Teaching Statement

Bottom line: people like to make their own mistakes.

Academics probably know what I mean by my title phrase, but I’ll explain it for others: at intervals (applying for jobs, for tenure, for promotion), we have to write about our approaches to, and beliefs about, teaching. For external audiences, it’s useful to hit some buzz-phrases: student-centered, meeting students where they are, scaffolding assignments, bringing research into the classroom. (I have no objection to any of these ideas; depending on what and where you teach, they are all some combination of reasonable/ desirable / necessary. As Jonathan said awhile back, clichés are idiomatic and easily understood, and when writing for administrators, you want to make sure that they know you know what the currently important ideas and techniques are.)

I like teaching. I’d even go so far as to say that it is a significant part of my identity. Or rather, being a professor is significant. I enjoy talking with students about literature, and providing them with techniques for analyzing literature, so that they learn how to see what a writer is doing besides just stringing words together, so that they learn that discussion and writing for literature classes isn’t just a lot of hand-wavy bullshit. As I am a decent literary critic, so also I am a decent critic of other teachers. I don’t mean that I offer everyone feedback, but that I note in my head what people are doing well or ill. Yesterday I was at a dance workshop with a teacher who was an excellent dancer but lousy at conveying in words what he wanted people to do. His main technique was demonstration. I could tell he thought in patterns and movement, but had trouble translating that to language. For me, he was not a good teacher, because that is not how I think.

I have no ambitions to be a dance teacher, or to give instruction in any field other than the one I’m paid for. Sometimes I consider, as a retirement job, teaching English as a foreign language, or tutoring children in math. Such jobs would use the skills I have developed over the course of my professional career, rather than requiring me to pick up new skills. They would give me a place to go, people to talk to, when I am no longer at LRU. But I don’t feel that I need to teach, or that I have any special knowledge or wisdom to pass on. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of people who could teach the topics I do, and many of them would no doubt do it better. I tend to think up-side down, to start at the deep end and work back to the first principles, and most students want to start at the simple end and only gradually complicate matters.

As my grandfather got older, he became more and more taciturn. He figured younger people didn’t want to hear an old man bore on about how things used to be. He did, in fact, have a lot of useful specialized knowledge, some of which he may have passed on to my brothers, about working with wood and metal, about growing food and fixing things. None of this came to me, a girl; if he had any expectations here, it would have been that my grandmother would teach me to sew, knit, tat, embroider. That didn’t happen either. What did get passed on is his taciturnity, his tendency to talk only when asked a question. I consider the classroom a question: when I’m there, I’ll lecture or direct discussion, as necessary. Otherwise, I don’t think I have anything special to convey to anyone. My life lessons are just that: mine, for me. Things change, the world moves on; what would have been good advice when I was 25 no longer applies to someone 30-some years younger than I am.

So this post seemed very foreign to me, though I can certainly understand the urge to Do All The Things (and look, I got a whole post of my own out of thinking about it). “I’ve been working for oh, 25-35 years . . . and I’ve accumulated some knowledge, maybe even a little wisdom, and there is SO MUCH that I want to teach . . .” It’s certainly useful to be able to break down processes and think how to do them efficiently, correctly, well. But this observation, from the same post, is more where I sit: “she’ll figure it out on her own, and with luck, won’t make the same mistakes I made. She can make new, different mistakes.”

Even if they are the same mistakes, they will be new to her. Mistakes are part of the learning process, and part of building a life. I may well have made some of the same mistakes made by my parents, and my grandparents too. But my reactions to them were mine, and my fixes were made in different circumstances, so it wouldn’t have done any good to have been warned.

To be totally consistent, I would now erase this post. Go do your own thing; there’s no point to reading my meanderings.

On August, time, and grace

It’s being one of those long, busy months. I still feel the stars hurtling through the heavens, the northern hemisphere slouching into a new season, but there’s less time to appreciate the passing of time now that classes have started again. My life is carved into lists, lists for each class, lists for research, lists for house, health, finances. Sleep, once again, is iffy, because I am over-stimulated. Not worried, there’s nothing to worry about, but change is coming down the pike, this year, next year, soon, and I feel unsettled.

August has been long in part because of two trips. I went to a most excellent conference, which stimulated in all the good ways; research is definitely exciting at the moment. Sir John accompanied me on a trip to my old stomping grounds, during which we had a very active social life. It was great to see people, but I wish we could have scattered all our events over a couple of months instead of cramming them into a week!

