What We Talk About When We Talk About Teaching

All this, all of this love we’re talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even a memory.” ~Raymond Carver

I love Raymond Carver, and I’ve reused (plagiarized?) this title so many times because I wish I had created it. This post in my drafts for over a year, so I’m going to release it as a break from my writerly drama. I’ve taken a break from the teachings and the learnings writerly bloggy for a few reasons. Whenever I reflect on the state of adjunct labor, I always hear from somebody who wants to let me know that being adjunct isn’t all that bad because ____________. Or I get asked about why I wrote X Thing about Quit Lit.

For some reason, almost a year ago I started this post after I had a conversation with a grant leader who sparked me to write about Initiative Fatigue. I went back to my teacher journals because I’ve been on the hunt for old ideas I can reuse. And I found this post. This thread. These ideas. This was all written before the pandemic, but I think some of what I’m saying still applies. I don’t feel like revising it yet, so I’ll let these ideas land here.

If I was a real researcher, I’d write something to the tune of exploring how and why faculty feel exhausted by administrative initiatives. In the great web of higher education policy, the spider in the center is always spinning towards the election cycle. Politicians love to appeal to the electorate about education (who doesn’t want to save the children?). Policy writers get funded to create projects, local leaders are told to enact said policies, administrators get their marching orders from the executive level, department leaders are given a mission, and faculty are usually given the news at convocation speeches or Welcome Week or All Faculty Addresses. 

And so it goes.

When I was adjunct, I never went to Welcome Week because I wasn’t paid to be there. I couldn’t justify putting the cost of gas on the credit card I was living on until I got paid. I did, however, always attend the departmental meetings because I was paid, and I genuinely liked a lot of my colleagues. The best ones made me feel part of the the department, and they were/are really interesting people who read great books. After we shared what we read in these meetings, we got to The News of What Was To Be The New Thing For That Year. In all of the departments where I worked, I noticed that most of the folks who took the Department Chair position did so the way you play catch the hot potato. They’d juggle the position for a few years, and then bounce that potato onto the next person. The extra stipend, I suppose, wasn’t as easy as moonlighting a few extra sections. Students are always easier to deal with than your peers. 

Over the last four and half years, I have had the privilege of interacting with a lot of the same types of teacherly and administrative people. Just at scale. So, let me pause here and explain what I mean by “at scale.” What I do for a living sometimes gives me an opportunity to talk to people in four or five states, some days, before 10am. I always feel like it’s up to me to know what’s going on at their schools, their states, and their classrooms. My inner researcher–the very same one who gave up on a doctorate and has stopped caring about academic publishing–loves this work. I sometimes forget to eat (and I love food) because I’m so into reading about The Education News. Endlessly fascinating. So interesting. Sometimes so depressing. Sometimes so joyful. All in the same day. 

So today I want to write a bit of advice for my Fac Dev Peeps to reflect a bit. The people who support the supporters of faculty and students. It’s such a hard job. Know this. I know this. When I’m able to do my best work these days, I’m hoping to co-create courses, assignments, and things that faculty will love. I’m hoping to improve courses where students will learn. I wrote this post back in August of 2019, and if I try to contextualize in the era we’re living now, I’ll never post it. So. Here goes.

In my old teacher journal from 2007, I wrote the following:

If I could beg one thing of everyone who is working in the space of “customizing/curating” course content for an online or hybrid course, I’d ask that you pause and ask yourself one question.

Ready?

If you were a student, would you know where to get started in this course?

Here’s what I was musing about, but didn’t really know at the time. I wanted online/hybrid/blended teachers to look beyond the “Start Here” information or where to read the announcement and all the quality that matters shizz. No. Pause for a minute and really look. Would you know what you should do first? 

If you snark “it’s in the syllabus” please stop reading my blog and sign up for a course on empathy. Maybe reconsider your profession. K. Thx. Bye.

attribution

Here’s another question I wrote in 2017:

If you help create “master” courses as a starting point to check all of the boxes of accreditation, what’s the worst–and I mean the worst–possible scenario where shit can go all wrong for students? In other words, what’s the worst thing that can happen when somebody “personalizes” or “customizes” a course? Where will students get lost?

Here’s a question that I wrote in the first draft of this blog post in 2019:

Do you ever offer any asynchronous professional development for faculty? Have your faculty had any experience as being online students themselves? 

Okay, let me pause here and acknowledge that I was a maniac bitch during my second masters degree program where I was an online/hybrid student. I loved one of my teachers hopelessly and the other one was a pompous asshole who tried to adjunct-splain me all the time. Both teachers in that program were so incredibly disorganized. I spent a lot time helping my peers figure out what was going on. Because, you see, I knew all the tricks of half-assing an online course. If there was a way to half-ass it, I had already figured it out. Sometimes this skill of mine is praised as efficiency, innovation, or very productive. I don’t know, maybe it’s just being willing to put something out there that isn’t perfect. Like this post.

So okay. I’ve asked those questions. The same question, really, just a decade a part. Now let’s return to Initiative Fatigue.

What is it, and why should we care? 

Let me start with why we should all care. 

Students. 

