Archive for Teaching

Open Your Eyes: Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012

Those of you who know me or who have been following this blog for any length of time know that in addition to being sexy, intelligent, witty, a decent cook, and modest to a fault, I am blind: or rather, I am a person who happens to be blind. There is a difference between being a blind person and a person who happens to be blind, and it is not a subtle one. Every day, we tell ourselves stories about who we are, and those stories shape the images we create of ourselves and the world in which we live. To call myself a blind person would be true, but it would also be a gross understatement—an oversight of the many ingredients that, mixed together, make up the unique flavor of my personality.

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, and as I reflect upon the ways in which society defines me by the disable label, I also find myself thinking about the eye-opening moments I have been privileged enough to share with those who have been willing to look beyond that label.

Last spring, I taught a course in 20th Century British Literature, but I was transparent about my passion for my area of specialization—the Nineteenth Century—and especially my Jane Austen fanaticism. One of my students, who I afterward affectionately termed my “Jane Austen student,” came gushing to me after class one day about her trip to England the previous summer and, in particular, her visit to Chawton House—the residence of Jane Austen.
“I have pictures,” she informed me. “If you’d like, I can bring them next class and show you.” Insert very long, uncomfortable pause punctuated by chirping crickets. Class had been in session for roughly four weeks at this point; either this student was terribly unobservant of the Labrador that sat curled at my feet during every lesson, or she needed to have her own eyes checked out. That said, I have non-confrontational tattooed across my forehead, so rather than point out the obvious and add an even thicker layer of awkwardness to an already awkward situation, I smiled and responded, “I’d love to be able to see them.” ‘Hurrah,’ I thought. ‘I am paragon of inner poise and diplomacy.’ I said “I’d love to be able to see them,” which was, I thought, the truth. I would, but I could not.

“great!” responded my student. (Did she need a bomb to drop on her?). IN this case, it was my dog discretely, or not-so-discretely, treading on her foot with his paw.

When I walked into class the following day, I wondered whether or not Jane Austen student would in fact remember to bring her pictures of Chawton and, if she did, how I would explain to her that I would not, in fact, be able to see them, much as I wished to. ‘Idiot,’ I thought. ‘Golden opportunity for a teachable moment here, and because you’re such a politically-correct chickenshit, you’ve let it slip right past.’ As I suspected, Jane Austen student did in fact bring her pictures and suggested walking to my office with me so she could share them. Now the moment had come; there was no way out, but how could I offend her when she’d gone out of her way to bring the pictures and seemed so enthusiastic about sharing them with me?

We walked across campus together, chatting about the weather, classes, my dog—safe subjects. As we drew nearer my office, I was still wondering how I might be able to salvage what was left of this uncomfortable situation and transform it into a teachable moment. While I rarely if ever call attention to my blindness, I try whenever possible to educate my students about how best they can be of service to someone with a disability when the need arises.

When we arrived at my office, I thought I’d let the student initiate the dreaded picture conversation and see what might happen; I was buying time. At this point, “Lovely, but I can’t see it” was still the only thing I could conceivably think of saying. Subtlety is not a virtue I claim to possess in large quantities–in any quantity actually. To my astonishment, with no prompting from me, Jane Austen student brought out her pictures and, flipping through them, proceeded to describe each and every shot to me in detail. It was as if she were simply sharing her adventure with me, using the pictures as a way to refresh her own memory. She must have spent a good hour with me, describing in detail the landscape surrounding Chawton House and sharing the story behind each picture—like the one of the exit-ramp off the highway where she and her friend had accidentally found themselves when her GPS inexplicably switched from the pedestrian setting to the car setting.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this instance, it truly became that, and so much more. IN that moment, it was my ignorance, and not my student’s, that had been exposed—my assumption that this girl wouldn’t be able to fathom how to bring the world into view for someone who couldn’t see it.

In honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day, I urge you to check out Gin and Lemonade, a wonderfully witty blog by a wonderfully witty woman who, among other things, writes prolifically about living with a disability. She rocks—and (quite literally) rolls.

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A Little Birdie Told Me: Academic Research and the Twittersphere

Amidst headlines about the ongoing violence in Syria, the 2012 presidential race, and people (myself included) griping about Facebook’s mandatory rollout of Timeline, I was fortunate to stumble upon this little gem in my Twitter feed: MLA Releases Guidelines for Citing a Tweet.
‘Great,’, I thought. ‘As if taking up arms against the persistence of plagiarism isn’t already challenging enough what with Wikipedia, Google, and the fact that the I Phone has shrunk the world of information to a pocket-sized piece of plastic’. Now we’ve got to contend with Twitter.

