Sunday, February 17, 2008

The highs and lows of this week's work...

I have a pile of essays staring me down, and so I really can't--or shouldn't--be blogging.

But I feel as though I have been holed-up in my office for so long that blogging is more a release than a burden, right now. I told a friend and colleague of mine over happy hour drinks on Friday that I miss having an office-mate because I never talk to anyone but my students. That's not to say that conversations with students are a bad thing. (I had a number of particularly inspiring conversations with students this past week, in fact.) But I really do miss the comaraderie--the bouncing-off of ideas, the commiserating, the celebrating, the afternoon rants and silly song-making--that came with having a good friend to share an office with.

When I come home, I am so filled-up with ideas and experiences that I just offload them onto my husband, who doesn't seem to mind, but who is a teacher, too, for chrissakes, and so he could likely do without the piling-on of teacher-lore after he's had eight hours of the stuff, himself.

I was glad, then, to make a connection with a fellow comp-rhet fan (okay, so she's a bona fide scholar; I'm the mere fan.)

Daisy Pignetti is a PhD candidate who's from New Orleans and who's studying trauma theory. I emailed her to ask for her advice about my 4Cs paper topic, assessing writing after Katrina, and she sent me not only a helpful reply, but also a proverbial, "Girlfriend, don't I know it!" when I piled on a but about my busy-ness and academic-anxiety. I've really enjoyed reading her blog, and I am excited to get meet her next week, when she'll be in town for an alternative media-expo.

The "gist" of what I learned from her is that while there are lots of "big wigs" at the 4Cs conference, they are supportive and receptive people. In other words, ain't nobody going to go at my paper with a red pen. Phew!

Connecting with Daisy was but one bright spot in a crazy but rewarding week at work.

For starters, I ran my first transfer-proficiency exam workshops, which was super-challenging largely because the students a) resent having to take the test and b) expect me to "tell them how to pass it." These students are looking for yes/no answers: you may/may not use personal experience (ever); you should/shouldn't use contractions (ever); your thesis does/doesn't go at the end of the first paragraph (always); you must/mustn't deliver exactly five paragraphs (no more, no less.) In other words, they want from me precisely the kind of teaching I refuse to deliver: "teaching to the test".

I tried my best to prepare the students for the exam by explaining the criteria that all readers will be looking for (a clear thesis; fully-developed reasons in support of that thesis; effectively-organized paragraphs; relatively error-free prose that won't impede expressive reading or reading-for-meaning.) And I tried to emphasize the importance of appealing to readers who will be engaged in long and difficult grading sessions. "Donald Murray says it's best to assume that your readers are preoccupied--that you have to grab their attention and hang on to it at ever turn," I said. "They are not, in fact, preoccupied, but they are reading essay after essay on the same subject, so they will appreciate being rewarded for their attention." I tried to emphasize concrete details, clear (not "obfuscating-ly formal" prose,) and a fair and reasonable tone. But no matter how I tried to impress upon the students the nuanced-nature of writing for a variety of readers in a timed environmet in response to a "blind" prompt, they still wanted me to speak in platitudes.

"How many errors can we make?"

"Do they punish you for bad spelling like some teachers do?"

"Do they fail you if they disagree? I hate that."

Comments like these confirm my belief that these high-stakes assessment-mechanisms may be doing more harm than good... I did my best to be supportive and encouraging, but I still endured more than my fair share of eye-rolling and thinly-disguised harumph-ing. That was hard.

I also continued to work with a student whose hearing-impairment has challenged everything I know about teaching, but from whom I am learning so, so much. I would really like to write in detail about my work with this student, but I worry about privacy-issues. (How much should/can a teacher reveal on a blog--what's off limits? How can I share some of the challenges that come from interacting with/teaching these particular students without speaking in generalities or violating their privacy?) I spent two hours on Friday typing up a lengthy "report" that will likely be read by no one but me, and I realized that what I would really liek to do is record my one-on-one teaching with the student more my own future learning and writing. I don't know how a recording-device would impact our interactions, though.

There were some wonderful high points this week, both with that student and with my workshop-students. One of my favorite moments:

In workshop, we were reading a sample proficiency exam out loud. The topic of the essay was "gender role-learning and the family," and I had each student read a paragraph. We stopped after each paragraph and discussed it.

Well, we got to a big beefy man--a Marlboro-mannish-man who rarely smiled, spoke, or even seemed engaged. The paragraph he had to read began, "My parents always dressed me like a little princess..." It was supported with details of "frilly pink dresses and Barbie dolls", and as the guy read, we all laughed together. He even smiled, and it was one of those wonderful moments that reminded me of how much I love the interactions that occur in the classroom. It really does feel a lot like the magical moments I've had with music and performance. There's an electricty, a chemical something-or-other, and it's impossible to describe. As the protagonist of Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" says, "It's really something." (We discussed that story in my lit-class this week, and that last line drove my students crazy until we talked about the impossibility of "naming" some experiences with language.)

Anyway, afterwards, my manly-man student came up to me to ask a question. There were several students crowded around me, each begging for the kind of declarative, absolute-statements that I'd refused to deliver in workshop. As I was ending my conversation with one student--a student who'd asked what classes I teach--my Marlboro man said, "Well, I guess if we fail the test and have to take the class, at least we can take it with you." Another student said, "I know. She's not boring!" He said, "I actually kind of like writing in here."

I glowed. Glowed, glowed, glowed.

So it was easier for me to deal with not leaving my office until 6:30 on a Friday (and still having a huge essay-pile to contend with.) It was easier for me to feel good about my work even when I discovered we'd overdrawn our account for the first time (two months into mortgage + rent-paying at the same time.) It was easier to again look at the floor plans that keep begging for my attention and to say to them, "Later... later."

It is not, however, easier to dive in to the task of grading--which is undeniably one of the most difficult tasks of my job. Here I go...

1 comment:

PhDaisy said...

Now that I've read this shout out, I feel REALLY bad that we didn't get to meet up! :P
I'm so glad you emailed me b/c it got me flexing my advising muscles again and that's the main reason I'm in academia in the first place!