The Interview

One of my freshman writing students at L.U. asked me to answer interview questions for a project he’s working on in another class. Here’s how that went:

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Hi Mrs. Chili,

I was hoping you would be able to answer a few questions for a project I’m working on. I don’t need a huge response for each question just a sentence or two would be very helpful. Thank you so much!

1. What are the minimum requirements and/or degrees for your position; what degrees do you have and what schools did you attend to earn your degrees?

Scott, I’m assuming that we’re talking about my position with the University, yes? If so, the minimum requirement for this job, as far as I’m aware, is a Master’s degree in the subject area. I have both a BA and an MAT in English teaching (dual major in English and Education) from Local U.

2. What types of things are involved in a “typical” work-week for you – especially address what you do beyond what students see in the classroom.

I plan and teach two classes a week (well, four, since I teach at another college, as well). I research, evaluate, and retrieve information – including worksheets, handouts, and readings – for students. I choose materials (chapter readings, movies, other supplementary items) that will complement the students’ learning. I evaluate student work and offer feedback. I attend workshops, staff meetings and professional development seminars, and I reflect on my teaching practice by engaging in self-evaluation and journaling.

3. What do you most like about being a professor/instructor on a college campus, and what you do like the least? What’s one thing you like to do outside of your work?

I love working with students; they’re the reason I do this work.

I’m an energetic, enthusiastic advocate of curiosity and learning, and I love seeing even a little of that rub off on the kids I work with.

I’m passionate about my discipline and think that the skills I teach – thinking, speaking, and writing – are desperately important, not only so that students can engage in active and productive citizenship, but also so that they can be rich participants in their own lives.

I DISLIKE only seeing my students for about four hours a week for 12-15 weeks. I miss working in a high school where I was able to see students every day – even if I didn’t have them in class – and I dislike not having the time and space to build meaningful relationships with them.

I miss seeing students grow; the kinds of advancement I see in 15 weeks is very different from the kind I can – and did – see over the course of a school year.

I also dislike feeling professionally isolated; while I’m technically a member of the faculty here at Local U. (and at the other colleges at which I teach), I’m don’t feel as though I’m a part of the culture; I don’t really know any of my colleagues (that’s less true here at LU because I’ve been a part of the school for so long and know a number of the faculty from when I was a student), but time and other constraints keep me from being an active participant in the faculty.

I dislike the job insecurity; I don’t know, from one semester to another, whether there will be work for me going forward.
I dislike the pay.

Outside of work, I spend time with my family – I have a husband and two teenaged daughters (and four new cats!!). I love to go to movies and out to eat. I am politically active and spend a fair bit of time advocating for causes that are important to me – and trying to educate others about them, as well. Unfortunately, being an adjunct means that I have multiple jobs – at the moment, I have five – so I’m currently working 6 days a week and trying to make sure that I meet all of my commitments in a way that satisfies my standards, so I don’t have a whole lot of time for a lot of leisure activities…

4. What is the biggest obstacle/barrier you witness that gets in the way of student college success?

Honestly? Crappy public schools and a culture of “meh.” Somewhere along the line, we kill young people’s curiosity and drive. What frustrates me most is that we know – because we STUDY this stuff – how to do education in a way that’s energetic and interesting, but we refuse to do it; we insist on doing things the way we’ve always done them. That means that we force kids to sit quietly at desks. That means that we put too much value on the end result and not on the process. That means that we stigmatize mistakes and only value the “right” answer (whatever that happens to be at the moment). That means that we don’t teach values anymore – citizenship, work ethic, honesty and integrity – because we’re afraid of offending parents. That means that we undervalue teachers, make them afraid to lose their jobs, and turn them into test-givers rather than letting them be adults who are important and meaningful in young people’s lives. That means we end up with young adults who can’t write complete sentences, who have no idea how to study, and who have been taught that learning is a chore that should be avoided if possible. We’re doing school WRONG, and by the time a student gets to college, he or she has never been asked to be thoughtful, has never learned to take risks, and is afraid to admit that they don’t know something (you saw this in our class, even…). What’s worse, we end up with students who don’t really mind not knowing stuff….

You said you didn’t want really long answers, but I could go on about this for a very, very long time…

5. What do you think are the top three characteristics of a “SUCCESSFUL COLLEGE STUDENT” – in general, not just specifically as it relates to your class?

CURIOSITY! Relentless, energetic curiosity. GAH! If we had that, half the battle would be won.

Drive. I can be the most enthusiastic, engaged, passionate teacher ever (and I try to be!), but it’s all just an amusing two hours if the student doesn’t give a shit about their own education. The adage that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink is kind of the teachers’ motto; if you don’t care about what I’m teaching, you’re not going to learn and, contrary to what a lot of people might think, it’s not MY JOB to get YOU to care; it’s my job to do everything I can to get you everything you need to do well and be successful, but I can’t MAKE anyone care about anything.

