Vanishing blogger re-appears

I am alive! I’m just… well, I’ve been sick, and teaching, and my *boss* has been sick, and all in all there’s not been much blogging-time available to me. And what I do have I’ve been devoting to more creative pursuits, like learning to bake bread. But I learned a thing this semester. I learned a lot of important things this semester, including “the fact that E. Joe Johnson’s Once there were two true friends exists and has done half my work for me”. But this is a teaching-related thing.

I learned just how generous, tolerant and supportive students can be. I don’t know why this was a surprise to me – after all, *I* used to email my favourite teachers with little cheerful notes and LOLcats, and still do. But it’s a novel experience being on the other end of that dynamic.

What happened was, I got sick. Not critically but consistently. And the medication I was given made me a very special sort of person for a week or so. I’m normally an extrovert, but my attention span went out the window and I bounced off the walls a lot (the payoff for that was that I kept having to take naps in the afternoons. Thankfully there are couches in the postgrad labs). Now, conveniently, what I talk about when hyperactive (or drunk, or half asleep, or… almost any state of mind, really) is medieval literature, so with the aid of a pre-prepared list I figured I could teach class, and I did. It was a very strange class and my students had to keep reminding me what I’d just said, but we got through the discussion portions with a good dose of humour. I still had to mark tutorial presentations, and dealt with that by asking those specific students for transcripts.

I told my classes I was sick, and more or less what the side effects were doing to me. I thought long and hard about that – about balancing my privacy (it’s none of their business why I’m sick, or what with) against things they had a right to know because it affected their classroom experience. I thought about “asking them to make changes in their assessments to ensure parity” versus “jeopardising my standing as a Figure of Authoritative Marking Wisdom”.

In the end it came down to a) they *needed* to know in order to sort out some sort of parity in the marking and b) if I want them to tell me about things which affect their learning and behavior in class, then it really ought to be a two-way street.

And it seems to have paid off. We sorted out a way around the tutorial papers, we all had a good laugh about how scatty I was (I’m starting from a high standard of scatty, so this was impressive), and I was really touched by the warmth and concern my students extended toward me. So far as I can tell, it’s had no impact on their respect for my academic judgment. I had a pretty awful week, and the only people I saw outside of my household were my students, and the fact that they were so damn nice to me is something I’ll appreciate for a long time.

One bonus upside is that there did seem to be an immediate shift in the way students who’d presented me their disability accommodation details interacted with me – nothing drastic, but it seems like after I had been reasonably open with them, those students were a bit more comfortable talking to me both formally and informally. That wasn’t something I’d planned on, but it’s definitely a valuable bonus.

I’ve made a number of risky teaching decisions this year – mostly to do with just how open and personal I am in front of a class. I think most of them have paid off or at least not gone utterly pear-shaped. This was perhaps one of the most risky – certainly one that many people including my doctor would advise against. But I’m glad I made it, and my students here are fantastic.

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7 Responses to “Vanishing blogger re-appears”

  1. Annelise Says:

    It’s fascinating how you noticed a shift in the way people were able to share with you… I’ve found this to be true in so many contexts. I feel that like simply by being real, you give permission for other people to do the same. In close friendships, in positions where you’re teaching or leading other, in setting the culture of groups- all with a careful eye on privacy and appropriateness, but still. It’s refreshing. Our culture really craves for this, I think.

    I don’t think it’s so much about tolerance, or even simple generosity. Everyone goes through things, and they don’t have to be strange or defining. It has a lot to do with valuing personalness, really enjoying what it is to experience life through other peoples’ experiences- struggles, viewpoints and values- and caring about more than the surface of what life is like for people.

    Having done one teaching prac last year in a high school, I definitely felt this issue. You get so involved in kids’ lives and start to really care about them, but you have to keep a safe level of authority as well. I think you can be real even in contexts where you can’t be vulnerable. It’s possible to be professional as a teacher and safe as a friend, and yet have much more than a superficial involvement in everyone’s lives. Tricky balance, but a really good one to be thinking about.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I think you can be real even in contexts where you can’t be vulnerable.

      *tilts head* Teaching is possibly one of the most vulnerable things I’ve ever done. It is, in many ways, far, far worse than, say, writing a thesis, which is a pretty draining experience (handing my BABY over for someone to CRITIQUE!). I guess we have been learning since high school to separate ‘me’ from ‘my writing’ – my writing is still personal, but it’s concrete and outside of me and open to being torn apart by anyone who comes across it. Teaching is both me and not-me: a sort of… selective identity? Some people find they’re more restrained in a classroom, or adopt a completely different persona: I seem to become an exaggerated version of myself, and I have to fight hard against myself in order to leave some aspects of myself *out* of that picture, for my own health and well-being.

      Teaching is also odd in that I have few qualms about having one-on-one relationships with younger peers, academic friendships, whatever you call it: it’s the one-on-sixteen relationship with the class as a whole which confuses me. It’s not really like having sixteen friends in a room: it’s like having one sixteen-headed friend who argues with themself a lot. Very odd.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        it’s like having one sixteen-headed friend who argues with themself a lot

        I think that’s the Python again, isn’t it? But at least they’re arguing!

        More seriously, yes, I recognise the need to keep some of oneself back; I find the same thing in all academic interactions, which annoys me hugely: surely these people should have minds open to anything, no? No. But students can actually be friends – as long as you realise that this opens you up to being asked for things. Somewhere in there, though, it’s important to remember that you are only being paid for so much, and what you give for free on top of that needs to be little enough that you have some of yourself left for other things.

        I will be absolutely delighted to see you in England, as I hope I will, and if there’s any help I can be with libraries, places to stay, advice or plans, well, you know how to reach me. A continuing and accelerated recovery to you!

      • Annelise Says:

        Wow, very surreal image 🙂

        I think you’re right. What I meant by ‘vulnerable’ is probably shaped by the things we were constantly reminded of in teaching craft classes. It’s different at uni, because everyone’s older, some even older than you- and you know people from different contexts, as how I knew you a little through OERG, reading this blog even before that etc., before actually having you as a tutor. But high school has quite a different dynamic. It’s just as much about keeping boundaries that let the kids feel relationally safe, and equally treated, as it is about your own privacy. That experience still informs my thinking.

        With tertiary teaching though, there’s still at least some element of that. There are only so many people you can know beyond just acquaintance! There’s a point where you’d love your capacity to be greater, but it’s limited. I imagine you also need the kind of authority that allows marking decisions to remain separate from the rest of your friendships with students at a lower academic level.

        I get what you mean about letting your writing be an expression of yourself, and yet not something that actually holds all of who you are. And with teaching it’s definitely different! Much more vulnerable, to use the word that way, and a weird identity to fill. But I like that you fall naturally not to performance but to transparency. Even if you centre your classroom on content rather than your teaching style, you do simple have to be selective… But you can be real. Finding a swing of things where there’s integrity between the contexts you exist in, even if you have to be appropriate to different roles, is far better (more engaging!) than simply compartmentalising.

        It also leaves you free to express the things that make you love the content in the first place, which lets students discuss with matched enthusiasm… And makes teaching more fun as well.

  2. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I have similarly found that acknowledging fallibility doesn’t wreck one’s authority as long as one has the Nollidge to back up what one says otherwise. But I’m sorry you’re not well, and wish for as speedy a recovery as this state will permit you.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I’m gettin’ better. And am definitely going to be in England this winter/summer/whateverseasonitis 🙂

  3. A post in praise of PowerPoint « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] for twenty minutes. I don’t know about the universe at large, but I tell you what I noticed when I got sick last semester. The week that I was a total space cadet, swinging between hyperactive and […]


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