“Sincerely Yours…”


And that’s a wrap. My first year of professional professerin’ is now officially over (though for some reason I agreed to teach a summer class next month).

I have loved it so, and I want to do this forever, growing into my role at the college, and improving in my trade. To teach is to always be a student, learning, reflecting, and sharing with others. To this end, I feel I need to take a moment to reflect on the experience.

At the beginning of this semester, I decided to de-formalize my class. By this, I simply mean that I made it a goal to treat teaching and learning less like a business and more like a relationship. I previously blogged about an early assignment prompt that sought these ends. Many teachers complain about students thinking of themselves primarily as consumers and of education primarily as a product. Yet too often, we design our courses to encourage this very pattern of thought.

A course typically begins with the handing out of a syllabus and an explanation of policies and assignments. This is certainly necessary and we must discuss it at some point, but why begin there? I’ve taken instead to beginning each course with a question of some sort. It’s a little weird for my students, who often want to get straight to business, but for me it establishes that we are there not primarily to fulfill a requirement, but rather to be curious.

This past semester, I began all my composition classes by showing a short film of a Dr. Seuss story, The Sneetches. For 12 minutes, my students watched a cartoon and must have been wondering on some level if their professor was mentally deranged. What I saw, however, was a group of curious people who were immersed in a fantastic world and were adjusting their own worldviews and expectations to accommodate that world. In short, I saw education going on, not the purchase of a product called education.

At the end of the film, I asked each student to state their name, major, year, et cetera, then pose a question that the movie raised in their minds. (Fair warning to other teachers out there reading this: this can be painful and uncomfortable. You must commit to the process and wait for each student to pose some kind of question, then be alright with questions that are mundane). It was difficult and weird and unsettling, but in the end, each class developed its own interesting line of questioning about this adolescent story. Students were engaged and felt like they had accomplished something — all without the aid of a syllabus (yet).

Furthermore, by attaching their names and aspirations to their questions, we began, as a class, a semester-long relationship that served as the catalyst for their learning experience. In short, their learning experience somehow transcended the “business” of institutional learning. There were certainly exceptions, and many students I’m sure did (or didn’t) what they had to do to “please” me as a teacher, but by and large, I felt that my students were engaged with their learning outside the sphere of consumer transaction. Most of them, with varying success, were motivated by their own curiosity, not the mechanical requirements for their degree programs.

If you took the time to click on my previous post, you’d have seen that I began the class with a letter to my students, explaining what I was looking for in their literary analysis papers. I felt, then, that it was entirely appropriate to conclude class with the genre or writing. (A grad school friend posted an article about this on Facebook and gave me the idea for this). For their final exams, students were asked to write a letter to a future student of the class. Here is the prompt:

Final Exam:

Write a 2-3 page response to the following prompt. Your grade will be determined by your thoughtfulness, the detail you incorporate into your response, and your ability to demonstrate that you were paying attention to what we did in class all semester. In other words, show me that you learned something.

Write a letter to a future student of this class, sharing with them what you learned by taking it yourself. At some point in the letter, you should tell the future student what you learned about your own writing process and narrate how that process changed and/or developed throughout the semester.

Your letter should prepare the student for what will be expected of them over the course of the semester. Finally, your letter should reflect on what works well in this course and what could be improved. This will help your hypothetical friend and me as well.

There were some details that I wanted to see. For example, I did insist that they reflect on their own writing process throughout the semester. However, I purposefully left the instructions vague because I wanted my students to be free enough to focus on what they learned in their individual classroom experiences.

I must say that I never enjoyed reading a batch of papers so much. There was the obligatory brown-nosing, but it was not obnoxious; it seemed rather honest and restrained. Instead, their letters were by and large clear explanations of everything I’d dreamed they would take from the class. It was clear to me that they had “gotten it.” They even went so far as to identify specific assignments they were able to apply to their work and narrate how that made them into more confident writers in college. And furthermore, the letters were oh so clever. I did not get permission to share their responses, so I won’t but many of the exams left me laughing aloud in the downtown Athens Jittery Joe’s. I was embarrassed and exhilarated all at the same time.

And finally, I have to congratulate my students for their insight into what didn’t work so well. Much of what they pointed out I agreed with, and on top of that, they gave me fabulous insight into improvements that can be made in the future. But the important part of this element of their exam is that they dared to tell me where I screwed up!

All along, I was hoping to establish and develop a learning relationship with my students, and at this I was successful.

So successful, in fact, that felt comfortable enough with me to teach their own teacher. Pedagogical bliss.

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A Tournament, A Tournament, A Tournament of Lies


The end of the semester has sure been hard on my blog. Oh well. Onward and upward.

