the syllabus i can’t give you.

Inspired by Sonya Huber’s (2014) Shadow Syllabus, written as a free-writing exercise for myself, with an eye to adapting it for use in my writing courses.

This is your map for getting an A. You’re the driver, and I call shotgun, making me your navigator. I’ll tell you exactly how to get to where you’re going, but over the lulling hum of your engine, you might have difficulty hearing me.

You are guaranteed to get lost.

When I was in college, I was always lost. When I reached grad school, I realized being lost is a luxury you will one day lose.

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sc&i honors day

After four years of teaching as a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information, as I prepare to transition into a new full-time job, the Journalism and Media Studies department surprised me with the 2018 Roger Hernandez Memorial Part-Time Faculty Award! Maybe even better than winning the award, though, was how I was introduced: with metaphors about corpse shrouds and eclectic, glowing student comments across all of my evaluations.

salting the earth with hypocrisy.

It’s the last week of classes, and my course announcements, as usual, have stacked up like this:

Hey class,
Due to travel hazards/laryngitis/an ongoing family emergency/my sick cat, I will be unable to attend class today. As such, I will record a lecture in advance of our meeting time and hang out in the chat room during class to field any questions you might have about the material. As always, you can email me directly with comments.
Best,
Prof. Mani

Also featured are stories of delays: #NJTransit and #PennStation have trended at least twice this month due to massive breakdowns, delays, and crowd control issues. After a NJTransit train derailed on Monday, April 3, damaging switches and rails, train delays and cancellations, platform crowding, and overflow trains infected the entire week, including the Tuesday and Thursday I commute to Rutgers for a 2:2 course load. At Penn Station, Amtrak, LIRR, and NJTransit were all affected. According to news reports and angry commuters on Twitter, the less crowded Penn Station’s platforms and trains looked like this:

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That’s hours of delays, jostling shoulder to shoulder on the platform, followed by a standing-room only commute for an hour on the Northeast Corridor.

Thousands of commuters were doing this, so I couldn’t say it wasn’t doable. But I didn’t do it. I cancelled my Rutgers classes that week, citing only my concerns that I wouldn’t arrive on time, and we wouldn’t be able to hold class anyway.

This was true, but it wasn’t the real reason.

Coincidentally, after I returned to campus I heard from a former student that I have a reputation for canceling, and I’ve been trying to dismiss my concerns about it because I’m not sure I get to be defensive. Like a good faculty member, I am dishonest with my students about my reasons, despite insisting they be honest with me about theirs. I lie because, as long as I can power through without dying mid-lecture, the truth sounds like an excuse. I’m in pain. I’m exhausted. I just can’t.

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in which I become the body in the classroom. literally.

In any city, in any country, in any university in which you have been enrolled, go into any classroom and silently say, I seek the Holder of the A. If when you open your eyes a professor stands at the lectern, then you have failed, class will proceed as normal, and your journey ends here. But if when you enter you are greeted by a prostrate woman, eyes-open and non-responsive, then quickly assemble in groups of five or else prepare for a horrific end. The mind is more fragile than you know, and there are worse things than death.

If you seek the Object clenched in the body’s hand, you must tell the corpse its own story: the myth of the Holder of the A.

Do not forget as you write, this is no myth. Do not touch the Holder or attempt to take the Object by force. If you do either, or if you fail to reinvent her in the allotted time, she will stay dead and you will be forever destined to fail no matter the task you undertake. Succeed, and the corpse will awaken, and offer you a crumpled, bloodstained note promising intellectual supremacy.

The note is Object 537 of 538. If you can attain it, success is yours.

If, like me, you lurked or participated on 4chan’s /b/ or /x/, you may be familiar with the generic conventions in the short prose piece above. It mimics the style of the Holders Series, a collection of creepypasta chronicling the tasks of reckless, curious individuals seeking to collect mystical objects that should never come together. In the vein of open-source fiction, the individual stories in the Holders series lack attribution and the mythos is collaboratively, transparently constructed based on communal negotiations concerning the generic conventions of horror and expectations for the story itself. The mythos is unstable, unfixed, and thus can be continually modified and augmented. As a case in point, while the first Holders story states there are 538 Objects, stories exist after #538, telling the story of Objects 539 of 538, 540 of 538, etc., and a sequel series, Legion’s Objects, was started to chronicle an additional 2000 Objects.

I wrote the piece quoted above as part of an experimental class on open-source fiction, fandom, and amateur production online. I did this exercise in a media studies course, but I think it would work equally well, or better, in a composition or creative writing classroom. More after the jump if you’re interested in replicating the exercise or just want to hear how it went.

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in which i reflect on fall 2014 and asp 2014.

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.

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first blood.

Wednesday was my first day with the rising 9th grade (the students who have just completed 8th grade) at the nonprofit organization where I teach full-time during summer academics. I have them for 2 hours Mondays and Wednesdays for essay writing. It’s their last class for the day. I have all 16 kids in one group, which presumably would be similar to last summer, where I had 2 classes of 15 kids each, though each class was 1½ hours instead of 2.

These kids are angry. They are hot. The air conditioning in the school is often broken or barely effective, and the past couple of days have peaked at 102 degrees. The last time I worked with this group, during ELA prep in afterschool program, DeVon threw a metal folding chair at me, or at least in my direction. I’m still not sure how it just barely clipped my shoulder, when I was too startled to really move all that much. I’d chaperoned this group on field trips before too, and witnessed Shaun shaking hands with the skeletons at the Bodies Exhibit. My first class with them was on a 101 degree day, for 3 hours, from 1:00 to 4:00. I know some of them by face but I haven’t earned their respect yet. They don’t know me as someone who will stick around, or someone who gives a damn. Mainly, all they’ve seen of me is that I can’t command their attention in the classroom and I can’t project my voice enough to drown them out.

