I know college costs too much–not my fault. Anybody who sees my paycheck can tell you that. I know community college is often seen as pseudo-higher education–I have no control over people’s perceptions. I only know that I will continue to hold my students to a high, but reachable, standard. I know some instructors do not expect college-level work from their students–I’m not one of them. I know some advisors and administrators sincerely feel sorry for those with difficult life situations that often interfere with student success. I understand. I empathize with them as well. However, I can’t allow that to affect my judgement. I cannot, repeat cannot, let any of these considerations interfere with my assessment of students’ performance in my class.
To do so would be unethical.
Consider this: Let’s say I’m teaching a fully online foundational English composition course to a first-semester freshman. The student sends an e-mail the night the first major essay is due and says that they will not be submitting the assignment on time because they were working a double shift and were too worn out and sleepy to turn in their best work, so they are requesting, very politely, an extension.
Some people would say, “Oh, come on, give the kid a break!”
I say the kindest thing to do is, as gently as possible, deny the extension. Why? Because….
I accept late work that carries a significant grade penalty, allowing the student to begin to learn important soft skills while still salvaging their grade.
the student may begin to understand that in the “real” world, people are expected to meet deadlines
the penalty stings enough to begin teaching the student a valuable lesson about time management
the student may learn that making excuses and blaming circumstances are only short-term solutions
the student has a better chance of developing a growth mindset, learning from their mistakes and becoming not only a better student but also a better person.
It is true that denying any student anything nowadays carries with it certain risks. There is always the chance that the student, or the student’s parent, will complain, not to me, an instructor with no tenure and little power, but to one of my many supervisors, saying that I am being unreasonable and that I should not only accept late work for assignments that students have known about for weeks or even months but that I should also award points for punctuality to an essay that was not turned in on time.
But I am willing to assume that risk for the student’s sake. I learned long ago that enabling students only helps make my life and the lives of my bosses easier. It does nothing to truly help the student or to foster the higher education that my college claims to provide.
If I can put aside my oh-so-fragile ego, I can learn a great deal from my students. I am trying to listen more to what they say. One way I am learning from my students is by requiring my first semester freshman English composition students to write a short researched persuasive essay on a topic that is relevant to our college specifically or to one of the communities it serves.
Students can choose from a list of research questions I brainstormed, or they can submit their own questions for approval. Most of the time, the students pick one of my groups of questions. One set that became much more popular during the pandemic has been about online learning:
What is our college doing to help retain online students? Is it enough? Why? or Why not? What are some things that other schools are doing that our college might do to help retain online students? Is our college doing any of these things?
This short summer semester, without any prompting from me, two of my best students chose the same group of questions. After research, including separate personal interviews with the college’s Director of Teaching and Learning, my students argued two different, but similar, theses. Happily, both recognized the students’ role in their own success and offered suggestions for what students could do to help themselves complete online courses with the desired results.
However, one student emphasized the faculty’s role in improving online retention, and the other argued that the administration could take steps to help more students achieve success. I found both viewpoints interesting and insightful.
So, what did I learn?
The two big takeaways–Faculty should interact more with students, and administrators need to lighten instructors loads so that students can do so. Wow! I mean, my students didn’t teach me anything I didn’t know already. I’ve been saying it for years; however, what is new is hearing about the importance of interaction and building a personal relationship from online students themselves, one who has had six semesters of online classes at my institution.
Both students indicated how helpful it is when instructors quickly respond to inquires and return graded material as soon as possible. This is the first time, however, that I have had a student discuss the administration’s responsibility to be sure that faculty do not have an overload.
Their arguments are well-taken.
A case in point was my schedule this summer. I had three classes and a shortened semester of ten weeks instead of sixteen. Since I have been teaching sixteen-week English composition in eight weeks the past couple of years, ten weeks seemed like a summer vacation. With the lighter load, I was not only able to communicate more often and with more detail but also had time to develop my courses and further refine them for our mutual benefit. In addition, I was able to hold more live virtual sessions and record them for the sake of students who could not attend the sessions. Students mentioned how helpful these sessions were.
