on taking a break.

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How was your Memorial Day weekend, friends? Mine was great. Fantastic.

I didn’t do any work at all.

As an academic, I’ve long since gotten used to the idea that my “weekends” are actually more like “workends,” especially during the semester. In fact, since beginning my PhD, I realized that I needed to make a concerted effort to take breaks. This aha moment came two-thirds of the way through that first fall semester where I worked 8-12hrs a day, 7 days a week. I had a larger-than-usual post-mid-terms meltdown, and then was like, “of course you’re cracking up…you’ve been doing nothing but work!” And that was before having B.

Being a mom and an academic at the same time is actually lots better, because I simply can’t work 24/7. I must find efficient work-arounds to my little one’s schedule, and this actually brings much sanity. A tad bit more panic to those dedicated work times, but hey. Aren’t academics famous for “working well under (procrastinated) pressure”? Sure!

So, anyway, this weekend I finally took a leisurely break of three whole days! I didn’t really plan it that way, but at the last minute, my sister and brother-in-law needed help with their move. So Saturday morning, we helped pack and haul boxes. Saturday night was book club with my girlfriends, who have graciously agreed to push our monthly meetings to after B goes to bed. Sunday we totally slept in and were running late to church, but it was really nice when we got there. And after that we landed at my in-laws for an afternoon of BBQ, laying in the grass, and key lime pie. Monday, we hung out with my parents, sister and bro-in-law, and B’s great uncle and G.G. (great grandma).

Could I have squeezed some exam reading in there? Of course. Did I need to because I’m a bit behind? Of course.

But, I didn’t.

And I honestly feel great about it. I had the best, juiciest, most relaxed time with our friends and families! It was glorious weather and I was fully present to laugh, talk, eat, drink and just be.

To top it off, I feel more ready to dive into reading this week. I have sharper clarity.  Initially I thought I might be just making this up. However, Tony Schwartz’s New York Times essay on how taking a rest actually leads to more productivity confirmed the causality. “Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable,” Schwartz says. “The importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology. Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.”

As a teacher, I understand this only from my own failures at “recovering energy.” Ask my husband. At some point after mid-term, I end up in a quivering puddle on the floor somewhere in our apartment, unable to lift my head under the overwhelming weight of ALL THE THINGS. I will say this, however: a good cry is a tremendous reset.

Thank goodness there are folks out there who are working on prevention of the regular-teacher-meltdown…or even, burnout. The incomparable Parker Palmer has an entire website designated to reaching teachers and encouraging them, The Center for Courage and Renewal. One of these days I’m going to take a mini-break on the baby’s nap and instead of reading for exams, I’ll sit with my coffee and explore that site. The fabulous people at the Eastern Michigan Writing Project regularly attend to the souls of writing teachers, too. Chelsea even detailed a Teacher Spa they put on to encourage and rejuvenate teachers.

So anyway, back to it. I’ve used most of this morning’s nap to compose this blog (another form of self-care), so the afternoon nap is for reading!! (READ, Nicole, READ.) Hope everyone had a lovely long weekend, complete with a bit of rest.

 

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poetry memorization

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Welp, I did it. At long, long last…I have completely memorized the class text: Dr. Suess’s ABC. How do I know this? Because I rattled it off to a very cranky eleven-month-old in the car this morning, on our way to pick up her dad from the auto repair shop, where he’d just dropped off the other car. I was a little stunned that I’d got the whole thing, though, the pictures and the rhyming really helps a lot.

It made me pause, though, to reflect on the things I’ve committed to memory. Sort of an out-of-fashion skill these days–numbers are all on our phones, events are all digitally photographed and posted online. Memorization is especially out of favor in academia–with good reason, too. Why bother using valuable brain space to memorize when you can look something up and save that space for critical thinking? Analysis? Is poetry memorization a waste of time? Sometimes, when I glance over my “still-to-read” part of my QE list, I wonder…

Yet, I cannot shed the habit of committing bits of text, usually a poem, or now the odd, well-worn children’s book, to memory. I suppose I come by it honestly: Poppa, my dad’s dad, was always puttering about the yard or house, muttering poetry under his breath. He favored nonsense poems, but also could recite “When the Frost is on the Pumpkin” on command–and I frequently commanded it as a child. When Poppa passed away, I claimed his well-worn poetry anthology for my own, and used it as my primary reference for my 11th grade poetry journal.

While my mom is the queen of the appropriate song lyric, my dad has always loved, and recited to me, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So much so that excerpts of that poem were the first poetry I committed to memory myself. Along with his own poems, my husband would recite “The Litany Against Fear,” from his favorite book, Dune, to me when we were dating.

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I can mark my life by the poetry I was remembering at the time. Emily Dickenson’s “That I did always love,” for my wedding. In the early mornings and late nights of nursing my newborn baby, I went over the first stanza of Endymion and this e.e. cummings poem to pass the time. When I first started teaching, I taught, and learned Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” because, of course. Classic hymns or psalms are also poetry that have proven useful in key moments. The act of memorizing is like a slow absorption, or a dissolving. You work over the words until they break down and enter your porous brain, and become part of you.

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These days, I am committing Dr. Suess and his crew to memory. I’m not sad about it, either. So much children’s literature is tremendously satisfying and soul-filling in its silly, poignant way. I’m also working on getting all of this poem into my being–a sort of antidote for that post-baby body “shmeh” feeling, or just anything that might be getting me down–studying, scheduling, bill-paying, what-have-you.

