Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Working out the drudgery/magic ratio

How many hours of sheer drudgery are required to produce one moment of magic in the classroom? I asked that question on Facebook earlier this week and received answers ranging from 6 to 42 (because 42 is the answer to--well, everything). 

It would be a simple math problem if only I could figure out which acts of drudgery should be included in the equation. If we count all the years of education that led to the degree that put me in a position to create classroom magic, the number would be astronomical--even if we subtract the portion of that educational experience that does not qualify as drudgery. A correspondent informs me that drudgery comes to us from the Old English dreogan, "to work, suffer, endure," which perfectly describes what I've been doing all this week to prepare for the start of classes. The semester hasn't started but already my endurance is wearing thin. 

But let's put aside the drudgery required to get credentialed and find a teaching job, and since we're making arbitrary decisions, let's also bracket the time we spend in academic activities not related to teaching--but even that isn't easy. My service on the tenure and promotion committee may not enhance my own teaching, but it affects the College's ability to retain effective teachers and thus the quality of teaching overall. And what about research and writing? My students aren't likely to read my academic writing but my research informs my teaching, exposing me to new ideas and providing a foundation for the knowledge I share with students.

But we have to start somewhere so let's eliminate service, research, and writing from the equation, even though they involve a significant amount of drudgery. What about professional development activities aimed directly at improving teaching? Pedagogy workshops, technology training, discussions of diversity or assessment--such activities are not without their moments of drudgery, especially when they're held on Zoom. "Endure" is exactly the right verb to describe how I experience Zoom meetings.

So let's admit to the equation only the portion of pedagogical professional development that qualifies as drudgery, and then let's add to that the number of hours required to create classes, review and order texts, write syllabi, construct writing assignments and in-class activities, post all manner of matter on the course management system, make photocopies, set up gradebooks, prepare lectures and discussions--in short, every annoying little thing we do before we set foot in the classroom on the first day, plus all the annoying little things we do to make sure we're ready for the next day and the next. That's one side of the equation.

Now the next step: to determine our drudgery/magic ratio, all we have to do is figure out how to quantify a unit of classroom magic. 

And here, my friends, I throw up my hands. I have endured enough. Time to sit back and let the magic happen.

Monday, January 11, 2021

A new breed of anxiety dreams

In my nightmare I'm surrounded by a scrum of shoving students, all brandishing 45-rpm records and demanding my approval, and none of them are wearing masks.  

Teaching anxiety takes many forms and today it's a combination of unruly mobs, unworkable technology, and unawareness of proper pandemic protocol. Students aren't even back on campus yet but already I'm dreading what new horrors the spring semester will bring--and that was before I read the article on Inside Higher Ed about the vast increase in Covid-19 infection rates in counties where universities rely primarily on in-person instruction. Granted, the study looked at large public universities and not small private colleges, but it's hard to imagine that Ohio's post-holiday surge in cases won't affect even our little corner of Appalachia.  

How will this be different from past spring semesters? No breaks, for one thing--no long weekends, no Spring Break, just a single day off on a Wednesday in the middle of March. The goal is to keep students on campus, which didn't work all that well last semester but hope springs eternal. Social distancing requires different classroom setups so once again I'll be teaching in rooms I hate, although this time at least they're all in the same building. I can put up with horrible rooms just this once.

Of course that's what I told myself last semester about so many things--just this once I'll teach simultaneously to students who are present and others who are online; just this once I'll use put all my exams online and use online proctoring; just this once I'll forego unannounced reading quizzes because there's no equitable way to give the quiz when some students are face-to-face while others are on Zoom.

And just this once I'll prepare four spring semester syllabi crammed with Covid-19 guidelines about mask-wearing, Zoom participation, social distancing, and supporting one another. A clever colleague has come up with a "No-nose policy": if she can get through the whole semester without ever having to tell a student to pull a mask up over his or her nose, the whole class will get extra credit. Of course this won't work in my classes because I won't be able to see the students who sit in the back of my socially distanced classrooms. Oh, to have younger eyes--or smaller classes!

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Once again I reach for poetry, for calm in the midst of chaos

That crash you heard yesterday was the sound of angry people trying to smash Democracy to pieces, and that persistent chatter you hear today is the sound of people trying to pick up the pieces.

Did anyone sleep last night? Can anyone think straight today? Is anyone anywhere getting any work done? I feel at once a sense of urgency, a need to read more and hear more and do more, accompanied by a sense of helplessness and confusion. I watch from a distance when what I'd really like to do is roll up my sleeves and start sweeping up the broken shards.

