Tuesday, February 22, 2011

[On Why I Have High Expectations and Might Not Be Teaching Within a Year or Two]


One of my graduate school classmates, Eric Sentell, posted a link to this article on his Facebook page earlier today, and holy moly, does it ever make sense.  Go read it, then come back here.

Did you read it? No? Then go read it. Then come back here.  My reflections will make a whole lot more sense after you've read it (and the comments).

Ready? Okay, here goes.

As most of my regular readers know, I was fortunate enough to go to Truman State University for four and a half years.  Truman, let's face it, is not an easy school.  Occasionally, one will come across the "easy-A" class and get a break, but for the most part, my professors and instructors had high expectations of their students and expected us to be independent learners.  Their office doors were open (during office hours and by appointment) whenever we needed help, but for the most part, they expected us to read the instructions, work it out, and write the papers by the due date.  If we didn't bother to take note of due dates or class expectations, well, that was our own fault and we dealt with the consequences.  And lest ye think that I'm pulling an old fogey "back in my day," let me remind you that I'm 27 and graduated from Truman in 2006. It hasn't been that long.

At Truman, my "straight-A" arrogance got humbled in a hurry, because I was competing with a school of overachievers.  I was the one in high school that got the art scholarships and even an assistantship coming into college, and so I had every confidence that I'd ace the art program and be able to pile on a minor or two--maybe even a second major.  Boy, did I learn fast, and by mid-term, I had changed majors so I could keep my scholarships.  Fortunately for me, I've got a boatload of interests, so it was a matter of finding out which I had the most potential in (pardon my dangling participle... I couldn't work that one out so it became perfect grammar-wise but still non-pretentious), and finally at the end of my sophomore year, I landed in creative writing.  It was still a challenge, don't get me wrong, and while I stayed above the scholarship-retention level, my GPA did progressively decline. I'm smart (I'm not going to lie--I am), but far from genius, and there were a lot of classes that nearly made me crazy.

But I learned.  I learned a lot.  My toughest teachers are the ones for which I am most grateful, because they're the ones that equipped me for graduate school.  Truman also had a writing-enhanced requirement. As an English teacher, looking back, this makes me giddy with joy (though not at the time of having to write those papers).  We had to take classes, often outside of our curriculum or traditional "writing" courses, that were labeled "writing-enhanced." For the life of me, I don't remember the exact number, but it was enough to be intimidating.  In fact, my introduction to world religions class required a three-page paper almost every week, plus several longer researched papers.  It was a pain, but boy am I ever glad I had to do them, because I learned about those religions much more in-depth than I otherwise would have learned, and by sophomore year, I could spew out a lucid three-page essay, without having to BS my way through, in under an hour or two.  Shoot, most of my blog entries, were they MLA and double-spaced, would verge on 5-10 pages these days, and that's usually without research to expand my arguments.

And here's the thing--no one taught us step-by-step how we were supposed to write a paper.  They gave us some guidelines (strong thesis statement at the end of the first paragraph, clear organization paragraph by paragraph, focused argument, and trustworthy research to back the claims) and the rest was up to us to work out. I wrote some good papers, and I wrote some not-so-good papers, but each one was a learning experience, and I gained critical thinking skills that extended beyond English because I did so much of it myself.  And here's the other thing: I wanted A's, but if I didn't get an A, with rare exceptions, I figured it was my own fault for not putting in the effort.

Now, fast-forward to 2011, and I'm an adjunct instructor.  For those of you who don't know what that is (namely, I would imagine, some of my students who have wandered over to this blog entry from the class blog), it basically means that I'm a part-time instructor with no guarantee that I'll be hired again next semester. I can teach, at most, four classes in a normal semester, two in the summer, and I'm paid by the credit hour.  Last year, by teaching the maximum number of hours possible, I made just over $20,000, and there are two months in the year (IF I get to teach every semester) that I don't get paid at all.  This semester, I'm teaching three classes, and this summer, unless more classes are added on and I'm one of the lucky ones who get a second class, I'll be teaching half of what I taught last year. And I'm in good company; many, if not most, of the instructors at community colleges (and increasingly at universities) are part-timers like me with no job security or benefits, and as Benton explains in his column, "Now undergraduate teaching relies primarily on graduate students and transient, part-time instructors on short-term contracts who teach at multiple institutions and whose performance is judged almost entirely by student-satisfaction surveys" ("Perfect Storm").