They have no idea about initiatives. They don’t care about policy. They don’t really understand how the most expensive investment of their lives really works.

Here’s another Truth we need to sit with and one that people don’t like to admit: Faculty do not like being told what to do.

By and large, the people who become educators like being in control of the situation (the class) and they like the autonomy of being their own boss (the teacher). This isn’t to say that every faculty member is like Zack de la Roca everyday telling administrators, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” It is, however, important to note that most faculty I know, and the teacher that I used to be, loves being in charge of the class. They love, and this is hard to admit but central to the core of the teacher ego–they love being the smartest person in the room who can teach people.

And most of them, do not like change. Unless they are the ones driving said change. 

The real revolution in all things Open, by the way, will happen with the next generation of faculty. I hold that faith. Most of what’s being pitched right now doesn’t work. These new teachers will figure it out.

For some faculty, you’ll have to rip that Big Pub textbook from their cold dead hands. Long-time readers will not be surprised to hear me say that I’m mostly interested in online and hybrid learning spaces. As a learner, I love the verb seminar and I’ll it eat up a good lecture like chips and salsa after a hard bike ride. As a teacher, I love the potential of the digital space. 

Here’s some quick backstory. History. Why I care about this space.

The day that I realized that a second-shift factory worker was able to take my class and earn college credit, my mind exploded like that emoji we all use now.

He joked in his student introduction post, “I’ve been wanting to go back to school forever, but they don’t offer English 101 at 3am when I’m done with work. I dropped out of college to work full-time when the love of my life got pregnant with our first son. I’m hoping to be done with this degree before my own kids go to college.” He posted a photo of him hugging two kids who looked like they were middle school.

I thought of my own dad, who worked “third trick” for years–that’s old union talk for the middle-of-the-night shift. He slept while I was in school, and he left for work when I was coming home. He came to my sporting events on his lunch break during the weekends in his work uniform.

I never met that online student in real life, and I don’t know if he graduated, but that discussion post changed everything for me. His kids are college-age now, that much I know. I imagine he’s able to help his kids with shitty online classes because he lived through my early online course.

So. Initiative Fatigue. That’s what I said I’d talk about, right? Right. 

This is condition in higher education when things have to change and faculty are not motivated by change for change sake. They see whatever is happening as just another initiative. It’s usually something set up by an ambitious administrator who wants to move up the ladder of leadership. Here’s the fundamental flaw that most administrators don’t see in their crystal ball. 

There are usually faculty are already doing The New Thing. 

Let me take a stab here at the Co-Requisite model, and I’d love to hear from readers who are actually involved in this initiative. Tell me if I’m wrong. Teach me what is right. I think this is the model for all introductory courses and the Covid era has sped up that trajectory.

Let’s take English 101, for instance, since I taught a bazillion of those sections. When I got my roster each term, I got a list of the student placement scores. I could trace those numbers down a column and see who struggled on that standardized test. I could see the list of students who had to take developmental courses just to get to English 101. Their first composition course where they would earn credit.

Have you ever taken one of those tests, by the way? You should. I took one in order to take a french class at a community college because it was cheaper to take the placement test than it was to mail the thirty-inch stack of paper college transcripts that I collected during my 20s. Seriously.

When I sat down to take that test, I was so nervous. What if I didn’t place into English 101? Meanwhile, I had three piles of English 102 essays to grade in my bag on the floor next to my testing station. I had ten job applications out to be a textbook reviewer.

By taking that test, I got feel the nervousness that students experience when so much is on the line. Midway through the test, I was like, oh, my. This is horrific.

If they had forced me to take a math placement test when I entered college, for the record, I would have never graduated from college. This I know for sure. If you would have told me twenty-five years ago that I’d work along-side data scientists and some of the most innovative math programmers on the planet, I would have asked what bottle of whiskey you finished that morning. Back to placement tests. Right.

Talk to a student who has paid for two-years of college classes and has earned zero college credit in developmental courses, and you’ll have all the empathy you need for the Co-Req Model initiatives. Talk to an adult who is paying interest on loans for those two years of classes while trying to figure out how to save for their children’s education, and you’ll see why administrative and policy folks are trying to figure out something new. Again. Again. Again.

Initiative Fatigue. Maybe I could offer some advice for the Fac Dev Peeps in the middle of this work. Talk to your faculty. Shut the office door. Or have a private online meeting. You don’t have to use Zoom, there are other platforms that work great. Use your personal phone. Grab a coffee and listen to them. Chances are they are already doing something that will fulfill your requirement to prove momentum towards your initiative. Try to communicate that up the chain of command. And this I know, is so hard.

Advice for the Covid era: Talk to your teachers who went from web-enhanced to online in March. They’ve got the keys to the kingdom to teach your faculty what to do. Spotlight those faculty–they are honest about missing the classroom but they also understand how adjust from face-to-face to whatever it is we’re doing now.

I’m sometimes asked if I miss being an administrator.

Here’s the thing.

