Best Laid Plans

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I intended to keep up better with my blog.

I intended to finish a novel and a play.

I intended to market my plays and obtain an agent, or at least work more toward that goal.

I intended to have all of my classes completely ready to go for the new semester by this time.

It didn’t happen. Life intervened in fabulous, fulfilling ways as well as horrible, heart-breaking ways.

The privacy of my family will not allow me to go into details, but I am learning that life and work will rarely ever be in balance. Perhaps for a few fleeting moments, but the balance we all seek, and should, is a lofty one and largely unreachable. We will be out of balance more often than not, but we will find ways to cope, to compromise, to hope, to find our way.

These best of times feed and hinder my work.

These worst of times feed and hinder my work.

It isn’t a balance.

It is something else altogether.

It is a body.

A mind.

A spirit.

Altogether corrupt.

Infinitely holy.

Intertwined. Inseparable.

All of this is crazy. What do I mean?

I don’t really know what life is.

But I love it.

I just wish he had, too.

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The submission deadline for the Fall/Winter 2019 edition of Teach. Write. has come in the midst of this frenzy. I contemplated extending the deadline, but I couldn’t even wrap my mind around the things I would need to do to make that happen.

So, I will print the lovely pieces that I have, and I will find the other work I need.

Or I will write them myself.

Publication is still slated for September 1.

 

 

Purely Pecuniary

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For, money makes the world go around
…the world go around
…the world go around.
Money makes the world go ’round
The clinking, clanking sound of…
Money money money money
Money money money money…
Get a little, get a little
Money money money money…
Mark, a yen, a buck or a pound,
That clinking, clanking, clunking sound,
Is all that makes the world go ’round,
It makes the world go ’round

from “Money Makes the World Go Around” by John Kander and Fred Eb from the musical Cabaret.

Remember that song from Cabaret? When the sleazy, clown-like emcee and outrageous Sally Bowles sing “Money Makes the World Go Around”?  The film version of the classic musical about greed and corruption in pre-Nazi Germany made a huge impression on me when I first saw it as a youngster.  Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey were “divinely decadent” in the scene, provocatively contorting as they extolled the virtues of the Almighty Dollar, or mark, or yen.  Here’s a link if you want to see it: Money.

Kind of creepy, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong. I like money. I really do. I appreciate that with sensible management, thanks largely to my wonderful husband, we are able to sustain a comfortable living, allowing us to travel frequently to see family, provide the basis of financial security for our daughter, give to the charities of our choice, as well as save for emergencies and retirement. All of these things are wonderful.

What creeps me out about money is the overwhelming love for it that the society at large seems to have. And I mean love in the biblical sense, as in the root of all evil kind of love. I mean hot and heavy LUST for it. It permeates everything, including higher education, of course.

Here’s the even bigger problem for me.

I can’t do a darn thing about it.

I mean, I’ve tried. I speak up about the intrinsic value of education beyond training a workforce. I write about it on this blog. I try my best to provide a true education to my students–one that goes beyond passing tests or turning in assignments with a modicum of grammatical and mechanical errors so they can earn a grade in a course and be passed on to the next course. I try to give my students an education that honors their individuality, that challenges them, that enters into their hopes and dreams, no matter what their socio-economic status, no matter how much it will cost the State to educate them, no matter what they want to study, even if they want to study arts and humanities.

But I am losing the battle. Why? Because Money. Makes. The World. Go. Around.

Alright then, I can play along. Let’s play Purely Pecuniary. Let’s only talk about Money.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a good place to go. It takes a few easy searches to find information that shows a bachelor’s degree or more is preferred if the goals are employment and wages:

chart (2)

 

Notice that at all times from 1998 to 2018 those who have bachelor’s degrees or higher have the lowest unemployment rate, adjusting for seasonal work.

employment growth

  • Note that production (the gray dot) is projected to have almost negative 5% growth by 2026 with wages decreasing to below the median annual wage. 
  • Notice the highest growth of employment is healthcare support followed closely by personal care and service, but these two occupations, requiring little to no post-secondary education, are also located well underneath the median wage line.
  • The higher paying careers with high employment are also in the healthcare area, but both occupations require either advanced degrees or the equivalent in technical education. Obviously, those with more advanced degrees will make more money.
  • Computer and mathematical careers have higher wages, but to get those higher wages, many will need a four-year degree or higher as this next graph indicates:

degree earnings

Clearly, earning a bachelor’s degree or higher is not only the most likely avenue to employment but is also the best direction for those who wish to make two times the median wage, or more. If you want to read more (and see more charts with important data ), then go to this informative slideshow from the BLS.

