Tag Archives: English

And Then Teaching Made Me Very, Very Sad

My reasons for writing this are two-fold. One, I am procrastinating. Two, my day has blown literal chunks, which means I must turn to reflection to plow through it.

One of the most common questions I get is, “What are you going to do with your degree?” My general response is, “Well, I’m going to write.” It seems fairly obvious—a Creative Writing MFA, a writer. My sort of math. But then there is the ever-present looming threat that exists for all writers—what happens if I don’t make it, if my writing doesn’t sell? 

I have always assumed I would teach.

See, I love teaching, and I always have. (Or, at least, since I started doing it.) 

I am both a teaching assistant and a supplemental instructor (SI) this semester. These are two fairly different, yet similar, jobs. I do more as a teaching assistant in the actual class than I do as a supplemental instructor; as a supplemental instructor, I am expected to…well…supplement. I’m supposed to help facilitate the students to a point of learning independently. In a way, this is also what I do as a teaching assistant, even though I am less involved as a supplemental instructor. As a teacher, and this is part of my formal teaching philosophy, I believe that the most important moment in the teacher/student relationship is that independent moment, that moment where the student no longer needs the teacher. While I’ve had good moments this semester, I have received a totally different perspective on teaching that I have teaching theatre, and I have arrived at one simple conclusion: there are a LOT of students who either just plain don’t care or don’t know how to care. I have a hard time digesting that, because I, as a student, care much too much.

Today, the professor I SI for couldn’t be on campus. In traditional me form, I said, “Okay, let me help in all the ways I can.” I volunteered myself for four hours of open assistance for papers, portfolios, or any course related questions. Now, where I know all of the students in my TA section, I do NOT know all of the students in my SI section—I don’t SEE all the students in my SI section. So, when I was walking across the campus to get to the place where I told the students I would be, imagine my surprise when a girl came running up to me, yelling, and waving a paper over her head. I froze when she started yelling, as I had never seen her before and was unsure whether or not she was talking to me. But the answer to that question became blatantly apparent when I heard “You need to explain to me RIGHT NOW WHY I GOT A MOTHER-F$&*@(G C!” I didn’t know what to say. I told her to slow down, speak more calmly. Her friend came running up after her, and the girl said again, quite loudly, in the middle of the main through-fare, “WHY DID SHE GET AN A WHEN I GOT A F@#%$&G C?!?” I asked her to see the paper, and she handed it to me. A quick scan made it quite obvious why she had gotten a C; she was missing one of the two main components of the paper—a personal response. I showed that to her on the rubric checklist she was holding in her hand. She blew a gasket and starting calling me all sorts of lovely names and asked again how her friend got an A. I asked the friend to see her paper. Flipping it open, the personal response was apparent, interspersed throughout the entire piece. I read one section of it out loud. The C student literally EXPLODED. “I CANNOT WRITE A PERSONAL RESPONSE. THIS IS A MOTHER F#$%^&G ACADEMIC PAPER AND SHE DOES NOT GET TO KNOW MY PERSONAL LIFE AND THOUGHTS. THIS IS F$%^#$G BULLS$%T!” I stumbled over my words, and she asked how she was supposed to personally respond to her thesis about the color of the seven rooms in The Masque of the Red Death. I took her paper again and gave it a second scan, and then told her that, with her thesis as it stands, she would need some major revision in order to incorporate that personal response. She started screaming again about how she shouldn’t be expected to be personal, and it was ridiculous and all that jazz. I tried one more time to explain to her that she didn’t necessarily need to give the intimate details of her life story in a personal response; she just needed to PERSONALLY RESPOND to the text. She snatched the paper away and clenched it in her hand, crumbling it, and then she was suddenly raising a fist towards my face. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I ducked. I was legitimately afraid that I was going to get hit. I didn’t. While her fist was still hovering in the air, I backpedalled and told her she needed to calm down and take some time to think about both the comments on the paper and what I had told her before she came back to talk to either me or the professor again. She walked a few steps away, her friend apologized for her, and I bolted.

I don’t know how the professors do it, how they deal with the students all the time and get into these situations. I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I just did the best thing that I could think of at the time. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing, but it was the only thing. The student’s behavior was inappropriate, as several have been since receiving their various papers back over the course of the semester, but this particular behavior really crossed a line with me. I addressed a blanket email to the entire class, all seventy students, that basically informed them I was not their punching bag and that they needed to treat me with the same respect they would a professor. I don’t know how many of them read it; I don’t know if she read it. Honestly, I don’t care, because it needed to be said.