Both students mentioned the need for proper advisement when students are registering for online classes. Sometimes, they said, students are ill-prepared for the rigor of online classes and may not possess the time-management skills to be successful. I have found that some of my eight-week online students are not even aware that they are taking an accelerated English course and quickly drop out.
One student mentioned in their essay the problem of recruitment taking precedence over retention. This point resonated with me. For example, on more than a few occassions, I have had developmental and other ill-prepared or otherwise weak students placed in my eight-week courses, or even worse, with advising restrictions removed since the pandemic, students are signing themselves up for classes, which can easily lead to misplacement. Most of these students withdraw; the expectations and pace are simply too much.
The hope is that administration will return to advising restrictions, but the lure of classes filled beyond capacity, and the funds that generates, so far seems to be too strong. As long as enrollment numbers are considered above all other considerations, including limiting the number of students in online classes, hiring more instructors, and better preparing them, I, and two of my most talented students, recognize that we will most likely continue to have low retention and success rates in online classes despite the efforts of even the most dedicated and talented faculty.
I’m behind keeping up with my summer loves, especially reading and writing, because I’m working this summer. It’s not too bad a gig–Monday through Thursday schedule, three classes instead of five or six, ten weeks instead of sixteen with a two-week vacation at the end. I can handle it this summer and the next because I have something to look forward to–permanent summer break.
Yes, retirement begins on August 1, 2023. I’m a little excited. Can you tell?
In the meantime, I make the best of things in my temporary office in the library at our college as we await the final touches being put on the new multi-million dollar building that replaces two of the oldest buildings on campus. One of those buildings was my work home for 26 years, so as the building is being torn down, I admit I have become nostalgic. Who wouldn’t?
However, I am not too sorry to see it go. It served us all well over the years, but it was built during a different time and doesn’t meet the needs of a 21st-century student body or its faculty. My students being able to access the WI-FI from my office will be a nice change. I hear the adjustable stand-up desks are really rad as well. Do people still say “rad”?
So, I watch the goings-on across the lake, answer numerous messages and emails, occasionally chat with colleagues, teach one small seated class, and grade, grade, grade the assignments and essays of my mere 43 composition and developmental students. During regular semesters, English faculty usually teach six classes and have 100 or more students. To earn an overload, an instructor must have over 110 students or more than six courses, so this “leisurely” pace helps a little.
Despite the tedious nature of grading essays, I know from long experience that working directly with student writing through grading and conferencing and therefore establishing a relationship with students as individuals is the most important work I do as a composition teacher. I do not think there is any substitute for it.
Hence the dilemma.
The demand for English instructors to deliver online instruction is higher than ever, but course loads that already did not consider how much time an English professor needs to deliver meaningful writing instruction online have not been altered to reflect the nature of effective andragogy in the English classroom and how it has been affected by the increasing number of online students.
In addition, the number of students desiring accelerated online English instruction has increased. If you take the already heavy grading load of a 16-week semester and cut it in half, something’s got to give. Often times that is the student, who may or may not have been advised that the course must cover 16 weeks of material in 8 weeks’ time.
Currently, I am the only instructor at my institution who is crazy enough to attempt teaching eight-week online freshman composition classes. I must say, now that I have taught them for several semesters, the accelerated classes work extremely well for a certain type of student, especially those who are working towards degrees to gain a promotion at work. Highly motivated students like those in our pre-nursing, emergency medical services, and law-enforcement programs also tend to do well.
Students who are not good candidates for online learning, are not prepared for the workload, are not willing to make changes to their schedules to make room for the extra time they will need to spend, or those who do not manage their time well, along with those who are weak students or writers in general, simply should not take the accelerated course.
But they do.
So what is an English teacher who cares about learning for ALL students, whether they should be there or not, supposed to do? Furthermore, what does an instructor do if she wants to infuse her own personality into her course and resists the impersonal “canned” classes that so often do not fit her institution’s student body and do not help build the vital personal relationships that are required for good teaching of any kind?
Find a way.