So, if indeed money does make the world go around (I don’t really believe it for a second), then obtaining a  liberal arts education or professional degree is the way to do it, and if students need or want to save money, they can begin that journey by obtaining an associate’s degree at a quality community college and transferring to a university as a junior.

Furthermore, some universities in my state and others have drastically lowered tuition, so if students transfer to a cost-effective four-year institution nearby so they can live at home, they will have an opportunity to graduate with little or no debt. Win-Win. 

See, I like money. But I LOVE providing students with an education that will give them more than a paycheck. I want to help students receive an education that frees them to seek meaningful work and otherwise enhances their lives, and the lives of others, more than they ever dreamed possible, by giving them a purpose beyond consumption–beyond material gain.

April 11-14–World Premiere of “Battered: A Play about Domestic Violence Inspired by Robert Browning’s ‘The Ring and the Book'”

battered poster

Yesterday, we filmed some of the flashback scenes for my newest play, Battered: A Play about Domestic Violence Inspired by Robert Browning’s “The Ring and the Book.” If you are near Asheville, NC, in April, then I hope you will try to make it.

Here is more information about the production:

April 11-14, the Theatre Department at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, North Carolina, presents the world premiere of English faculty member Katie Winkler’s drama, Battered: A Play about Domestic Violence Inspired by Robert Browning’s “The Ring and the Book.” A story within a story within a story, the play takes place in a small theater during the read-through of a new play by a young woman, Julia, who has escaped from a violent relationship with her intimate partner.

Julia has chosen to write an adaptation of the Victorian poet Robert Browning’s masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, drawn not only to the long narrative poem’s subject of the real-life murder of Pompilia Comparini by her husband Guido Franceschini, but also to the story of the great love between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. As the main character in this play within a play endures the increasing violence of her tyrannical husband’s abuse, Julia begins to relive her own nightmare.

As in past productions, including last season’s Stories from the Table by communications instructor Joshua Bledsoe, Battered is a collaborative effort, involving Director Jennifer Treadway and the author, as well as Blue Ridge students and community members. The desire is to raise awareness about the ongoing issue of domestic violence and also celebrate the enduring work of two of the greatest English poets of all time.

Author Katie Winkler has taught English composition and British literature as an adjunct and full-time professor for over 23 years at the college. Previous productions of her work include the musical A Carolina Story, a literary adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the one-act comedy Green Room. She is an active member of the Dramatists Guild of America and is a recently named trustee on the board of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

Starring as the playwright Julia is well-known area actor Natalie Broadway, who has performed in several productions at Blue Ridge, including August: Osage County, The Taming of the Shrew, and Les liaisons dangereuses, among others. She also served as artist-in-residence at the college, performing the lead role in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. Other cast and crew members include theater students, as well as students outside of the department, alumni, and community members.

Battered will be presented April 11-14 in the Patton Auditorium of the Henderson County campus. Other performance sites will be announced soon. Admission for students, faculty and staff is $5. General Admission is $7. Contact the Blue Ridge Community College Theatre Department for more information or to make reservations.  js_treadway@blueridge.edu.

Spring 2019 Edition of Teach. Write. Coming April 1

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Busy times for Mrs. Winkler! Besides grading like mad to catch up from unexpected eye surgery followed by a bad head cold AND putting the finishing touches on the play, I am currently putting together my newest edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. I am excited about this edition’s contributions and think you will be, too! Stay tuned!

 

Battered: A Play about Domestic Violence Inspired by Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book by Katie Winkler

battered poster

When I was in graduate school long years ago, I took a course in 19th Century British literature. I was already a huge fan of the period, fueled by an undergraduate class in the Victorian Era, so the course further entrenched my love of the time and its literature.

