On adoration

I have only a moment before I’m supposed to step onto the treadmill of this day.

But I found myself engrossed in each member of my family as we hurried them into shoes and jackets and car seats, and as I waved them down the road and turned back into the living room, I found I leapt — actually physically leapt — toward the computer to write.  The treadmill can wait.  This moment, pregnant with human beauty and the fullness of falling rain, asks for something else.

It’s been a rough two weeks of no daycare and much family time, so much, in fact, that it has become easier to lose patience and harder to find it again.  There has been a mappable increase in hollering and sarcasm as we’ve worked our way through to today.  But here we are, and the boys are off to daycare.  It feels like total freedom, though I’m entirely booked already, and therefore it feels like heavy relief to finally be able to dig into what needs work.  But these are the images I carry with me into this day:

1. Malachi, at breakfast, carefully feeding me each of his enormous blueberries with his soft, carroty, fumbling fingers.

2. Ezra, after finding his moose rain jack ALL BY HIMSELF, informing me that it has a hood, and insisting I look as he solemnly puts it up to frame his smooth elfin face and glowing hazel almond eyes.

3. Len’s pants and jacket soaked in the downpour as he brings each child in his turn to the car, hurrying against the inevitable drenching but gentle in his haste and hugeness.

It feels strange to be so thrilled at their departure and yet so reluctant to let them go.  Malachi in particular, at this sweet stage of last-babyhood, feels like a precious gift I cannot release; I want to keep him home with me alone, snuggled under the covers, nursing and playing and gazing and singing and watching his world unfold.

It seems, sometimes, this is what it all boils down to, on its best days: the whole world condenses into a mother and a child, a father and an infant, any pair of people who open themselves up to light, to rain, to each other, to adoration.


On carnage

(And for those of you from war-torn parts of the world, please understand I mean no disrespect when I use the term “carnage” in the context of these very first-world problems…but carnage it is.)

So today I learned that squirrels are nest predators.  They eat (and by eat, I mean kill, disembowel, distribute widely, and eat very little of) baby robins.  Who might be, say, nesting on my pergola under the grapevines.  Right near my deck.  Where I’m finding their dismembered bodies.  The greatest mercy here (to me) is that my sons neither found any of the carnage nor know of it; the greatest mercy I hope for (for the robins) is that they were all killed at once.  I will stop that train of thought right there.  I want you to sleep tonight.

These are the same squirrels, I might add, who in previous years would dig up tulip bulbs in order to take single bite and then leave the damaged, useless remainder right on the bench where I like to sit.  Len was once actually mooned by a squirrel (I confess, he had just been throwing walnuts at it), but that was in Iowa.  These East Coast squirrels just give you the finger and eat everything you care about.  And they all seem to have gone beserk at once: we coexist peacefully for most of the year, and then all of a sudden they kill all the baby birds AND remove a full third of the peaches, still green on the tree.  The pits are now littered across the swing set.

In other news, we have another groundhog.

Son of a #%*(^@#?!.  For real.  Those $&%#&*@$?!!s.

You want to know the really neat thing, though?  I recently turned down two adjunct teaching jobs because it’s increasingly clear that I need room to build my work.  And that’s amazing and freeing and terrifying and beautiful.  More on that later…but I’ll add here that I’ll be starting a support group for the people who are crazy enough to step off the beaten path and believe they can make their own way.  There may be drinking; there will certainly be chocolate.  Join us (online or in person) if you can.

On teaching and learning, part 2

I may have mentioned that I’m teaching a “blended” course this summer.  It meets for fifteen weeks, with seven face-to-face sessions broken up by an array of online weeks (not even online synchronous class sessions; just online assignments).

I’m pretty unhappy about this.

You see, I believe that good teaching can happen in all kinds of ways.  And I believe that there is much good to be gained from online teaching and learning, in some forms, for some people.  But the folks I know who are really gung-ho about online learning believe that the problems of education are, at bottom, problems of access, whereas I believe that they are, at bottom, problems of motivation.

I’ll use myself as an example, though it’s totally not just me.  I’ve set up assignments that are clear as day, and at least a third of the class doesn’t do them.  Not the SAME third all the time — so I know people can access the assignments and understand how to do them — but lacking (I posit) the motivation of feeling ashamed in class, they are simply willing to eat the lower grade.  That disappoints me mightily.