My internal debate regarding my feelings teaching has been an ongoing thing this semester. The section that I TA for is filled with brilliant students who don’t know how to be students. They are some of the brightest minds I’ve seen at their level, but they just don’t care. Or they don’t know how to care. And I care about them. Every single part of me want them to wake up, to do the awesome work I know they can do and be the amazing students I know they can be. But they won’t. They’re making a choice. One of my favorite students, a student capable of writing more beautiful than many people years ahead of her in their educations, has stopped turning in her work. She’s stopped caring. Maybe it’s personal problems, maybe it’s something else. But even though she is physically in class, she has stopped showing up. She is giving up. It makes me sad. My students, all of them, make me sad. I want to be better for them; I wish that I could make them want to learn, make them want to be better. But I can’t. Again, they are making a choice.

These are the two types of students I’ve encountered this semester: those who treat me horribly and those who don’t care or know how to be students. The good moments, the moments when I work with students who genuinely get it, the moments when I have students who turn in beautiful writing, or have done their reading, or do all the extra credit that they possibly can, the ones that want to be better…those are getting harder to see. And when I do see them, I need to hold on to them. Because those moments are the reason that I want to teach, for those students who care. But what if those students are becoming fewer and farther in between? What if we, as a society, are raising people who don’t care, people who just want to glance on by? I’m sad tonight. I’m sad because I see these students who could be better and choose not to be, and these students who want to blame everyone else for their own lack of understanding. I don’t see initiative in these students; I just see a lot of righteous indignation that the world isn’t being handed to them on a silver platter. 

Most of all, I’m sad because I’ve realized that, as a teacher, maybe I won’t have the impact that I want. There will be students that I won’t be able to reach. There will be students that will fail, even though they shouldn’t. Even though they COULD be better, there will be students who choose not to be. I haven’t reached a point yet where I am capable of separating myself fully from my students. I care too much.

I can’t decide if it’s a product of the semester or just a fact of life, but what today has told me is that I’m not sure I love teaching anymore. And I don’t know how to handle that.

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The periodic table is made up of singular elements. A lot of them. When those elements bond together, they become compound elements. Compound elements cannot exist without all of their pieces; water cannot exist without two oxygen and one hydrogen. On their own, hydrogen and oxygen molecules simply exist. But together, they are something every living creature needs for survival. 

English, and this convention, have been a bonding experience for me in that way. I’ve existed on my own for a long time.  But it’s simply been existing.  I always thought of myself as small, as knowing nothing.  I never gave myself credit for my ideas or thought they were worth anything. And now I am part of something greater, something that is bigger than I am. Something I was meant to be a part of all along. The small but mighty Parkside English program might be unknown, but it is amazing. My professors are awesome. I know literature, I know theory, I know how to have a brain and I know how to use it.  The greatest lesson I learned this week was that, because I know literature, I have a place in this world.  I may not know everything, but my college has given me all of the tools and the knowledge that I need to be successful. To go out. To bond.  

At this convention, I became water. 


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Why the Arts Deserve Funding (Rough Draft)

Why is my college awesome?  Why is my degree important?  Why is the English field important?  Heck, why are the arts important?  And why should we fund them?  I find myself struggling with the answers to these questions.  Sure, I know the canned responses.  Writing is a popular skill these days; companies want a person on their staff who can write well.  Arts people are good communicators.  They get people and they know how to get through to them.  They can take complex ideas and process them in a well-articulated way.  They are artists, editors, keepers of history and providers of the written word.

But do I fit into any of those categories?  I’m not really one who fits in a box, at least not anymore.  And that is what Parkside has done for me.  It isn’t just some tiny nothing school in the middle of the woods.  (And I know I’m not supposed to say that, but I’m trying to prove a point.)  Parkside has amazing students and activities, and the College of the Arts and Humanities is especially amazing.  The professors know their stuff and are able to convey lessons that are applicable both inside and out of the classroom.  I have taken things away from every single class I’ve had.  I have not only learned about the literature canon and the history of more authors than I have time to mention, but I have learned about myself in the process.

In my life before college, I was taught that it was wrong to think for myself.  My thoughts weren’t my own, and I let my idea wither away into nothing.  These messages came from everywhere in my life, and this conditioning made school very difficult for me in the beginning.  I didn’t know how to speak up; I had a very difficult time if I wasn’t absolutely positive I had the correct answer.  The thing about being in a creative field is that there really isn’t one correct answer.  There’s not really a wrong answer either.  An opinion, a thought on a text, cannot be wrong.  There’s only what you think.

