Back to School

Calvin and Hobbes

Well hullo there stranger. Been a long time. been a busy year. (nostalgic/wistful … the closest I’ll come in today’s column to acknowledging the painful event that has shaped said year)

So, an update to you, dear reader, on my ever-sporadic blog. (upbeat … a promise that I am going to share something that happened, in a buoyant tone)

Today I begin teaching for the first time on my own. (brief sentence for impact, momentous)

True, I’ve taught kids at after-school programs in the past. But today I will walk into a class full of first-year college students, minds still bruised and purple from high school, with the intent of teaching them how to write well. Or at least, better. (context to frame the relative import … or hilarity … of the undertaking)

I’ve taken an truly breathtaking, earth-shattering course on composition research and theory (soft-baked irony … but not without a slight tinge of pride), shadowed an assigned mentor around her English 101 class and graded half her students’ papers (boring recitation of fact that hopefully hints at mixed feelings about the experience). I’ve spent my summer planning my course — the syllabus, the readings, the assignments, the lesson plans — spent more of my summer, in truth, doing that than I spent doing the thing I should have, working on my thesis novel. (transparent assignation that perhaps suggests a wrestling of priorities and a mild regret, but also perhaps a mild satisfaction in the work accomplished)

So I’m ready as I’ll ever be. Myself, a bright-eyed, bushy-haired youngish scholar (please, I’m still just 35) going to class again for the first time. Times have changed since I was in college. We have digital learning Moodles now, and every kid brings a laptop and a smartphone to class, where there are computers at the teacher’s desk and overhead projectors that project live video rather than transparencies, and a teaching paradigm that preferences process over product, where students are theorized as participatory young scholars, engaged in intellectual discourse with their teacher-mentor, each a unique snowflake and each bringing with her an individual set of (multi)literacies, experiences, dialect(s), and cultural norms. All fine and good.

But some things haven’t changed: in truth, the kids are young as ever (my god, did I look that soft and frightened when I started school? perhaps, but I was in a huge lecture hall where no one could see me: I’ll be teaching in a small classroom in front of 22 people); they seem as distracted and as bored as ever. My job is part-educator, part-entertainer, it seems. Stay relevant, man, or you’ll lose them!

These are young scholars, but they are not engaged. Not yet. (I am basing this on my experience last semester, not with the class I’m about to teach) My job will be to engage them, to try to wake up their sleepy minds, and get them curious about things. To surprise them and then leave little curiosity gaps that they’ll be motivated to bridge themselves. And to give them the tools to cross those bridges.

But I’m also realistic. I’m not teaching to everyone. I’m teaching to those who’ll listen, those who respond to alarm clocks. I could say it’s all for them that I do this work, but in reality it’s for me. I enjoy it. Planning this course has actually been kinda fun (don’t tell my jaded and cynical peers in the MFA program, the ones who like me opted to teach Comp instead of Creative Writing, and are ruing that decision with ever mutter, though they are probably secretly looking forward to this as well). And I look forward to meeting these kids and getting to know them.

Sure, I’m nervous. No biggie. I’m also scared — not that I won’t know an answer; I already know that’ll happen — but that I’ll face a problem too big too soon. A violently disruptive student. A case of plagiarism in my first week. A careless word to a student with a learning disability or mental illness.

Still … that’s just fear. I know I won’t break them. That’s real narcissim: the idea that one bad teacher can ruin a student forever. But isn’t the flip side also somewhat true: that one teacher alone will never make a student succeed? I can only help give them a little ally-oop, a boost over the first walls they’ll hit in college, and a quick survey from a low hill of all the walls they may face, at least those I can show them. After all, let’s be real: it’s a 16-week class that meets twice a week for 100 min at a time. Two of those 32 meetings fall during vacation days, and two during conference days, leaving me with 28 days with them, 2800 minutes, not quite 47 hours.

So rather than focus on writing this kind of paper or that, I’m just going to muddle along with my new, untested syllabus, and try to give the students things to think about. Teach them to ask questions. And hopefully help them look at the world—not just the academic part of it, sorry NCSU—a little more critically.

Anyway. I gotta go eat breakfast and get ready for class. I bought a new sportcoat for the occasion!