The effects of airplane turbulence aside, I’m feeling more like myself and realizing how much I’ve been meaning to write about. The surreal nature of being classified in the ER. The progressively decreased emphasis on quality of work in favor of quantity of interpersonal drama on Inkmaster. Something about Crossed‘s Cindy or Crossed: Family Values‘ Adaline and/or her Mom for a CFP. And, for months now, my recent experience teaching first-year writing in Columbia’s summer bridge program for the second time, as it has kept me afloat through a rocky semester of teaching in which I had to power through the pain and fog of recovery in order to make money to survive, and simultaneously ignore the nagging feeling that, maybe, I shouldn’t have had to.
Mark Strand once wrote: “We all have reasons for moving./I move to keep things whole.”
As I faced the pale shadow of myself, floundering in my work load and trying to find my way back to the teacher I knew I used to be, the memory of ASP 2014 sustained me. As professors we talk warmly about students “getting it,” and I knew, whatever my pedagogical lapses as I recovered, I had helped those students “get it” and, as dark as my map had become, that was a place my teaching could return to.
I hold myself to impossible standards. I’d say sometimes except people who know me would scoff, “Have you looked at your work ethic recently?” It’s impossible for me to turn off. In some ways, emergency surgery forced me to turn off. Teaching in survival mode was an exercise in minimalism. Having physically been absent for the first few weeks of class, I hadn’t set the tone properly in any of my three classes (and we all know how important those first few weeks can be). For me, the reward of teaching is working with students in discussion, in office hours, in tailored comments on their assignments, but the stripped-down version of my teaching didn’t permit that. I never got to know the students as much as I would have liked—a few on Twitter via hybrid lessons, one or two via email or office hours, but I had little sense of them and, I suspect, they had little sense of me.
In the end, one out of three classes felt like a success, and it was because I was able to approach it the way I approached ASP. Somehow, and I’m not sure how, I belatedly set up my usual discussion atmosphere and ended up with a class (albeit a small one) in which everyone save one nonnative English speaker participated. I brought in my usual performance art demonstrations, such as an anti-surveillance class in which I wore CV dazzle and had my students paint each other’s faces to confuse facial recognition software. The students were amused and inquisitive and it made for a good starting point for discussion. As an experiment, I wore the CV dazzle to my next class, and those students had nothing to say. I suspect that’s because I hadn’t been able to set up the same atmosphere; it felt less intimate as we didn’t know each other as well; but from behind the lectern it read like disinterest, a lack of engagement, or worse yet, boredom with the course material—all the things I ordinarily strive to overcome in my teaching. In that class, I had students respond to me condescendingly, or even critically, as though their aim was to avoid challenging their own logic in difficult discussions. Given that my pedagogy seeks to teach through unsettling and disruption, it was easy to take it to heart.
So, I frequently thought back to ASP 2014, every time I doubted that students’ takeaway had anything to do with me, that maybe it was the course material blowing their minds and not my presentation of it, I was superfluous, swap me out with any other teacher and you’d have the same result. But I recently did a couple of tutoring sessions with the program and was forcefully reminded that I was being too hard on myself, and that I was a good teacher, or at least the kind of teacher who makes a lasting mark and leaves students with food for thought for years to come.
My ASP 2014 course was University Writing, themed around tricksterism, ethical spectacle, and social change. I conducted classes like a seminar, divided between a theoretical/conceptual component (discussion of the day’s readings) and a practical component (in-class writing). I relied on my usual modus operandi: like a shark, I never stopped moving; I projected the class’ Twitter backchannel behind me; I guided discussion instead of leading it; I entertained all questions; when asked, I was open about my own views. I wrote difficult paragraphs on the chalkboard (sentences from Freud’s “Mystic Writing Pad,” or from Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy”) and became “living chalk” while they tried to translate and unpack what those sentences really meant, ordering me around as they wrote and rewrote their paraphrasing. I screened music videos to jumpstart discussions of gender, race, class, and (hyper)mediation. I walked around the room while they worked on their writing and did the one-on-one work that I love. They used public expressions like graffiti, post-it notes, posters, and so on to create dialogue around political issues–Gaza, at the time, or rape on college campuses (which resulted in my having to talk to administration about Title IX concerns). Unbeknownst to me, I had my own hashtag.
While not all the students “got it” the same way—some leaving without as complete a grasp of argumentation as I’d hoped for, or doing graffiti for the sake of graffiti instead of linking it back to tricksterism—most of them did, and did it “right,” drawing their own connections between the course themes and concepts, course activities, and real-world events. These students have remained politically active and have gone on to organize and participate in die-ins and protests in solidarity with Ferguson; they’ve spoken out about college policies regarding campus rape; they took the human rights-themed University Writing courses at Columbia; and when I saw them recently they told me how much my little summer bridge class had changed their ability to think, and their views of writing—what writing is, what writing can do for them, and how to write an argument well.
Maybe this is the point of this post, to confess what is obvious to me and weird to everyone else I say it to: I love teaching first-year writing. Media studies, so far, isn’t doing it for me in the same way (though admittedly I spent most of the semester trying to find my feet after a health crisis). So during this past semester, the hardest of my life so far, during which I taught nothing but media studies, I relied a lot on what those students said to me and what their work proved to me. They’re no longer my students but they still participate in my classes, in which they aren’t enrolled, responding or retweeting or favoriting on Twitter; they came to my tutoring sessions just to have someone to critically think with about race, copyright, mediation, social control, the state of the world.
I’m mentally preparing myself to design my courses for the spring semester. I still feel as though, at times, I’m only moving to keep things whole. But I’m so glad I had the ASP 2014 experience before I almost died, and as I keep moving, I look forward to a complete exit from survival mode and a return to my usual teaching style, and the usual joys it brings me.