There are any number of factors that make the proverbial horse thirsty: desire for good grades; tendency toward people-pleasing; intellectual curiosity; fascination with the subject matter; desire to make a difference through the work; ambition for mastery; avoidance of embarrassment; refusal to rock the boat…but most of these depend in some way upon a present community of peers and authority.  If the space of the course shrinks to a faceless, mediated exchange of edited sentences, we’ve lost a great deal of the human drama that constitutes and contrives learning.  Online learning SOUNDS like it expands the dimensions of our classroom, but for me, when you take the course away from the seminar table and toss it into the ether, you’re actually shrinking the possibilities for meaningful interaction.  (With some exceptions, I’m sure…but this is a senior thesis seminar, which is a deeply traditional, scholarly exercise, and I’m just not seeing good methods for meeting these goals with these tools.)

Embedded in this complaint is another: teaching, at its best, invites transformational learning.  In a “traditional” classroom, a conversation can be pushed and pulled, ideas can be stretched and shaped, students can be challenged, comforted, confronted as need be.  They learn from each other through the whole range of interactions they participate in and witness.  I had a student nearly break down once in class because he finally realized that an argument didn’t have to mean winning and losing or shouting someone down: it could mean quietly and logically framing a position of justice and reason.  He was so relieved his whole body dropped back into his chair at the end of his tirade, and he picked up his pen, a little ashamed of his passion but eager to get back to the work that would now be transformed.  HE was transformed, as a scholar and a person. I’m just not seeing that, nor seeing how that might happen, in the online environment.

But what do you think?  What are your stories?

On unswerving support

As I may have mentioned, we’ve been having a hard time lately.  Some of that is related to the course I’m teaching (new institution; new course; new online-ness); some of that is related to giving up all my baby-free time to teaching said course; some of that is the persistent rain or the groundhog in my garden.  Some of it is entirely self-imposed, like our goofy decision to try and spruce up the kitchen, which has necessitated hours and hours of research, inquiry, decision-making.  Now I’m trying to make bigger decisions about whether and what to teach in the fall and what it would mean for my life to keep doing this adjunct thing (which, let’s face it, is not only grossly underpaid but also kind of demoralizing for the minimal engagement it offers with students and the institution).  Basically, I’m running around a headless bird.  It’s not pretty.

So here’s an email exchange I had with my beloved partner today.  I feel it illustrates some of why I’m the luckiest person in the world.

-----Original Message----- 
Sent: Tuesday, July 02, 2013 1:58 PM
To: Len Bartel
Subject: more kitchen questions

Backsplash: skip indepth backsplash and just tile all the way 
down to the counter?  By stove as well as sink wall?  will that 
show the window-height-differential less?  If we do backsplash, 
should we include sides on sink wall and stove and microwave 
These are some of today's questions.
Also: what should I do with my life?
And: why does Blackboard suck so very much?
And perhaps: will you still love me despite my having eaten 
ALL the garlic in the house for lunch?
PS Yes, Jessica [the countertop salesperson] has come and gone.

He replies: 

"Where to start...

I think tile down to the counter, but only on the sink 
wall (not the others, I think it might look a bit odd) - 
carrying the same line from flush with the cabinet above 
the toaster oven across to under the chicken.  It's hard 
to get a sense of what it would look like with the indepth 
backsplash in addition to the tile.  

What should you do with your life?  Write.  Blog.  Maybe 
consult. Be the fabulous mama that you are.  You're a 
fabulous writer, and schedule hasn't allowed you to give 
it the appropriate focus.  Of late, when you are most [you] 
[I had to remove a pet-name-adjective] it's when you write 
and have the mental space to be creative with the boys 
when you have them...  

I have no idea why Blackboard sucks so very much, but I'll 
support you in the accusation.

Yes, I will still love you despite eating all the garlic.

Presents [this is where he really goes bananas, since I 
forgot to even ASK what we were giving the family members 
who need birthday gifts this week]:  iTunes for AJ ($15).  
Big Allagash (need to procure - can do tomorrow before we 
go over), and maybe a small e-card to Amazon (need to procure 
will do so tonight) for BB.  Done.  And done.

You're my love"

And since I'm in an email-quoting kind of mood, here's more 
unswerving support from that quarter.

My dad writes: 
"Yes, quite right adjunct professor sucks...
only slightly better than being out on the street."  

To which I can only reply: 
"Well, there are huge variations in adjunct experiences, 
and for some of us, at some institutions, it may be much 
worse than being out on the street.  That's what I'm 
working to ascertain right now.  Seth Godin 
(marketing/strategy author I like) had a good blog post 
recently on money, reminding us that not spending is the 
same as earning, and not earning is the same as spending.  
There are many things I could do to build ways to earn 
more (but they take time) and a few things I could still 
do to spend less (those, also, take time).  The bottom line
discovery here is that teaching used to feed me, so it was 
worth various aggravations.  But the ways I'm able to do 
it these days, it's feeding me a lot less.  And that's 
worth listening to, I think."

Support in complexity.  That's about as good as it gets, folks.