series of integers. We divide by 3, take the remainder, create a clear table of fiber columns. You may be a positive or negative integer. Depending on how your integer self divides by 3 may determine which fiber column you fall into.

I leave it to my integer self to determine.

In the morning I will rise before it is light and go to a job. I will answer phones and file for the day. Or many days. Shift context and conversation. My connections, relations will change. Soon the snow will start and more dark becomes winter. I place ideas into columns, fibers made of words and images, but the columns blur, or they are too long and they twist and turn like performers of a modern dance. I have become a subset of myself, mapped on to the integer 1, this fiber set becomes indefinite. I learn it is not so easy to fall into a fiber column, not so easy to remain within any clear table of knowing. I learn that mathematics is philosophical and inexact, there are different kinds of infinity. I know that nothing maps neatly but I believe in it anyway, want this proof to be made elegant, believe in the poetics of the group. But my integer self is unruly, in dynamic relationship with others, a language of division and progression that I won’t come to know for some time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

to essay

...another strategy is to ignore the explicit and tend toward sweeter imagery, like scents and shaded nuance. Following a map, a predetermined round of luck. I have read a book in which the colors vibrate, photos tell a story of crumbled architecture, a literal metaphor for our current times. This, of course, has nothing to do with stale flesh, but I am trying to ignore that at the moment. It sounds like putrid political banter or the empty jargon of men with shiny teeth and photogenic hair. Get on this page, interface that, let's iterate. Stinking discourses of the mainstream. And none of us is outside, huddled together in this center of privileged misery. This is why the poets turn romantic or lean into narrative confessionalism.

Dear Sharon Olds, tell us the story of your grandmother again. Sigh. We want catharsis within rational means. Don't make me emote beyond my capacity. This is exactly why fresh flesh works best. The purely physical denotation cannot be dismissed or set on the side of interpretation. Oh Susan Sontag yes it is still always about interpretation. And we are getting worse at it. The leaves of intellect falling into spaces of settling concrete, sidewalks paving over our deepest insights. Dear Susan Sontag the photo has been altered my hopes have been altered the image is just finally so clear. Dear Charles artifice is simply for the sake of artifice and we will absorb. We are sponges. Playing on slick surfaces and shiny baubles. We love letters printed without serif and cartoons that depict the genuine stereotypes of real people. We want our lesson with our oatmeal maybe even dashed with raisins. Our news with the flash. Our memories like Polaroid’s, developing into clarity before our eyes.

The poetry has become political, music lullabies like sedatives, painting what one does with one's house after too much deliberation. If gratuitous means explicit then let's be clear. I no longer wonder as I wander but I whimper and strain. The rainbow papers and obstructive justice are only like the sweet icy desserts, after a long winter, in which each individual flake of snow is still falling, frozen in space and time.