We went to a dinner that assembled several high-school friends and our spouses. We all married “out,” that is, to people who are from somewhere else, met when we were adults, who know only by hearsay of our long-ago parties, excursions, jokes, and catch-phrases. In such a mixed group, we can all be our adult selves, with minimal reminders of the teens we once were. Maybe my friends would be okay with the reminders, but I am much happier as an adult and prefer to think that I have moved far beyond my young self. Long ago, when I was slightly freaked out about turning 18 and thus being legally adult when I had little notion of how “to adult,” as the phrase now goes, the host of this dinner assured me, “Grown-ups have more fun.” I have found this to be true.

We also attended a memorial service for a friend’s father, a beloved and influential teacher. My friend told me that he had kept the poems I showed him when I was, what, 18? 20? I am not, now, a poet. I channeled my creative impulses into literary research, and as a scholar I am tolerably successful. (That is, employed!) I may have a better appreciation for poetry because I once wrote some; I don’t know. My friend’s father’s great gift was to see and respect young people, children and teens, as complete people, interesting in themselves, not for what they might become. If they were interested in basketball, poetry, or rap music, then he talked to them about basketball, poetry, and rap. He learned from them. They learned—we learned—something about how to be an adult who pays attention, who is kind, who takes people of any age seriously.

These are not lessons I learned from my parents.

I am still most extremely imperfect in putting those lessons into practice.

These two events, and others with them, have me thinking: who do I want to be, and how can I be that person? My lists and obligations do not sum me up; they are part of me—I’m sure my friend’s father made his own lists—but not all of me. I want to live with something of the attention, intention, and grace that he had, that he gave freely to everyone who passed through his life.

Happiness vs. familiarity

Familiarity breeds, as they say.

But seriously, that feeling of recognition and comfort is not necessarily a good thing. I had to head to the Internet Archive to get this post (via a link from someone’s half-decade-old blog post):

https://web.archive.org/web/20160712082102/http://thephilosophersmail.com/relationships/how-we-end-up-marrying-the-wrong-people/

but I’m glad I read it, not because I married the wrong person but because of all the things we worked through on the way to being the right people for each other, and another reason that will appear below. I’m going to quote the third reason why “we end up marrying the wrong people”:

“Three: We aren’t used to being happy

“We believe we seek happiness in love, but it’s not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity – which may well complicate any plans we might have for happiness.

“We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. It was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up may not have been straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come entwined with other, less pleasant dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating, in short: suffering.

“As adults, we may then reject certain healthy candidates whom we encounter, not because they are wrong, but precisely because they are too well-balanced (too mature, too understanding, too reliable), and this rightness feels unfamiliar and alien, almost oppressive. We head instead to candidates whom our unconscious is drawn to, not because they will please us, but because they will frustrate us in familiar ways.

“We marry the wrong people because the right ones feel wrong – undeserved; because we have no experience of health, because we don’t ultimately associate being loved with feeling satisfied.”

This familiarity is also a significant reason why we live in a house we want to sell. When I walked into it, it felt like home. Not too much so; if it had been more recognizably just like the house I grew up in, I would have run right back out. But enough like that original house to feel familiar and sort of right. I conveniently forgot what very conflicted feelings I have around the whole concept of home in general and about houses of that vintage and style in particular. It took time living here to realize how very heimlich, in a bad way (that is, frustrating in familiar ways), this house actually is. For me. It would be a wonderful house for someone else, with different baggage (or no baggage!). It’s true that I have found it rather therapeutic to correct this house’s problems and to re-make it in the image of a functional relationship rather than the heavily dysfunctional one my parents had. But it would have been a lot cheaper to resume talk therapy!

Next time, I’m going to look for what my adult self actually wants, and not listen to feelings about familiar.

Moving on

Long ago and far away, when I was an unhappy teenager, I belonged to a church youth group. It was a kinder, gentler place than school, probably in part because its members ranged from nearly-13 all the way to 18, and the older members were used to dealing with younger siblings but not concerned with whatever the ninth graders thought was the One Right Way. I think the group knew before I did that I would one day be an English professor. It was nice, because they didn’t mind that I was such an egghead; it was a characteristic like hair color or liking certain kinds of music. We had a grown-up leader, a fun and loving woman around whom everything coalesced. After she re-married and moved away, the church just could not find anyone who could take her place, and we disbanded.