So it is any wonder that I find myself in a difficult position, wanting to have high expectations of my students so they will benefit (not so I can be mean or get by on doing less as a teacher), but I'm afraid to do so?  I tried to push my Comp II students last semester to do more (though, granted, it was my first time teaching that specific class, and we lacked the advantage of Comp I students in having a computer classroom), and my student evals were quite low.  The paranoid side of me is wondering how much of that affected my class load this semester and next, though I hope, sincerely hope, it's more to do with having classes spread thinly among too many instructors.

In spite of my fear that I might not have a job after a few more semesters due to dissatisfaction, I still intend to have high expectations of my students.  I hope with all my heart that down the line they'll understand why, even if it frustrates them now.  How on earth can I have high standards for myself and, heck, even my dog, and not extend it to the classroom?  Seriously, I even push Sassy outside of her comfort zone (not too far, but within reason) so she can face her fears (i.e., the treadmill, which after getting off last night, she almost acted like she wanted to go some more, which was unimaginable less than a month ago) and grow to be a dog I can trust around my friends' kids and that I can take to a nursing home to cheer up some sick elderly folks that miss having a dog of their own without fearing she'll knock them down.  I put her in social situations in which it's not easy for her to be calm and not jump and pee excitedly all over with joy because she has to be challenged to be a better pet--one that I can take with me anywhere that allows dogs without fear.  And while she's still got a long way to go, she's come even farther as a result of these challenges.

So I challenge my students.  I know it's not easy to critically analyze a classic film. I know it's not easy to come up with your own topic and its focus (rather than writing a paper of trivia).  I know it takes time to flip through the manual to learn how to cite your references on a case-by-case basis, but let's face it, that's always going to be the case because the rules change (even for me!) and every source has different information available. And yes, I know I'm expecting you to do a LOT of writing by blogging 300 words every week (especially if writing isn't your "thing"), but guess what: with discipline, you can do it (just think of my religion class if one page seems like a lot), and it's going to help you to be, not just a better writer, but a more complex thinker.  By looking at a lot of sources and determining your own arguments, you're learning to look more in-depth into what you're being told and not just accepting things at face-value. I know it's hard to read an assignment sheet and be expected to figure out, based on the instructions, what the assignment requires, but as you get further along, it's the norm, and remember, we do conference over every paper, so even if you do it completely wrong, you'll get feedback and plenty of time for revision before you receive a grade--and one that your essay and your growth as a writer has earned, not just a pacification grade.  I don't just leave you hanging.

I know I'm doing the right thing, but I'm not going to lie--it's scary to do it.

Work Cited:

Benton, Thomas H. "A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education, Part I." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 20 Feb. 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2011.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

[Stuck Inside on a Gorgeous Day]

Despite the wind and frequent cloud coverage, it's a stunningly beautiful day outside, and what am I doing during the best, warmest part of it?  Sitting in the adjunct office waiting for students to come in and conference.  I'll get out at about 4:30 and have, oh, about an hour of daylight left with the sun (in the backyard where I can play with my pup) shining straight in my eyes and blinding me.

Yes, I'm whining. Deal. 

I'd be okay with it if the meteorologists weren't calling for rain pretty off and on my entire four-day weekend.

I want to make like a lizard and stretch out on a rock in the sun, while Sassy curls up next to me in one shady spot. If I hadn't needed to monitor my email for cancellations and questions between conferences, I'd have held them outside on a bench with Sassy beside me. Yes, that's right, I love being around my pup; now that she's not so neurotically wild, she's really a treat to be around. Oh, the look she gave me when I left an hour ago when she wanted to go outside and play ball...

Still, four-day weekend on the rise, so Self, take heart. Three more hours and you're free for awhile.

Note to self: remember to ask Mom and Dad to bring up my bike.  For days like this, I'd like to train Sassy to walk/run beside me while I ride on the park trail.  She'd get a full run for once, and I'd get a chance to exercise at a comparable rate to her.

