Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Next Meeting

The blinking lights on my bike do little to discourage cars from passing so close I can feel the wind blast made by their mirrors as they fly by.

Big pick-ups are the worst, and I think their drivers are acting out some kind of bike commuter phobia when they cut it so close.

The sun is not quite up, but the eastern sky has grown light enough to see the debris in the bike lane.

I am on my way to work and have seven miles to cover. It is still hot, even though we are several days into fall. Sweat runs off the brim of my cap visor.

Sweat will also soak through my shirt that I change into to teach. My students don't mind too much -- just as long as they don't have to sit next to me.

After the morning classes I will work on the course web site, grade papers, record attendance, and get ready for the next meeting.

The meeting, of course, is about planning and assessment. Always and forever assessment. It's the mantra of modern teaching, and I spend more time dealing with reports, evaluations, and assessment than I do teaching.

We here in the teaching world are fanatical about assessment, about data, about drilling into the data to better assess what we are doing, which we do less and less of because of the time we spend on assessment.

In the meeting we will pass papers around and look at the Likert scales and then make changes so we can then compare the Likert scales with the new, improved curriculum.

We don't talk much about teaching.

We don't talk much about students.

We don't talk much about class size, funding, wages, the decline in interest in the teaching profession.

But we do talk assessment.

Can't wait for that next meeting. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Comfort Zones and Demons (a meditation)

My family passed a landmark recently. We collectively took on different roles: parents became empty-nesters, sons became graduates, workers, travelers, young, semi-independent adults. We changed geographical locations, got new jobs, broadened horizons.

It has been exciting to stretch, for the most part, but with stretching comes tension. The new and unfamiliar comes with challenges, doing things differently, meeting and engaging with limitations. 

My son Sean calls these limits comfort zones. That works for many situations, but each of us is entering territory that has been a bit charged emotionally, or it has been avoided, or is somehow contrary to how we traditionally "identify" ourselves.

When a person moves in the direction of something personally difficult, a shadow if you will, that person goes to meet a demon. 

I respect deeply the courage needed not to turn away from something avoided or disowned or out of balance. That, my friends, is hard, real work.

Each member of my beloved family has taken a path that puts them on course to encounter a demon.

Megan has a new, hard job. She drives seventy miles a day to teach at a school in the Zuni Pueblo. The work is demanding, overladen with paperwork.The hours are long. She is living alone, without running water, in a remote part of New Mexico. 

But more than this she is learning not to be "the star," to just do a good job, and to live withing limits of time and energy. That is very hard for her. There is more, much more, but she has taken on the challenge and deals with high levels of anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion.

Sean is in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. He is alone as well, for the first time in his life, and is learning the lessons of solitude. He reflects on his privilege as an American abroad. The territory is new and uncomfortable.

Kyle is in San Diego and is meeting demons of his own. He goes door-to-door selling solar power to home owners. This is a young man who refused to read a poem to his school, even when threatened by his principal. He keeps his own council and would prefer to be left alone.

He is learning how to talk to strangers, to listen, to empathize, to put them at ease as he presents ways to use cleaner energy. 

I am left without the distractions of family life and live alone. I have to look at how I avoid doing my job, how, now that I can, I have forgotten what it was I wanted to do. I am drifting and have to reinvent myself. 

The script I live by is an old one and has to do with holding oneself back, always busy with what has been left undone, but avoiding really getting the work done.

I guess you could call this work psychological growth. Or maybe the human curriculum. 

I can't explain why, but I keep coming back to it, find it very important, and see that something like my soul hangs in the balance. 

I cannot overstate how much I respect my partner and sons for taking on the hard work of growing as people. I have to say I would like to see more of it, and more work in the world because of it. 

Rather than list just worldly, financial, or physical achievements (all wonderful), I would like family communication like Christmas cards to report how we have met our demons, pushed beyond comfort zones, become more balanced, more energetic, more integrated, less egotisitical human beings. 

To be in a family that shares that desire is more than I could have dreamed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Chubasco, or The Storm That Never Came (fiction excerpt)

As the sun rises over the mountains to the east, the sky above her darkens. Clouds from the south and west take over the horizon as a tropical storm makes its way over the desert.

Some call the coming rain a chubasco, or big monsoon, usually fueled by a Pacific hurricane or tropical storm. These storms can bring five or more inches of rain -- half of what the desert normally gets in a year -- over a single day.

Too much of a good thing will mean erosion, muddy washes, and dangerous flash floods.

She will spend the day walking between classes at the university with storms in her head to match the one moving in.

Her storm is an old one. It's more a rain of words than water and goes way back.

The darkness matches her mood as she makes her way across campus. It gathers in the corners of unfinished business in the alleys and niches of her mind. What if they discover what she has done? The migrants she ferried to Tucson in the middle of the night along that four-wheel-drive track out by Arivaca, lights off, undiscovered by Border Patrol, might talk if they are detained.

That's the chance she agreed to take when she started this business, the voluntary defiance of law. And she, so law abiding, has always felt a sting of betrayal. And the boyfriend who wanted no part in it, who left her, what about him?

She feels a stab of regret, of fear, but marches ahead to the next class, unable to share the secret demons in her mind.

