Babies in College

 
 
Today a student handed me a note purportedly written by his mother, excusing him for leaving class early a couple of days ago. I teach college English. In the 20 plus years I have taught, this was a first.
 
In the last 2 years teaching at the same college I have taught for 16 years, my plans for at least one class per semester have been interrupted to remind students that they are in college. They don’t have to be in class like they had to in high school by state law, though it is probably a good idea, especially in my class. I do lots each class to justify my existence–that is, graded assignments and answers to eventual final exam questions–and missing a class is not recommended. 
 
However, students who must miss class are assumed to be adults responsible enough to find out what they missed and resourceful enough to recoup their losses. Big assumptions. They still ask me questions like, “Did we do anything while I was gone?”
 
Though less disturbing, I cannot count how many times students ask me permission to leave early, arrive late or miss class altogether. At first I believed they were simply not mentally out of high school, where their attendance was strictly required though their attention to the class while attending was not so strictly required. I can only assume so from the in depth, lengthy text messages I have received from my children while they were in class. Many students have confirmed the same, and judging by the persistent, nearly obsessive habit of texting or gazing into their phones–activity banned in my class–I believe the phone habit is a long-instilled layover from high school, or merely the product of living now.
 
Ironically, high school mandates attendance but not attention while college is just the reverse. Since I teach freshman, their education includes breaking the high school habits and convincing them that they truly are free now, free to succeed or fail–whether I give them permission or not.
 
I’ll admit that my jaw dropped and my face clearly had “wtf?” written all over it when I read the penciled note on a sticky note sized paper that asked to excuse her son for missing class the other day. Have I gotten much, much older recently or have my students gotten much younger? I am now convinced that the number of coddled college kids have increased and they have a tougher time growing up, thus the odd permission requests and absence notes. Or is it simply time for me to retire?
 

Credit: http://www.babiesonline.com

Aha!

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Joseph Campbell

In one of the Upanishads it says, when the glow of a sunset holds you and you say ‘Aha,’ that is the recognition of the divinity. And when you say ‘Aha’ to an art object, that is a recognition of divinity. And what divinity is it? It is your divinity, which is the only divinity there is. We are all phenomenal manifestations of a divine will to live, and that will and the consciousness of life is one in all of us, and that is what artwork expresses.

Joseph Campbell, “Creativity,” The Mythic Dimension, p. 154

“Mom, how does your eye work?” a five year old once asked me.

“I don’t know off hand, but let’s draw one,” I deflected.

“Aha,” the little one exclaimed when it was finished.

Bhavana: How we grow as knowledge cultivators

shutterstock_141965581 (1)

Bhavana, meaning to cultivate or develop but commonly used in Buddhism as a word for meditation, once again flashes before my mind’s eye. Despite researching the term, the exact sense of the word often escapes me. Does it simply mean to grow understanding? Are meditation and bhavana the same? I have not yet reached that place where my life experience and the word’s essence combine to flesh out the bones of meaning—not in its spiritual sense.

Cultivating takes time: crops grow over…See more

Life in the Gap

 
 
Understanding is a process of contemplating and confronting mysteries. It’s like we have two selves, the observant and the enlightened. One ingests with absorption while the other processes by simmering. Their timing is not always the same. Sometimes understanding arrives much later than input data. But it is our pricking drive of curiosity and our slow-cooking insight that comprises learning–and living.
 
Frank Conroy, writer and musician, says in his essay entitled “Think About It,” that “Education doesn’t end until life ends, because you never know when you’re going to understand something you hadn’t understood before.” This elasticity of understanding, the distance between input and processing, is the expanse of the canvas of our lives, covers the whole painting. Conroy so aptly puts it, “The physical body exists in a constant state of tension as it maintains homeostasis, and so too does the active mind embrace the tension of never being certain, never being absolutely sure, never being done, as it engages the world. That is our special fate, our inexpressibly valuable condition.”
 
We doubt. We feel insecure in ignorance–some of us–and so we look for answers. Sometimes we find them in our immediate search, like when I ask my students to Google a word, ‘avuncular’, for instance, when that word turns up in their reading. Other times, we don’t find the answer or solution until much later–or never.
 