With all that extra time (guffaw) I have this summer, I am continuing to make changes in hopes that the Mad English Person who, after my retirement, steps into the perilous land of acceleration will have an easier time of it. Here are a few things I have done and am doing to help that poor soul:
Adding lessons–In my learning management system (LMS), I can create multi-media lessons that help guide the students through the essential material. My own simple questions can be embedded throughout each lesson that is automatically graded by the computer, allowing an easy low-stakes grade for the student and zero work for me. Of course, I must take considerable time to build the lessons, but remember, I have all that extra time this summer.
Early in the course, assigning paragraphs instead of full-length essays–Having students write paragraphs of seven to ten sentences instead of full essays has been a game-changer. I can still teach multiple rhetorical modes as required by the state, including illustration, process analysis, classification, and definition, but now I have more time to focus on the basic elements of any good writing–thesis, support, conclusion, organization, transitions, sentence structure, diction, grammar, and mechanics. In addition, I can grade closely without overwhelming the students. My constructive criticism seems easier for them to digest. Best of all–it’s doable for even the weakest of my students.
Fewer and shorter essays–Beyond a doubt, less is more. In an accelerated class, I must limit what students write for both our sakes, but I have found that the writing is stronger because I have more preliminary work leading up to the final draft that is low stakes for them and little work for me. Win. Win.
Require rough drafts but give little direct feedback. If one of the learning objectives is for students to revise and edit more effectively, why in the world am I going to revise and edit for them? How does that help anybody learn? I am handicapping students if I give too much feedback on a rough draft. I require them because they help students with time management, and I have an earlier draft to judge students’ revising and editing skills. Because I give mainly completion grades for drafts (and make sure students are aware of this), there is little work for me.
Line editing less–In the “old” days, I felt like I owed it to students to mark every single error I could find. No more. I save time, energy, and my sanity, by line editing the first paragraph of an essay, and then marking and making comments occasionally after that. I used to spend 45 minutes to an hour grading one researched essay, but now I can effectively grade one in half that time.
Make use of the LMS advanced grading system–I am not a fan of Turnitin (subject for another day), and I’m too close to retirement to want to pursue a change in our relationship, but I do make use of the LMS’s built-in advanced grading system. I can easily build new rubrics and checklists. I also have access to a “quicklist” when I am marking an essay. I choose from a long, long drop-down menu of common comments. Over the years, I have added links to webpages that give students more information or offer exercises to help them with various writing issues. It has really helped me save time.
Adding more required online sessions and conferences–I am able to record the sessions, so even though few students can attend live, one or two usually do, and the other students are required to view the sessions. Logs on the computer allow me to verify if the student downloaded and viewed the recording. The conferences are even better because I can speak in person to each student, which helps to form those all-important relationships between us through discussing the student’s writing and listening to their concerns.
I may be old and worn out, and some people can’t seem to wait to put me out to pasture, but I’ve been at this work a long time, and I am not afraid to say it–I’m damn good at it. I know what works, and letting some AI, no matter how sophisticated, do the instruction, may lead to better data in the short term, but it won’t lead to better writing–only holding students to a standard, then compassionately working directly with them and their writing can achieve that.
The last time I wrote a blog post was back on April 9, so it is high time I write another. I suppose.
I’m not sure what writing this blog means to me anymore. No one is forcing me to do it. I rather think there may be some who would be perfectly happy if I never wrote another word. Ah, who am I kidding? Mrs. Winkler, do not think of yourself more highly than you ought. I mean, what are you doing? You muse and mutter about this life work you do that may be important to you and possibly to some of your students but the essence of which seems to be of little importance to the “people who count,” those who seem to measure success through the uptick of certain numbers and the downward trend of others.
But enough of this muttering, I say to myself. Buck up, Buttercup! You aren’t long for the world of decreasing academic freedom and shrinking shared governance. You, my dear Mrs. Winkler, are bound for retirement!! Ah, yes, many blissful days with absolutely no grading of freshmen essays laden with 1st and 2nd person pronouns, unnecessary repetition, and comma splices. You will only write and read what you wish as you sit on the front deck with your feet propped up, a cup of steaming coffee or glass of iced tea in your hand. Your daughter will give you more and more gift books like The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows to fill the lazy days. And you will like it very much.
How’s that for a segue into my next book review?
