Composition and Contagion: I feel like I failed

Caveat: the world is on fire right now. I am not talking about expecting more from my students. I am talking about how I could have done better.

I knew how challenging it was to keep the attention of my small group of students in class. I was not prepared for how impossible it would be in the switch to remote learning. While there were a couple that reached out to me and discussed their assignments, the rest seemed to only contact me out of necessity or out of desperation on my part. I don’t blame them.

I have/had no idea what was going on their lives and I am fully aware that I was one of at least four or five faculty all vying for their attention (let alone the electronic administrative arms of housing, billing, health, etc.) but I now realize that I was never going to be able to reach them once they were gone. I failed to establish enough of a rapport during the semester that, once we weren’t mandated into the same room for a period of time, I had lost engagement.

As a student in my (hopefully) last semester of coursework, I get how hard it is to engage, how hard it is to drag yourself to the screen for something you may not feel 100% invested in at that moment. As a student I failed and, in many ways, am still failing. I am trying to fail forward though, and make some progress.

Maybe I should have reached out even more. Maybe I should have required synchronous meetings. Maybe I should have ramped up the work instead of ramping it down. Perhaps my desire to give them a break was the last nail in my coffin. Maybe that was the sign to/that my class wasn’t important. I may never know, since not one of them did the course evaluation.

Which is a shame, because right now the only lessons I can take away to help improve my teaching are the ones gleaned from the empty spaces where class discussion would have been. I didn’t challenge them enough. I didn’t demand enough from them. I didn’t spark their interest. So many things I want to work on and adjust to make sure that, in-person or remote, students value my class.

But until I can transition to prep-work, I have to finish this semester as a student and try to be engaged and get my work done. Sometimes I feel like I’m failing everywhere.

Composition and Contagion and Decomposition

What do I even say? As Costco sends me the nine-millionth email featuring products I either don’t need or they don’t have and the sheer volume of “How We Are Dealing with the BLAH BLAH BLAH” emails would be overwhelming if complaining about didn’t focus on the unimaginable privilege I have at my own situation and how fortunate I am to be safe.

It’s been hard to write. That’s why this daily blog is on episode three after a month. I wanted to chart what I did, how I changed teaching, how I adjusted my lessons, but that would assume I had an idea in the first place. After only two years of teaching I realize that I’m not a very good planner or syllabus maker and that since I teach a discussion-based composition course, I have been largely relying on the charisma and charm.

And I ain’t all that charming.

I am thankful that I’ve decided my major field for my comprehensive exams will focus on composition and rhetoric as there is so much I have to learn. So much I have to understand about teaching and lesson design. In fact, I was excited to drop $250 on the Digital Pedagogy Lab this summer, but when I realized that was per course, I had to say no. There’s no way I’m going to ask for funding when some of my peers have just lost their summer funding. I’ll follow the speakers, take a look at the free events, and get to know some of the recent journals on the subject. I may need that money.

The struggle with writing though has infused every project. Sometimes I can fall back on research, reading over journal articles and chapters, or, as is more likely, hoarding more texts that I’ll never get a chance to read or skim but will languish in my citation manager among the 2,300+ sources that I have and haven’t used over the years. Forcing myself to writing this post is an exercise in breaking through that anxious block we’ve all been dealing with. Having a writing group helps, work/writing sprints gets some words on the page. Cutting myself off with research also helps me shift gears.

Look how happy she is. I bet she gets her stuff in on time.
(Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

The biggest burden is feeling as if I can’t completely immerse myself in my work while at home. I haven’t shaken the need to keep an ear out for trouble. My noise-canceling headphones sit charging, unused. There are things I’m listening for, but rarely hear. Things I hear but rarely need to intervene. It’s only been within the last two weeks that I’ve felt comfortable just shutting the door to my office when not in a Zoom session.

This is progress.

For now, I think I’ll just keep plugging, checking off little things on my to-do list (the big projects broken down in order to gain momentum) and worry less about productivity and more about process. As a composition teacher I want to be about the processes: the process of reading and thinking and writing and discussing. This time requires us to renegotiate our process on a daily (if not hourly) basis and that flexibility, I think, will surely be helpful in the long run. The product is just the record of work done.

The process is the reward.

Composition and Contagion: Days 2-4

When I promise to write something daily, inevitably, I will fail. This is proven by my illustrious fiction writing career that is, somehow, invisible. In this instance, I have a good excuse. We had to take a family member to the hospital Tuesday due to a stroke. What, up until a few weeks ago would have been an immediate decision, this time was weighed with the possibility of Covid-19 infection. But you don’t mess with a stroke, so they went.