You would think that, having spent roughly half of my life becoming increasingly reliant on the Internet, that I’d be a bit less of a Luddite about this most recent acknowledgement of the extent to which internet technology has altered the way we conduct (and in turn cite) research. But the truth is, I needed a moment to pick my jaw up off the floor before I could actually process this information. Several cups of coffee later, with the gears of my brain grinding, I challenged myself to step back and evaluate the situation from a more technologically open-minded perspective. Let’s face it: I blog, I use Facebook, I tweet like a twit, and I’ll be much surprised if I am never called upon to address a question from a student about the correct method for citing a tweet. Thanks to the MLA, I now have a default response.

That being said, there remains the issue of what constitutes legitimate, authoritative sources, and the circumstances under which Twitter might be considered appropriate for academic research. Admittedly, I was hard-pressed to think of such scenarios; as a literature and writing teacher and a Victorian scholar, I’ve never encountered (at least not yet) such a scenario. However, I am aware that in recent years, scholars in my field, as well as fans, have taken to creating accounts on Twitter impersonating—for entertainment as well as edification—fictional characters and their creators, everyone from Wilkie Collins and the great Sherlock Holmes to Mark Darcy of Bridget Jones fame (though he hasn’t tweeted in months…not that I know this, because I don’t follow him or anything). To return to the point, if someone, whether a student or professional scholar, wanted to conduct research focusing on the use of social media such as Twitter for engaging with literature and encouraging the “I Phone generation” to read, this might be a scenario where citing a tweet might be academically appropriate.

To use another example, the course I taught last semester—Writing through Media—and the course I’m currently teaching—Advanced Argumentative Writing—both have a heavy emphasis on the usage of new media tools, including Twitter, as means through which to enrich our writing experiences and create new spaces for readers and writers to interact with one another. I’ve just assigned my Advanced Argumentative Writing students an essay addressing this very topic, and in a context where one is studying the trends of popular media, there might be cause for incorporating Twitter into the research and writing. In that case, the MLA has offered us a solution to a question for which, until now, teachers have had no standard, textbook response.

How do you feel about the acknowledgement of Twitter as potentially suitable for use in academic research? What situations can you think of in which such usage would be called for? How can teachers instruct students about how best to use Twitter as an academic tool? Is Twitter even an internet resource that can offer students legitimate, authoritative information, or should we teach students to treat Twitter as we instruct them to treat Wikipedia–a source of general (though not necessarily verifiable) information?

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A Grammatically Correct Grudge: Arguing with an English Teacher

Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays, except when your charming and elegantly-behaved guidedog decides that regurgitating his breakfast on a brand-new carpet is a good way to impress your parents with his impressive houseguest manners. (When I have children, I sincerely hope God decides to take pity on me and give me the colic-free model, because I think I’ve done my time, and then some).

Needless to say, Dad was not amused, and I felt somewhat unnecessarily guilty. I say somewhat unnecessarily, for while dogs are no more capable of controlling their gag reflex than humans, he’s still my dog and my responsibility. (Not that I can control his gag reflex any more than I can control my own, but I’ve been genetically programmed for guilt, like all good Catholics). After I’d finished apologizing profusely, my father insisted, “I’m angry, but I’m not angry with you.”
“That’s right, you’re not angry *with* me,” I thought as I walked away from the situation in an attempt to let it diffuse before I said something I’d regret for eternity. “The use of that particular preposition implies that you and I are angry together. I am not angry, therefore you cannot be angry with me. You are angry, and that anger is directed at me, or at the situation in which my dog and I have been implicated. In sum: you are angry at me, not with me.”

Count on an English teacher to demand that any grudge held against her be grammatically correct.

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Live, Learn, Grow

Project Give Thanks day 16

This morning I had the good fortune to run across this post about the mixed emotions we as instructors experience when students drop our courses, as inevitably some always do. While we resign ourselves to the inevitability, if we have anything resembling a beating, caring heart, we will wonder what we might have done, or not done, to retain the students who withdrew. I’ve learned during the last five years at this job that the drop/add window at the beginning of each semester epitomizes social Darwinism at its finest; at least, in my classroom. I tend to shoot straight from the hip on the first day; this is my class, this is how I do things. I hope you’ll stay, but if you don’t, I won’t cry. If you do choose to stay, you’re going to have to pull your weight or be dragged down. (Confession: I’m softer than a chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven, but I find that this no-nonsense approach tends to earn me brownie points in the respect department from the students who decide to stay).