Yes, for Christmas, my daughter gave me this unusual, incredible book called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig. She had a hard time finding a copy when she went Christmas shopping because she considers the book more like poetry or creative non-fiction than anything else. She found it finally in the reference section of the bookstore. Someone with a literal mind shelved it there, I suppose.
The book is as hard to describe as it was for her to find. It is indeed a dictionary because it has a series of words along with their parts of speech, definitions, and etymologies, but that is about all this book has in common with a dictionary. The invented or reinterpreted words are not in alphabetical order, but they are separated into categories that are equally as obscure as the words, such as “Between Living and Dreaming” (1) and “Montage of Attractions” (81)
Each entry defines a word that describes an emotion, feeling, or action that eludes denotation, but somehow, the author, through his poetic prose, puts words to what seems undefinable. Following each definition is the word’s etymology, so clever and accurate that it leaves readers nodding their heads and saying, “Yeah, that’s right. I know that feeling.”
Some of the definitions are short but others, my favorites, are essay length, often accompanied by a photograph or some other illustration. One of my favorite examples is the definition of Lumus, which comes from the Latin lumen, meaning light or brightness and humus–dark, rich soil. The brief definition of the word is “the poignant humanness beneath the spectacle of society” (127).
Pretty obscure, right? Until Koenig writes about what it means–to get away from society’s expectations and rediscover our humanity only to be swept back up into the rat race again. Then, his meaning becomes clear: “We know it’s all so silly and meaningless, and yet we’re still here, holding our breath together, waiting to see what happens next. And tomorrow, we’ll put ourselves out there and do it all again. The show must go on” (129)
Yeah, I say. That’s right. I know that feeling.
I know it right now. And am inspired to write my own word to name this current malaise.
The word is Meloncholied, which comes from the German Melancholie (melancholy)+Lied (song)
And so goes the old teacher’s song:
I’m not sure I even know what it is I do anymore. It seems like more and more, pardon the sports metaphor, I’m playing some evasive game with definite, elusive rules that are only made clear once they are broken and penalties are imposed. How do I score if I don’t know where the goal line, post, net, or basket is?
And the chorus:
You are simply more trouble than you are worth, Mrs. Winkler. We won’t even bother trying to rein you in since your pasture has been seeded and will soon sprout its winter grass. But these young content experts, whose subject knowledge exceeds that of anyone else at our college, whose enthusiasm for teaching has not been beaten down by political pandering and bureaucratic busyness, let’s pour all our condescension and patronizing onto them while we passively aggressively work on the lowering of the industry standards we claim to uphold.
Oh, the blessed “and yet” — the turn of my sonnet–the sestet to the glum octave.
And yet, there is hope. Our educational felix culpa. It is coming. It is. I don’t know if I will live to see it, but the fire is coming that will burn down all of these false constructs that have plagued the educational institutions of our country for so long. After the destruction, we can build anew and again lay a foundation of learning for learning’s sake.
That is my hope anyway.
Therefore, despite feeling lost at times in this specious world, where upholding academic standards for the eventual betterment of students’ lives and society at large is no longer the apparent goal of our colleges and universities, I am nevertheless optimistic about the future of higher education in America. A dread, mixed with excitement is growing in me as I sense that we are on the cusp of major change–painful, soul-wrenching, horrible, miraculous, life-giving change.
For that, I wait.
And tomorrow I teach.
Koenig, John. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Simon & Schuster, 2021.
Episode 13 of my podel (podcasted novel) is now available. Why not take a listen to it and the other twelve as well? I hope it won’t be so long between episodes again. Episode 13: Mrs. Whittakers 7,360th Class
I stated in my last blog that I would review the book my daughter gave me for Christmas, but I’m going to put that off. Recent events at work have caused me to revisit some “teachable moments” in my past that have shaped me as an educator and a human. But come back for the review. The Dictionary of ObscureSorrows is a little book packed full of wistful wisdom.
And now, here’s a little bit more about Mrs. Winkler back when she was Ms. Whitlock.
I was born in 1960, towards the end of the Baby Boomer generation. Kinda awkward I’m finding, especially as a woman. Unlike some women born in the ’40s and ’50s, I inherited some of the privileges that had been denied them but still had, and have, a long way to go, baby.
At least I could open a bank account.
Yes, that’s right.
