A Writer Threads The Needle

As a writer, there are some impossible assignments. Where the degree of difficulty is just too great to put pen to paper.

You can’t write anything sympathetic to Republicanism in The New York Times, just as you can’t write anything sympathetic to the Left in The Washington Times.

If you identify as male, you can’t write about the “female experience”. If you are rich, you can’t write about the poor. If you’ve never had kids, you can’t write about parenting.

I mean, you can, there’s a First Amendment after all, but good luck to you.

And if you’re on “the tenure track”, or a tenured professor, you can’t complain about anything higher education-related without understandably unleashing the growing army of adjuncts who struggle to feed themselves and make rent. They. Aren’t. Having. It.

Unless you were an adjunct before you landed your tenure-track position? And you acknowledge your good fortune. More than once. Then, just maybe, you can pull off the rarest of feats.*

Cue Sarah Emanuel’s essay, “The Deflating Reality Of Life On The Tenure Track” with the provocative subtitle—”Walking dogs helps me make rent.”

Props to Emanuel for her hustle and her risk taking as a writer. And her good humor.

Historical footnote. The Good Wife and I started our journey in a one-bedroom Venice apartment.

*I haven’t read the comments yet. Kinda afraid to.

Monday Required Reading

There is no vacation from reading. Indeed, some take the view that there’s no vocation, but reading.

The rich vs the very, very rich: the Wentworth Golf Club rebellion. The makings of a great novel.

The very, very rich vs the Mormon church. I’d read that novel too.

It’s time for car companies to shut up about electric vehicles and just ship them. Amen.

Norway’s most popular cycle route. Yes please.

Here’s what schools are doing to try to address students’ social-emotional needs. Shame on me, I shoulda lead with this.

How To Make A Positive Difference

A fall semester postscript.

When evaluating their progress at the end of the semester, my first year writing students say the same thing over and over. “In high school, all we ever did was literary analysis. Intro. Three body paragraphs with supporting details. A conclusion. I learned the formula, but it was mind numbing.”

Why are secondary teachers stuck in literary analysis mode? Is it as simple as teaching to Advanced Placement tests? If so, maybe we should risk the ire of parents determined to pass their privilege on and ditch Advanced Placement altogether.

Why not ask students to occasionally write about themselves in the context of big questions? To be introspective. To dare to be personal. To be philosophical. It takes some of my students longer than others to pivot to first person “I”, but eventually everyone sees value in it. Some experience an immediate awakening. For example, in one final paper a student wrote, “I don’t think I truly understood myself until this class because I never contemplated my biggest motivators. Why doesn’t my mom love me? Why do I feel so insignificant? Am I enough?”

K-12 teachers might reply that they’re not therapists so why venture into personal rabbit holes. I’m advocating for public, group-based community; not private, individual therapy.

Another student explained the difference especially well:

“Even on the days with the best attendance, our classroom does not exceed twenty people. This has allowed us to know each other on a deeper level than that of just classmates. I feel as though each person in class is now someone I can call my friend. Through group discussions, the sharing of intimate parts of our lives, and just laughing together in general, we have discovered all the similarities each of us share. As a group, we have formed our own sort of community, filled with people of all different majors and parts of the country. I can confidently say that I have learned just as much from talking to my classmates as I have from the assigned class readings.

Despite the different reasons for each student being placed into Writing 101, we are each leaving the class with one commonality. We formed a special little community built on finding our footing in a new place, trust, and compassion. . . . We made connections that could last a lifetime and learned lessons from one another that changed our perspectives.”

Since classmates don’t assign grades, students are socialized to pay attention exclusively to their teachers. Watch for yourself, in the vast majority of classrooms, students completely tune out one another.

Dig this paradox. My teaching is most consequential when I fade into the background and get my students to listen to, and learn from, one another.

Part Of The Circle

One-on-one conferences with my first year writers are a wrap. At the end of our convos I asked what most contributed to their learning and what if anything I should tweak going forward.

We ended up liking each other, so the feedback was almost universally positive. One recurring theme was, “We sat in a circle and you were part of the circle.”

When the classroom architecture makes it possible, it’s pretty simple isn’t it? Ditch rows. Ditch hierarchy. Ask challenging questions. Listen. And whenever possible, laugh.

Wednesday Required Reading

The ‘Mighty Mo’ begins her second century as a swimming champion. Thanks DB.

10 New Dating Slang Words To Know In 2021. Ladies, I’m tired of all the breadcrumbing.

Researchers shrink camera to the size of a salt grain. More University of Washington academic prowess.

Why there hasn’t been a mass exodus of teachers.

The latest imitation calls an academic journal’s integrity into question. LOL.

Netflix’s ‘The Chair’

Six very short episodes totaling three hours. Final grade, ‘A’. It’s the story of a newly appointed Chair of an English department at a fictional “near Ivy”. The larger stories are the corporatization of higher education, the declining status of the humanities, and the rising tide of social media-based groupthink among (many) students.

The filmmakers hit the elderly/senile/tenured faculty especially hard and it’s always hilarious. Sandra Oh is excellent as the besieged Chair, but her adopted daughter may be even better. Kids are usually filler, but she’s a complex, edgy, thoughtful human just in smaller form. Other filmmakers take note. 

The contrast between the young hip prof and the one well past his expiration date missed the essential element of excellent teaching—the degree and thoughtfulness with which students engage directly with one another. Had I consulted, I would’ve recommended substituting more poetry class-like dialogue for the Hamilton-like performance which was far fetched. Partial credit for that vignette though because with the exception of this all time great teaching film, t.v. and film teachers are almost always center stage. 

We don’t go to sporting contests to watch coaches. We don’t go to symphony concerts to (just) watch composers. So why do filmmakers take us into classrooms to primarily watch and listen to teachers? The answer of course is because way, way too many teachers talk way, way too much. And that teacher-centered model has seeped into our consciousness to the point that it’s rarely questioned.

Postscript: Clearly, no sophomore slump for Ted Lasso. Still so well written. A wonderful mix of intelligence, humor, and humanity.  

Penny Oleksiak Thanks Worst Ever Teacher For Inspiring Her

Penny Oleksiak, a Canadian swimmer, now has one gold, two silvers, and four bronze medals. Tuesday, she tweeted this.

Screen Shot 2021-08-05 at 4.53.23 PM  

Shortly afterwards, she added this.

Screen Shot 2021-08-05 at 4.54.50 PM

WOAT. . . worst of all time. 

If you’re a parent of school-aged children or a teacher, do your best to nurture, not crush young people’s dreams.

The Most Stupid Thing You’ll Read Today

From The New York Times. “Pushed by Pandemic, Amazon Goes on a Hiring Spree Without Equal”.

“To grow so much, Amazon also needs to think long term, Ms. Williams said. As a result, she said, the company was already working with preschools to establish the foundation of tech education, so that ‘as our hiring demand unfolds over the next 10 years, that pipeline is there and ready.'”

STEM hysteria never ceases to amaze.