I'm also a little irritated (I have the beginnings of a headache... can you tell?) that I can't access some of my favorite blog reads on my office computer.  Whenever I open a link to one of them, it loads partway up, then freezes the browser window.  They've upgraded the OS, but not the processors.  That really cuts down on my list of things I can do when, like now, there's an hour and twenty minute gap between conferences--a long enough gap to get bored, but not enough time to go home for awhile.  I already ate lunch, I've FB'ed all I can stand, I read my daily comic strips already, I can't update blog points for my students except on my home computer, so that leaves blogging.  That's not a bad thing, unless like today, I have nothing constructive to say.  So... I whine. I also write blogs relatively quickly, so even that only knocks out 20, 30 minutes at the most with my longest entries, unless I'm feeling ponderous.

Because this is a journal-style blog, I realize I have a limited appeal to audiences.  If I could come up with an idea for a themed blog, I'd have a more active audience, but so far, I've got nothing. 

Well, that took care of another two minutes. Oh, me, oh, my.

Welp, that's about the extent of my brain right now. It's rapidly constructed and thought, but it's set on repeat and recycle, so anything else I'd say would simply rehash it all over again.

Over and out, for those who managed to stick with me the whole post.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

[Email Etiquette]

It's rough draft season, so I'm getting a lot of emails via rough draft submission and questions about points and appointments.  It looks like I need to work in a class period in which we discuss email etiquette. This is not a direct quote (I wouldn't dare) but a typical style of email message I've received from students (and keep in mind, I teach college English):

hey nicole i forgot 2 snd u my paper n are confernce today can i make it rite bak soon

No exaggeration, I swear... No capitalization, using the name I asked them to not use ("Niki, Ms. Cox, but please, never Mrs. Cox (see? no ring!) and especially not Nicole! That's the name I associate with my mother's displeasure."), no punctuation, lots of text speak, and glaring misspellings.  Now some I can understand... longer words like conference or analysis can be a little tricky if your gift isn't spelling, but words like write or back are words that they shouldn't have made it out of elementary school without knowing how to spell. Not to mention some don't even bother with a salutation (even this example has one) or polite requests ("please write me back soon" is ever so much more compliance-inducing than something like "rite bak soon i need to no."). 

And to think... some schools are cutting back on basics like English in favor of more math and science. I recognize the need for both, but what good is knowing how to cure the common cold if you can't spell, punctuate, or write well enough to convey your findings so the cure can be used?


[New Tradition--Monthly Update?]

I've noticed a pattern lately--one update a month.  It's not planned, and I honestly mean to write more, but somehow, before I know it, a month's gone by and I haven't written a word.

Hmm... time speeding up... I must be getting old.

Anywho, today was one of my glorious migrainy days; in fact, I had to cancel the afternoon's student conferences when the dizziness kicked in, because I knew that the symptoms could very well lead to one of my doozies.  However, I did manage to ward most of it off by laying down in my darkened bedroom for a couple hours, though as the evening has progressed, I've started getting a bit achy.  Naturally, since going to bed with the start of one usually leads to a multiple-day one, I took some pain meds to nip it in the bud before conking out, and also quite naturally, as I sit down to write this, the goofies are starting to kick in.

So, in other words, if as this entry continues it loses coherence, you'll know why.  Still, write I must, because the need is great, and it'll probably be more entertaining for all this.

Recent updates: Sassy and I have acquired a treadmill.  Sassy's been somewhat reluctant to accept it with joy, but I've been using my most Cesar Millanish dog whispering skills, and from day one, I've managed to get her to surrender to it, if not overjoyed about the experience.  Two-ish weeks in, and she'll get on without collar assistance, stay on without a leash, and walk across it if she thinks she might have left a crumb in a crevice somewhere (she gets rewarded with a special treat for walking on it for a half hour or more, which, with her energy level, is akin to sprinting down one stretch of sidewalk for 30 seconds).  That's my little champ! Even weak little old Niki has been getting on and walking (no jogging or running--since my last surgery, jarring movements, even after emptying the bladder, tend to lead to leakages) for anywhere from 20 minutes (brisk) to a full hour.  In fact, a day or two before getting the treadmill, Sassy and I went for a walk on a trail here in Springfield, and I came home utterly winded and headachy.  Yesterday, we went on that same trail, and if I hadn't so gracefully managed to fall on my arse in some freshly melted snow at the end of the trail, I could have doubled what I'd done last time and would have felt only somewhat pooped.  Oddly, though, my waistline seems to be expanding despite increased activity and lower calories.  Go figure.  Perhaps, though, it just seems that way relative to my gradually shrinking thighs and hips.  I hope.