Writing for the financial website Spiral, LeBach Pham writes that although women had been financiers in America throughout its history, it was not until the ’60s that banks could no longer legally keep a woman from opening an account. (Pham). I was 14 when women obtained the right to open a credit card account or to take out a mortgage on their own thanks to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, although I wasn’t ready to have a credit card until I was well into my 20’s.
I suppose in my early years, I took for granted some of the privileges that many women, especially college-educated women, had fought so hard for. Part of the reason, I suppose, is because my wonderful parents were both fierce supporters of education. I remember one of my favorite family pictures before my younger brother was born is my father, smiling, seated in the middle of the picture with me, the youngest at the time, about two or three I think, on his knee, then, my gap-toothed brother and my sister, the oldest, standing on either side of him. Behind my father, arms reaching out and resting on her children’s shoulders as if to cover her whole family, is my mother, in her full regalia, having just graduated with her BA in English from Auburn University.
After graduating from Lanett High School in Lanett, AL, my mother, who wanted to see a bit more of the world than the little cotton mill town where she was widely known as the principal’s daughter, headed out to Shawnee, OK, to attend Oklahoma Baptist University. For her day, it was a bold move, I think, to attend a university over 800 miles west of her protective home.
My mother tells the story of how she arrived by train that first year and walked with her bag toward the campus to see it covered in black. As she got closer she realized what she was seeing a giant swarm of locusts. Big black and gold locusts. She said she couldn’t move without stepping on one. I couldn’t imagine anyone staying after that introduction, but mom did and went back the next year, even after falling in love with my dad, whom she had known all through school but never dated until that summer after her first year in college.
She had promised my grandparents she would go back one more year and she did. But it wasn’t until after marriage and the birth of her first three children that my mother finished her degree at Auburn University, with my dad’s full support and encouragement
I remember going far away from home, too, when I was right out of undergraduate school. I went to Oral Roberts University during the 900-foot Jesus years. You had to be there. Nevertheless, I feel I got a good education at ORU. Yes, I had to take a course called Holy Spirit in the Now, but I also took Survey of the Old Testament and Survey of the New Testament. Those two courses have served me well as a student and teacher of literature, especially at a community college in the buckle of the Bible belt.
My first teaching assignment was at a small church-affiliated school in Aliquippa, PA, outside of Pittsburg. Until I was flown up to the school for an interview, I had never been anywhere near Pittsburg, had no relatives there, and knew no one, but, just like my mother, I saw it all as a grand adventure. The school was small, and I taught three levels of English and two levels of German.
Turned out it was rather out of the mainstream theologically, but I did not become aware of this until after I took the job, even though I asked specifically about the church’s and school’s doctrine during the interviews. For example, although I had hauled all my German Christmas materials with me and moved them into my little attic apartment, I wasn’t able to use them because the church was vehemently anti-Catholic and did not believe in practicing any of the “pagan” holidays, so I just kept my copies of “Stille Nacht” in my files at home.
At the very first faculty meeting I attended, soon after I was introduced, our principal announced that he wanted all of the teachers to incorporate into our curriculum the support of prayer in public schools. He looked at me and the one other English teacher and said, “You will have your students write letters to their congressmen in support of prayer in schools. I will give you a sample letter I want them to follow”
Without hesitation, I said, “No, I won’t be able to do that.” He looked shocked. I looked around the room and the other teachers, especially the women, seemed shocked as well. I felt that I needed to explain. “I will discuss writing persuasive letters to our congressmen and create an assignment, but I want my students to write about the issues that are important to them and formulate their own letters.”
Everyone seemed still surprised.
“Of course, if they want to write and send letters to their congressmen about prayer in schools, then I will assist them in editing the letters, but I can’t require them to write those letters.”
A silence that spelled trouble for me from then on.
And yet, several of my fellow teachers, all women, came up to me after that faculty meeting and thanked me. They called me brave. It was my turn to be surprised. I didn’t feel particularly brave, just strong in my convictions that teaching writing didn’t have anything to do with religion or politics, no matter where I was teaching.
