On wading in: Day 2

I’m enjoying the fact that Day 2 is September 2nd…and also painfully aware that when I miss a day, we’ll all know it.  But hey.  This little practice is more for my benefit than yours, so perhaps I’ll be the only one to care.  (Assuming you can live through the agony of missing a post from me…I know, I know.)

Today was a mixed bag of a day.  It was our second Sunday and it sure felt like it.  (Explanation: when I was an academic, someone once explained to me that the summer months could be best understood if labelled as weekdays: June is the Friday night of summer; July is Saturday; August is one long Sunday.  Sunday always involves a little relaxation and introspection, but it’s mostly filled with housework, homework and dread.)  We had this beautiful gift of a four-day weekend, and I was all giddy with a sense of possibility before I realized a) it would rain the whole time; b) we had no plans and it was Labor Day weekend; c) we don’t really have disposable income at this time; and d) we have tons of stuff to do around the house.  So we decided to make it a staycation of sorts, with predictable results.  We loved having two Saturdays (I lobbied briefly to call it three Saturdays and one Sunday, but let’s be real) and used them well, with a picnic by the river and lots of fun garden time.  There was picking of homegrown veg (based on Alice Waters’ Simple Food refrigerator pickle recipe), singing, dancing, and a whole lot of important house and yard work.  But today the rain was INTENSE, and we loafed about all morning and then spent the afternoon with friends we haven’t seen in ten years.  Which was satisfying in itself.  And now…and now…

Here I am, trying to imagine what this project of wading in means.  Partly, it seems to mean paying attention to things so that I can develop a habit of living in the moment and recollecting it with some reasonable calibration to reality.  That’s not a strength of mine.  I notice the dramas: the joys and failures.  I tend to discount the mundane.  But in life with kids, the mundane is kind of the point. It’s the source of the joy.

All this is reminding me of this brilliant new series I’m creating (and scholarship I’m writing) for the Maine Humanities Council on the agrarian novel.  It’s not much of a category in the US, you see, though it should be.  It’s farm literature that illustrates a love of the land, a reverence for the ordinary, an appreciation of people and nature and the routine, miraculous systems of nature.  It tends to be skeptical of gimmicks and passers-by, preferring deep roots and time-tested solutions.  It pays attention, sitting quietly for a while to make room for the wise, the funny, or the beautiful.  Just in case they show up.  That’s the kind of approach I’m trying to take to my life these days…and it’s nice to be living it even as I let my ever-scrambling intellect go play with the abstractions.  Gene Logsdon says “firsthand experience” is the difference between the agrarian writer and the writer; I’d argue, today, that firsthand experience is the difference between happy living and muddling through.  Not just HAVING the experience, but showing up for it.  Being present with it, sharing it with others, and remembering it as best you can.  These are my work, today.

What’s yours?

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 the trivialities

Lately it seems like everything is a mess.  Cases in point:

  1. Groundhog eating my garden.  Trapped; transported; released five miles from home with great exuberance (let me tell you, two small boys and a pooping groundhog in one car does not for serenity make — and have you SMELLED those things?  The groundhogs, I mean?  Phew!).  Today: I see a new groundhog over at the neighbors.  He must be new, or he’d look more road-weary.
  2. Kitchen.  It’s a disaster, but mostly in small ways.  So we figure, hey, we’ll paint the cabinets.  But then: how do you paint cabinets when you have wee folk living in the house?  You don’t.  So maybe we can hire someone to do it.  But our awesome contractor feels compelled to point out the crappy state of our counters, and that we could replace them with a nicer laminate for cheap.  She’s right.  And then, of course, we have to consider the sink, because it’s dented and buckled and you don’t pass up a chance to replace that when you replace the counters.  But then, we love a farmer’s sink, and that seems hard to do with laminate…so…granite?  No no no no. How does it come to this?  How does it always come to this?  The sense that in trying to make some small improvement, you’re opening the doors to such an impressive range of expenses, missed opportunities, and regrets?
  3. Class I’m teaching.  I was recently called “archaic” for arguing that scholarly research and thesis-writing are best taught face-to-face rather than online.  Well, okay.  Archaic it is.  But as much as I love new technologies, they cannot solve everything and sometimes they make things worse by kidding us into believing they can.  More on that in an upcoming post on teaching and learning.
  4. The strawberry fiasco.  The ONGOING strawberry fiasco.  We love the strawberries and are thrilled that they are now coming on in such volume that they occasionally make it into the house.  However, apparently they should never be allowed in the house anyway.  They are simply too ripe and too luscious for small hands to manage, especially when those small hands are trying to simultaneously push a plastic “lawn mower” around the house AND consume a very large berry.  Looks like a crime scene around here.  The kind with a victim who died slowly and managed to tour much of the house in the process.

It’s not even worth cataloguing the array of lesser offenses (potty-related; 4-am-waking related; isolation-related).  But my feelings were summed up nicely when I tried to check out books at the library and the computer told me, as gently as possible, that I had unresolved issues.  And would I please see the librarian. Honey, I wanted to say, I may need more than a librarian.  A bartender, for instance.

 

On various forms of training

It’s always strange when things that are supposed to line up don’t: when the brilliant, highly verbal, well-adapted child refuses to potty-train until three-and-a-half; when the ten weeks of gradual and successful getting-back-into-running suddenly collapse in a new and constant bilateral knee pain; when remarkable patience and empathy in the face of all kinds of difficulty suddenly vanishes, leaving you astonished you ever behaved reasonably at all.  But that seems to be the bear of this thing called life: nothing is linear.  “Progress” is only ever incremental and more or less impossible to chart.  We can’t move forward efficiently unless we pause at every point where someone needs a hug or an ice pack or a listening ear.  It makes sense that we are this way; the part that doesn’t make sense is that we keep imagining our world works differently.  We maintain hopes and expectations that have nothing to do with reality, and, still worse, that we KNOW have nothing to do with reality.

