Composition & Rhetoric: A List.

1.  Pre-semester, we lesson plan.  We outline course policies, syllabuses, calendars.  This involves figuring out what readings we’re going to use, when we’re going to assign them, what assignments we’re going to pair them with.  Forget about approaching this linearly.  This is holistic creation or bust.

2.  I believe in transparency.  Triangulation.  Collaboration.  Anything that strikes the beat of idealistic manifesto.

3.  I spend most of the year brainstorming assignments in the back of my mind.  Make notes.  Fill thin unlined Muji notebooks cover to cover with diagrams, handwritten handouts, assignments & caveats.  I avoid using the questions in the textbook if I’m required to use one.  By August I start by picking my readings.  Sometimes this involves reading the whole textbook.  Often it involves re-reading several stories, trying to compile them in five coherent units.  Then, question time.  Should I theme each unit around the theme of the essays or stories?  Or should I theme each around a particular rhetorical skill?  What rhetorical skills do I want to focus on?  What rhetorical skills are modeled by the readings?  I try to find answers.  I organize essays into units by rhetorical skill, literature by theme.   I organize units so that skills build on one another and culminate in a project that encompasses them all.

4.  You know what a class calendar looks like.  They look easy.  They aren’t.

5.  Calendars consist of readings, activities for the day, assignments due that day.  Once I’ve organized my readings, I invent or reimagine assignments that work with the readings.  These are reflections.  Distillations.  Reader responses.  Creative assignments.  Close-readings.  Mock arguments.  Anything students can potentially use in their papers.  Anything to familiarize them with this kind of legwork.  Because if they get to drafting without knowing it, boy are you screwed.

6.  There are three drafts in an essay progression.  Turn-around for comments is about a week between each.  This means that once you receive the first set of drafts, you’ll be grading every week until the semester ends.  Plan accordingly.

7.  Protip #1: Weekends are safe.  Under no circumstances should you allow drafts to fall in the middle of the week.  You will kill yourself.  I should know.

8.  Have all materials to the department before the deadline.  Me, I’m lucky if I submit it the day it’s due.  Then again, I enjoy killing myself, if my procrastination track record is any indication.

9.  During the semester, we teach, revise, and improvise.  Lesson plans are more like guidelines.  Sometimes we should stick to them.  Sometimes, in the face of a class that’s dead or unprepared, we have to deviate.  This has screwed me on faculty review before.  Now I arm myself with a notebook full of back-up exercises, random topics, free-writes, creative topics.  I talk about cyberculture, weird fetishes on the Internet, pro-anorexia, fanfiction and fan culture, 4chan, Twitter, Facebook, Something Awful goons.  I talk about television.  Cartoons.  Video games.

10. Protip #2: Stay abreast of current pop culture.  It will save you when nothing else can.

11. Protip #3: Cannibalism and the apocalypse, as a rule, will always supply an impetus to write.

12. I just realized I didn’t actually look at a single lesson plan all semester, even though I spent weeks outlining in August.  Instead, I rewrote them all the night before class, solidifying my discussion questions regarding the readings, trying to anticipate stumbling blocks.  Students aren’t as predictable as we’d like them to be.

13. Cases in point: students who vehemently believe that soldiers should blindly obey orders, even so far as killing civilians; students who call Islam “monstrous”; students who think the word “fag” is okay, who think that poor, predominantly black/Hispanic urban communities have “brought it on themselves,” who think that women who walk alone at night are “asking for it,” who don’t notice the frigid silence in the room when they announce these beliefs.

14. In class we are performers.  We have to control our facial expressions to a tee.  That means modulating your voice when you say, “That’s really interesting” without really meaning it.  It means always having something positive to say to encourage discussion and make the environment safe.  It means laying down the law when bullying happens.  It means being okay with abandoning a lesson plan to try to ensure your students can think intelligently about issues from racism to sexism to sexuality to genocide.  These are the things they will take from your class, even if they leave without knowing how to write.

15. Protip #4: You can only reach so many of them, i.e., you can’t save them all.

16. Students are humans too.  They’re young.  You can gripe and moan about their behavior but remember, they haven’t been to college yet, and it’s our job to introduce them to college writing.  You can’t expect them to know anything beyond the 5-paragraph model.  They don’t know lenses, or how to unpack terms.  They’re babies.  We keep getting older, but year after year, they stay the same age.

17. If you can’t model an assignment for them impromptu, it isn’t fair to ask them to do it.

18. We are observed.  Usually once a semester.  Sometimes twice.  It doesn’t matter how many times observers say, “Just do what you planned to do”; the class session inevitably devolves into a dog and pony show.  Your future at the institution depends on this class.  You should be experimental, but not too experimental; ask the right questions; don’t be too leading; foster discussion even if students are bored/tired/unprepared/disengaged.  Anything can screw you.  I’ve heard horror stories of observers who fell asleep in the session they were observing.  If the students like you, they’ll perform well.  If not…well.  Try extra, extra hard.

19. The game is rigged anyway.  The whole point is criticism.  You will never do perfectly, however well you do, however much they like you.  It’s subjective.  They are allowed to say what they would have liked to see, even if it has no bearing on the lesson at hand or took place earlier in the week.

20. Student evaluations are awesome.  If your students like you.

21. We grade.  We grade, grade, grade, grade, grade.  Reading for pleasure?  Try staring at comma splices and fragments and unnecessary quotation marks for days on end.  I promise you, you’ll be crying blood by the time you’re done.

22. There is a silver lining: some students try.  Some improve.  Some end up having visibly mastered writing.

23. Faculty commitments: meetings, grade norming sessions, the occasional party.  Since the economy dropped, you can say goodbye to the free food.  Prepare to be hungry.

24. Furlough days have increased.  This means you work a few hours for free.  At approximately $75/hr on salary, and few contact hours a week, this ends up being a lot.

25. Before you think we’re lucky to make that much, consider the fact that we a) have roughly 6 contact hours a week, b) office hours and meetings are unpaid, c) grading and commenting on a set of essays takes a full 24 hours, unpaid, d) we have grading and commenting in addition to essays.  Suddenly it doesn’t seem fair, does it?

26. Post-semester, we grade.  Final papers.  Final portfolios.  We drink a lot.  Snatch a day to see people we haven’t seen all year.  Buckle down and read, comment, evaluate, assign and submit grades.  We deal with students who contest the grades.  We keep careful notes about participation.  We use rubrics for ourselves, even if we don’t use them in class.  We cover our asses.  We sleep for days after classes end.  We wake up.  We prep for our summer jobs—adjuncting for crash courses, usually—and come full-circle, back to pre-semester, when we lesson plan, outline course policies, syllabuses, calendars, figure out what to read, what to do, what to do with our lives.

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