Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Resilience, or learning critical distance when teaching

In class the other day, I was teaching some of my favorite stuff--call it dinosaur studies.

I had put extra time and effort into the brief lecture, including the pictures. I had found some video clips of T. Rex that I thought they would like and explained the context.

Some days, you go to teach a class just because it's your job, but on this day, I was pumped and excited.

As I wound up the whole thing and the video clip finished, I asked "Are there any questions?'

What I expected as I stood there:
 What I got:
  • "Are you going to hand back our quizzes now?" 
It totally brought me up short. I was in the moment. They really were not.

Now, they're a nice if quiet group, and I realize that I shouldn't let this get to me. But it did. I was totally deflated even in my other classes and, yes, oddly sad for the rest of the day. I started questioning whether I should even be teaching.

Rationally, this is nuts. Classes come and go, and individual class hours are unpredictable. We've all had spectacular days in the classroom sometimes and so-so days other times and "kill me now" days at least once in our careers.

Rationally, I know that they don't have to like what I like. They have their own interests that I doubtless don't share, and, while I try my level best to choose interesting as well as pedagogically useful materials, that's something you can't always predict.

But irrationally, I wanted them to share a little excitement about dinosaur studies. Irrationally, I felt that I'd taken a risk, like giving them a caprese salad only to have them demand the usual pizza.

And thinking about it now, I realize that we really need both perspectives. Yes, they have their own interests, and rationally that's fine, and I try to work with that as much as I can. But if I stop being excited about what's happening in the classroom and wanting them to love what I love in terms of literature, then what am I even doing?

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

"Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?"

I've been rewatching Mad Men because there is no outside world in Mad Men, no politics, no brinkmanship, no, well, madmen on the loose.

The Undine of 2015 and earlier was pretty tough on the show sometimes, but nowadays I find it slow, and predictable, and very, very soothing. Together with The Good Place, it makes you think about your daily actions in ways that the dailiness of everyday life doesn't always facilitate.

In one episode--they're all a blur to me at this point, a sweet & comforting blur--Henry Francis challenges Betty Draper, who's just thrown one of her innumerable hissy fits about something or other. (Betty, comfortingly enough, only gets less selfish by microns rather than by inches.)

"Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?" Henry asks her.

Somehow, this swooshed me out of the minutiae of daily work life and up into one of those hovering spheres that you see in the movies. What it made me see is that I was drowning in those minutiae and that it felt suddenly like my choice to do that and that I could choose differently.

So, for example:
  • Do I really want to put that kind of time into a review or a meeting or one of innumerable memos? I do not.
  • Do I really want to move from unimportant project to unimportant project as a means of avoiding the hard work that (sorry, Marie Kondo) sparks joy? I do not.
  • Do I want to review yet another thing instead of writing and submitting something? I do not.
  • Do I really want to send a polite reply to the umpteenth scammy predatory journal email? I do not, and did not, and into the trash they go.
But there's also positive change:
  • Do I respond with cold fury if someone gets snippy in an email and escalate the icy politeness when I write back? You bet.  
  • If someone does that in person, does my body language (and steely gaze, and cold, measured tone) indicate that what I'm really saying is "You had best start over"? Yes.
  • Also, do I want to worry about and give an anodyne response to being called in by HR about  defending a student?  Or do I want to give them a coldly reasoned but furious piece of my mind, including stating that I know their primary goal is to hang individuals out to dry in order to protect Northern Clime from lawsuits? The latter, and that's what I did. We got to a better place after that, after they stopped trying to bully me, but the anger was necessary, I'm convinced.
 I know that this sounds as though anger is the only positive change, but there are other positive changes, too. It's slow going.

But for now, before I agree to working through someone else's draft to make sense of it, or explain something via email for the millionth time to someone who doesn't like the answer they're getting, or jump right on a complicated email issue with multiple questions instead of letting it marinate for a couple of weeks until I have time, I try to to remember Henry's question  "Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?"

I'm trying to think of it, Henry.