Our college has what is referred to as a gateway course to the English major:  Literary Analysis.  As I dove into the work at the start of the course, it became apparent that I was supposed to read the assignments and have my own thoughts about them.  It was then I thought I wasn’t cut out for the land of English.  There wasn’t one correct answer.  By the time we got to Lacan around the fourth week of the course, it completely blew my brain.  I read the words and I understood them, but my head was stuck on figuring out what the right answers were.  I couldn’t let this idea go.  So I asked the professor for help.  I distinctly remember the conversation we had while I was standing in her office that day.  I told her that I didn’t get it, but really, I did.  I had my thoughts and ideas, but I wanted to be successful.  I wanted her to tell me what to think.

Her response?  “Well, what do you think?”

It was my worst nightmare; I was stuck.  I wanted the right answer.  I didn’t want to think.  I didn’t want to be wrong.  As I tried to articulate what I thought Lacan might have been trying to illustrate, the only thing running through my head was that she would think badly of me if I was wrong.  But as it turned out, she didn’t think badly of me at all.  She said I “sounded smart.”  I took that to mean I was going in the right direction.  After that, my thinking started to change.  I offered more opinions in class.  I was learning how to be my own person.  It was never purely academic for me.  It applied to my outside life as well.

The ultimate challenge came in the form of our final class presentations.  I was not only expected to form an argument that was completely my own, but I was expected to articulate that argument in front of a group of professors and my peers and alumni…that was a lot to take in.  Of course, it was for a grade.  I couldn’t just not do it.  I never in my life wanted to take an F more than I wanted to take that one, even though I had never had an F before.  I completely panicked.  There would be people.  Looking at me.  Judging me.  Judging my paper.  Judging my thoughts.  And those people were allowed (and encouraged) to ask questions, which I would have to answer on the spot.  My paper, which was an extension of me, was going to be up for debate.  Because I was so close to the work, to the ideas, I knew that it would feel personal.  They were my thoughts, and I would have to share them.  I would have to let myself be exposed.

That was a rough one for me considering that the whole idea of having my own thoughts was a completely new concept.  There were multiple emails exchanged between myself and this professor.  She did her best to reassure me.  My advisor worked with me on how to answer questions if people posed them to me—she told me to just get up there and do what I had to do and get my A.  She told me to believe in myself.  But I was still completely freaked out.  Believing in myself was not a solid concept at that point in my life.

I was terrified the day of the presentation.  As I started talking, I kept my hands below the podium edge so people wouldn’t see them shaking.  I played with my feet behind the podium, stepping in and out of my shoes.  I followed the words on the page with a pen.  (I still do that, and I’ve now given several of these presentations.)  But as I was speaking, it started to come easier.  No one was outright screaming that my argument was invalid.  No one was laughing at me.  I don’t remember all of the nightmarish things I thought might happen, but none of them did.   I gave that presentation, and it was awesome.  I fielded all of the questions that were asked of me, even the curveball question from my professor herself.  I learned something about myself that day, and not in the academic sense.  I learned that it’s okay to speak up.  It’s okay to be my own person.  It’s okay to have my own thoughts, and to say what I want to say.  I learned that I was still strong and very, very capable, despite the things I had previously learned.  Giving that presentation broke all of the previous conditioning that I had experienced.  The presentation assignment was given to us to give us experience in sharing papers in the event that we were ever asked to share our work at a conference.  But it was so much more than that for me.  It showed me that I was still a person.  I had things to contribute to life, both academic and not.  I could live outside of the box and be okay.

It taught me how to be proud of myself.   This program literally saved me.  And while I owe my professors so, so much, from the lessons they have taught me, I’ve been able to change myself.

So go ahead.  Ask me again.  Why is Parkside awesome?  Why is the English department amazing?  Why do the arts deserve more funding?  Why?  Because I am standing in front of a group of people speaking today when this never would have been possible in the past.  Because I can speak now, because I can share these words with you and not be afraid.  Because I am not the only one.  There are more people out there who are like me.  There are more people who need to find themselves, as I found myself.  I have found a place where my people are, where I fit in.  Where I can be a good student and have the answers even if they aren’t necessarily right.  Where I can show up every day, good or bad, and be accepted just the way I am.  By being at Parkside and working my butt off for my degree, I have found a purpose in my life where I previously thought I had none.  Being a writer is who I am.  Other people deserve the same opportunity that I have had to find themselves.

If you’re looking for an arts program to fund, it should be ours.  More money buys more professors who know their stuff and helps to keep the dedicated professors we already have in our department.  More money funds more events that draw more people.  Our facilities are top-notch, the best in the area, and we need to fill them with more people.  We need to come up with ways to introduce people to the arts in a way that makes them fall in love again.

More money helps more students like me become the people they are supposed to be.  To find the words.  So help us.  Help us to grow; help us to spread the word, to spread the arts.  Help us to become an even better undergrad program than we already are.

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