I remember one ex-client explaining his divorce. Of his wife of 30 years, he said, “I did not hear what she said–or I did not understand her words.” He told me his wife complained that he didn’t work hard for the family, which baffled him since he was putting in 12-hour days and weekends, socking away retirement and college money. He could not understand how that was not working for his family–until he did. “Now I know she wanted me to look at her, to work hard at being there for her and our boys each day by spending time and focus on them, not my work,” he confessed. He shuttered out simple words spoken to him before his experience allowed him to “see”.
 
That lag time between learning and understanding is the human condition. Some would even say that inside that gap–between ingestion and digestion–is rubbery, elastic life itself. Maybe.
 
credit: wikipedia

Just Be

  

Credit: Angela Jimenez for The New York Times
 

A friend sent me this article in today’s New York Times, knowing it would be of interest to me as a female college instructor. The author, Carol Hay, in Girlfriend, Mother, Professor? presents the gender role expectations and student-teacher dynamics unique to women professors as described in her title. 

I too have found students of various gender identities attempting to posit me as mother (I’m older) to fit their particular emotional or academic agenda. I have had the distinct impression many students male and female assume that a sob story will likely work an extension or accepted excuse out of me, an avowed mother and presumed female who is therefore, presumably, an emotionally pliant nurturer. And like the author, I both bristle at that cultural expectation framing my student-teacher relationships and reinforce it by presenting as female and exercising compassion. 

To preemptively strike such a situation arising in the first place, I warn students at the outset that requests, pleas and beggings for extensions and other variances from the syllabus terms require creative stories real or imagined to appeal to my imagination more than manipulative ones meant to appeal only to my emotions. I tell them I do not really want to know the reason for their transgressions or requests for amnesty. I just want to hear a good story in exchange for my lenience–a bargained for exchange. 

That first-day-of-class advisory is meant to foster creativity in an English calss as well as set the professional distance between student and teacher. Some get intimidated and fear approaching me at all after that speech, which is not the desired effect, while most do not even detect the signal–do not ask me to sympathize. Your excuses, absences and late work are just that–excuses, absences and late work (excluding verified medical causes). Most do what they do, regardless of syllabi, rules, words and grades. If a harried student is in dire need, he or she will resort to what comes naturally, whether that be groveling, begging, lying, demanding or manipulating.

Somehow I suspect most students act the same with men–need dictating the method and expectation. I doubt gender has more to do with role expectations than personality of the professor. Each brings his or her own strengths or weaknesses, experience and exuberance to the classroom and students react accordingly. Men perceived as gentler than sarcastic and caustic me are going to attract the nurturer-seeking students more than I will probably.

Honestly, this year teaching English at the local college marks my 16th year of just doing me. While students of all stripes and colors have passed through my classroom doors these many years, exercising displays of need, desire, hunger, apathy, enthusiasm, curiosity, ernestness and dozens of other dispositions in their dance of student and teacher otherwise known as jumping through the hoops of yet another required course, I may have experienced and certainly understand Hay’s dilemma (women professors get this typecasting, not men) but so what? 

We do ourselves, mindfully as educators, and point out human behaviors and relationships as part of education. The English or any classroom includes discussions and critical analyses of people, relationships and culture, including gender roles and expectations. Sometimes I call my students out on their assumptions. “Are you assuming I will react emotionally because of my presumed gender?” 

Be the teacher; be myself. I consider it my job. I teach English–and life.

Speak Up!


I am all over this video, which captures the gist of a sticky issue. Freedom of speech means some will take a hit, get their feelings hurt, even re-live traumatic experiences by someone’s words. Better some take the hit than an important freedom for all be jeopardized.

Censorship belongs least on a college campus.

Perhaps we need to project ourselves on to the bloody battle fields and lie among bleeding out bodies of those who fought for that freedom in the American Revolution, or maybe we just need to think about this logically for a moment.

Teaching about human civilizations, i.e., becoming educated, entails learning about the hideous as well as the glorious. Do we stop studying the Civil War because some students identify as Southerners and may be offended by that period in history? Do we forget entire courses like criminal justice in law school because some students come to class as former crime victims? How have we become such boorish cowards that we fear our beliefs and values are so thin that they cannot withstand challenge, fine-tuning or amendment?

The Kentucky City clerk who refuses still to issue same sex marriage licenses even after a court decision denying her “right” not to issue them in accordance with her beliefs is emblematic of this mentality that “it’s my world and everyone else should live according to my rules” mentality–make me comfortable. Get another fucking job if you cannot perform this one in good conscience! Don’t go to college if you are not psychologically prepared to do so, being “triggered” by mocroaggressions.