During the class, we were required to read The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning, the master of the dramatic monologue with its “silent listener.” Although many are not familiar with The Ring and the Book, others are likely to have encountered what is probably Browning’s most recognizable poem, “My Last Duchess,” a dramatic monologue, of course. Here it is:

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Lucrezia de` Medici by Bronzino

 

My Last Duchess

by Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
The Studio

The Studio by John Liston Byam Shaw (c1900)

The dropping of the daylight in the West,

The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
close up photography of person holding opened book

Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) on Pexels.com

The Ring and the Book involves similar settings and themes. Set in Italy during the Renaissance, The Ring and the Book, at 21,000 lines one of the longest poems in English literature, tells the story of how Pompilia Comparini, a 17-year-old who has just given birth, is cruelly stabbed to death, along with her parents, by her husband, Count Guido Franceschini, and four assassins.

Browning based his novel-length poem, told through 12 dramatic monologues, on a true Renaissance murder trial chronicled in The Old Yellow Book, a collection of trial papers and hand-written notes. Browning had secretly married Elizabeth Barrett, the author of the renowned Sonnets of the Portuguese, in 1846; they had fled from England to Italy soon after for the sake of Elizabeth’s health and to escape her tyrannical father. After her health improved, at 43, Elizabeth gave birth to their son, Pen. Then, one June day in 1860 while wandering the streets of Florence, Browning came across the trial papers covered in vellum. Although fascinated with the story from the beginning, Browning did not write his masterwork until Elizabeth’s death and his subsequent return to England.

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Back when I was a graduate student in that 19th Century British literature class, I first thought how I would like to dramatize The Ring and the Book, about how relatively few people still read and study this great work with its beautiful language and far-reaching themes of searching the heart for reasons why we do the horrible things we do (Hodell) or how we are able to endure when we seem so weak and frail.  I wanted, someday, to find a way to help people, especially those who may have never heard of Browning before, discover, or re-discover, his greatest work.