Over the years, the original group has had several reunions. Occasionally, we managed to go camping for a weekend, as we had done on occasion during our salad days (woooot, away from parents for the weekend! Or, no, not woot; what would we have said then? “Neat”? “Excellent”? “Sweet”? I can’t even remember, that’s how old I am). Sometimes we just got together for an afternoon in a park that was local to more of us than not, or went to dinner. In recent years, our leader’s daughter has hosted birthday parties for her mom, who now lives in an in-law apartment with this daughter, and some selection of the group has managed to turn up for a few of those get-togethers.

I attended one last summer. Along with current friends, relatives, and neighbors, a couple of sisters from the youth group were there. Our leader, now in her early 80s, at first mistook me for her college roommate, before sorting out who I really was. She apologized for something that happened when I was 20, something I had forgotten about; I was in a bad place at the time but it had been decades since I’d thought of that misunderstanding. The sisters were pretty much as I remembered them: one cheerful, matter-of-fact, domestic; the other sophisticated, charming, faintly catty. At first I was delighted to see all three women again. But they don’t know me now, and that made it strange.

Back at home, in my adult life, Sir John and I went out with another couple: he’s a mathematician, she’s a social worker and a Damned Extrovert who asked probing questions about my recent trip and how I felt about it, not accepting my polite demurrals and attempts to change the subject (she’s really very nice, just totally E and F to my I and T, and her husband is one of Sir John’s best friends, so I always try not to be rude as I would be to more random people who probed like that). So I finally blurted out what I really thought: “I realized that I do not have to maintain ties to the past or people I used to know. I am allowed to be who I am now, and not keep up with people who remind me of things I don’t want to remember.”

Today I got e-mail floating the idea of another reunion, at a time that I could make if I really wanted to, although teaching provides an excellent excuse for not going. I used it. If the rest of the group gets together, I hope they have a lovely time. I wish them well. They’re nice people. They were once really important to me. But I hate remembering how unhappy and trapped I felt through most of my teenage years, and they remind of me that time, because I’ve hardly seen them since.

It’s a bit odd: I am completely unconflicted about putting distance between myself and my family, to the extent that is possible. I have kept up with various old friends from different parts of my life, including school and college friends from those teenage years. The youth group, having been an important escape from home and school, somehow is more associated with misery than the friends who went to school with me and knew my family. Who knows, maybe the group remembers more about my family than I think; that still doesn’t mean that I want to know what that might be. It would be nice to want to see them, but I don’t.

I like my grown-up self. I like being Sir John’s wife, and being Professor [Real Name], and being Dame Eleanor Hull. My old self is dead.

Been down one time, been down two times.

Never going back again.

Bah!

Humbug.

The great thing about Christmas is that once the 25th rolls around, the hoopla is over and normal life can resume. I could use some normal life. I went and visited my family for nearly a week, as soon as exams were over, so I was still grading, and I managed to do a little writing each day as well. Sometimes only a sentence, but I did something.

Then I came home and stopped writing for nearly another week. I don’t know how that happened. A dab of jet lag, getting up later in the morning so I didn’t have my preferred early morning writing slot; determination to re-establish a gym habit; assorted small distractions that really are no excuse. Really I think what happened was that I needed to recover from the family visit. I spent a lot of time reading novels, doing crosswords, and working on a jigsaw puzzle, all prime self-soothing activities. I wrote six single-spaced pages about my father and the one brother I saw during my visit. I saw him for an hour, total: can one person be that irritating in one hour? If it’s my Brother Less Reasonable, why yes, yes he can. I keep reminding myself that I have had far more therapy than he has, that I can understand what is going on and feel compassion, that I need to keep in mind my goal (our father’s care) and not get distracted by petty complaints about our father’s character.

Unfortunately, doing all that emotional labor tends to exhaust my store of patience for dealing with Other People, so that I get snappish with people at the gym, and impatient with my mother-in-law’s political discourse. (Seriously, what is it with people who can’t stand the current president and yet talk about him all.the.time? Anything, anything else would be preferable. Explain the rules of football to me [again]. Talk about the Kardashians. Your favorite television shows. The iniquities of handymen and plumbers. Anything!)