Which is why I was drawn this morning to Natasha Trethewey's poem "Housekeeping," in which a young girl and her mother "mourn the broken things" and get to work with glue and nails to save what they can from a catastrophe undefined but imaginable. Trethewey has written often of the violence and abuse that characterized her childhood home, the racial prejudice that constrained her family's life, and the way Hurricane Katrina ravaged her community, but she also writes frequently of the unheralded people who quietly pick up the pieces and try to restore order after chaos. Another Trethewey poem, "Watcher," describers her brother's post-Katrina job watching for detritus washing up on a beach where waves can't wash away the deep pain of community trauma.

"Housekeeping" begins with brokenness and ends with expectation of better things to come, eliding the fact that the mother so lovingly evoked in the poem would eventually be murdered by her abuser. The poem situates readers in a peaceful moment between whatever act brought brokenness into the home and the violence that would later remove the mother from the scene, suggesting that the gentle act of housekeeping--of picking up the broken pieces--exists as a temporary respite from the surrounding chaos.

And yet what peace that moment brings, the mother singing as she irons, the daughter paging through a book of wishes for better days. Housekeeping is what we do when things get broken, even if the fix we can hope for is at best tenuous and temporary. But still we get to work with glue and nails and elbow grease, even as "All day we watch / for the mail, some news from a distant place."

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

I don't want to be in the Zoom where it happens

After a blissful month away from campus, it took only a few hours in the office to remind me of so many things I'd forgotten--and I'm not just talking about the need to regularly water potted plants. My dragon tree survived a month of neglect but it's not particularly happy about it.

I had forgotten how much I appreciate my colleagues, how delightful it can be to bounce ideas off interesting folks in the hallway or on Zoom, but I had also forgotten how much I hate Zoom meetings. Yesterday's meeting was great--a lively discussion among articulate colleagues--but being on Zoom strains my eyes and brain and makes me want to go hide in a dark closet. Others in the meeting shared their frustrations with pandemic pedagogy and started counting up the years until they can retire, at which point it became clear that I was the oldest person in the meeting by a good ten years. It's nice that I can still be on the Zoom where it happens but I had forgotten how much I miss being in a room with people, face-to-face, and I also miss not being the oldest person in the room. I'm not ready to be an eminence grise! (Although my hair is certainly equipped for the task.)

I had forgotten also how lonely it is to eat lunch in my office and how much I miss going to the gym, especially with persistent horrible weather making outdoor exercise very difficult. I had forgotten that I needed to vacuum my office, and it's a good thing our administrative assistant was in the building because who else would have unlocked the door to the supply closet so I could get the vacuum? I can't work when I'm mired in squalor. I had forgotten how much I rely on our administrative assistant, but I'd better appreciate her quickly because she's soon moving to a better job elsewhere. 

And then the emails started up. I had forgotten how annoying it can be as a committee chair to try to get the right people to do the right things at the right time, and I had forgotten how challenging it can be to write diplomatic responses to those who simply can't follow directions. Everyone needs to just put down the eggnog and get the brain back in gear.

I had forgotten some of the small but satisfying tasks that signify a shift to a new semester--emptying out old folders, stashing away last semester's textbooks, clearing space on the credenza for this semester's books, which look so sparkly-new and promising. And then I had forgotten the thousand clicks required to update syllabi, add new required language, post assignments on the course management system and set up the gradebook. After just two days in the office, I feel as if I've fulfilled an entire month's quota of clicking but I'm nowhere near ready for classes to start.

I had forgotten how the academic calendar plays tricks with time, making two days in the office feel weightier than the entire month I spent painting, baking, and celebrating with family. But the good news is that winter break isn't quite over. I don't have to be on campus again until next Monday, so I intend to go back to Jackson and enjoy a few more days of unstructured time before I get swallowed whole by the long, slow slog through the spring semester.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Special delivery--late, wet, and totally misplaced

Mystery solved! This morning I found my husband's birthday gift, which had allegedly been delivered on December 16. When I filed a claim with UPS a week ago, the tracking data claimed that the package had been "placed on an external porch," which is kind of odd because I found the package tossed on top of a yucca plant near the end of the driveway two tenths of a mile away from our porch. I suspect that the package got covered by snow soon after delivery and did not become visible again until last week when the snow melted--and then no one was home to see it.

One mystery solved, another uncovered: I know my driveway is difficult, and I would certainly understand if the driver didn't want to risk it on a particularly ugly day, but if the UPS delivery person was unable to drive up the hill to leave the package on the porch, why then did he or she specify in writing that the package had been left on the porch? If the tracking information had stated "left beneath the yucca plant near the end of the driveway," I would have looked there. But no: "placed on an external porch" is what the driver reported.