25 years later, I have been blessed with the opportunity to write a play that, I hope and pray, does just that.  And more.

~~~~~~

Stay tuned for more information about Battered, which is being produced by the Theatre Department at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, North Carolina, April 10-14, 2019.

Also, if you are interested in learning more about Robert Browning, dramatic monologues, and other Victorian Era works and authors, I highly recommend taking a look at The Victorian Web, a wonderful resource for you anglophiles out there.

 

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Thinking about Pittsburgh

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davidpwhalen — morguefile.com

In light of recent events, I have been thinking a lot about Pittsburgh. This weekend at the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s fall conference in Charlotte, I was inspired to write the following after a great panel on the importance of place in writing:

 

City Chicken

When I moved to Beaver, PA, in 1983, I was 23, just graduated from Oral Roberts University, Lord help me, and had come to work at a small Christian school outside of Pittsburgh. I grew up an army brat, who moved from place to place north, south, east, west, yet always carried the South with me as I traveled with my loud, boisterous, loving Alabama family.

Part of my heritage is a powerful streak of non-conformity, independent even from the strong political, religious, and social mores of southern society. So when I was still jobless a couple of weeks before graduation and was invited to apply for a job teaching English and German at Rhema Christian School in Aliquippa, PA, a major steel town outside of Pittsburgh, I didn’t hesitate. It was a grand adventure, moving to a brand new place to explore and new people to meet.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived that June day and was picked up at the Pittsburgh airport was how dang humid and hot it was. Despite that similarity with my home state, on the way to the school from the airport, I knew I wasn’t in AL anymore. The rolling hills were larger than those of the Alabama plains. Instead of one story brick or wooden houses, spacious lawns and pecatrees, we passed two story homes huddled close together in the valley and scattered over the hills, big red barns decorated with brightly colored quilt patterns I know now are PA Dutch Hex signs, long rambling steel mills belching smoke, and the bridges! Silver train bridges beside the huge arches of yellow ones crowded with cars and trucks, moving in and out of small bedroom

Pittsburgh’s bridges

Bandini at morguefile.com

communities and Mill villages.

 

On the way to the school after leaving the interstate, we passed a Perkins Restaurant, a chain, I was told, much like, but not at all like, Shoney’s in the South. On the marquee I read that the week’s special was City Chicken—city chicken? I thought it was weird but let it go as my nerves took over in anticipation of my first teaching job interview. 

I got the job and moved two months later. Almost my whole family helped me move. We had fun exploring Pittsburgh—the drive through the Fort Pitt tunnel.

Point state park in pittsburgh

Bandini —morguefile.com

opening up to its impressive view of the city during the beginning of its renaissance, lunch at an Italian place, claiming the best pizza in The Burgh, beautiful Point State Park, right where two rivers came together to form the mighty Ohio. Then, hugs, kisses, tears, and they were gone, back to Al together. I was left alone with a map and my dad’s advice on the best route back to my new home.  

After crossing four or five bridges and traveling down numerous wrong roads, I finally found the right one and headed to Beaver. It was getting late, I was already homesick, frustrated that I had lost my way, and therefore powerfully hungry, when I saw a marquee in front of yet another Perkins restaurant, or maybe it was Eat ‘n Park, anyway, the special, according to the sign, was city chicken.

close up photography of orange rooster on brown wooden bench

Photo by Yves Chaput on Pexels.com

I took the bait, parked, was led to a booth, and without thinking or asking or reading the menu, ordered the special from my young, perky, big-haired server.

She wrinkled her nose. “Did you say City Chicken?” Not the first time that day someone had trouble with my accent

“Yes, Ma’am.” I said, smiling.

She gave me a curious look but said nothing. A few minutes later she placed before me a huge plate of meat on a big pile of fluffy white rice with a side order of broccoli. I took a whiff and was suddenly transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen as she prepared fried chicken and rice for a Wednesday night church supper before prayer meeting.

My mouth watering, I took a bite. Oh, my, it wasn’t  chicken at all. City chicken, turns out, is big fat juicy, deep fried pieces of pork tenderloin on a frickin’ stick. It was not like anything I had ever tasted before. But, man, I thought, feeling I had not, after all, made the biggest mistake in my life, it sure was tasty.

 

 

Five Easy Ways

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The first semester as a graduate assistant working on my Masters in English Education at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, I was required to take a course in teaching methods. Because I already had five years of teaching experience, two years in a private school in Pennsylvania and three years in Rome, Georgia, teaching English and German, I was arrogant enough to think I didn’t need to take the course and was somewhat annoyed that I had to do so.

However, during the course of the semester, I found out how much my professor, Dr. Gayle Miller, had to teach me. One of the best activities Dr. Miller had us complete was teaching to the class. Each one of us had to pick something we were interested in and instruct the class. My friend, who later became a colleague at the school where I teach now, taught a lesson on writing apprehension, offering suggestions I still use today. Another interesting topic was finding a word in an English/Chinese dictionary–surprisingly difficult.

Even the few times Dr. Miller was not there, she always had an interesting person to come in and lecture. It was a long time ago, and I can’t remember her name, but one speaker who came to Dr. Miller’s class made a lasting impact on my teaching by introducing the class to five easy ways that can help students improve their writing.