Today there will be no Other People. That is, my gym will be open for another couple of hours, so if I get my act together I could go work out and hope not to run into anyone annoying. But I could just spend the whole day at home and not see anyone except Sir John and the cats. Since I’ve finished La Belle Sauvage (A, looking forward to next one), Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children (B: okay but will not go on with the series), and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (not so satisfying as I remember; question: to teach or not to teach?), I can go on to Pedro I El Cruel y Enrique de Trastámara, which was supposed to be my winter break project (research plus language maintenance). I could give up and look up the answers for the crossword puzzle I’m stuck on (far too many names of TV and sports figures) so I can fill it in and go on to another. At some point after Sir John wakes up, we will exchange presents, and then maybe go back to the jigsaw. I cooked yesterday so we will eat leftovers. As usual when writing has been not-happening, I feel like I ought to Write All The Things, but let’s set the bar low: one sentence on the Overdue Thing, and some polishing of an abstract for a conference submission, and then I’ll have re-started.

If you are celebrating today, then I hope you’re enjoying yourself and don’t feel like murdering your relatives. If you’re not celebrating, then I hope you’re having a peaceful and productive day.

Thankful for a 30-year conversation

Thirty-something years ago, I started graduate school. In the first week of classes, maybe even the first day, I met a fantastically glamorous, vivacious, self-assured woman sporting bright red lipstick and an enormous amethyst ring. I wanted to be her friend, if she’d have me.

Apparently I was the intellectually intimidating powerhouse who spoke seldom but to devastating effect [= terrified, determined not to put my foot in my mouth, rushed off to the library to look up anything I didn’t know, then tried to speak intelligently about it next time, thus perpetually feeling behind the conversation, = terrified], whom she wanted for a friend, if I’d have her.

It’s funny now to think that we met so long ago, because then we were actively working on leaving our pasts behind, and creating our new, Ivy-educated grown-up selves. But we were still our old selves! We were both engaged to old boyfriends (for a little bit longer) and had not yet got involved with, or in her case even met, the Grad School Boyfriend/First Husband. We found we had the same position in our family-of-origin constellation. Our difficult mothers were both still alive. “Home” was where it had always been, the same parental house. Our adult selves were emerging, but many formative experiences were still ahead of us. Through the grad school years, we shared a lot of them in real time.

Over the months, then decades, we’ve talked repeatedly about families, jobs, men, clothes, self-presentation, therapy, etiquette, children (whether, when, how, with whom, raising and teaching thereof), parents, changing self-perception, getting older, friends, plans, roots and connections (making, keeping, breaking), writing, teaching, puzzles and games literal and psychological, cats, academia, changing careers (whether, to what, how), illness, death, divorce, new relationships, inspiration, in-laws, travel, religion, exercise, cooking, shopping, transformations. Everything important, really. We used to meet over breakfast, or for coffee and a muffin. Now we mostly communicate by e-mail, and occasionally catch up on the phone, when we restore our sense of the other’s physical voice, breathing life into the written “voice” of our messages. I don’t know where the years have gone. But the person who was once new, who knew nothing of my past and could accept me as the person I wanted to be, now knows everything important about me. She is my witness.

Thrashing

I’ve written before about thrashing, or at least referred to it. Today I am having trouble getting started on anything because there are so many things that need attention, and even writing them down (so I don’t have to keep them in active memory) isn’t helping. Even thinking about starting something (anything) prompts my brain to say “No! This other thing!” I’ve done a couple of relatively limited things with truly immediate deadlines, but now I’m starting on circuit of “must grade/write/work out/pay bills,” with a side of “Work out or swim? Grade old essays or new ones?”

And now that I’ve got this far, I remember the set of proofs that are due tomorrow, so I guess there’s another limited thing with immediate deadline that I can tackle. Unfortunately, that just sets off alarms about “long term goals, health and exercise, write first, graaaaading.”

Today also comes with the added annoyance of technical trouble with my personal e-mail. It’s past time to switch to a new provider, but I’ve been trying to put this off till after the end of the semester. Further, I know my brothers are not going to be able to remember the new one; sometime in all the uproar about my dad last year, it became clear that one of them had been trying to update me via an address that had been defunct for at least five years.

I wish my inner nag would just shut up.