I remember speaking up again a few months later when I found out that the single male music teacher was making more money than I was. He had let it slip when he was hitting on me. I was appalled (at both) He had less education, fewer responsibilities–I had five preps in two disciplines, morning duty, lunchroom and afternoon duty as well as serving as assistant soccer coach and theater director. He had his classes, four I think, including band and choir practice.
I marched down to the principal’s office and just asked him–Why is so-and-so making more money than me? The answer–“Some day he will have a family to provide for.”
My turn to be shocked.
I may have been able to open a bank account when I taught in PA at that small private school, but I certainly didn’t make much money to put into one.
I did go back another year, believe it or not, partly because I had been promised a raise (although it never materialized), and partly because I had a long talk with my very wise daddy who had seen growth in me that first year and just felt I should go back. He wasn’t sure why. Always trust the instincts of someone who loves you, I thought then and still do. But the biggest reason I went back was pure orneriness, I reckon. Yeah, I thought, you fellers are going to have to deal with an uppity southern woman one more year.
At the end of that year, after I faced the fact that I couldn’t afford to live on the salary I was making, I began to enjoy the fruits of my labors. I started dating, Mr. Winkler–the best man that I know and as wise as my sweet daddy.
I came back South to get my second degree at Auburn University. Mr. Winkler, followed me down South a year later, and after I finished my degree and started working for Floyd County Schools in Rome, GA, I became Mrs. Winkler and have never regretted it one bit almost thirty-three years later.
However, while I was still Ms. Whitlock, teaching English and German at two high schools in the county, I still felt that “in-between” feeling, although I did enjoy some privileges denied me at the private school –being paid on a state teaching salary schedule at least. This meant I was supposed to be paid as much as a man, but I noticed that most of the male teachers also had paid coaching positions at the school, while I was assigned assistant soccer coach as one of my regular duties–no extra paycheck came with that.
But, I was making a decent salary at least, enough to even open a credit card account and take out my first loan to buy a new car. This time the inequities were more subtle, but very much there. For example, at one of the high schools where I taught, I had the star football player in my class–he was the kicker for the team. Now, I am no football expert, but my father had played football for Auburn and been a football coach so I knew enough to know, after watching a couple of games, that this kid was, well, not very good.
However, he and the administration felt differently about his abilities I guess.
One day in class, the students were working on an assignment, and I looked up to see that our star football player was putting a small paper cup under his desk. I walked toward him, and the cup fell over, spilling out a disgusting black liquid. Tobacco usage of any kind, including chew, even in that rural part of a Georgia county, was strictly forbidden; the faculty had been strongly reminded of that in a recent memo from the principal. So, I called the kid on it. He claimed it wasn’t his cup. “I saw you put the cup under your desk,” I said and wrote him up for detention.
Later that day, I was summoned to the principal’s office. The principal had barely spoken to me before that day. “You’re new here,” he said, “so you may not know that so-and-so is our starting kicker and an important member of the team.”
“Oh, I’m aware that he’s on the team, but I saw him put a cup full of tobacco spit under the desk. It fell over, and he refused to clean it up, so I wrote him up for a detention.”
“Did you actually see so-and-so spit in the cup?”
“No, I suppose I didn’t.”
“He says he didn’t spit in that cup. That he was covering for his buddy.” I tried to continue my argument but was cut short. The principal said, “I’m going to rescind this detention because you didn’t actually see so-and-so spit in the cup, and if he gets one more detention, he will have to sit out a game, and he’s too important to the team.”
I knew it would be better for me to say nothing, and I knew it probably would do no good at all to say anything, but just like in PA, I couldn’t help it, I spoke out. “Okay, I suppose you are going to do this no matter what I think, but I will tell you that word is going to get around quickly that I have no authority in my own classroom, and I am going to have more and more trouble.”
That my prediction came true has never given me any comfort.
And yet, over thirty years later, I am still speaking out about the dangers of administrators ignoring the ramifications of taking authority away from the teacher in the classroom. I’m still predicting how that loss of authority is chipping away at the academic integrity of our schools, colleges, and universities.
But who am I? A little, mouthy Southern woman–just another boomer on the verge of retirement.
At work, in our faculty work room, is a white board, left over from the days when the long, thin room was an awkward and undesirable classroom. After much complaining, the room was repurposed for its current, much more appropriate purpose.
