Sunday Morning

I’m sitting around the house this morning, drinking my second cup of coffee, pajamas and cardigans and throw-blankets hanging off me like I was some kind of feudal lord.

I feel stiff and slightly inflamed; I think I am fighting off a shadowy illness. I couldn’t just be stiff from sitting and stressing, could I? I went to yoga on two consecutive days Thursday and Friday. It’s never enough.


If I were going to make a medieval-style book of days, but for our era, this week would be defined as ‘the days between when it first gets chilly and when the landlord turns on the heat.’ It’s not very cold, really, but I’d forgotten what cold is. I keep closing the windows, then feeling intolerably stuffy and opening them back up. I’m unaccustomed to coolness in my fingers. I’d forgotten about socks.

The next two classes won’t be too hard. On Tuesday, they’ll do peer review of each others’ research papers. I just have to make up a form for them to use for that. Thursday is a holiday again. I’ll have beaucoup grading to do. The following Tuesday, I’m using the class for one-on-one paper conferences, five minutes apiece. It takes a fair amount of preparation, but the time flies, and the previous one-on-one conference class was one of my favorites all semester. I like the opportunity to feel effective so many times in a row, and the students actually seemed to be appreciative and find it helpful, even when I was basically only explaining my written comments verbally. Everybody likes a little personal attention, I guess.

I don’t know what else to say. The sky is very gray. It’s been a gray week.

(Image by Limonada)

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I’m going to take just half an hour to write something for CP before I dive into studying GRE math.


A few disparate strands:

Class was a mess today. I under-prepared on purpose, because if I can’t wean myself off of spending three, four, or even more hours than that prepping each class, I don’t think I’ll even be able to afford to teach next semester if I want to.

The students are in the middle of their ‘research papers’ unit. It’s been a week since our last class meeting because of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

Long story short, I ended up feeling annoyed in and after class today: a mix of feeling crestfallen for having failed them a bit, and angry at them for not being better students who would get my lesson.

Last time we met, I helped them refine research questions. Over the break, they were supposed to do the actual research, and come to class with an outline of their paper, a tentative list of references, and a tentative thesis statement.

For class today, my mother had given me this exercise that she likes to do with her own classes. For this exercise, you come into class and you say, okay, write me a bad thesis for this paper you’re working on. Make it really bad! As bad as you can! Most of them don’t understand, but you throw all of the ‘bad theses’ up on the board, and as you talk about it, you all slowly come to understand what a good thesis is: not just a statement of fact, not something you can’t support with evidence, and so on. Ideally, there are a few laughs; inevitably one of the ‘bad theses’ turns out not to be that bad after all, etc.

So I did that, and they didn’t get it all that well, and it was eight o’clock in the morning. I tried to tell them that a thesis is a statement of opinion, and that completely confused everyone because they’ve been working on these research papers where they’re just trying to find answers to a question. I back-pedaled and tried to say that in the case of a research paper, a thesis should be a true synthesis of all the research that they’ve found, filtered through their own judgment; for instance, if they find a difference of opinion in their sources, they should agree with one side or another, and argue for it. The more I talked, the more bizarre the assignment started to seem…did I want a real thesis or didn’t I? It no longer seemed clear. Bleagh!

We should have a whole semester to do research papers. A research paper is a complicated thing. These kids are lost, and I don’t think I’m leading them very well right now because I don’t have much of a sense of what an undergraduate research paper ought to be or do, either.

All right: so this is one of those new-teacher learning experiences—I mean, maybe more of a learning experience for the teacher today than the students.

I gave them the last half-hour of class to work on their theses and outlines before handing them in. Most of them surfed the internet, I’m sure. Well. For $2800 a semester, I thought, I’d better slack off once or twice.

One thing I did notice was that having one sentence by each student up on the board raised the stakes of participation slightly. Each student whose sentence we were talking about at that moment would smile shyly and pay extra attention. So maybe there’s another lesson for me in there somewhere.

Secondly:

It’s fall! I left the house without an appropriate jacket today, just a thin silk sweater and a wool shawl I’m enjoying pulling around me this way and that on the subway and on the street.

Here’s a professor confession for you: I started taking Zoloft again on Monday. It’s been over two years since I’ve taken antidepressants, so this is a big deal for me. Like so many other people, I started in college, and took them almost continuously—with a few breaks of varying lengths, some of them disastrously ill-timed—from then till the time I was 27. I was grateful for the relief from anxiety and occasionally overwhelming sadness, but I also always felt strange and a little grumpy about it: I wanted to be me, not some drugged up version of me! I wanted to adjust the world to myself, not myself to the world. I worried that antidepressants would mess with my natural talents and, in some funny way, prevent me from fulfilling my potential. I guess I worried that they’d make me normal but keep me from being unique, or even—embarrassing to say it—from being great. I stopped writing stories and poems around the same time that I started taking antidepressants (incidentally, that was also the time that I started going to college, so I don’t think it will ever be possible to pry apart the variables), and I always wondered about that. Would I be more creative without antidepressants? Perhaps, in some way, more self-actualized and therefore more deeply fulfilled?