I loved writing All Faculty emails. Many people in leadership advised me to not write them because a few bad apples would Reply All to shame you with their complaints. And it’s true, there were times I couldn’t believe how mean people were (like, fuck, it wasn’t my fault that LMS shit was buggy. It was my job to tell you about that shitty platform that you agreed to use in class FFS). The real saving grace was my husband was also an adjunct in that All Faculty thread, so he’d see those emails and respond at home with “Fuck that Mother Fucker! I googled that Fucko’s dissertation topic. I wouldn’t wipe our dog’s ass with the paper it was printed on. Fuck that Bunghole…”  

So, you know, that helped. If you think the language I use on this blog makes your eyelashes curl, just get my Mister in a lather. The forked tongue of a that kid from working class Boston will make you blush.

When a faculty member Replied All, it was a way of complaining publicly about technology, my inexperience with leadership, or something else entirely that they felt like they couldn’t control. The best ones came to my office or called me, but those mean emails stung.

So what did I do?

I wrote an email response that I never sent. They usually started with some salutation like, “Look. Bitch. You’ve got it all wrong.” Or “Dear Uber-Mensch, I’m sorry it’s been a long time since you’ve gotten laid.” Something along those lines. Just to make myself laugh.

Those emails made me feel better. But it is hard. Oh my god is it hard. I recently got two emails with my volunteer work that were so mean in spirit that it took me weeks to get over. People still send mean words through email. Over Twitter. Through DMs. I might even get a few because of this post.

I try to remember that people have other things going on, and you never really what’s going on with people. 

You never really know why people act the way that they do. I think the Buddhists have the right advice: You can’t control what others do, you can only control your reaction.

Another memory from the teacher journal.

Related but not related.

Six or so years into my teaching career, for instance, I had a former student contact me that she liked have coffee with me. When I saw her name in my inbox, I was for sure it was another complaint or something awful. She had led a small campaign to get me fired because of my “liberal ideologies” during the Bush years. This woman seethed with hatred for me, and I could feel it radiating off of her in my class. Twice a week for four hours I had to stand in front of people who hated me for a paycheck.

I lost my cool one day on a student, her buddy, who was complaining about “dead-beat single-moms who weren’t taking care of their kids.” I interrupted him to ask if they all got pregnant by immaculate conception, and he said, “of course not! That only happened with our Lord and Savior’s mom.” He looked around the room like, “Duh. Ain’t she dumb?” Ah, the wunderkinds of Rush Limbaugh. Good times.

I paused. “So then why are the women the only ones responsible for these children? Where are the fathers?”

The students went all Jerry Springer on that guy–they laughed and ooohed and aaahhed. This student use this example of me being unfair and ridiculing her fellow student as part of her campaign about why I was a bad teacher. She was right, I did abuse my power. I played that kid right into the set up to destroy his argument.

And for the record, he earned an A in my class. I fundamentally disagreed with everything he wrote about, but he wrote well and improved as a writer. He was a mouthy asshole who I’m sure is making American great again, but he did the work. I made a lot of mistakes as a teacher, but I was fair and balanced with my assessments.

This woman who reappeared in my life asking to have coffee with me also taught me a lot. I honestly never wanted to see her again, and that quarter of teaching was one of the hardest of my life. But I was curious out what she wanted so I met with her.

When we sat down to drink our coffee, she shared that she wanted to tell me that she was sorry for being drunk in my class. I took two sips of my coffee as she spilled out a story about how she was a recovering alcoholic and I was one of the people she needed to make amends with because she was not in her right mind.

She apologized for the things she said to the classmates, the dean, and to me. She said she has no recollection of that class because she drank to black out everyday. She asked if I remembered her friend, whom I nicknamed in my mind Mini-Limbaugh. Sure. Sure. I remember him.

She shared that he told her that I reminded him of his ex-wife who left him for a Ralph Nader volunteer. You know, the seat-belts-Green-Party guy, right? He was really mean to you, and I had a crush on him so I was jealous of you. I hope you can forgive me. I hated you because so many of the students liked you. Because you looked like his ex-wife. You just seemed like everything had come so easy to you. I put the hate I had for myself onto you. I see that now. Can you forgive me for what I did? I’m so glad they didn’t fire you.

Sure. Sure, I said. I was shocked silent. 

I forgive you. What you’re doing, apologizing to everyone, I imagine, isn’t easy. I don’t remember you being drunk at all, I said.

I’m losing the thread here.

I’ve gone too far into this memory of what is hard about teaching. What is harder about being an administrator. What causes me fatigue.

I’ve lost the thread.

I want to get this post out of my drafts now because I wrote it well before All Of This–what we’re living through now. These are anecdotes I hope to use some other day in another context when I write about teaching. The next book. Oy.

I’ve spent the last few weeks working on a chapter that I’m submitting to an anthology, and I’m so nervous about what the editors will say. I’m not sure if there is a story arc. I’m not sure it’s any good. I’m not sure about anything right now, but I loved editing this post this morning and thinking about these things. A start for the next book even though I haven’t finished This Book. So it goes. Here it is. The start.

What I’ll talk about when I talk about teaching.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
This entry was posted in All The Things. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What We Talk About When We Talk About Teaching

  1. Reading this post reminds me much of what I had seen Rebecca Schuman write on Twitter. I know one thing. You are NOT alone. Keep on writing no matter what you do.

    Like

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