Work ethic. Anyone can bullshit their way through college, really. Someone who has my top two characteristics, though, is probably going to WANT to do well, and so is going to do the things that they’re asked to do with at least some attempt at professionalism. That means doing the work – REALLY doing the reading, learning the conventions of communication in different rhetorical situations, and not just settling for “good enough.” I would extend that to include going above and beyond – seeking out other materials or experiences to augment their own learning – but at this point, I’d settle for students at least TRYING to make an attempt to be better than they are.

I hope that helps you. Let me know if you need me to clarify anything.

Warmly,

Mrs. Chili

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I got this as a thank you note in response:

Wow! That was great!  I really enjoyed hearing about your thoughts from the other side of the classroom.

In the project I’m doing we are taking a professor’s response to the questions and explaining how we may approach college differently now with some more advice.  I think what you said about people’s ability to be fine with not knowing something is a huge problem with people today, myself included.  It’s embarrassing when you don’t know something and you don’t want the stigma of being stupid.  I’m really going to try and figure out those times when I have that mindset and trying to look at it in a different way that might spark more of an interest.

You do a fantastic job trying to connect with your students.  I really enjoy your class and I’m sure many others do as well.

Thanks again :)

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This couldn’t have come at a better time.  I’m feeling really disheartened in my professional life, and I needed to hear that I’m not just spinning my proverbial wheels.

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Quick Hit; We Have a Hostage Situation

The other day, my brother Marc posted this to my facebook wall:

funny-professor-paper-FacebookDamn; that came out small.  Here’s what it says:

‘I don’t understand why my grade was so low. How did I do on my research paper?’

‘Actually, you didn’t turn in a research paper. You submitted a large, awkward, random assemblage of sentences. If fact, the sentences you apparently kidnapped in the dead of night and forced into this violent and arbitrary plan of yours dearly seemed to be placed on the pages against their will. Reading your paper was like watching unfamiliar, uncomfortable people interact at a cocktail party that no one wanted to attend in the first place. You didn’t submit a research paper. You submitted a hostage situation.”

I got a hostage situation in my stack of essays from Not-So-Local Community College.  Observe:

“Two people and two different times but both can be compared to one another in American history; Martin Luther King, Jr. a civil rights activist and the President of the United States Barack Obama. Racism is found thought Americas history and until recently there was a big gap between our just and in-just laws. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and President Obama’s speech on Reverent Wright both have many similarities as well as many differences. President Obama speaks out on accusations of an extremist for the modern day civil rights movement which accuses him to be a follower. Though Obama said he had personal connection to him he disproves his belief in his views.”

That’s as far as I got. I didn’t even grade it; the author and I will have a conference tomorrow to see if we can get to the bottom of this.

Oy.

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Quick Hit: Do As I Say…

So, I got this in an email this morning from one of my jobs:

Please accept this invitation to attend our ALL STAFF MEETTING on Sunday, October 5th, 2014, at 7pm.  We will be closing the building an hour early, and will be meeting in the basketball gym.  We have a lot of fun and informative information planned.

This came from the office of the executive director.  I have no idea whether the executive director himself wrote the thing or not, but it bears his name, so he’s got at least some responsibility for it.

I’ve been engaged in some really interesting discussions lately about the ways in which people communicate.  The start of the school year brings renewed frustrations from my teacher friends (and, not for nothing, from me, too) about how students seem to think that as long as THEY understand what they’re trying to say, the responsibility for understanding it is the audience’s.  My brother, who teaches high school science (and will tell you that he spends a lot of time – too much time – teaching writing, as well), is bumping up hard against this; kids expect the reader/listener to figure out what the writer/speaker means, and they get belligerent when their ambiguity – or incomprehensibility – is pointed out to them.

Here’s the thing, though; how much right do we have to hold our students to high standards of written and verbal communication when, as evidenced by the brilliant piece of writing showcased above, we can’t even expect it from people who call themselves “executive directors”?  “MEETTINGS”?!  “Informative information”?!  REALLY?!

I have half a mind to send this back to Mr. Executive Director with corrections, but I think I’ll just skip the “meetting” instead; I’m sure someone will let me know what the informative information is.

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WHY Are You Here?

*Background; this semester, I’m teaching composition classes at Local U. and Not-Local Community College.  I’m also teaching a teacher intern seminar and fitness classes at two different places, so I’m effectively working five part-time jobs.  I’m so frazzled, I often have no idea how I make it to the end of the week.  That being said, I’m more than a little surprised by how well things are going in general, and I’m not sure what to make of that…**

So, this happened;

The other day, instead of reflecting on a quote, I had my Local U. composition students write me a brief note about how the writing of their first paper is going.  I asked them a bunch of questions to spark their thinking, ending with “is there anything specific – a grammar question or an issue with organization or comprehension of the source materials – that you’d like me to go over with you?”  That was the question upon which I based our post-writing discussion.

With the exception of a couple of kids who just finished an associate’s program within the University, every single one of my students in that class is a fresh-out-of-high-school freshman; that’s important to know.  The very first kid to volunteer to speak asked about MLA formatting and how much of it they were supposed to do for this paper.

None of it,” was my answer, and 22 pairs of eyebrows shot toward the ceiling.

