it’s not business, it’s personal.

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I used to begin every writing class I taught with a memoir assignment. I don’t do that anymore. But, instead of simplifying and straightening up my assignment line up, it’s complicated things.

I used to rationalize the memoir project with the question: Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves? Turns out, about half my students, half the time. The semi-default use of “personal writing”–telling your story, writing a narrative, a memoir, throwing off the oppressive constraints of academic discourse–as a window into writing, a way to engage students in the collective ethos of the class doesn’t always hit the ball out of the park for my first year writing students. And while I believe in all those things–in giving my students a window into writing, in engaging them, in demystifying the writing process–if that were the only reason I was teaching personal writing, it wouldn’t be enough.

An ongoing debate in my field of Composition Studies, particularly when it comes to the writing classroom, is whether or not personal writing has a place there. If you are of the opinion that yes, students should engage in personal writing in their college writing classes, you may be nastily called an Expressivist, in a similar way that art critics named “the Impressionists.” If you are of the opposite opinion, you might be asked rather snarkily if you even really care about students. Either way, “personal writing” usually becomes over-simplified to refer merely to an “autobiography” or “autoethnography” assigned as the first essay in a composition class.

As Elizabeth Wardle argues in her article ““Mutt genres” and the goal of FYC: Can we help students write in the genres of the university?” what we end up doing in composition courses is creating “general” (read “only found in writing courses”) genres and assignments, like the “autoethnography,” designed to mimic or teach “skills” that students can transfer to the rest of their academic experience, and we end up just teaching them mutt genres that are strange and not actually very useful. So, how useful is that designed-to-engage personal writing project? I’m still not exactly sure.

What I do know is that there is truth in Ira Shor’s assertion that students are very savvy at constructing their “in-school” identity, whether by choosing their seats on the edges of class, or by separating out their “real selves” or “real lives” as far from the education experience as they can. This kind of division of self is, at best, unhealthy, at worst, a form of cognitive dissonance that serves as both coping mechanism, and barrier to knowledge transfer and deployment of ideas in real-world contexts. A way to counter this separation is, potentially, asking students to write personally, to write “themselves” into the academy.

There is also the argument that “academic discourse” is not as free from the personal as “they” (whoever “they” are) would have us believe. Candace Spigleman argues just that in her book Personally Speaking: Experience as Evidence in Academic Discourse. Asking how the personal can find a place in academic writing, Spigleman employs feminist and traditional rhetoric to point out the advantages of blending personal writing and academic discourse, to better prepare students for writing in multiple contexts–indeed, many of the actual contexts they might write for in the academy. Such contexts as my own discipline, where blurred, blended, and otherwise hybrid genres have been growing in ascendency for years. However, the balance between personal disclosure and academic ethos is difficult to strike, and Spigleman notes that “…a revealing self-disclosure can fortify an academic argument,” but it can also, “distract from the from or confuse the terms of the debate” (17), so it must be taught carefully.

However, in the same way that Shor admonishes us that setting up our students’ desks in a circle or collaborating with them on a rubric does not automatically make our class “democratic,” “dialogic” or “free,” so too teaching personal writing does not automatically engage students in the writing process, demystify the writing process, or enrich their arguments. Yet, acknowledging and explicitly teaching ways to write the personal are, in my view, increasingly necessary in a culture blooming with blogs, tweets, “styled” and photoshopped instagram pics and other personal disclosures like algae on a lake.

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My own personal teacher-coping-mechanism for this contested little pedagogical space? I tend to lean toward Spigleman and her call to teach the personal, the experiential, as one part of a rich, complex writing practice. A “tool in one’s toolbox,” as my friend Thomas would say. Experience can be evidence, or a personal discourse community can be a research site. As Spigleman describes, “this blended approach creates useful contradictions, contributes more complicated meanings, and so may provide greater insights than reading or writing either experiential or academic modes separately” (3).  So, things actually have gotten more complicated for me when it comes to personal writing in my composition classroom. And you know what? I kind of dig it.

working at home with baby

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This summer, I am not teaching. It is the summer of QE (qualifying exam) prep! READ ALL THE THINGS!

It is also the summer of being home with B, while Jake teaches for both summer semesters.

Let’s talk about how those two things are not really compatible.

I’ve been trying to balance all the things I need to do–check email, type up notes, catch up with family and friends, and of course, read–while the baby naps. My happy little juggling act just got a jarring kick in the shin: B flat out refused her afternoon nap the other day.

I just had the horrifying thought, “It begins. We’re starting to go down to one nap.” And then:

“When am I going to read???

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Naturally, I began researching eleven-and-a-half-month-old sleep patterns and how-to-work-at-home-with-a-baby. I found this honest account from a stay-at-home dad, and it made me laugh out loud! I’m still fairly new at this parenting-thing, but generally I’m finding that my anxieties leak out, like air from a balloon, when I just listen to other parents. Knowing I am not alone makes everything much less fraught.