One of the pleasures of moving is experiencing a new culture with child-like curiosity. There’s real joy in being an innocent, unencumbered by the cynicism that comes with familiarity. I’m sure that certain things about the Athens, GA area will eventually wear down my resistance to bitterness, but I’ll fight that dread fate until the end.

What helps in my efforts for now is the fact that I possess two small children, 8 and 4, and their wonder naturally becomes mine. From my youngest’s fascination with Southern accents (“Mommy, I speak English, but I don’t speak y’all”) to my eldest’s wholesale adoption of cowboy boots as essential fashion, I am constantly reckoning with this new culture and landscape, and this has been blissful.

It’s become obvious (to me at least) that any proper exploration of Athens for my kids must include an introduction to the Great American Band, R.E.M. The band and this community are practically synonymous and their music is therefore essential to understanding the local culture. To this end, I’ve loaded my Android up with all my old albums and have been playing them for the girls, who have been loving it (and what’s not to love?). The seminal song, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” is high up on the family playlist, much to my delight. Take a moment to refresh your Gen X memories:

The song is catchy and enigmatic and weird and wonderful. One of the great pastimes of my generation was reciting the lyrics – making sense of the rapid-fire rhymes and idiosyncratic references was, if successfully pulled off, a trip to the Bank of Cultural Capital. If you were privy to the song’s secrets, you had what the kids today like to call “street cred.” In short, it captures that most imperceptible element, the “coolness” that Athens contains within its city limits.

Hearing it again, freshly, through my daughters’ four ears, has been been an intellectually stimulating experience as well. It’s lyrical rejection of paranoia as a motivating political tactic was powerful enough in the throes of the Cold War. (This is a theme throughout the entire Document album – see “Exhuming McCarthy). Today it is an essential defense against our public discourse.

In our time, and to a degree that Michael Stipe and company could never have imagined, paranoia and fear are co-conspiring kings.

Perhaps it is because of 9/11.


Perhaps it is because conspiracy has become big business.

The fact is, now more than ever, the most important decisions we make as a society are driven by fear and that is truly frightening. (Yes, the irony of that sentence is purposeful). The profits of cable news depend on the motivation fear provides, and the networks therefore have no qualms about packaging and selling conspiracy. It is a money machine.

This is, quite simply, a cultural disaster.

Caution and suspicion are not inherently bad things. In fact, when kept in check, they provide a vital conscience for both the individual and society. Fear is an instinct that has helped humankind survive from The Great Flood through Y2K, but its proper place is at the margins of life, not the center.

When thrust into the role of a life’s organizing principle, fear is crippling and destructive, forcing the individual to hide away from the world and forgo much of the experience that makes life worth living in the first place.

When extrapolated out to the societal scale, centralized fear breaks all the bonds that unite diverse people. All challenges then become more than obstacles to be faced and solved, they become the fault of “someone else.” Conspiracy theories are constructed, packaged, sold, and applied to every difficulty the nation experiences. These theories strive to make sense of chaos where sense does not exist. They are bought and sold in an economy that depends on victimization as its primary export. I believe that our hero Westley, from The Princess Bride said it best:

Indeed we are being sold fear, and consumer demand is high. This is a crisis we all now face. Together.

For all the good and great things the Enlightenment has brought us, this fascination with the individual has gone too far. We are more than individual consumers whose fates are our own concerns. George Costanza said it best, I think, when he said, “you know, we are living in a society!” Instead, we have drifted off, too far, into our own imaginary islands and left the very real mainland to rot. And it’s more than that we’ve simply drifted. We’ve fled one another’s great company.

R.E.M.’s song offers the wisest advice I can think of to confront this crisis. “Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline. It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.” In other words, don’t worry so freakin’ much.

The video that accompanies the song captures its essence as well as any could. The boy rummaging around the deserted shack in the wilderness, the end of civilization as it were, neither weeps nor gnashes his teeth. His forebears have left him ruins and rummages through them them with curiosity and humor. Then he skates among them.

We find ourselves in the same position as that boy. Our fathers and mothers have left us messes to clean up, as theirs did for them. There are problems to be solved and there alternatives to be chosen, but there is some joy to be found in the process. And isn’t it better to go through it with other people?

My family has staked out Athens as the place where we’ll make our stand. It is different from what we’ve known. We came here alone. Scary, but hey, we have R.E.M. to guide us. Coming up on our first year here, we can see a lot of progress in making this strange place our home. But, our strategy has not been installing security systems and building safeguards. It has been risk. It has been getting to know people. A place is not just its landscape and buildings, it is its people. Bad things will invariably happen to us as they do to everyone, but we will not be alone as we face them, blaming the hands of unseen and non-existent conspirators. Life is with people.

The past year has, in fact, been the end of the world as we knew it.

But we feel fine.

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