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.