Although I have modified the list somewhat over the years, I still introduce my freshman composition students to The Five Easy Ways, which I have found especially useful when teaching community college students who may not have been strong writers in high school. The beauty of the The Five Easy Ways is students can improve their writing without knowing much grammar.

Don’t get me wrong! I love grammar, but I have a great deal to accomplish in a short time in freshman English, so I have found that The Five Easy Ways jumpstarts revision among students who may have never truly revised a paper. They just don’t know how!

So here are The Five Easy Ways in their latest iteration:

  1. Avoid the use of first and second person pronouns.
  2. Avoid beginning sentences with There and It.
  3. Eliminate overused expressions and vague modifiers, such as like a lot, lots, very, really, good, bad, awesome, etc.
  4. Avoid over-coordination.
  5. Read backwards and aloud.

Okay, maybe I should not have said they were easy. These five ways may make finding sentences that need revision easier, but fixing them is not always easy.

Okay, okay, there is a little grammar here, too. I usually must explain what first and second person pronouns are and also over-coordination, but most students know the grammar; they just don’t know that they know it. After a few minutes of review, the majority of students begin to remember.

Today, let’s look more closely at the first Easy Way. Students are so used to writing about themselves they find it difficult to think from any other perspective, something we want college English students to do; therefore, I don’t allow first person at all in finished drafts. Also, students learn that stating one’s opinion does not require the phrases I think, I believe, or I feel to precede them. Furthermore, eliminating second person forces students to think more about broadening their audience and often leads them to develop a more mature voice. They can also learn to avoid pronoun errors caused by using the second person incorrectly.

Example: After reading my paper, you can see that it is for the best if you start recycling. 

Oh, me. So many things to talk about–where to begin?  Start with eliminating the first and second person pronouns.

Revised: After reading the paper, most people can see that it is for the best if everyone starts recycling.

Still some things to work on, but for a freshman who doesn’t even know where to begin revising, the sentence is already improved by making just a few simple changes.

Okay, okay, okay. Perhaps you, gentle reader, are thinking how I am forsaking The Five Easy Ways even while explaining them, but I am much more conscious of overusing the first person or inappropriately using the second person. Now, I am consciously looking for this overuse when revising. Looking at the draft of this blog, for example, I noticed the overuse of first person pronouns and have worked to eliminate some pronouns while reconsidering others.

I have incorporated The Five Easy Ways into freshman English classes, which now begin with an assignment that is a personal narrative written in third person.  After completing this assignment, students seem to grasp how avoiding first and second person can strengthen their overall sentence structure.

Here is the assignment and an example:

One of the easiest ways to make writing sound more academic is to eliminate first and second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, your, your). Although finding the instances of first and second person is a snap, rewriting sentences to get rid of these pronouns can be time-consuming at first. The good thing is once writers begin using third person only, they soon become used to it and will write in third-person more often, making revision easier and easier.

Therefore, in this exercise students will write a one paragraph (five to ten sentences long) narrative. The trick is to write the paragraph totally in third person .  Here are some suggestions for the paragraph, but students are not limited to these topics:

a car accident

                      an event during a family vacation

learning to drive or learning to do something else

winning or losing a game

failing or succeeding at school or work

the first day of elementary school, high school or college

any other topic as long as it is a personal narrative

IMPORTANT NOTE: The paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and be no shorter than five sentences and no longer than ten well-developed sentences. Telling a story in such a short time is difficult so narrow the paragraph down to the climax of the narrative. 

Take a look at the following example to get an idea of what I’m looking for:

Example:

Katie and a Horse Named Butterball

Katie only rode him once, but she will never forget riding Butterball through the Grand Tetons. She was nine and a half, on a trip back from California to Alabama with her parents and siblings when the family stopped at a dude ranch in Wyoming for two nights. The owners found out that Katie and her sister loved horses, so they decided to take the family on a trail ride. Everyone was given a horse that seemed to suit each one, except Katie, small and scared, who was put up on Butterball–the biggest, fattest golden palomino gelding anyone ever saw! Katie’s little legs stuck straight out across the horse’s wide back, and at first, she was terrified. However, when she realized that the horse was a gentle giant, she relaxed enough to look down on her older sister and brother, even her parents. That’s when she began to feel much better. As she walked the trails through the glorious mountains in late summer, she saw sights she had never seen before or since–the Grand Tetons early in the morning, a moose cow and her calf drinking by a lake, wild horses led by a buckskin stallion–all while riding high on a horse named Butterball.

This first assignment does not cure students of overusing or inappropriately using first or second person, but it certainly gives them something to consider when they begin the revision process as college students, and for some, knowing where to begin is the start of a whole new way to look at writing.

Next blog post, I will tackle Easy Way #2.

I’m not a doctor, or am I?

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