The large box was in a plastic bag but still the box was so wet it fell to pieces when I picked it up. Nevertheless I am pleased to report that interior packaging protected the actual gift (a cast iron grill pan--and trust me, it would have made a perfect birthday gift). I have been on the phone with UPS representatives this morning and I have received a number of apologies, but I would really like to talk to the driver and ask how in the world "placed on an external porch" can accurately describe a package tossed on a yucca nearly a quarter mile away. I fear, though, that that mystery will never be solved.


Friday, January 01, 2021

Making my own beach

Last week when the grandkids were here they used blankets and seashells to construct a private beach on the living-room floor, and then they sat and watched the imaginary surf roll in.

That's what's missing from this winter: a stroll on a beach, with sand and shells and water birds. For years--decades, even--we've taken a southern vacation during the weeks after Christmas, recharging our batteries between the hectic holiday season and the demands of the new semester. Twenty years ago we watched the new century roll in from Cocoa Beach, and a few years after that we helped our daughter celebrate her 16th birthday at Key West.

That was the quintessential winter beach trip: we had all been sick with a nasty bug involving vomiting and diarrhea--just at the moment when a water main burst in our little neighborhood and we had no way to flush the toilets or do laundry. Somehow we held our ailing bodies together long enough to do laundry at a friend's house and pile into our van and start driving south, where we recuperated in the sunshine.

This winter the whole world is sick so we're not traveling anywhere. Facebook keeps presenting me with photos from those past trips--vivid sunrises, brilliant birds, long stretches of sand and surf--but for days all I've seen outside my window is gray sky, fog, and rain. Somehow I need to follow the grandkids' example and make my own beach, a place of warmth and rest away from the demands of work.

So 2021, here's my beach. It's not much but it's the best I can do under the circumstances. If you close your eyes and stay still, you might even hear the ocean.


Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 Hindsight

If I'd had any inkling back in January how 2020 would unfold, would I have done anything differently?

Well, I certainly wouldn't have wasted so much time trying to plan a student trip to Manhattan, a plan that went out the window in early March. I suppose I could have stocked up on toilet paper or placed bets on the results of the Presidential election, but I'm not a hoarder or a gambler so I'd probably just do exactly what I did: scramble to adjust to circumstances as they arose. 

Looking back on a year of blog posts, it's clear that 2020 was a time for struggling in front of a computer screen and running away to the woods. The two activities are linked, of course: getting out into nature was my primary method of coping with the craziness caused by the Coronavirus, so it's little wonder that posts record a remarkable number of trips to Lake Katharine plus occasional forays further afield.

In 2020 I've written 159 posts--plus this one, for an even 160. That's fewer than some previous years but I'm doing my best. My blog attracted 48,000 views this year, with three posts attracting the most hits:

When the virus hits close to home (264 views)

Some (rejected) options for teaching this fall (176) 

I've taught online before--why is this time different? (152) 

Clearly, the 'rona played a big part in my blogging this year, crowding out other concerns. I wrote very few book reviews this year, my favorite being the review of Amit Majmudar's What He Did in Solitary, and my love for writing doggerel came to the forefront very rarely. (There's a good New Year's Resolution: less whining, more doggerel.)

I tried a few new things this year: editing a volume of essays on teaching comedy (submitted to the editorial board; awaiting reply); attending a local Black Lives Matter protest; attending drive-up church services in my car; feeding birds right out of my hand. In July I spent 24 hours in the hospital, suffering from a bad case of probably nothing wrong but let's run some tests anyway, and in October we relocated our Jackson residence from a parsonage to a lovely rental house in the woods, where we did a whole lot of painting and got accustomed to going to the laundromat.

And of course I learned to Zoom--with my classes, of course, but also with family, celebrating my grandkids' birthdays remotely before we widened our bubble in May. Considering that I'd never Zoomed before March, I had to get my skills up to speed really quickly when our spring classes moved online--and there followed a whole host of posts dealing with the demands of pandemic pedagogy: obsessing over annoying questions; setting up a workable home office; preparing multiple versions of classes; needing help when everyone else needs help too; figuring out social distancing in the classroom; missing the social interactions that make work wonderful; trying to prevent dangerous behavior; getting probed by the pandemic; and dealing with dreams that unmasked my anxieties.

But wait--there's more! It's kind of alarming how much I wrote about teaching under pandemic conditions this year, but sometimes writing was my only way to exert some control over an overwhelming situation. Writing and hiking and birding and canoeing: ways to find peace away from screens and anxieties.

I posted a lot of photos this year, very few dealing with teaching or coronavirus concerns. I seem to have spent some happy time sitting outside by the butterfly garden, helping my grandkids bake cookies or go sledding, and looking at birds and wildflowers and woods. Someday I hope those happy times will loom larger in my memory than all the angst of 2020, which is why I'm spending the last day of the year lingering over photos of places I've been and looking forward to the time when I can go there again.