I think it was my late friend and colleague who first started writing fun questions on the board for her fellow teachers to answer. She was like that–trying to find ways to bring us together, reveling in her new found profession, interacting with faculty in the room where she had been a student, my student, and then become an adjunct, using the room as an office and meeting room amidst the sound of copier, shredder, refrigerator, and ice maker.
But she loved it because she had become a teacher, something she never knew she wanted to be and found out she was born for. When she received her master’s, now qualified to teach more than developmental classes, my friend left the faculty workroom for her own office at the college, now a full-time instructor who became the faculty advisor for the writing club and school newspaper, one of the most innovative instructors I’ve ever known.
My friend left us much too soon, succumbing to the effects of an aneurism she experienced at the college right before her class was about to start. But her friends continued to write questions on the board, the faculty, most who never knew her, continue to post their answers, sometimes half-heartedly, though, as more responsibilities are piled on us, as we are forced to learn more systems that are supposed to help make our work, or someone’s, easier, and as morale sinks lower and lower.
When I returned to work after the holidays, someone had written a new question on the board: What is your New Year’s resolution? Trite perhaps, but I was the first one to answer it–Read more good books.
So, my dear student, colleague, friend whom I miss so much, I will try to stay true to my resolution for your sake, knowing that your spirit remains in the faculty workroom and meanders down the halls and into the classrooms.
Here are descriptions of two books I have read so far in 2022 (pictured above):
Leavings by Wendell Berry–This collection of poems is amazing. Published in 2010, the book speaks of Berry’s personal and our global place, of what its like to grow old and feel hopeless, yet strangely grateful, of continuing to fight the good fight–rescuing our planet from the greed that threatens to destroy it. Listen to his words from Sabbath Poems: 2007, VI:
“Those who use the world assuming/their knowledge is sufficient/destroy the world. The forest/is mangled for the sale/of a few sticks, or is bulldozed/into a stream and covered over/with the earth it once stood upon” (90).
“It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,/for hope must not depend on feeling good/and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight./…The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?/…Because we have not made our lives to fit/our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,/the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope/then to belong to your place by your own knowledge/of what it is that no other place is,/ and by your caring for it as you care for no other place, this/place that you belong to though it is not yours, for it was from the beginning and will be to the end”(91).
Leavings left me with hope–nevertheless. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because my place is good and true and holds me close, safe from a world that does not value it, or me.
The Art of Plain Talk by Rudolf Flesch–The 1946 classic instructs how to create clear, concise prose. I came to the deserted campus during the break to pack up some of the many books in my office as we prepare to move to our shiny new building and I begin my divestiture as I prepare for my retirement. I found Flesch’s book and realized that although I may have read it years ago, I couldn’t recall anything about it. So I brought it home to read before I give it away.
Although the book is a bit dated, the points Flesch makes about the importance of clarity and conciseness are well-taken One of the biggest issues I see in student writing is wordiness and the author offers many examples of ways to cut down on the verbiage.
Here is one statement that reflects the essence of the book: “Plain and simple speech appeals to everyone because it indicates clear thought and honest motives. Here is the point: Anyone who is thinking clearly and honestly can express his thoughts in words which are understandable, and in very few of them. Let’s write for the reader and not for ourselves. Make the writing do what it is intended to” (130).
Good advice to share with my students.
Next post, I will write about the books I’m reading now:
Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh, given to me by a dear friend following a long conversation about this troubling emotion. Hanh, a Buddhist monk, gives practical advice on dealing with anger–not denying it, but embracing it and changing its destructive energy so that it can do good in the world.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig, a special Christmas gift from my dear daughter. It is an unusual book, a collection of invented words and definitions to describe feelings for which English has no words–some short, some essay length. Very cool. My daughter knows me well.
Fight Songs: A Story of Love and Sports in a Complicated South by Ed Southern–Ed is the executive director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, a terrific writer, and my friend. I am enjoying his interesting work, written during the pandemic.
Today’s tally is 1,782 words for a total of 5,591. Not bad for three days of writing after a full day of crafting responses to students, grading British literature exams, and putting out various fires. Doesn’t make for much time to blog.