I don’t believe all of those things anymore, but I mulled them over for a long time. I always fantasized about a future life in which I wouldn’t have to take antidepressants, because I’d have figured out a way to be all right with myself. When I got to New York two and a half years ago, I decided that I’d test the ability of my new home and my new full-time work routine to sustain me. I started tapering down on the pills, very slowly. Six months later, I was pill free.

I’d wanted to prove to myself that I could live without antidepressants. And I think that I succeeded. My decision to start again now doesn’t feel like one made under duress. I’ve been going through a rough-ish time, but I’ve been through other rough times in the past couple of years, and they’ve always given way to less-rough times as the days pass. I’m sure that would happen again. On the other hand, a funny thing has happened. Now that I know I can live without antidepressants, I feel less weird about taking them for what they can give me. I’m ready, or getting ready, to move on to the next phase in my life. I’m not totally sure what it will be or how long it will last. It has something to do with modifying my work life—I’ve been in an ad-hoc, freelance-y, liminal space for most of this year, and am getting ready to move out of it—and it feels like everything else is on the table, too: love, whether or not I’ll stay in New York City. Everything is up for consideration, and that’s exciting, but also scary. I know my depression triggers by now and these are a lot of them: transition, the potential for disconnectedness, being in a situation where I have to assert myself and compete. I want to get it right this time, and if I need a little backup for that, so be it.

Secondly, I feel better about taking antidepressants again because I had two years to get to know myself without them and—I wasn’t that different. Am not that different, on or off. I haven’t been cranking out stories and poems in my unmedicated state, which makes me feel a little bit bad, but it’s also taught me that that kind of creativity probably has a lot more to do with my intention and the kind of space I create or don’t create for it than with some kind of magic trigger in my brain.

I’m over my half-hour now by some, and I haven’t even gotten to the title of this post. A friend of mine mentioned to me yesterday that sometimes, when you’re walking around in the crisp fall air, it’s good to imagine the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” playing in the background, and imagine your life as the movie of your life, rather than your actual life. We talked about how the song is feel-good, but also feel-bad. Is autumn itself a feel-good but also feel-bad season? It is the most nostalgic season.

The other night my friend and I were talking about, in her words, “wanting to live an interesting and to-the-bone life without sacrificing economic security or convenience.” I’m thinking about that a lot lately, and I’m thinking about “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and the crisp, heart-pulling, feel-good/feel-bad urgency of fall is in the air, and I’m not sure where the chips are going to land.

Monday Confession

I confess: Sometimes, when I am pressed for time, I assign the students a reading without reading it myself first. I just choose something that seems like it would be good to discuss. It’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall. It gives me 15% naughty thrill, 85% guilty anxiety.

Next semester, next year, after the revolution, I promise myself, I will stop doing this.

This afternoon, however, I’m reading the essay I assigned on Thursday, and trying to figure out something edifying to say about it tomorrow.

The essay came from the Best American Non-Required Reading series—something that will prove, I think, to be a good source of readings for freshman comp, since they’re interesting, often funny, and well-written but not at an unattainably high level. The book is practically put together with reluctant readers in mind.

I’ve Been Reviewed!

nuns

Are these stares of attention, affection, or pure hate? Sometimes from the
teacher’s desk, it’s hard to tell. (Image: Foxtongue)

It’s the middle of our term already. (We have a crazy, sped-up, eleven-week semester. Not that I’m complaining.) And with the middle of the term come mid-term evaluations. The college sent us a form to distribute to our students to fill out anonymously. They had to answer questions about how the course was going, commenting on their experience, whether they understand the material, and what could be going better.

First, I budgeted 15 minutes for this task; it took the students about five.

I did, but didn’t, but did, but didn’t want to look at the results. It felt sort of like a car crash. Curiosity just won out over fearfulness (and anyway, the answers were so short), and…omg, they actually kind of like me!

They say they understand what they need to do. One asks for more one-on-one time. I am “very nice and very clear on assignments.” Apparently it’s good that I email the class. Somebody’s “really enjoying the class so far” and someone deems it “overall a good atmosphere” even though she’s “not a huge fan of english.” I’m a “great teacher w/ good teaching style” and “a good teacher, easily teaches us what we need to know & is easy to understand.”