The red basket

Stuff. Things. Memories. Do you keep them, why do you keep them, do you really want them or do you have a sense of obligation (= guilt) about them? Would you rather just move on and be who you are now, and forget about the path that brought you here? Do you hang onto things, or to people, for the sake of children or other people down the generational line? Or is that another reason to get rid of things and cut ties?

My mother died ten years ago. My father is in assisted living. My brothers have been clearing out my parents’ last house (not somewhere any of us ever lived). Since my parents themselves cleared out the house we grew up in (and what a job that was), and then there were two more houses, one of which burned down after they moved out but while there was still stuff in storage there, much of the Stuff in my dad’s house is things he dragged home in the last 15 years or so. It doesn’t have feelings attached. And we have all taken a lot of things we wanted already.

Nonetheless, Stuff kept turning up when we all went to the house together. Things we thought had already gone to someone: here is that set of dishes (or at least part of the set). Anyone want them? These wine glasses are worth actual money; should we try to sell them on e-Bay or just let garage-salers feel they’ve made a massive score? Here’s That Thing! Reminisce about the Thing. Do a few minutes of reminiscence suffice, or does someone want the Thing?

Since I live far away and am here only briefly, I’m shipping some Things to myself. I may yet de-accession them once I return to my Actual Real Life. But while I’m here, I can’t really tell whether I really want the Things, or just want to have seen them again.

It’s strange how many different stories there are about things. One brother assured me that a crocheted object was something our mother made for me as a baby. I told him I made it for her, a Christmas present that I worked on when I lived in Paris. I wonder how many other legends like that run through families, where people forget the origins of the pickle dish.

One of the things I think I want is a basket. A large oblong basket painted red. So many times I have looked for it when I needed something in which to take a cake or a casserole to a party, and then realized that it was never in my house, it was my mother’s basket. I don’t know why I never bought myself my own basket. Now I’m going to have the original one that I keep looking for. I hope that will be satisfying. I do wonder if I should just pitch the red basket, here, and get myself a new one at home. But this is what I mean: it’s hard to know, here, what matters, and why it matters.

RBOC summer

  • All is well, or as well as it’s going to be, w/r/t my dad. One of my brothers is learning about the difficulties of figuring out what questions to ask, and of whom. I sympathize.
  • I will be heading to Family Land in August. I accepted that I need to do this and booked the whole trip all in one go this week, instead of hemming and hawing and spending hours comparing different flights and cars.
  • I wrote 500 words today. Or typed them. I wrote a version of them on Tuesday, but today’s typing of that paragraph led to a certain amount of editing. So I’m counting both days as writing 500 words.
  • Am I done reviewing chunks of translation? Can this even be possible? There must be something else that I’ve forgotten to do there. I will be translating that massive text for the rest of my life, I’m convinced. “Done” is a hallucination, or at least a highly temporary state.
  • I’ve been putting together a list of manuscript-related vocabulary for my fall grad class.
  • We’re a week into July . . . yipes . . . I really do need to think about fall classes. The heat wave of a few days ago has broken and the weather is perfect today. I’d love to do something outside. Preferably not weeding, although of course that is always an option.
  • Weeding would arguably be better than cleaning the garage. Bleaching the litter boxes would be better than cleaning the garage.
  • Things I have been reading lately: D. E. Stevenson’s novels. Early novels of E. M. Delafield, available in an omnibus Kindle edition for a buck. Reading six of them in a row mainly convinced me that Victorian child-rearing left terrible scars on a lot of people, especially Delafield. Since her later novels (Provincial Lady!) are more comic, did she get over it? Or just move on? A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale, which I didn’t care for; it felt like a cut-rate version of Possession, which I prefer. Also, L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, a romance with a plain 29-year-old heroine who gets life-changing news and starts telling her horrible relatives what she really thinks of them. Plays with romance tropes in delightful and original ways. Rather gushy descriptions of Canadian forests (which completely omit the black flies), but I skimmed those bits.
  • Maybe I’ll do the litter boxes and half an hour of something else useful and then sit outside with sherry and potato chips.

Oh, dear

My dad is at risk of being kicked out of his assisted living facility. He has a week to turn his behavior around. What’s that saying about old dogs?

I complain about my brothers from time to time but I am so glad I’m not the only kid my father has. The brothers are going to have to deal with this.