However, I can’t let the day go by without saying this: Academic freedom for faculty is not an option for any institution of higher learning. It is an absolute necessity. As the people hired due to our expertise in different subjects, we have an obligation to prepare our students for the rigors of the academic world if they are transfer students and the industry standards for our students that will go immediately into the workforce.
Furthermore, we should maintain that standard for ALL students regardless of their program of study, age, background, or obstacles. One standard for all student groups–regardless of their situation. We must also help ALL students reach that standard without regard to those factors; nevertheless, the standard must remain. It is in the classroom where that standard is supported, so it should be the ones who manage those learning environments, be they virtual or seated, who should decide, within the bounds of the course description established by the state, of course, how that standard is maintained.
Our accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) seems to agree. In Section Six of the Principles of Accreditation, it states:
Qualified, effective faculty members are essential to carrying out the mission of the institution and ensuring the quality and integrity of its academic programs…. Because student learning is central to the institution’s mission and educational degrees, the faculty is responsible for directing the learning enterprise, including overseeing and coordinating educational programs to ensure that each contains essential curricular components, has appropriate content and pedagogy, and maintains discipline currency.
Achievement of the institution’s mission with respect to teaching, research, and service requires a critical mass of qualified full-time faculty to provide direction and oversight of the academic programs. Due to this significant role, it is imperative that an effective system of evaluation be in place for all faculty members that addresses the institution’s obligations to foster intellectual freedom of faculty to teach, serve, research, and publish (p.17).
Shared governance and academic freedom for faculty are not rights or privileges–they are basic principles essential to the health of any institution of higher learning.
Okay, enough writing for today, Mrs. Winkler.
You got some teaching to do tomorrow. You need your sleep!
Haunted Hendo: An Anthology of Short Films Featuring Mountain Mysteries and Local Lore premiered last night on YouTube. Some of the 50, yes 50, cast and crew gathered at the college for a pot luck supper. We enjoyed watching the films and seeing all our hard work come together. We kept saying over and over again, “I can’t believe we pulled it off.”
It’s been a wild ride.
At the end of the spring semester last year, Jennifer Treadway, the head of the theater department, and I conceived of a series of short films focusing on local ghost stories and legends. In the summer, the director called together a core group of faculty, students, alumni, community members, and actor/producer/writer Z. Joseph Guice, our artist-in-residence, to write the scripts for the films to be included in the series. By the end of the summer, the scripts were written.
Early in the semester, Jennifer held group auditions for all films, casting students and community members, as well as assigning people to various filmmaking roles, including directors, assistant directors, cinematographers, editors, and general crew. With limited resources, including film equipment, the schedule for filming was carefully planned and all took on multiple roles. The schedule was tight and sometimes we didn’t think we would make it, but we did.
Although sometimes frustrating and difficult, what a wonderful learning opportunity for all of us, especially the students in the Acting for Film class and those in the Film and Video Production program. The end result is eight short films connected by some ghostly introductions.
Below is a link to the BRCC Theatre YouTube Page. There, you will find the playlist for Haunted Hendo. I wrote the screenplays for Boojum: The Musical and The Tourist. I directed the film my daughter wrote and edited called The Siren of the French Broad.
Once again I pushed things to the limit, but I am publishing the Fall~Winter 2021 edition of Teach. Write. on October 1, as promised. Wonderful work by frequent contributors and new writers as well. I am constantly amazed and humbled at the quality of the work that is sent my way and honored to publish the work of these fine writers, most of them teachers.
I started Teach. Write. because I know how much teaching composition has helped me improve as a writer and how writing for publication has helped me become a better teacher. I am so glad to offer opportunities for writing teachers, and students too, to see their work in print. So satisfying.
I will be talking about Teach. Write., my blog, podcast, and more during my workshop for the North Carolina Writers’ Network. It is an online workshop taking place Tuesday, October 19. Click here to see more information: The Big Share.
Another writing opportunity I have enjoyed is writing two screenplays for the anthology of short films being produced at my college–one comedy and one musical. The premiere of Haunted Hendo will be October 28 and afterwards the films will be streaming online. Don’t worry. I will be sure you all get the link!