This is a huge relief. I’m a little surprised, actually almost giddy. These sometimes zombie-like teenagers, who drag themselves from warm beds at a heartbreaking hour to take crowded trains to a windowless room where I spout off about things like APA citation and ask leading questions that are often as not greeted with fuddled, surly silences think it’s all…worth it? Yes, some of them smile at me. But sometimes they also look at me like I’m mentally ill. Especially that one who sits to my left, especially when asked to do something creative. And that other one, when I ask her to put her phone away during class time. Knowing that they’re not planning a mutiny and that I’m totally hanging in there as compared to their other teachers is really, really soothing.

Getting down in the comment stack, I find that I also “need a little more enthusiasm in the class because it’s hard for a lot of us to stay awake.” Yeah, I hear that. Will work on kicking it up a notch.

Finally, a brave soul with crabbed handwriting notes that class so far is also “kind of boring. Needs better + enjoyable activities.” (Ahem. I know who you are, unique handwriting. Know what I think would be better + enjoyable? You turning in a goddamn assignment once in a while.)

In other news: I showed this blog to a friend, who says that she likes that I am “writing searchingly, instead of authoritatively.” I liked her saying that.

I also showed this blog to my mother, who didn’t appreciate the Grendel’s mother reference. To clarify: my mother isn’t like a monster. She is like a spring day. I was only trying to convey some sense of the ferocity of her comp-fu. Sorry, mom.

Prep

My sister walks into the room where I’ve been prepping class for hours. The sheer amount of paper involved in this teaching business is incredible: I sit amid handouts, student papers to be graded, papers graded already, printouts from the internet, ideas for exercises, our textbook, my own notes. A one-and-a-half-hour-long class requires three or four exercises at least; it’s like a symphony with several movements. These activities need to provide variety but should also engage each other in some logical way: allegro, adagio, what-have-you. It’s hard not to feel like twice a week, I’m writing and performing a new one-woman show.

“You know,” she says, “I never believed it when my teachers used to tell me that it took a lot of work for them to get class ready. I always thought they were just whining.”

Yeah, I kind of thought that too. It turns out they were hustling for us, and that every now and then they wanted us to know it.

Saved

Like Grendel, I have a powerful mom. She saves my ass when I call her at 9:30 in the evening. “I’ve been trying to prepare class all day!,” I say. “The entire day! And I still don’t know what I’m going to do with them tomorrow!”

“Okay,” she says. “We can figure something out. What are they supposed to be working on?”

I tell her that their first big assignment is something called a process essay. I don’t even know what a process essay is. I more or less copied the sample syllabus that was given to me, verbatim, and now that we’re in the semester I am seriously regretting this; the syllabus isn’t the clear map it had appeared to be. On closer inspection, it’s a document full of mysterious heiroglyphics, unhelpful labels like “in-class writing exercise” branded across whole days; I’m shackled to agendas that I don’t even understand, and discovering whole levels of variables I hadn’t even counted upon.

“Ah, a process essay,” she says. “Right. I’ve done those before.” Turns out a process essay is where you write about something that you know how to do well, and you describe the steps in order so that someone else, after reading your essay, will know how to do it too. “It sounds easy,” she says, “but don’t worry. They’ll have some trouble with it.”

My mother thinks. “Okay, all right,” she says. “So here’s what you do. Break them up into groups. Groups of like…maybe four. Have each person make a list of ten things they know how to do well. They will have a hard time thinking of things they know how to do well. You may need to suggest stuff. So then, when they’re done with that, have each of them pick one. And they write down the steps. And then, have them put their notebooks away. And each one of them does a little presentation for the other ones, describing how to do the thing. Have the other ones do critique, if there’s something they don’t understand, or something out of order. All this will probably take more than an hour. Then, at the end, have them give their presentations for the class. Or maybe…have them nominate the best presentation from each group and give that to the class. This all shouldn’t take you very much more prep time. You should spend another half an hour max on this tonight.”

Saved my ass, she did. And she even sounded happy to be asked.

What the teacher learned: You need to have a teaching fairy god-familymember. If you’re not blessed with a teaching mom, make some teaching friends. They already know how to do what you couldn’t figure out in eight hours of skimming the internet and hyperventilating.

Also, I am pretty much ready to write my own process essay on ‘how to fill 90 minutes of class…once.’ One session down, 23 to go.

Self-Introductions

Before the first day of class, all faculty members receive an email from the department head. The first class meeting, he explains, should by no means be considered a “meet and greet.” We have a short semester, and to set the tone for it, it’s essential, besides going over the syllabus and course policies, to actively teach something on the first day.

Yes! I think. I’m going to teach something on the first day. It will be short, lean, elegant, and bad-ass…like Lucy Liu in the form of an in-class exercise.

