Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Bored and the Restless: Teaching Composition as a Cure for Mental Wanderlust

I have a bad habit of trying to do too much. I'm not just talking about doing too many individual things at one time (though I'm also sometimes guilty of that; I almost set my phone in a frying pan the other day). I'm talking about trying to master too many trades, explore too many hobbies, understand too many fields. 

I appreciate the value of going deep into a single subject instead of skipping like a stone across the surface of a broader field, but at the end of the day, I think I might just be better suited at being a skipped stone. 

It's not that I can't commit to something and stick with it. I mean, I have a PhD, and that required  years of deeply studying the same ideas. But even while I was getting that degree, I was taking a non-traditional path that wove through several different points of focus: working as an academic program coordinator, parenting, playing roller derby. 

If I end up sitting in one place too long, I feel myself burning out fast, and I start to get restless. The urge to move onto something else becomes thick, like something choking me. 

That's why I think that teaching composition is the perfect career for me. I still get restless. I still have the urge to start over with something new. I still feel like an animal caught in a trap now and then and panic. 

But then I just choose a new book and plan a completely new class. Problem solved. 

I started to feel that familiar feeling a little last semester, but I had just had a new baby and didn't think I should rock the boat all that much, so when the book order forms came up, I went ahead and stuck with the books I'd been using: Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions per Minute (a book about the history of protest songs) for one class and Monsters (a collection about, well, monsters) in the other. 

This is my fourth semester teaching 33 Revolutions, and the organization of my class really clicked this time around. I feel like the pacing, the timing of the readings, the supplemental assignments are all working really well. In some ways, it's kind of a shame. As soon as I get a class running really smoothly, I know it's time to let it go. 

For a while I worried that making changes whenever things got too smooth meant I was cheating my students out of the best possible class: the one where I don't feel the need to change anything because it's all working so well. I've been reflecting on that, and I don't feel that way anymore. 

Teaching should be messy. If I've gotten any particular class down to the point that I don't feel the need to tweak it, then I'm not as engaged as I should be. Choosing a new book to frame the class forces me back into a place of exploration and innovation. It makes me pay more attention, and it makes me more likely to hear my students' ideas anew instead of constantly sorting them into categories that I've already carved out for that particular topic. 

I teach best when I'm a little off balance. My best teaching comes when there is a dash of fear and a bit of anxiety thrown into the mix. 

This summer, I'm going to be planning courses around two completely new books, and just choosing them has made that restless feeling lie back down and take a nap. The sense of possibility and wide-openness makes me feel calm. I start looking at the world around me with new eyes, trying to find possible supplemental texts to save for the class. Voluntarily stepping back into the chaos of not having a plan makes me feel more ordered. 

In the fall, I'll be teaching John Hudak's Marijuana: A Short History to my developmental writing students and Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future to my research writing class. 

Both present challenges that I'm finding energizing. 

I worried about putting down a book called Marijuana on my book order forms, but the more I looked at the book, the more possibilities I see for a well-rounded, interesting, and relevant class. There are so many lenses through which we can tackle the issue: etymological (marijuana vs. cannabis), criminal justice, biological, and public policy. There are so many real-life writing exercises with built-in rhetorical purposes: letters to legislators, public safety bulletins, advertisements. 

Rise of the Robots offers me the challenge of teaching a topic with full consideration of its impact on my students. These are college sophomores. Discussing the threat of a "jobless future" could be pretty bleak for people just starting out (or starting anew) in the workforce. I believe this class can be taught in a way that ends on a high note of innovation and creativity, but it's going to take some careful navigation. 

If anyone out there has good sources or suggestions for either of those topics, I'm in the brainstorming stage and would love to hear your thoughts. 

I think I've got a good three or four semesters before I feel the need to wander off again. 

No comments:

Post a Comment