When you are tired and your heart aches… 1/30

When you’re tired and your heart aches and you think, “I don’t know what to do,” do something for someone else. Let your students know they are safe in your classroom, at the very least. It doesn’t cost much, and it could mean the world to someone who is having a horrible day, week, month. Writing classrooms, especially, need to be places where love reigns and safety is the first order of business, because it’s collaborative, because we share our thoughts, because we are so vulnerable when we write. The professors in basic writing classrooms are overcoming years of discomfort and distress–so they must be understanding of student fear and help allay in all ways possible–including posting signs or including statements like this in their syllabi.screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-8-39-19-amThis image is a bit fuzzy because it’s a screen shot from Facebook, but why not create one WITH your students FOR your students BY your students and YOU.

The best writing comes from a place of vulnerability. Don’t be afraid of that. Embrace it for your basic students. They already know how vulnerable they are: being graded, assessed, evaluated, judged. Help them understand that in your writing class, they are vulneralble but safe: no one will hurt them with words of pure anger, hate, bitterness. And if anyone is dares such an incursion into your classroom, you must promise to jump in immediately to insist it stop, ask why, push for answers, and have a conversation. Such a thing might be the hardest work you ever do, but you cannot let such behavior pass if your students are to believe you are the creator of the environment in which they can and will flourish.

We live in some really difficult times, no matter your political persuasion, but the one thing you can do is be entirely open and honest about what you’re doing as a professor. And what matters to you and that is always ensuring your students have a place to flourish in your classes. Human flourishing is called eudaimonia, a Greek work that means… human flourishing (more than that, but that’s all I’m dealing with at the moment).

Human flourishing is the point of higher education–not to be an expert in pharmocology, or English, or history of the year 1859, or physics. Sure, you can become specialized, but the point of the core classes and a LIBERAL ARTS base is to stretch the brain beyond one small area of certainty. The way we do higher education (at AUM) is about getting multiple patterns of learning into your life and head and heart so that you can flourish and keep on flourishing–always–as you choose in ways you choose in fields you choose. You. Choose. And best yet, you can always choose again because You know how to learn. Higher education isn’t an end game. It’s the starting point for creating a fulfilling and happy life. Maybe it’s about earning money, but that cannot be all it is, because when the money goes, what have you?

And we enter into this college thing vulnerable as babes. Professors of Basic Writing need be especially nurturing to help the students on the brink of non-flourishing to pull themselves in the right direction to keep going. It’s a lofty and noble profession that few folks call that. But ask any student who’s started in BW (or a similar math) about their experiences in getting over this hurdle. It’s like the cow jumped over the moon.

[image by Caitlin Dundon, artist, http://www.oneheartstudio.com]

[image by Caitlin Dundon, artist, http://www.oneheartstudio.com%5D

I like to show three videos to students as they try to figure out how to manage in college.

One is by Brené Brown, a sociology professor at University of Houston. It’s a TED talk on the power of vulnerability. It’s now been viewed over 28 million times. 45 of those are me. She’s become an important voice since 2010 when she first gave this talk–a voice for facing our fears, for daring to try, for understanding how shame can drive us, and the importance of knowing creativity comes from vulnerability. My students have loved this and changed the way they see themselves because of her words.

Brené Brown on The Power of Vulnerability

Another video that is wonderfully powerful to share with BW students is this one by Elizabeth Gilbert. She dispels the myth that every writer needs to wait for a muse or a bolt of lightening to charge down from the heavens directly into their fingers so they can write. Writing is work. The more you work, the more you have to say–whether that’s thinking of your own things to write about you or doing research so you have something to say about a lot of other people’s ideas–the more you can write. It ain’t magic, baby, it’s thinking in your brain, on paper, through conversation, through drafting, through BW classes, through writing together and alone. Writers write and it’s hard work. This one’s been viewed over 12 million times since it was published on the TED site in 2009.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Your Elusive Creative Genius

Another of my favorites is by Sir Ken Robinson about whether schools kill creativity. And the answer is yes, some schools do. My BW students recognize this and are angry and Angry and ANGRY when they see what’s happened. Then we back up and figure out a way over this hurdle–the cow jumps over the moon. How does the cow do it? The cow believes it can.

So we need to change the way we think of what’s happened to us and start thinking about how WE (profs and BW students) can use higher education to start us on our journeys to jump over the moon.

Sir Ken Robinson on Do Schools Kill Creativity?

You cannot teach people to write who are afraid to write a word, say a word, be in a classroom. You need to recreate the place where they work, see themselves differently, see the work in a new way.

You thought your job was teaching Basic Writing, but it’s really about revising how writing happens, how beginning writers see writing, how they see themselves.