But as the day approaches, I haven’t come up with much. ‘I want to know who these kids are and where they’re coming from,’ I think. ‘And I want them to know each other. If we know each other a little, the class will be better able to function as a community.’

So, in the end, after racing too fast through the syllabus (“so uh…plagiarism! You know what that is, right? Basically, plagiarism, don’t do it! Big pain in your ass, it’ll be…”), I hand out a first-day questionnaire, and invite the students to write (writing in class! Just like we’re supposed to!) a response to share with their colleagues and me.

I ask where they’re from, what if anything they like to read, what kinds of writing they’ve done most of, what brought them to this college, and as a getting-to-know-you type deal, what would be their idea of the perfect day.

The students write, and I write, and then we go around the room and we read. Ninety percent of them cite an afternoon at the beach with friends and family as the best way to spend a day. I begin to wonder whether they are unimaginative, or whether all this uniformity is part of a calculated decision not to reveal much. I’m some lady they just met, and these are their peers whose respect they probably want, so maybe no one wants to break out of the herd and mention how the perfect way to spend a day would involve rolling out of bed at noon, inhaling a big plate of spaghetti carbonara for breakfast, and watching episode after episode of America’s Next Top Model. I end up feeling like I don’t know them that much better at all, and my ambivalence about soliciting personal information through assignments is born. On one hand, I do want to know these kids; desire for work that allows for live, personal connections is one of the main reasons why I’m here in this windowless box at 8 in the goddammer, instead of still doing my full-time-in-front-of-the-internet job. On the other hand, I’m beginning to appreciate that these questions might be considered invasive, and that the students have signed up for a course on how to write, not Young Professor’s Selfcraft 101. This struggle will be revisited in later posts.

I write my own intro and also wonder how much to reveal and how much not to. I tell the students that I went to college in the Pacific Northwest, that I have a master’s degree in English from an Ivy League U., and something about the work that I have done in New York since earning my degree. I describe a perfect day spent by a lake with—uh-oh, here it comes—family and friends—and that the day would probably include reading and maybe even a little writing. I sound like such a schoolmarm, I think, and I also think that while the day I describe sounds pretty nice, it’s hardly the most interesting or revealing ‘perfect day’ I could come up with. As I assume my students have done, I too have sanitized. It isn’t easy to reveal yourself to strangers.

We finish half an hour early and with a sense of slight failure balanced by a determination to do better next time, I let them go.

The self-introductions in bubbly handwriting pile up on my desk as the students file out.

A day at a lake. Can I do any better with you? A few posts from now, I’ll try.

Emerging

The college where I teach is tucked into the more-tolerable side of midtown Manhattan. I had never heard of this college before I began to teach here, and neither have you. Its students aspire to jobs in the less-glamorous arm of a glamour industry that thrives in big cities like this one. The school offers so few courses in the humanities and liberal arts—courses that I considered almost the full range of possible studies when I was in school—that there is only one department for all of these things.

I am an adjunct, a job I will soon liken to parachute-jumping: I descend from the sky (or rather, I emerge from the mouth of my MTA tunnel) twice a week, early in the morning, and I push through the doors of this institution, which open for me and the magnetic key-card that bears a picture of my face looking first-week frazzled. I ascend to the faculty offices of a different department—I take the stairs, the elevator is clogged with undergraduates chatting about their roommates and the night before—copy my handouts, and forge into the computer classroom at the top floor where I teach the 18 students who have been assigned to me. The room has neither skylights nor windows. It’s a computer classroom, and when the students don’t heed my nagging at them to cluster around the center table, they look to me like prairie dogs, peering over the sides of their terminals at me, sniffing the air. The building manager has said that he doesn’t believe my estimation of how cold it is in this room, and that he couldn’t turn the thermostat down anyway if he did; the temperature is calibrated to be easy on the roomful of expensive machines. From 8 to 9:30 a.m., twice a week, students and teacher shiver together.

The auto-signature on my campus email account reads “Faculty,” and I like it, the way I like smiling at the other profs in the morning, the way I like it when a student raises her hand and shyly calls me “professor.” But I don’t really know these students and I don’t know this place. I learn what I can during my brief parachute-jumps, before I get back into the tubes that whisk me away to the other parts of my employment, livelihood, and recreation. I can imagine the other parts of their lives as poorly as they can probably imagine mine. On the way back to those tubes, I look up at the Chrysler Building; its knobs that remind me of a caterpillar, shining like nacre. Is it only because of the name, Chrysler, that I think of “chrysalis”? Every time I pass close by the building, I look up and lose my bearings. It feels like a quick prayer.

This is my workplace. For the next eleven weeks, this is the terrain I’ll parachute in and out of.