Thankfully it was very mild and they are safe and sound. But we can’t visit, no one can visit, and getting information has been spotty. We can talk to our loved one, but have trouble getting in touch with staff. Understandable, yes, but frustrating too.

So these last few days have been overshadowed by this stressor, the rearrangement of items from front to back burners, the constant tempering of my own anxiety to retain composure (which sometimes fails, but not terrible, yet) and worrying about my English Comp students, the majority of who I haven’t heard from yet.

I’m lucky to have a tiny class, but that also means I feel more connected to them and when they’re not responding, I worry. Granted, they are getting inundated with emails not just from their professors but the university with their constant updates, closings, schedule changes, grading changes, etc. I think administration has to curtail the “status” emails of encouragement that, while thoughtful, only clog our already traffic heavy digital lives.

Just post cat memes in the university twitter account. At least for now.

No. Not like this…

My own coursework has been far from my mind as well, but that has to change today. While everyone has been flexible (these are the times we live in) there are some remnants of a strict schedule here and there. Adhering to a schedule would be best for my ADHD-brain, but I have to find the discipline — and energy, and motivation, and hope — to make one.

The days are going to run together, no sense of weekend or weekday for the next few weeks and I think that will have to be necessary. I can feel the pull of falling behind, of lagging in despair, of less sleep, less activity, of depression. The solitude isn’t the problem, it’s the removal of audience. Without people watching me work, how do I know its time to work? (Yes, Zoom hangouts are a thing, but they can be far more distracting than helpful.)

I am Schrodinger’s Teaching Fellow – am I on track? Am I behind? You have to open the box to find out. But bad things happen when you go around opening boxes…

Wash your hands!

Composition and Contagion: A Working Journal

Lehigh University has decided to move the remainder of its semester online in an effort to reduce the amount of contact between faculty, staff, and students on its campus. Is it an overabundance of caution? Sure. But, I would argue that is what’s needed now. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and boy, am I worried.

But that’s not what this is about.

What this is about will be my experience rapidly transitioning to online teaching, what changes I made, and how my students reacted. I thought it would be important to keep a daily journal about this experience for any number of reasons that I’ll decide when we come out on the other side of this.

Today is the first day “back” from spring break and normally I would teach my English Comp I class at 3pm. Originally I thought about using Google Hangouts to have a real-time discussion and get a sense of how everyone was doing, but since students are probably scrambling to get their things from residences (with that deadline being today), they’ve got enough on their plate. This is an easy call for me. As an English instructor at a primarily engineering school, we understand how we sometimes fall in a student’s list of priorities.

Generally my enthusiasm and charm makes them realize my class is the most important. Ahaha.

My class is content/discussion based along side process workshops, but I was finding that my group would get a bit sidetracked in our discussions. I wanted to try creating reading guides from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas and the switch to remote learning has given me the opportunity to try this out. We’re finishing up our “Animal” unit, where we’ve been reading and talking about how we use animals to tell human stories, what we get wrong when we try to tell stories about animals, and our general relationship to the non-human animal world. They’ve already selected their paper topics for this unit, and after break we were going to talk about dinosaurs.

Who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

Rawwwwwrrrrr
My people have been much maligned!

Pairing an article about dinosaurs with and article about CRISPR editing of mosquito DNA seems like a no-brainer, but I wanted to have some guiding comments and questions for their reading as well as “Synthesis Questions” for them to answer at the end of the week. While this isn’t a perfect replacement for discussion (and I won’t be able to test how well these guides steer discussion in the classroom until the fall – hopefully) I hope they’ll provide some help in thinking about not only the content but how that content is delivered.

I also have a “Weekly Post” that is less about synthesizing content and more about hearing additional voices, or looking toward the next assignments. To make the transition to remote less stressful, I’ve made all the deadlines for weekly work due at midnight on Saturday. We normally meet on Mondays and Wednesdays, but I plan on just checking in by email Tuesday and Friday (for now). They can reach me by email or Google chat anytime and I hope they will.

As I’m still in coursework, I have a mix of remote learning experiences on the horizon, some wanting to do Zoom meetings, others allowing us to go at our own pace for the week (similar to my class). I keep thinking about the successful online classes I’ve taken and the real-time meetings have been few and far between, not because of technology, but because it isn’t always a good use of time. My suggestion, if you have to attend a online meeting, have a list of questions/items for discussion first, otherwise…

Bob? Bob? Turn off your damn ceiling fan. It’s so loud!

Good luck out there. Wash your hands. Stay the hell away from each other.