All that has been left undone, unsaid, unearthed reaches out a beggar's hand.

She hopes that the rain washes away the mud of summer, that it rinses and cleans the air.

What she does not know is that the storm won't arrive, that she will be left without distraction from the insistent voices. They will persist and she will carry them with her while she navigates her day.

Where is the rain? Where is the release from the heat of summer?

She knows that she will have to return, that there are more who need her help.

It would be so nice, though, she thinks, to just have a few moments of relief. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

I Would Bring Him a Mouse

If I were a cat I would be glad when my human came home after almost three months away. I would follow him around, not unlike a dog, and extend my right front paw, offering a "high five" when he came home from work.

I would love him and give him presents.

I would bring in creatures from the wilds of the back yard.

Desert spiny lizards would be my specialty.

I would pick out the fattest, most colorful, handsome, and sassy of the species and bring them into the living room. While he watches the News Hours for coverage of ebola outbreaks and ISIL atrocities, I would fling them into the air, swat them on the way down, and then wait for them to run across the tile to refuge beneath the couch.

I would look at him with an expression of "Wasn't that great?"

He might try to ignore it all, but that would become difficult at night when he hears me jump onto the bed with a muffled "mmmmrrroww," because I have a very live and healthy mouse in my mouth.

I would let him know it's time to wake up and play.

The mouse, of course, would go under the covers and hide beneath his legs or run desperately across his face or leap blindly into space off the bed closely followed by me in hot pursuit.

I would find it all thrilling, and I  would know he does too, even if he pretends to sleep.

When he gets up in the morning, I would be ready for a day-long nap on my cat perch.

He would search the bed for the mouse, grab it when it sits still, and return it to the back yard. I don't know why or understand, but that's just the way he is.

Sometimes they try to fight and escape. They are suprisingly strong, like they have been doing pilates every night with me in the back yard.

As I drifted off to sleep with a Cheshire smile on my face, I would want him to have as good a day as I had a night.

He is strange, but I would accept him, even when I don't understand, if I were his cat. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Age Appropriate Narcisism and Critical Literacy

Dr. Isabelle Stelmahoske was my freshman English teacher. That class was 40 years ago, but it lingers with me today and has colored my career as a teacher of writing.

That class, like many first-year comp classes at the time, was decidedly expressivist. We wrote personal essays. Dr. Stelmahoske wrote more reader response comments than directive or prescriptive, and I was smitten with the work of the course.

Despite being a non-writer, I began keeping a journal, recording days snow-shoeing off campus and climbing trips to Devil's Lake. My life suddenly became the subject of record and reflection. I began to observe closely, to think and to carry a pen with me wherever I went.

We read Donald Hall's Writing Well  and talked in class about each others' writing. I read about the different effects that word choice can produce, the difference between, for example, "dishwater blonde," and "strawberry blonde," the difference between an abstract, lazy platitude like "education is paramount," to "I don't know what I will do now that I made it to college or why I worked so hard to get here."

Both Hall and Dr. S. used our interests in our own lives to contextualize and then teach craft, how we could become agents in shaping our own narratives.. Because I was interested in finding out what I thought, I was also interested in improving how I presented my observations and ruminations. Dr. S. seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say, and conveyed the message that what we had to say was worth a reader's attention. She was what I would later call "student-centered."

I began to see how I was shaped by personal, family, cultural, religious, and political "stories." I came to college with a vague and conservative belief that my own privilege, social hierarchies, and power relations were all somehow "natural," that what I saw on TV and read in Time or Newsweek was "true."

I did not see discourse as written; it was just received. 

I switched from a major in forestry to English and began to make a life out of words. I saw that mine was a life made of story and that I was the narrator.

When I transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the drama of the personal enlarged to include social history. Brilliant teachers like Harvey Goldberg pulled back the curtain of obfuscating ideologies. The stories that ran my life grew from being personal to being cultural, social, and political. What I had taken at face value for truth became suspect. The stories being disseminated about the nobility of US foreign policy became cynical fabrications that supported dictatorships and undercut popular organizing.

A brain specialist might say my frontal cortex was forming enough to handle more complex "formal operations," that I was ready for a higher level of concept load and theory. That may be true, but I also see an organic progression from personal interest to engaged social empathy.

Whatever the cause, "expository" writing made more sense to me than it had before. The aversion I had to it began to subside and it became a living, elegant, necessary form of writing rather than the mere academic exercise it had been in high school. I could see my place in it, had an investment in it, using the parlance of market economy. 

I would not have been ready for this during my first semester at college, yet it was what I am asked to do as a teacher of writing at my current university.

What I am saying is that I feel (yes, I know that is subjective, anecdotal) that I am skipping a step, that my students lack some of the personal engagement I acquired from Dr. S.

I prefer to ask my students to look at how literacy has played a role in helping them to expose the roles that images, sounds, words and narrative shape them, their identities, beliefs, values, how understanding the shapes of stories, how they can revise these stories, how doing so empowers (yes, another dated word) them.

Friends who know brain research tell me that the frontal cortex "lights up" whenever humans want to work on a particular problem. Desire is a funny thing, but may just be the missing link between student engagement and academic writing courses.

[More on this later.]