“Look,” I said, “you’re working with two sources; MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and President Obama’s A More Perfect Union speech.  As long as you identify them in your introduction and are clear about which source you’re quoting from in your body paragraphs, you’re fine.  MLA citations in this rhetorical situation would be unnecessary and distracting.”

It was at this point that another girl chimed in with, “can I just say that you’re NOTHING like what my high school English teachers said you’d be like?”

If the preponderance of nodding heads is any indication, her answer to my query about what she was expecting was affirmed by nearly everyone in the class; they were pretty much universally told that they would have to hit the ground running with a full and competent knowledge of citation, structure and process, and academic vocabulary, and that anything less than skillful and consistent display of these qualities would have them shamed and ostracized in their classes.  From the sounds of it, fully half – maybe more – expected to fail out of college within the first few weeks.

It was at this point that I stopped them – literally held up my hands in the “whoa, Nellie!” position – and asked them what, exactly, they were doing here.  “WHY are you here, You Guys?  What is the POINT of your being in this class?”

Genius boy in the corner pipes up with a hesitant “to learn stuff?” (reminding me that I should probably show them Taylor Mali’s “Like, Um, You Know?” poem).

“YES!” I bellowed, making a couple of them literally jump in their seats.  “If the POINT of your being here is to LEARN STUFF, then why the HELL would I expect you to KNOW any of it ALREADY?!  What would be the POINT of this class if you already KNEW everything I came here to TEACH you?!  Can you IMAGINE how BORING that class would be?  Seriously; I’d want to gouge my own eyeballs out by the third class!  GAH!”

One of the things I’ve observed in my teaching practice over the last year or two has been the fact that students would rather sit in silence, confused – and frustrated by their confusion – than speak up and admit they don’t know something.  I can’t tell you how many times I read an article aloud to my classes and stopped after a particularly challenging concept or a $5 vocabulary word to check comprehension, only to have them assure me that they “get it” but not be able to explain it to me when I asked them to prove it.  At some point, the system the way we practice it beat out of these students the kind of curiosity that encourages questions.  It discouraged them from admitting that they don’t know something, which is devastatingly ironic given that the one place we should ALWAYS be able to admit we don’t know something is in a goddamned CLASSROOM.

So, now I’m on a mission.  I am crusading to get kids to start ‘fessing up when they don’t understand something, to ask for help if they need it, and to not let teachers get away with assuming that someone ELSE taught them what they need to know to do well in class.  I’m done with that shit.  I am a teacher; my job is to help people learn, not assume that they should already know everything.

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Quick Hit: Bumper Sticker

On my way home from lunch with my husband this afternoon, I was behind a car with a bumper sticker that said, “The voices are getting louder… it must be time to write.”

I liked it so much, I made this:

 

 

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I’m trying to write more than I’ve been for the past few months.  I think that part of my dis-ease lately is due to the fact that I have a lot to say, but feel that I’ve got no outlet.

 

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The Start of Another September…

… and I’m still not in a classroom, BUT I may have found an acceptable alternative.  In addition to teaching a couple of sections of composition in two different colleges, I’ve been hired by Local U. to supervise a group of teaching interns.

I’m excited about this job for a number of reasons.  First, I remember how important my own intern supervisor was to my internship experience (If you haven’t been with me long enough to recall what a wild ride that was, let’s just suffice to say that the first half of the year was a shit show that would have likely pitched me out of teaching altogether were it not for the calm competence of Sam and his encouragement that I find another placement for the January semester).  I’m looking forward to being that kind of support for my own students, though I dearly hope that none of them has to experience anything even close to what I did.

I’m also eager to work with classroom teachers.  A large part of my responsibility to my interns is to observe them in their classrooms and to work closely with their cooperating teachers to offer them encouragement and guidance.  I’m expecting that just being in the classrooms (the high school’s more than than the middle school’s, but still) will be a balm to my still-singed teacher soul.   School only began this week, though, so I want to give the interns and their teachers some time to get to know each other and settle in to something of a routine before I invade their spaces.

Finally, I’m excited to work with the interns themselves.  We had our first meeting yesterday, and I can already tell that we’re going to have a great class; the students are eager, but not starry-eyed, which tells me that they’re likely going to be able to navigate the first few tumultuous weeks with some aplomb.  I’ve got 5 students spanning 3 disciplines (English/language arts, Social Studies, and Art) – 2 in the high school, three in the middle school – which is going to make for a range of experiences and practices that will keep us in discussion fodder for the whole year.

I’ve encouraged the interns to keep journals of their experiences (much like I did during my own internship and, later, while I was teaching in a classroom).  I’ve been neglecting this space of late; I’m planning to change that as I do the homework I assign my students.  Look for more entries here in the coming weeks and months.

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Quick Hit : Haiku

Some of these are really, really good.  My favorite is

A crying student
Empty counselor’s office
Who will help him now?

—Heather Marcus

 

I was thinking about this on my way home from work this morning, and I came up with this

 

All my students know

their voices are important.

“Respect yourself first.”

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