Just like writing is so much about revision, teaching writing is so much about revision.

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Basic Writing, circa 1987 1/23/17

Boise State University, 1987, I was learning to be a writing consultant in the Writing Center. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life as an English major. I was transitioning from undergrad to grad and struggling with that. I found a chance to be a teaching assistant to a visiting professor who was teaching four sections of basic writing. It was for credit, I believe, rather than pay.

Things you need to know.

  1. The prof had a classroom she shared with the other Basic Writing instructors filled with round tables and filing cabinets with some computers lining one wall. And a white board on the front wall and side wall. There were no windows.
  2. Filing cabinets held ALL student drafts, notes, writing, finished drafts, faculty feedback, grades, etc. Students could take parts home, but NOT the full file. This was truly the start of a portfolio grading system.
  3. The prof could type about 110 words a minute. She had made a LOT of money previously working part time in the corporate realm. But she was born into a professorial family and knew eventually she would end up doing this.
  4. She had a master’s degree in literature from a university in England and a degree in creative writing from Middlebury College/Breadloaf.
  5. I was in my first year of grad school having taking a couple of writing classes, but MOSTLY literature classes (with minors in history, math, and theater). I had only learned the theory and application of writing consultation a year earlier.
  6. I  was the TA for all four of her classes, two days out of three (MWF class, I attended two, as I recall). I was like an embedded writing consultant. Eventually, she put my in front of the class to teach some lessons, lead the class, see what it felt like.

The way she taught: having students write, reading their writing, giving feedback, checking to see common errors, teaching how to correct those errors, while students kept writing… that was so bizarre to me. I had, up to that point, never really been in classes that weren’t lecture by the prof, notes by the student, 2-3 tests and a final paper (or pretty much that).

What she taught me was that writing isn’t about talking about how writing is done, it’s doing writing, guiding writing, guiding change, guiding the acquisition of correct English usage. I never heard her say a harsh word to a student. I never heard her berate a student for turning in work late. She never criticized a student for failing to turn in work. She was always calm and explain that no work=no grade. Nothing she could do about that. She made it clear she was the guide for students, but learning was their choice. She could lay out all the info and ideas and tips and strategies in as clear a way as she could, but once that was handled, it was all on the students.

Of course, we lost some. But the ones who stuck it out really improved. I love the portfolio method–the way she managed it. She gave each student a short bit of feedback every week, then every unit she wrote them short notes related to the rubric for grading. It was remarkable. She was so hard on keyboards with her unnaturally fast typing, half way through the first term, they had to get a new keyboard. I was stunned by how quick she work, how smart she was, how she could look at a piece of writing, see patterns of error, give advice about what needed to be expanded or deleted. And did I say she was fast? I aspire to 65 words a minute.

She could carry on a conversation and type notes. It was amazing.

I saw real progress for students with that method. At that point I’d never read any composition theory; I didn’t really understand comp/rhet was a field; I had never heard of Mina Shaughnessy. But she knew all that. She’s come from a place (as an adjunct) where comp theory was deep in the curriculum and professionally available to all the teachers in the comp program. I learned a bit through osmosis. It kept me going for a long while and was, really, responsible for me leaving Boise State without a master’s in literature for Secondary Education and enrolling in a master’s program focused on composition for college.

Through my writing consultation at Boise State (which I kept doing a few hours a week) and my experiences with that prof for the whole academic year, I learned to become a better writer. Without the Writing Center, I would have never been able to get through college at all. Without the computer lab they opened, I would have never been able to get through college at all. Without my experience learning from that prof about BW pedagogy and applying some of that to my own writing, I never would have gotten through grad school at all, or to be honest, even tried.

She left at the end of that year to enroll in a PhD program in comp/rhetoric. I moved away from Idaho, too. She ended up at a university in Texas not too far from where I ended up getting my PhD. We kept in touch for awhile, but with a lot of academic lives, we got busy: she was working on getting tenure; I had course work to get through and a dissertation to write.

I will forever be glad I happened onto that experience in those BW classes–it colored, shaped, and made my life what it is. I told her that often before we lost connection. Also she was huge Star Trek fan and introduced me to trekkie life and fan fiction. What gifts I got. Live long and prosper.

P.S. The students wrote about whatever they wanted, but no general topics were allowed unless approved by the instructor, and she made sure they were personal and wacky, so she almost never had a plagiarism problem. She did something very like what we do: focus on the inherent expertivity that students carry with them–activities or experiences they have already valued and in which they developed as experts of a kind. She was super-ahead of her time. I was lucky, but I also knew when to take advantage of a learning situation.