I’ll always encourage my students in this endeavor–and some day, if I ever get to teach a poetry course, they’ll be assigned to it. Because it is so personally fulfilling, I wonder, sometimes, if it would be appropriate in a composition classroom? I suppose that depends very much on how one conceptualizes “composition” and “the classroom.” hm…

What can we give students credit for?

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In my reading this week, I’ve noticed various notions authors have of what students bring with them to the college writing classroom. Everyone acknowledges that students bring something…but just what that something is varies widely among pedagogical theorists. Prior knowledge, bad habits that need to be broken, a slew of ideas about how to “do school.”But, do they bring anything we can actually work with? Anything that doesn’t have to be “undone” in the acclimation to academia?

Reading David Bartholomae’s collection of essays, Writing on the Margins, is like following the brilliant career of man, very devoted to student learning, who doesn’t think so. And partly, I believe he is right. Students do not come into the university with much–if any–understanding of what writing at the college level, for academia, really means. In the essay, “Writing Assignments: Where Writing Begins” Bartholomae emphasizes this lack:

“To discover or to learn, the student must, by writing, become like us–English teachers, adults, intellectuals, academics. He must become someone he is not” (177).

This transformation is one of the goals (or for many, the main goal) of college writing instruction: to help students write in college genres for college instructors throughout their college careers (may they last not much more than four years!). There are several ways this way of thinking runs into trouble, in my view. First, students are very, very savvy, and they can sense when they are being instructed in “school-only” tasks. They are happy to do these tasks, however, if it means certainty of a particular grade. Second, if we are teaching students to acclimate to an environment for only four (or five, six, eight) years of their lives, where is the impetus for transfer of that knowledge to contexts outside the university…say, to their future careers? Or, dare I ask, to their civic lives?

Where Bartholomae fails to give much attention, I think, is to the knowledge that students DO bring with them to the First Year Writing classroom. Though they may not already be the savvy researchers possessed of the specialized discourse of academe, our students certainly know how to “do school.” Twelve years of training in the American education system has given them at least that (and sometimes, much more).

It is this kind of prior knowledge that Linda Bergmann and Janet Zepernick discovered as a result of their study written up as “Disciplinarity and transfer: students’ perceptions of learning to write.” In running several focus groups to listen in on how students talked about their experiences in composition courses, Bergmann and Zepernick noticed that students at their university drew a clear separation between the writing they did in English courses and the writing they were asked to do in courses in their majors:

Students, “failed to see any connection between what they [had] learned about writing in English classes and what they see as objective, fact-based, information-telling writing demanded elsewhere in their academic and professional lives” (5).

However, students had great clarity about the rhetorical situation of the classroom–though, this works out to be a kind of “negative transfer.” Being very savvy and privileging grades, students adapt to the culture of “school,” and learn very early on how to assess a particular instructor for the minimum amount of work they must do to acquire the grade they want. Many educators are aware of this attitude and bemoan it. Why can’t students value the learning process? Appropriate their education?? I actually think it is quite a smart strategy, in its way. Why “waste” time and energy achieving a goal when you can simply analyze the rhetorical situation and address it strategically? After the first few assignments, you can get a sense of what a particular instructor expects, and then produce it. Repeat with each new class/instructor. Simple. Effective. (…if what you want to achieve is a certain grade point average, or a certain piece of paper with your name and a school’s name on it.)

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This is a powerful rhetorical awareness, but one that needs to be harnessed if it is to first–break students out of their habits of merely “doing school” and second–help students transfer knowledge from our courses to other contexts. Far from coming in knowing nothing, most students know all about how to address the rhetorical situation of classroom and teacher in order to achieve their purposes. But, we as FYW instructors must explicitly address and extend this prior knowledge. Make use of it. Help students become aware of it and harness it. Maybe if we give students credit for what they already know–even though it’s not what we wish they knew–we could put them on the path we as “professional” academics have found so fruitful.

work-life balance, summer style

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Ah, summer. A time for sitting on the lawn while your baby discovers what grass feels like when she rips it up by the handful. Time to spend with friends, at last, after a long, hard winter where–nevermind the seventy tons of record-breaking snow–you were “snowed in” under piles of student papers and a teething baby. Time, at long last, to read that list of 100 texts for your Qualifying Exams.

I’ve never been one to support the myth that teachers, even at the university level, “get the summer off.” We’re either teaching, prepping, researching, or sitting in all the meetings we didn’t have time to schedule during the semester, since we were busy sitting in our offices waiting for students to come see us. But, this summer, I am not picking up any teaching, and it feels marvelous. Granted, I’m not teaching so that I can work on my exam list and work as the primary caregiver for my daughter, while her dad picks up an almost full teaching load himself…but, it sure feels like a lighter load. So, I’m going to go with it.

Still, this lighter load is a load, and it needs to be managed. Balanced. My goal this summer is to be all there, in whatever I’m doing. It may mean I take the baby for a walk, leaving all devices and books at home, so as not to be taunted by all the reading I’m not doing. It may mean that I ignore the laundry and hunker down for an hour of active reading while the baby naps. Whatever I do, I want to do it with all my heart.

I’ll try to keep you apprised of the situation, as I work through this tightrope-walk. Even as I write this, though, I’m aware that babies aren’t the only things vying for people’s time as we all strive to keep our homeostasis in tact. What do you do to keep yourself in balance? Or, do you just say “screw it”? What does “balance” look like for you?