So I wasn’t entirely surprised when, after I was left alone in the room with them, DeVon and Shaun, who are friends, started play-fighting.  

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“As I got to know my adjunct colleagues better, I began to see these largely invisible, voiceless laborers as a hugely diverse group of amazing teachers.  Some are employed at full-time jobs in education or elsewhere, some are retired or supported by wealthier others, but far too many are just barely surviving.  While instances of dumpster diving are rare, adjunct shopping is typically limited to thrift stores, and decades-old cars sometimes serve as improvised offices when these “roads scholars” are not driving from campus to campus, all in a frantic attempt to cobble together a livable income.  Some adjuncts rely on food stamps or selling blood to supplement their poverty-level wages, which have been declining in real terms for decades.”

Brown, “Confessions of a Tenured Professor”

I’d read “Confessions of a Tenured Professor” in Inside Higher Ed a while back, but it left me too incensed to coherently think—not because of Prof. Brown’s views on the situation (which I think is commendable, as there’s so little published on the subject in widely-viewed forums, let alone in such a nuanced manner)—but because the subject itself is one that fills me with rage and despair. Today my friend C. forwarded me this article in The Atlantic, which compounded my rage by asking the impossible-to-answer question: “Why Does Academia Treat Its Workforce So Badly?” After frothing at the mouth for a moment, I thought that maybe I should attempt to think about the issue beyond just “fuck this.” So here I go, take one, from the top.

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the glass isn’t bulletproof.

Last Wednesday, there was a shoot-out at our site. A few coworkers, kids, and I had entered the center. I was starting to help a 9th grader with her resume. The fan was whirring in my ear. Then came the popping sound. One of my coworkers dove down immediately, sprawling, followed by another, who grabbed and shielded a kid as he fell, taking the impact on his shoulder. I dropped next to a man whose name I didn’t know. We were shouting for the kids to get down as they kept spinning on their swivel chairs, checking their email, working on homework. I heard 5 shots; some people, who were still in the foyer when the shooting began, heard up to 8. We phoned parents and asked them to come pick up their kids. We asked them to bring ID. In retrospect I wonder if this might have been in case a gang member came to pick up someone in a mostly gang-affiliated family, since some of the kids spoke very loudly that day about having brothers who’d shot someone, or been shot, in gang shoot-outs before. I helped a usually bubbly 12th grader arrange a ride home with a friend’s parents. I overheard kids muttering, “Man, they buggin’, I gotta go home, I can go myself, this shit happens all the time here.” I helped a 9th grader print his homework. I lent my phone to a 10th grader I’d helped the previous day; after I’d edited his essay, he exclaimed, “Oh man, I’m so happy!” and hugged me. He lived in a decent neighborhood and had never heard gunshots before. He asked me if I was scared: a loaded question. Other kids were listening. I hedged, “No, but it will probably seem more real to me later.” He seemed to respect that. He told me he was scared. That he didn’t quite understand what had been happening, and that to keep his mind off the fact that we were in danger he’d kept doing his homework. Then there was a strange moment of disjuncture where we both looked at his computer screen, which was left on the YouTube video he’d been watching when the shots began: a gameplay demo of an unreleased Xbox shooter game.

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infra-ordinary analysis

Yesterday, I was working with 10th-12th grade at the Harlem Children’s Zone, attempting to get them to draft personal statements for college. It was a beautiful day, and the senioritis in the air was so contagious even 10th and 11th graders were susceptible. One girl woke up from a nap and shouted to a girl at the other end of the table, “Oh my GAW~wd, I had the WEI~rdest dream, I’m gonna write you about it.” She then proceeded to write a note to her friend, which an advocate confiscated, to her shrill complaint of “But MISTER, I wanna know what she think it meant, ain’t that like doing work?”

Huh.

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it isn’t possible to be anymore behind on life

Which is why, of course, I’m blogging right now, but in the meantime, check out this series of posts on abolishing grades in education.

While this applies more to secondary ed than higher ed, I’ve often (fruitlessly) toyed with the idea myself, as I believe in my heart of hearts that education is its own reward and that grades and grading rubrics, especially in Composition & Rhetoric, are subjective and often arbitrary.  For the sake of helping students improve, there would need to be some sort of general rubric in place so that they could self-assess and continue to grow, but the A-F system has troubled me for years.  Pass/Fail seems to be the only alternative in higher ed, but this system can also bite you in the ass when it comes time to apply for graduate school or other areas that require a GPA.  Joe Bower presents several compelling reasons to shift away from the traditional model of learning-for-grades in secondary ed, and I wonder how many of these could be modified to work in a college classroom, as initial feedback on drafts, in my classroom anyway, fits with this model to begin with.

Of course, to some extent this is a pipe dream: it’s not like you can abolish grades without the total consent of the department, dean, university, and so on, and God help you if you float this idea as an adjunct (goodbye, job; hello, unemployment).  But it’s interesting to consider as an experiment.  Perhaps something could be secretly implemented in college—especially if your department isn’t constantly on your ass—where the “mark on the report card” is the only concrete traditional grade, and learning occurs for the sake of learning up until a standard midterm and/or final grade.  

Someday, if/when I’m permanent faculty anywhere, I’m going to figure out how to implement labor-based grading.