The Constitution protects free speech. It’s the first amendment, a very brief, uncomplicated, simply worded two lines that most people can read if they are educated beyond the fourth grade. It does not protect sensibilities. I challenge anyone to find that Constitutional protection, not even in the “penumbras” of the Bill of Rights, where the right to privacy was extracted.

While I am a full supporter of sensitivity–mindful of the grand diversity of beliefs and experiences–education, particularly beyond K through 12, just like comfort is not a right, just as any given job is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution. They are privileges. Necessities, but privileges nonetheless, the same as a driver’s license.

Rights vs. privileges: it’s important to know the difference.

Sure, some people will use their words as weapons, spew hate speech, but that is not the speech that is protected under the Constitution, out of which the Supreme Court has carved exceptions. The violation is one of human respect, decency and citizenship, as well as codified laws.

Eleanor Roosevelt, or whomever the sentiment is attributed to, said it best when recalling that no one can insult you without your consent: you know, sticks and stones and all that. Behaviors–like refusing people their legal rights to be married (not to mention be happy) because you happen to be in a position to do just that by your job title–are another matter.

As a civilized, democratic nation, we fight disagreeably offensive speech with more speech, counter and other speech.

First world problems are so wacky, the taken-for-granted privilege of living in a country where the luxury of sensibilities are even considered a topic of discussion. Crazy.

“The Coddling of the American Mind” in the Atlantic

  
I have taught college students to write, read and think for over 15 years now. Before that, I did the same for high school students. My job–teaching–particularly skills for college, and more importantly, life, impresses me as one of mind crafting. I teach students how to think, using the medium of the word. Others teach the same through other media, such as art, music, math or computers, to name a few.

Since writing starts with the word, that is where I start my classes each semester. I compare grammar to life. It starts with the word, which has an essence and a function, depending on its relationship to other words. I try to illustrate this by pointing to a student and defining the student as presumably human, male or female, but also in context of a classroom, a student, peer, son or daughter, just as a noun is a noun until it is placed next to another noun and then functions like an adjective.

It has always been a hit–until recently. In the last couple of years, I hesitate to use the example because once I get past presuming a student is human, I get tangled up in words trying to be respectful of gender identification. I now find myself saying the person appears as this gender or that but may actually identify some other way…and then it gets complicated for me. I start thinking that maybe it is wrong to even presume a student represents as human, now with people going bionic by choice, according to an article I read this morning.

I am the last person to be the most sensitive in any situation. I am not a clod or a jerk (at least I don’t think so), but I can be absorbed in my own world, the material I am teaching and not notice the effect of my natural expressions. I sometimes use profanity to make a point. I reference all kinds of beliefs and politics and history, my class encompassing words and ideas. The constant running through my classes, lately, however, is my fear of others’ sensibilities. I am wary of the trap of my own words.

A true gift, the recognition of these fears in the Atlantic article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which is a thorough investigation of the temperament and tendencies of the American college student as well as some reasonable suggestions to change the trends toward litigation and censorship based on what the author identifies as distorted thinking often bordering on psychological disorders, including adapting sensitivities on behalf of other groups and identities.

The authors define and exemplify micro aggressions, catastrophizing and trigger warnings, topics, words and imagery taught in classrooms or presented in the world that trigger traumatic experiences personal, racial or historical. For example, students object to the mention of rape and rape cases in a law school class for the emotional triggers to some students’ traumatic experiences. This is merely one type of behavior that crowds the classroom’s content and censors speech.

However, as the authors assert, shielding students from offense runs counter to the exposure students should be getting to new ideas in school, including ones that offend. Schools are not bubbles but training grounds for the world beyond school, as world inhabitants, of which there is much that offends.

Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.

The article is a fair treatment of the causes and effects of this educational and social phenomenon, including a recommended list of twelve distortions (reproduced below) to identify and teach in the classroom based on cognitive therapy practices that help individuals focus on a reading of reality that is not merely emotional. I know my falll class opener may start with this article for discussion.