Many people look at higher education as a business. Staff and administrators with no close ties to the classroom can, and maybe even should, look at it that way.  The leadership at the college where I work believes strongly in the business model for education, and that’s a-okay with me.

In the end, I think when they say, “run this place like a business,” all they really mean  is”organize this place like a successful business with happy customers and employees.” Those tasked with strategic planning, raising funds, balancing budgets, managing payroll, processing complaints, and other important institutional purposes are right, to a great extent, if they see the college as a business and  the students as customers.

However, as a faculty member, especially one who is tasked with helping students become more competent readers and writers, I would be, excuse the Southernism, in deep do-do if I treated my students like customers. Here are some reasons why I don’t:

  • The customer isn’t always right. Besides being a dismally outdated expression, it has almost always been poor business practice to believe that the customer is always right. Furthermore, it would be a ludicrous attitude for an English teacher to have because one of the biggest aspects of my job is pointing out how my students are in error and helping them correct and avoid those mistakes in the future.
  • My classes are often a required part of every student’s curriculum, a requirement that an increasing number of my students resent having to take. However, more and more businesses and institutions are telling educators, as I wrote about in a recent blog post, that the reading and writing skills of many potential employees are inadequate. Employers are turning more and more to colleges and universities, especially two-year colleges, to help bridge these gaps. Therefore, although my immediate customer, the student, does not always see the need for advanced technical writing skills and comprehension of complex texts, the college’s stakeholders most certainly do, or should.
  • Customers hire people to do things for them; I require my students to do things for me. A business model approach would put the emphasis on me doing things for my students instead of my students working for me. Of course, I am tasked with disseminating the information clearly, but I can’t help a student who does not complete assignments in a timely manner. The few students who are hyper critical of me tend to be ones who have put the onus of their education on me, which deprives them of developing in the subject.
  • Generally, one should not discipline a customer, but I must discipline my students. I spend a portion of almost every class managing disruptive students. I must also confront students when they are falling behind, correct them when their attitudes are inappropriate, and challenge them when they speak untruths or violate classroom policies.  If I am to be effective in the classroom, my students must see me as the authority, not only in subject matter, but also in matters of classroom management.
  • The classroom can not be dictated by customer satisfaction. Not that I don’t want my students to be satisfied and happy. I want them to enjoy my class, and  most seem to enjoy my courses very much. However, students must still earn grades. Sometimes, if students do not earn the grades they desire or if I do not conduct the class in a way that pleases them, they will criticize or blame me for their average or poor performance in the class. The same sometimes happens if I insist on adherence to class rules or the college’s policies and procedures. These students may be unhappy customers now, but down the road, they may thank their lucky stars that I challenged them, maintained strict standards, and disciplined them when necessary. If I treated these dissatisfied students as customers, I fear I would be far too conciliatory, and they would be harmed as a result.
doctor pointing at tablet laptop

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For these reasons and more, I like to look at myself as a doctor rather than a business person. Doctors and college instructors are both in the “business,” not of making money, but of enriching other people’s lives in a myriad of ways. We can only succeed if the patient or student is dedicated to exerting the effort needed to improve. My general practitioner and I talk a great deal about the similarities in our professions and share some of the same frustrations about how the customer approach, while useful in some ways, if taken too far, can be hurtful to both medicine and higher education. Here are some ways I see myself as a doctor:

  • Just like my doctor, I am an expert in specific disciplines, holding advanced degrees.  I have had five years undergraduate school with degrees in English and German, two years for a Bachelor of Science in English Education with graduate level classes in Chaucer, 17th Century English Literature, Modern British Literature, and American Poetry. My final degree took two years; I earned a Masters of Education and sat for comprehensive exams in 19th Century British Literature,  Rhetoric and Composition, Linguistics, and Curriculum Development, graduating summa cum laude. I was also awarded the Kim L. Brown Award for Excellence in Tutoring my first year and the Theodore L. Huguelet Award for Outstanding Graduate Assistant my second.
  • Just like my doctor, I must constantly seek professional development to stay current in my disciplines. I have attended numerous state and national conferences, including those conducted by the National Association of Teachers of English, The League of Innovation in Community Colleges, the Southeastern Theatre Conference, the North Carolina Community College System, and the North Carolina Writers’ Network, often times presenting, and always attending multiple sessions on issues ranging from developmental English to teaching advanced literature and creative writing courses to increasing student success and retention. I continue to read and study in my disciplines, as well as write. As I have written many times in my blog, I believe writing for publication is one of the best ways to become a better writing instructor. I practice what I preach, having published dozens of short stories in print and online publications, written two novels (working on my third) and having had four plays produced (soon to be five). Last year I launched the literary magazine Teach. Write.  35CCB4F0-960F-43DD-9348-E2C6A8D04B40(Submissions open until August 15–click to see submission guidelines) My third edition will come out on September 1.