I realized early that if I lost sleep over every student who dropped my class, I would be an insomniac, but one of the unfortunate side effects of being a teacher with a visual impairment (added to the fact that I’m female) means I have to work a bit harder to earn the same respect and authority as my colleagues. I generally make a habit of addressing my blindness with my students on the first day of class: I simply point to the dog and make a statement along the lines of:” Yes, there’s a dog in the room. He’ll be here every day. He’s a seeing-eye dog, so connect the dots. I’m blind. It isn’t a problem for me, and I hope it isn’t a problem for you, but if it is and you’d like to talk to me about it, I’m open to answering questions, and if it makes you uncomfortable and you’d like to leave my class, I promise I won’t cry.”

Without fail, my roster usually fluctuates for the next two weeks until the drop/add period ends, at which point things settle down. If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t think my roster experiences any more student fluctuation than those of my colleagues; if this college education business is a service for which students (or their parents, or the government) are paying, it’s not unreasonable that they’d want to “professor-shop”. Of course, when a student joins my class three weeks in because all other sections of the course were closed and he won’t be able to graduate without said course, I feel depressingly like that $4.00 Christmas album at the bottom of the overstock bargain bin on December 26. The truth also forces me to admit that I often wonder whether the students who withdrew might have staid had their instructor not been “disabled”. While it saddens me to think that they would walk away from a potentially enriching educational experience, some students, as much as we’d like to think of them as adults, just aren’t mature enough to handle such experiences. More importantly, I’ve come to realize that allowing myself to dwell on those students is doing a disservice to the ones who choose to remain—the ones who choose to give me a fair chance, because that decision does require a commendable open-mindedness and a willingness to embrace new experiences. I am thankful for those students, because they are the reason I wake up in the morning and pump my bloodstream full of caffeine. They are the reason I spend hours each day slaving over a dissertation I will probably finish in the year 3015, because without that dissertation I cannot dedicate my life to a career in academe. I’m thankful for those students, because without students, there would be no teachers. I am thankful for having reached the realization that I would do well not to spend sleepless nights counting my lost sheep when there’s a flock in need of my guidance.

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I did my Homework. Can I have my Martini Now?

Project Give Thanks day 14

“Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” famously asked Henry Higgins in 1916, and nearly a century later, I’m compelled to confess that I don’t think we’re any nearer answering that question than we were when George Bernard Shaw penned “Pygmalion”.

I have spent the entire week grading essays, and I am happy to report that, Thank God and all his angels, that I’ve finally finished. A memo to the U.S government: if you’re really serious about finding an effective means of torturing spies, I highly recommend grading essays. I guarantee they’ll tell you everything you want to know in approximately 10 seconds. 5 if the essay lacks punctuation; 3 if it uses any form of “netspeak”. I don’t want anyone getting the impression that I dislike my job. On the contrary, I’m quite passionate about it. What I dislike is the modern technology that gives students the impression that manually proofreading an essay has been made unnecessary. Auto-correct is a swearword in my classroom. After grading this batch of essays, I had a strong inclination to take a bath…in vodka.

In any case, I’m finished, and I now have the privilege of looking forward to a high-calorie, high-alcohol content, low nutrition value evening with the lovely K. Does belly-aching hilarity constitute exercising your stomach muscles? Because I think we might have hit on a brilliant new workout plan: laugh your way to sexiness.

What are you thankful for today?

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Of Work, Words, and Yappy dogs

Project Give Thanks day 10

Alright, so I have missed three days of thankfulness blogging, and admittedly I have very little excuse. I offer in my defense only that I have spent a sizable portion of the past three days grading and commenting on student blogs, which has left my brain resembling over-cooked spaghetti. I don’t think I could have written a coherent sentence if my life depended on it. As passionate as I often am about sharing my life and my experiences in writing, the fact remains that when I earn my bread and cheese teaching others how to write, I sometimes feel hemmed in by words. As Eliza Doolittle put it, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” Having said all of that, I’m jumping back on the blogging bandwagon, though I don’t promise anything earth-shatteringly illuminating, exciting, entertaining, etc.

