After completing my PhD, I worked for two years teaching academic writing as a lecturer at my graduate institution. My office – well, my cubicle, which I shared with the lovely Sarah Birge — was in the chemistry building. Directly outside the door was an emergency shower and a trauma blanket. On particularly trying teaching days, I remember wondering how flexible the word “trauma” was to those blanket manufacturers.
I mean… one student insisted that he doesn’t write thesis statements because doing so is “so cliché,” and another told me she wouldn’t annotate readings because she preferred “to just let the reading wash over her brain.” A few times a month I wondered if I knew how to teach at all, or evaluate student work, or write a sentence. And I definitely was not practiced at creating a classroom culture that cultivated both creativity and respect, as evidenced by the swaggering baseball player who, in response to my request that he submit an assignment on time, bellowed “YOU’RE KILLIN’ ME, SMALLS!”
Okay, in retrospect, that’s kind of funny. Embarrassing, but funny. But that day, as I walked back to my cubicle, I considered wrapping myself in the trauma blanket’s weird, metallic folds and retreating to a corner for awhile. I had a few tough classes in those years. I never resorted to the blanket, but I did comfort myself with the assumption that, if I had the chance to keep teaching as a career — at the time, that definitely wasn’t a sure thing — I would just get better at this. I’d have fewer and fewer stinkers. Seems legit.
But Fall 2017 was a total stinker of a semester, and I want my trauma blanket.
Nothing went catastrophically awry in the two undergraduate courses I taught this semester, but I was not at my best. I find myself, in these days after posting grades, remembering the past four months as a string of indignities and mistakes, small and large. Poorly timed assignments. Flopped class discussions. Disorganized presentations. Unproductive conversations with students. There were definitely some awesome class meetings, but I dreaded the walk to my car, because it meant a slow play-by-play of the day’s classes, cataloguing each misstep.
That Brit Lit survey, man. Brutal.
By now I’ve accepted that I’ll have semesters like this, once in awhile, as long as I’m doing this job. My initial impulse is to escort Fall 2017 to the exit and slam the door – don’t let the doorknob hit ya where the good lord split ya, semester! – and then pretend like none of this ever happened. However, I’ve decided to act like a Professional Person and spend part of the semester break regrouping and reflecting. How do I move forward from here? What’s the fix?
But I’m not precisely sure I know, right now, what to fix. I haven’t really identified the lessons this semester taught me. Some things are straightforward – no more floating deadlines! – but there are other, harder-to-identify nuances to the way my classrooms worked (or didn’t) this fall. I’m feeling a vague unsettledness that requires not a simple solution but instead conversation and working-through, with friends and, I think, with students themselves. So I’ve decided to transfer some of my favorite writing advice to my teaching: turn the problem into a point.
I came to this decision as I was rereading Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style, a book recommended to me by the inimitable Kenneth Kidd and that I will be using in my Professional Development graduate seminar in the spring. Hayot’s book focuses on writing, not teaching, but his advice felt resonant as my brain churned about my stinker semester. He advises that
instead of thinking of the fear as an obstacle to be overcome, begin imagining it as the solution to an intellectual problem. Open by addressing the fear, not as fear but as a knot or interpretive conundrum that has laid itself out before the reader. You can do this with metalanguage, writing something like, “The thing I was most afraid of when I wrote this chapter was that the analysis would be unable to bring together in a coherent whole the various pieces of evidence collected here.” This is a high-risk strategy requiring delicate handling and best used rarely. [Note from VFS: I do not think this is a high-risk strategy, really.] But you can change that metadiscursive statement into the beginning of a problem and an argument, like so: “How can we connect Smith’s writings on metallurgy with his literary works?” […] Something like this allows your fear to point you toward an intellectual problem; it recognizes fear as a kind of scholarly labor. Treat fear as a productive instinct, a preconscious awareness that something interesting lies before you. Spending your time overmastering fear, or ignoring it, and you will lose out on the insights it grants. (31)
I am really drawn to this reframing of fear as an intellectual problem, as scholarly labor, as a productive instinct, as a sign of something worthwhile – maybe because, to me, it feels similar to reframing failure. I’m never going to find a place where teaching doesn’t, as some level, terrify me a little, but if that fear is just part of the work and something I can manage, something I can transform into insight, then I’m up for it. So I’ll be spending some time writing down fears as productive conundrums.
For example: one of the things I was most afraid of when I taught this course was that my knowledge of British history was not robust enough. How can I think critically about the relationship between history and literature in the classroom, and therefore about what I need to know (and communicate to my students)? What do my students think about the place of history in a literature course? What opportunities can I provide to them to talk about that?
And a larger point: what are my students’ fears about the course, and how can we translate them into insights?
I’ve already found that this way of thinking leads to new approaches to the course, subtle and substantial. Maybe I can begin a Brit Lit survey course with a short reflection on the utility and limitations of historical context, including what it lets us see and what it obscures. Maybe I can design a first-day-of-class discussion about what they know about British history, or what they want to learn. Maybe I can design an entire syllabus around what “literary history” means.
We’ll see how it goes. But for now, I’m off to binge-watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Happy holidays, dear readers.