  • Just like my doctor, I do my best work when I confer with students one on one. When students bring their papers to my office and we work on them together, they leave better writers. I can almost guarantee it. I have always preferred to teach writing one-on-one. When I can concentrate on one student and give her or him my full attention, I am at my best. I’m no slouch in the full classroom, but I’m best when there is just one student and little ‘ole me in the room.
  • Just like my doctor, I am an excellent diagnostician. I ask my students to write a diagnostic paper on the first day of class in my composition courses. After thirty years of teaching writing, it only takes a paragraph for me to have a good grasp of what a student’s primary writing issues are whether they be content, organization, sentence structure, word usage, grammar, mechanics, or a mixture of all of these, which is usually the case.
  • Just like my doctor, I must deliver bad news. It was very difficult for my doctor when I broke down after hearing a diagnosis of Type II Diabetes. Although my case isn’t particularly severe, my father, a double amputee, had died from complications of diabetes just two weeks before my diagnosis. Despite how difficult it was, my doctor had a moral obligation to inform me, calmly and compassionately, what was at stake and what my treatment options were. I have the same duty, not as severe maybe, but it can be difficult for some students to hear that I can not extend a due date, change a grade, or allow a re-write. I have had students dissolve into tears in my office over the stresses of managing school, work and family obligations. Trying to be as compassionate as I can while still maintaining my standards, I seek for a solution that will satisfy both of us–usually I do.
  • Just like my doctor, No matter how well-trained, experienced, compassionate, and effective I am, if the students do not accept my authority and follow my prescriptions for improvement, I am powerless to help them. I wish I could convince all my students that my methods, although they may be different than other instructors, really do work. Improvement, even over only sixteen weeks of instruction, can be astounding, under one condition–Students must dedicate themselves to applying what they’ve learned to the work as it is assigned. 
  • It is unfortunate that just like my doctor, although I am highly experienced and effective at what I do, many people, including those in the general society, sometimes do not recognize my expertise or don’t trust me to manage my own professional affairs. My doctor and I lament this sad fact more than any other. In her profession the insurance companies, hospital administrators, and patients, even though they are not the ones with the ability to deliver the required service, are increasingly the ones who make decisions that, in the past, were her purview–things like how much time to spend with a patient, which treatment options to offer, even something as basic as a diagnosis.
accomplishment ceremony education graduation

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So far, I’m happy to say, at my college anyway, although there have been moves toward standardized curriculum in some non-discipline specific classes, the English faculty still dictates what is in the English curriculum, and I, as an instructor, am given ample latitude, to conduct my classes as I see fit, as long as I uphold the college’s mission and the state’s expected goals and objectives.

I am sorry to say, however, the same can not be said for many of my colleagues. The overall move to standardize college-level instruction (mainly, it sometimes appears, to appease the data-collection gods) continues to alarm this 30-year teaching veteran. The short-sighted idea of making all classes look, sound, smell, feel and taste alike may be the kind of fast-food academic meal that pleases the palate of a freshman or sophomore, or fills the plates of the textbook industry, but what happens when students arrive at the four-year college or enter the work world and are suddenly asked to slowly eat a full, home-cooked, balanced meal, including green leafy vegetables and begin exercising their critical thinking, reading and writing skills to boot? I care about my students. I want them to eat right and exercise now!

Just like a doctor, I am tasked with helping sometimes unwilling patients/students look far into the future and see their lives ten, twenty, thirty years from now. I must convince them to take care of their academic health, building their strength with a diet of informative lessons and  strenuous writing exercises that will help them grow and develop, prepared for the rigors of the life ahead of them.

Okay, I’ve carried the metaphor about as far as I can, I know, so I will stop now. 

Wait.

One more thing. 

Reducing or eliminating faculty autonomy, also called academic freedom, in any area of curriculum, including planning, delivery, or assessment, will surely limit the diverse content, instructional styles, and varying assessment methods that effectively prepare college students for further education, training, and employment. 

Wait.

I can’t help myself.

The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC), which accredits colleges and universities in the southern states, seems to agree with me. Standard 6.4 (page 53) says:

The institution publishes and implements appropriate policies and procedures for preserving and protecting academic freedom.
(Academic freedom)

Rationale and Notes
The essential role of institutions of higher education is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom respects the dignity and rights of others while fostering intellectual freedom of faculty to teach, research, and publish. Responsible academic freedom enriches the contributions of higher education to society.

If college-level education is to deserve the adjective “higher,” then it must offer students more than the homogenized curriculum of their elementary, middle school, and high school years. After all, as the great British poet William Cowper wrote in the poem “The Task,” (1785) “Variety is the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.”

anise aroma art bazaar

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