Today I am thankful that my syllabus for my spring course is completed; at least, I have something concrete to submit to the department. This is convenient, as the syllabus submission deadline is, oh, look, today. Go team me for ticking items off of my to-do list in a timely manner. Syllabus construction is the bane of my existence. Admittedly it gets easier over time the more you teach a certain subject, because you accumulate a library of resources. That said, the tedium of compiling the course schedule, checking and double-checking mandatory boilerplates, and generally working over the document with the proverbial fine-toothed comb is about as mentally stimulating as watching a documentary on the mating habits of fruit flies. (Of course, if you’re into that sort of thing, feel free to attempt to sell me on the interest level). More than likely what I submit today will change about three times before the start of the spring semester and another two or three times throughout, depending on the students’ needs and the general class dynamic, but it’s far easier to revise than to build from the ground up. In any case, it’s done, and thank heaven for that.

ON an entirely unrelated note, I am eternally grateful that my next-door neighbor with the yappy dog has decided to support our local search and rescue team and gotten lost. Either that, or she’s had said yappy dog’s vocal cords surgically removed. (I don’t usually condone such things, but in this case, I’d be more than happy to go halves with her on the bill). I hate to contradict Robert Frost, but good fences do make good neighbors, and good moving companies make even better ones.

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A Lesson Learned in Luke

Project Give Thanks day 6

“It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher by your pupils you’ll be taught.”- The King and I

My students have an essay due tomorrow, so naturally when I logged onto my e-mail for the first time this morning, I wasn’t surprised to find desperate pleas for help. While I’ve told my students time and again that I can do little for them in the way of major feedback 24 hours before an assignment is due, I’ve resigned myself to the reality of always finding e-mails of the “What should I write my paper on” variety even with the deadline looming. (As an aside, I hate this question more than carrot raisin salad, or the sound of the alarm clock on Monday morning, or…insert anything unpleasant and double the wrath I feel toward it). Similarly frustrating are the students who will send me a draft of a paper the day before its due, asking me to “look it over”. Having been at this job for nearly five years, I think I’ve become fairly skilled at spotting the difference between the student who is genuinely struggling with her writing and the one to whom “look this over” translates to “correct my mistakes so I will get an ‘A'”.

When I opened my e-mail this morning, I discovered a message from a student with a nearly-finished essay that she wanted me to “look over”. I’m not unwilling to provide my students with encouragement and input during the writing process; let’s face it, for most of us, words don’t flow freely from our fingertips like milk and honey from the Promised Land. That said, there must be a practical limit to my kindness; if every student sent me a draft, and I responded to each one, I would effectively be grading it twice; not to mention, I would have little or no time to devote to my dissertation, lesson-planning, writing the book article I’m currently working on, and the myriad of other professional obligations that demand my attention. Then, of course, “teacher” is only one of many hats I wear; I am a friend, a daughter, a sister, an active church-member, and a writer—all of which come bundled with their own set of responsibilities.

With a fortifying sip of coffee, I wrote back to my student and promised a response by the end of the day; trying not to become overwhelmed with my to-do list before I even began to tackle it, I headed over to the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops page for my daily dose of scripture.

Whenever I find myself struggling to answer the question of how my work in academia serves the Lord, I remind myself that Jesus was—and is—a teacher, and today’s lesson was one I was glad I didn’t miss. In today’s Gospel (Luke 17:7-10) Jesus challenges his apostles: “When you have done all you have been commanded, say,
“We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.” Here Jesus reminds us that to truly answer the call to serve others, we cannot merely do what is expected of us; we must go above and beyond the call of duty—work overtime without compensation, so-to-speak. (Though he also reminds us that our reward for all we do will be great in Heaven). I took that to heart as I thought about my work today, and I realized that so much of doing my job successfully demands going above and beyond the call of duty; doing more than what is expected of me, even when it doesn’t suit my convenience. How would it have been if someone with an unclean spirit had appealed to Jesus for healing only to have him tell them “Sorry, closed for business. Tell your demons to take a chill pill and call me in the morning.”? OK, so teaching students the value of sound rhetoric in their daily lives isn’t perhaps as monumental an achievement as, say, the Loaves and the Fishes trick or raising a man from the dead, but I think the idea here is that we’re called to live all aspects of our lives, great and small, with that compassion. True, I’m an imperfect human, and I’m not always going to get it right, but today I’m thankful for the reminder of what I’m striving for.

What are you thankful for today?

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