 Common Cognitive Distortions
A partial list from Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn’s Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders (2012).
1. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
2. Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”
3. Catastrophizing.You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
4. Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
5. Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”
6. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”
7. Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
8. Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
9. Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
10. What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?,” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”
11. Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
12. Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought I’m unlovable, you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”

Meraki

  
The therapeutic rewards of writing have long been touted even before Freud and “the talking cure.” Writers write endlessly about writing as compulsion, art, creativity, release, documentation, imitation, recording, reporting and life. But my scouring of the web today yielded very little about writing as a gift. Correction, writing as a gift to the reader. I read plenty advice to write as a gift to the self.

I teach writing. I have often wondered not only what every teacher has wondered (and Kurt Vonnegut wrote about in one smart anecdote he told in the New York Times “Writers on Writing” series), if writing can in fact be taught (which I think it can), but what can teaching writing teach about relationships. 

Just like all roads in creative nonfiction lead home to the writer writing about writing, all teaching should lead to life, and what is life but relationships? We live in the world with other people–most of us. Relationships are relevant. Teachers should teach relevant skills, especially in classes teaching craft.

So, I try to impress upon students that grammar is life and writing is a gift, if you write consciously and conscientiously. 

Grammar is life. The eight parts of speech comprise the basic elements, the core of the English language. However, what something is, changes in relation to what that something is next to. For instance, when is a noun not a noun? When it is up against another noun, side by side, in a sentence. Often the first noun acts like an adjective such as in the phrase “road runner” or “nurse maid.” 

Similarly, a student sits in my class as a human being, perhaps a particular gender identified to that human. Sitting in my class, that human is a student, an enrollee and a peer. At home, he or she may be a sibling, a daughter or son, or spouse. People are defined by their relationships, where they are in the world–just like grammar.

And grammar is the coded order of our language, how we make sense of things. When we write–even for our own health or need–we write to be read by ourselves and others. To be understood is to write for someone else, to paint pictures, to explain something, to teach how to do something or vent, to name a few purposes of writing.

The act of writing is a giving. To do it well, to make it beautiful, clear, precise or illustrative, we must turn our eyes from ourselves to others, see like an other. What will my reader understand? What will it mean for the reader? My great gut-wrenching desire to get “it” right–just the right word–is the desire not only to create something worthy of respect, not merely catering to compulsion, but to connect a mind to another mind in a shared moment of thought or experience.

  
Wanting to transport something from inside the self to another self is a longing to merge with another. The writer and reader are lovers, always longing for being one.

credit: 

jarretfuller.com and illuminology.tumblir.com

Leotard

  

 
On my dresser, crumpled like sin lies a leotard,
gold lamé scarab’d like a 24 carat snake skin,
black lycra arms tightly tubed, trimmed in lace
sewn to this gay garment celebrating costumes
and splayed over orderly folder’d paper stacks
inches thick with frayed efforts, struggling pens
of students composing in discomposed anguish
for the A’s, B’s and C’s drifting over their heads
hovering above their walking shadows at the go
as trudging destiny to seats betraying no means
that end in hours sipped in blind ears and minds
mending time in threaded thimbles of mothers
who cajole and credit them with bygone myths,
those about education and scaling mountains,
inheritances emptied from bank accounts dried
long ago spent by the crackhead loan pirates
and bank note worshipers of voodoo financiers.

The Teacher

 



A soft touch and a hard hand, the teacher speaks in incantations, dronings of esoterica to mystify and satisfy his own urges to expel. Behind office hour doors he is hand full of slick hair clutched at the scalp mummified despair leaving its traces along the spiked tufts that resist gravity’s pull to his ears, one of which is pierced with a diamond stud. Only a knock, a student’s hand, a backward glance or a shy inquiry can shift his mood. His smile smeared on with putty lips, he ogles the words typed for him, pausing long over an improper punctuation or diction switch up. His eyes’ return are shuttered behind thick dark lashes that paint his pupils dark, the velvet of brown specked with black and stroked with soft charcoal malleable leniency and persuasion. The burning does not show. The coursing rage racing up the alleys of his cortisol-laden cerebral landscape, pathways to his libidinal longings for a leg, the hem of a skirt, a bite in the pen cap, tongue caressing the indentation, remains repressed against his spine, thrust shut in his pelvic dance of storming scribblings in marker red, furiously punctilious and benignly compliant. He is grade A swallowed fear in disgust, disguised as propitious transitioning. Everyone passes through and by the teacher while he remains, steady like the axis of a planet, a cross road or dawn’s return.