This semester, so far *knock on wood* has been less stressful. I'm still a bit wigged out about finances, but having taught this class sooo many times before, and therefore having most of my activities planned out outside of needing to update due dates, I'm getting a lot more winding down time.  Only in the past two days or so have I been having mini-anxiety attacks, and that's probably due more to this slowly building headache than anything.  I have things I could rant about, naturally, but I think I'm going to keep those mostly isolated to my handwritten journal for awhile.  Lately, it seems every effort to vent to friends and family leads to well-intentioned advice-giving from them.  There are days, I must confess, when I miss Facebook's existence as a college student/alumni-only site.  Not always, though, since I love being in touch with long-lost friends and family, and let's face it, I am LOUSY with email and phone correspondence. Heck, look how spotty I've become with my precious blog!

New addiction: Forty Thieves Solitaire.  It's maddeningly difficult, but still within my realm of ability to beat about 5% of the time (it really is that hard), and if I get into a losing streak, I can't seem to quit until I win one. Thank you, smart phone.  Then, if I'm doing well, I want to follow it up with a second win. Take my advice: don't even try it.  It'll suck you in like quicksand--subtle, until it's too late.

Social life updates? Nada. More pitiful than normal, in fact. It might not be so bad if I only felt comfortable going out on my own, but since the attempted break-in in November, I'm still mildly paranoid, and with so many of my friends now married, usually with kids, and the ones who aren't being busier than me with work, it's really not much of a surprise that I end up a bit isolated.

All the same, it wasn't too bad this year for V-Day.  My Sassy was the perfect valentine by cuddling up to me most of the day.  She's become a lot calmer and more affectionate in the last month or so.  It seems that when we get more alone time without others playing "leader" role (*ahem* Mom and Dad, though they mean well when they spend 3/4 of a month at my house), she becomes a lot more attentive to me, and a lot more obedient.  Of course, what that might also mean is that when allowed to be so, independence really boosts my confidence.  I do love my parents and love when they visit, but I do also recognize the same pattern that occurred when I started at Truman.  I became self-sufficient and my self-esteem skyrocketed.  Moving back home, necessary though it was after Truman and then grad school, caused a lot of regression.

This, too, may be a playing factor in my staying home a lot more than normal (even from church--sorry, my darling church! I know it's been awhile)--the need to get to know myself again.  I think I lost a lot of identity when I didn't have to make my own decisions.  Even now, I have a hard time doing things, big things, like buying stuff I know I could use, without checking in with my parents, which usually leads to one or both of them trying to talk me out of it or into postponing it.  Vicious cycle, really.

In the past week or two, though, I think I've started to come back around to who I was becoming around graduation 2006.  I don't feel so disconnected.  I went through a, well, not a crisis of faith, but a big round of questioning, but now I feel I've gotten to where I can reconcile a lot of things I was struggling with, keeping my faith, but now able to think more independently.  Part of it, I guess, is backlash from fundamentalism, and it's a matter of finding that happy medium where I have the peace of faith in Christ and where I can still approach my understanding of the Bible intellectually (better knowledge of context and realization that some of it can be taken with a grain of salt knowing that, even if it was inspired by the Spirit, it was written by humans with an agenda, yet He can be found there).  In other words, it's continuing to develop into a real faith and not a blind acceptance of what I've been taught.  At any rate, that's where I am right now, and I'm, you know, I'm content.

I could make some other confessions, but it's after midnight now, and I start conferencing again in just over 12 hours.  Somewhere between then and now, I need to sneak in about eight hours of sleep, and anything more in the way of verbal diarrhea (or as I now say, thanks to Top Gear, the [verbal] trots) would simply be overkill.

Happy Singles' Awareness Day, everyone.