Yesterday, B skipped her afternoon nap again. Fortunately, Jake and I had both been home, and able to tag-team the child-care, swapping turns at the desk and in the nursery. By the time B was “resisting nap,” my notes on the Peter Elbow text I’d read were typed and saved.

I’m honestly not sure how the rest of the summer will go. We’ve found a really nice rhythm, but I’m certain it will be shaken up soon. Wasn’t it Bob Dylan who said that there is nothing so certain as change? The mantra I rehearse to my students over and over again will likely prove true for me, in writing and in life, these next few months: “flexibility is key.”

 

how can lonely teachers learn community?

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One of the main claims bell hooks makes in her book, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, is not only that we are losing community in higher education, but that losing community in academia is dangerous, for two reasons. First, losing community means “the loss of closeness among those with whom we work and with our students,” and second it means “the loss of a feeling of connection and closeness with the world beyond the academy” (xv).

To me, the first loss is important because I have a felt sense of its truth, its presence in my life and work as an academic. I’m ironically not alone in feeling alone. The lack of connection has been an item of discussion in my department, as we work to build a stronger sense of community within our graduate program, and across the ranks of professors, tenure track, full-time and part-time faculty. Why does community need building in a department where everyone (ostensibly) is working toward common goals with common passions? Well, working side-by-side is not the same as working together, and at times the pressure of my personal work load can feel so overwhelming, all I want to do is shut my office door and try to knock some tasks off of the ever-growing to-do list.

Colleen Flaherty reports that a study of faculty work loads at Boise State has preliminary findings of loneliness in the occupation of teaching, due the sheer amount of work: “faculty may feel generally isolated even though they work in a setting full of people, including colleagues and students.”

Well, yeah. We do.

I do.

For me, it may be partially a factor of my maternity leave last summer, and subsequent reclaiming of my rhythm at work since the baby was born. Or it may just be a symptom of the institution of higher ed: though I have great friends at work, I don’t always see them. When I do see them, we don’t always get to connect–meetings, teaching and student conferences demand attention first. It may be that I have a long commute (like many others), and so I don’t often “hang out” after my work is done, choosing instead to make a break for the (hopefully un-clogged) freeways and home. As an idealist prone to ask myself what I can do to help make change, I’ve been wondering: what are the ways to build a sense of community and “place” for academics working at a commuter campus?

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The second loss hooks describes is important, because it is directly connected to our ability as educators to tell our own story about what it is we do. If we lose our connections with “the world beyond” academia, we lose our ability to inform the stories that get told about us.

I find hooks’ writing stirring and inspiring. Speaking from the perspective of an educator, to educators, she wants to “challenge the prevailing notion that it is simply too difficult to make connections” in the academy–teacher to teacher, teacher to student, etc. From beyond the community, she seeks to apply progressive and critical pedagogical theories to promote a sense of community and hope, to “confront feelings of loss and restore our sense of connections” (xv).

But, she does write this book from beyond the community of academia, outlining in the chapter, “Time Out: Classrooms without Boundaries,” her process of leaving her university to teach in the wide world. She sounds relieved to have made this leap. But many, like myself, cannot follow her into the freedom of independent workshop teaching. We must work from within the system to find the hope that hooks describes. Not an easy task, as hooks herself notes:

“Teaching is a caring profession. But in our society all caring professions are devalued” (86).

How can we maintain our caring attitudes, toward our students, our colleagues, ourselves? hooks draws attention to the practice of love–“All meaningful love relations empower each person engaged in the mutual practice of partnership” (136), and of care for our souls, drawing particularly on Buddhist teachings and the writings of Parker Palmer. hooks quotes Palmer,”Telling teachers ‘to see a transformed way of being in the world,’ he gives voice to spiritual yearning:

‘In the midst of the familiar trappings of education–competition, intellectual combat, obsession with a narrow range of facts, credits, credentials–what we seek is a way of working illumined by spirit and infused with soul.’ ” (179).

I’m not sure where my readers might fall on the continuum of “spiritual practice,” but I believe we are spiritual beings, and that our spirits matter, and should be attended to. What I long for is a practice of teaching and learning and being in academia that also allows for connection and a sense of community with and among my colleagues and students. Is such a thing possible? I’d like to think so. In our most luminous moments, I think the members of my department prove that it is. It’s far from easy, automatic, or even safe. It requires, I’m learning, constant attention to my own inner life (soul self-care), and then conscious effort to reach out (practice love). That may mean engaging in, negotiating, working kindly on partnerships with my colleagues, or it may mean partnering with my students in their learning practices. It may be as broad as supporting our overall program goals. Or, it may be as simple as keeping my office door open.