And so, we are advised, we try to let those go.  We try to be here and now, accepting whatever is going on.  And I love that approach, I really do.  It opens me to all kinds of possibilities that I wouldn’t even NOTICE, otherwise.  But somewhere deep inside me is always that other set of voices, asking “really?  You’ve pooped on the potty before: you can do it again, no?”  I hear those voices, I try to nod to them and thank them for their good intentions in supporting our boy’s efforts, and then I ask them to please keep it down for a little while.  There’s someone else I need to listen to right now.  And I wrap him up tight in my arms and try to hear.

The grand irony here, of course, is that many of these myths of progress find their homes in various kinds of training: to use the potty; to follow a physical therapy regimen; to keep a household manageable; to build a career.  But those training arenas, those places of learning, are precisely where the myth of linear progress is most powerful and most damaging.  What we need is training in mindfulness, training in training, if you will: the kind of training that will enable us to see where we fall down and give ourselves a gentle hand back up.  We need to be reminded that we are always practicing and never perfect, that we all have accidents and make mistakes and that the trick is learning to accept it with grace.  So as much as supporting a potty-learner can be a hassle (yes, I was the recipient of a full stream of urine down the center of my back today), it’s also a good chance to say out loud to someone else these most vital lessons: we listen to our selves and then try to do what seems best.  We have courage if we are afraid.  We understand that everyone tries new things, that this is a big part of what life is about.  Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t.  But we keep on trying and that is what makes us who we are.  Like the lambeosaurus in Jane Yolen’s “How do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food” — we try things. Like the deal I make with my students in every class I teach: you trust me enough to give the work your all and I will trust you enough to really hear what you desire and are capable of.  This kind of testing, this exploration of trust, is one way we live out our faith in the world and in each other.

On teaching and learning, part 1

I say “part 1” because I assume there are going to be a bunch of these.  Yes, I’ve started teaching again — just one course, for senior-level university students, in which they study issues of sustainability and write a thesis on it.  I have always loved teaching, especially the part about getting to design awesome new courses myself, so this is very satisfying.  But this is the first time my time (and income) have been so incredibly constrained, so there have been some challenges on those fronts.  Raising babies, as they say, is really a full-time job.  But here’s what I’m learning so far:

1. Adult learners rock.  The average age at the public institution where I’m teaching is 32; the student body is 80% women; sounds like everyone has kids or jobs or both, and often several of each.  These people are not interested in wasting time or money, and they bring their whole selves to the course.  Keeps me on my toes.

2. Online teaching (the course is “blended,” so we meet face-to-face for just under half the weeks of the course) takes a lot of preparation but is no different, in essence, from other forms of thoughtful and effective pedagogies.  There are lots of cool new tools to learn and lot of time necessary to get things up and running, but it’s all premised on the same basics: start where people are; be clear about goals and processes; provide space, time, and encouragement for exploration.  Whenever possible, engage people’s whole selves — we know from research as well as from common sense that people learn about what they care about.

3. And go meta.  It’s always worthwhile to teach ABOUT what we are doing: reading and writing ABOUT research help us think more intentionally and more effectively about what our goals and methods are when we do our research.  Especially for adult learners, the largest obstacles often have nothing to do with the reading, research, or writing itself: they have to do with the mystification of the process and the apparent inaccessibility of the culture.  (Because of sentences like that one.)  But it’s not a closed club, and it’s not rocket science.  We are already scholars.

For those of you who don’t know me, it might be relevant that I’ve taught at three very different kinds of institutions before that, some of them very prestigious and all of them full of very interesting and engaged students…as well as a variety of folks who are there because of parental or cultural expectations.  Much of the energy you bring to the classroom (and course design, and responding to writing, and all the other places and activities of teaching) has to go toward motivating students and capturing their elusive (and often partial) attention.  As I’ve always said: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink…good teaching, then, is about finding ways to make the horse thirsty.  I’ve typically done that through community engagement, which works powerfully for these purposes and often has the beautiful side effects of waking students up to vital issues of (in)difference, (in)justice, and the inextricability of our various lives.  But these students, this summer, already KNOW a lot of that stuff — they’ve lived it.  And I’m thrilled for the chance to support them in their deepening scholarly work.

On the day after I taught my first class this week, I was home reading with my younger son.  He does not like reading, or has not.  This has troubled me mightily, as I adore books and so does my older son.  I’ve noticed that there are a few books Chi likes, and they all have baby-pictures in them, or songs, or overt rhythms, or moving parts.  I’ve been waiting and waiting for the time when he begins to like STORIES for their own sake, when the characters and plot-lines take on importance.  But on that morning, I learned something essential: maybe he won’t ever like stories for the same reasons I do.  Maybe he is simply motivated in different ways.  But that doesn’t mean he won’t also be a reader.  He recently fell in love with Grandma’s dog when they brought her here on a visit, and after they went home again we actually called Grandma and Grandpa to Facetime…with the dog.  Chi could not contain his excitement, and he bounced and shouted and tried to grab the phone.  Afterward, I remembered a book he had rejected before, a collection of dog “portraits” in pictures and poems that the rest of us had loved.  Well, my heavens.  Now it’s Chi’s favorite book ever.  And I was reminded, for the nine-hundred-and-eighty-first time: what we do as teachers is NOT to make people into us, or even assume that we might want to.  What we do as teachers is try to figure out what moves them and work from there.  We try to give them the tools, the know-how, and perhaps even the inclination to understand and move purposefully in the world.  Because a sense of caring, just as much as a set of competencies, is what we need to try and fix what we see is broken.