Construction Worker

My mind is a pinball and my guts are a soaked towel. That's what preparing for interviews and readings does to me. The introspection, the tumbling and harsh self-critique of my own belief system. 

Preparing for teaching position interviews unnerves most people to varying degrees, so I have heard and read and believe. For me, I've tried different studying methods. I've spent hours (days, weeks) pouring over the college's websites, its departmental pages, its mission statements, its current projects. I've spent hours (days, weeks) pouring over pedagogy. I've inundated myself with a million little coins of terminology, stuttered my way through practice with my inverted self in the mirror. I've tremored at answering my English professor wife's questions, watching like a polygrapher for any sign of my own weaknesses. 

Today, this is my practice. In a few hours I will be doing a Skype interview for a university where I believe I would thrive as part of the Dean's team but struggle to extinguish the little doubts that set up camp and have little tents and sleeping bags rated to -40F to survive my attempts winning the war--the job.  Today, I decided to use my biggest strength, my writing, to center myself and my vision. I am a reflective, quick thinker, but aloud I tend to render myself speechless. I lose myself, sometimes, in those biggest moments. I have a big self belief in what I do, but I do not think I have a big ego. I wish I did. I wish I could pretend I do not know my own faults as a writer, a teacher, a husband, a father, a human. 

Writing is a place where I come to construct meaning. Having read enough academic speak--I am student-centered, meaning centered, inquiry-based centered, a differentiation work horse, and above all, an idealist--in this current I understand that my strength as a writing teacher is that I work with my students to construct meaning from facts and cultural, sociological factors. I think back to graduate school and how one professor was very into New Criticism, teaching a lot of modern and contemporary poetics. That's not me. I cannot let me or my students not take in the cultural, sociological factors in reading a text. A text, a piece of art, does not exist in a vacuum in which it perambulates alone without other objects. Culture. Society. Other people. As a writer, the facts of life (sing it!) are that we exist together, even if we die "alone." Meaning is fluid and subjective to varying degrees. As a writing instructor, my undergraduate minor in Anthropology has informed so much of what I do. I do not pretend to comprehend with the utmost clarity the problems that are systemic in our world, in our time, yet I work towards meanings through my writing and my writing assignments. 

I have spent years teaching the overlooked, the neglected. I have spent ten years swimming (in reality, I am not a good swimmer) with my students in Developmental writing courses and in community college classes. Bluntly, a majority of these students are underprepared or underserved, or both, for the rigors of a four-year university education. Yet, I see it as my job, my calling, to prepare them. I believe that a positive mindset and grunt work lead to improvement. I will not hide from the fact that most of my students are racial minorities. Google the statistics--watch the news--and you will see how systemic our education is in failing minorities. 

Many of my colleagues focus a majority of their writing courses on the simplest tasks, the basic objectives, in teaching students how to write an essay. Anecdotally, from two Developmental directors, a Chair, and from my own reading of colleagues' student Final Portfolios I put more emphasis on critical thinking. In short, I let the students actively choose their subjects for essays. I design the topic, directly and indirectly connected to our current reading, but I let the students develop their own ideas based on their own interests. I have read studies that back me up, though I cannot cite them here (I'm a bad academic, in that sense). I am a professional creative writer, though, so it is counter intuitive to me to regurgitate (though, yeah, like many, we do to certain degrees) the language and ideas of others. My job is to construct new meaning from the texts and ideas that I have experienced and reflected on, that engage me. As a writing instructor, my job is to allow students that same privilege and freedom. Yes, I end up feeling like sheep herder--but let's call that what it is: a shepherd. My job is to foster individuality and to dignify student beliefs.

I am a relational leader. I am strong at developing relationships with students and then figuring out their needs. I don't have a ten step program for how I do this. The most obvious thing is to pay attention to the students from day one. I am big at remembering names and remembering facts about students. Books read, crazy cousins, jobs. I construct my understanding of what a student needs from who they let me know they are, and from what I assess of their writing, of their reading course texts aloud, of their discussion responses. From there, I guide them during various workshops. Sometimes those workshops are quick classroom discussions of a handful of volunteered student work at the draft stage. We will constructively critique a sentence or a paragraph on the Doc cam. I will emphasize the issues apparent as typical student issues to alleviate a student from feeling along, "wrong." Writing is not about Right v. Wrong. We discuss language on the grassy plains of effectiveness, clarity, concision, creativity.  

I love computer labs in a classroom because they allow for individual workshops. I can go around and give attention to one student at a time. I can center in on those kids who may be struggling in comparison to their peers, or to check in and encourage a quiet writer. 

Meaning is constructed from the decoding of what we read, whether that is a novel, a poem, a film, a song, an advertisement, a memory. We frame these texts with personal intellectual questions, and we frame them with essay prompts. The I becomes we, see. Writing is both solitary and collaborative, and that process is fluid. 

Once, during a teaching review, a colleague wrote that a lecture on a writing technique I wanted students to practice dealt with both sentence flow and content. This was seen by the reviewer as a flaw. For me, as a writer and a complex thinker, I saw the criticism as a way to make more clear exactly why, for the tourist but mainly for my students, these strategies are layered. For me, teaching a student to be coherent and simply teaching them to "repeat key words" is generic. Yes, the primary objective of my "repeat the subject" exercise was to get students to understand that they must...repeat the subject. However, students always (yeah, I used always) ask other questions concerned with other rhetorical issues, such as "Won't repeating the subject all of the time bore the reader?" See, these students--even the Developmental students--are smart enough to see that writing is complex. They aren't illiterate thinkers. So I emphasize these secondary objectives as such. For me, sentence flow and content development are familial. 

My belief in creating such layered strategies is that students come in to college with a vary binary way of thinking, overall. Individual thinking about larger ideas and about writing as a craft are ignored for clear, cut and dry objectives. There is this STEM fear that students won't "get" how to write more complexly if we as instructors do not simplify material for them. If one always carries one's baby up and down the stairs, how does the baby learn to walk on their own? The baby must be given the chance to learn on their own different ways of getting up those steps. Sure, they will belly flop up, then bear crawl, then do the two feet on each step first, but they will hopefully learn to alternate steps with each foot. As a father, I am proud that my OCD did not get in the way of my own toddler son's ability to bound up a flight of stairs like his name is Tigger. There's got to be a sense of trust built. The parent and the teacher must understand that there will be fear--fear in failing, fear in not improving--but there needs to be trust. I respect my students enough to trust that they will try, and they trust that I will be there to make sure they don't fall down and break their neck when they do.

We all fear the unknown, the yet to be experienced. We all fear that we may not do enough or be able to do enough to show how intelligent we really are. When I claim that writing is a process, I mean what I wrote. We fail more as we construct ideas that we do at succeeding. The future me, the one I am writing this for, will look back and critique this post--and hopefully shake his head at what he perceives as naive or overlooked. 

I know that my most effective tools as an instructor are 1) that I care about and believe in the potential of each person to grow as a writer, and 2) that I have the ability, the knowledge, and the communications skills necessary to show students where and how they can maximize their own growth. 

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