Sunday, September 28, 2014

Do You Write Assignments for Colleagues or Students?

Every year the university where I work as a writing consult has a school-wide book that all incoming first-year students must read. They've picked some good books-- The Geography of Bliss, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Devil's Highway, and most recently, Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. Every year, though, without doubt, we cringe at the department-wide first writing prompt that students are given based on these texts.

The problem is that every year, without fail, the question is convoluted and overwritten. As a consultant, I have to sit there with a pen, highlighters, and paper to try to make sense of what I'm being asked and how to approach the question. There are too many words on the page. The important information is wedged into distracting excess language. Sometimes, there is even discord between the question and the book's message. Sometimes, I feel like I don't understand the question and therefore can't help students. This year, I found the question particularly problematic because it asked students to analyze a specific high school writing assignment. We have a school with many returning adult students and veterans. This would automatically put them at a disadvantage.

Even more problematic is that this department-wide essay prompt is given for high-stakes writing assignments. For the first three years, the questions were used as placement exam questions. Now, they are being used for the first graded paper and a mandatory portfolio entry. When the question is confusing or even at a level they haven't yet been prepared to meet (first essay before class or first essay of class), it's unfair.

Now, it seems to me that the issue here is that question is being written to impress colleagues and those doling out accreditation. The words are overly scholarly. The ideas are complex. It seems that an incoming first-year student, who may never have seen anything other than the 5-paragraph essay, is a distant thought in the minds of the creator. And that's really unfortunate. If the goal of the department-wide writing prompt is to help students bridge the gap from high school to college while having a diagnostic writing sample, this type of assignment does not provide a clear picture of a students' capabilities.

On the other hand, there is a lot of pressure for this department to demonstrate their worth and excellence at all times. For outsiders, "worth" often comes from complexity, a belief that if something really demonstrates high-level thinking it will be hard for the average person to decipher it. It's not surprising that something like this would develop from that academic cultural tension, and it leads me to wonder what kind of choices I make for the sake of "accountability" or answering to higher ups in my writing assignments.

So what would you do if you had to design a book-related prompt for a large population of students in core classes? How would you approach the task? What would you consider the best theories or best practices to apply in this situation?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Transitions and Anxiety

Today, I feel unable to do anything. I have a ton of work that I'd like to do before the holiday weekend so that I can relax, but I can't concentrate. I'm anxious. Sitting in a chair is making me want to scream, but at the same time, I feel very much like I must stay sitting here. I feel like if I move from this chair, I will never return to being productive, and so I'm writing this in hopes that it will help me to start moving again.

Tomorrow, I give my horse away. Now, this might sound like a ridiculous thing that only a privileged white girl would experience, but humor me for a minute....

On April 4, 2001, my parents bought Lexington for my brother, my sister, and me. I was 14 years old at the time, and Lexington had just turned 4, also entering the young adulthood phase of life. We grew up together.

2001 - our first year with Lexington

For thirteen and a half years, I have owned this horse. For most of that time, I've really been the sole owner, as my brother and sister eventually lost interest. I took care of him when he was sick, and he saw me through some of the hardest times of my life-- a really rough patch in my parents' marriage, depression, broken friendships and relationships, big life changes. Whatever it was, I would come to the barn, brush my horse or go for a ride, and forget it all. After all, you can't think about anything else when a 1200 lb. animal is relying on your for directions. Riding was my therapy. Being a rider is who I was.

Over thirteen years, I earned Lexington's respect and trust, and he earned mine. I've seen people try to ride him, and sometimes, he simply will not move for them, but I can always get him to go with just a few verbal cues and a little squeeze. If I lead him into a scary situation, he doesn't bolt, but waits for my reassurance. These are things that suggest we have a friendship, even though we are two different species.
Seeing him off to his new home tomorrow is terrifying and sad for me. Other people will be riding him without my supervision. Other people will be taking care of him. I know he is going to the best home possible, but I am no longer in control of his fate. Right now, I can go see him at his new home any time I want, but I don't know how long that will be possible as I make further long-term plans.

Giving up Lexington is a major life alteration, a huge transition. It marks the end of so much for me. I can't just run off and ride when I'm stressed anymore. I won't have my horse best friend to get me through rough patches. I won't be going to the same barn where I've been riding for 16 years now and seeing the same people week after week, my little campers grown from children to college graduates. I have always been an equestrian, and after this moment, I do not know that it will be possible to be that person anymore. It feels like I'm giving up a part of my identity. I'm also seeing the end to my connection to my youth, detaching from yet another thing that I saw as constant throughout my life. At the moment, this is all completely overwhelming.
2010 - our last show - he took 2nd place

I'm sure that many people would look from the outside and see my anxiety in this situation as ridiculous-- someone of privilege complaining that she had to give up her pony when people have "real problems," like poverty. I acknowledge that my situation is in no way life-threatening and that people do have problems that affect their well-being in more substantial ways, but the anxiety is real, and the fear of change is something most people have experienced. And that is what I'm asking readers to consider. Transitions are great because they bring new opportunities, but they can also be incredibly paralyzing.

How many people are facing these life transitions--students, colleagues, people we pass on the street-- and what kind of support do we offer, individually and institutionally? Is the best remedy really to throw yourself into your work, or is to walk away from everything for a short time? Should we blame people who become paralyzed in these transitions for not doing what they are supposed to do? Is it their own shortcomings that keeps them from moving forward in moments of change? As I attempt to adapt and evolve, these are questions that I can't help but ask myself, questions that affect how I treat others and set expectations for myself. I do not know the answers, but what I do see is that we should not underestimate the impact of transitions on people's lives, even when they seem superficial to us.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Happily Rejected

Over the summer, I considered taking on a full-time position outside of teaching (if you read my last post, you know I chose to leave adjuncting behind). One of the positions I applied for was the Tutorial Services Coordinator for the North Orange County Community College District. I didn't get the job.

What I did get was a rejection letter-- a real, hard-copy one on stationary. And I loved it.

Now, it sounds weird to appreciate rejection, but in an employers' market, there are so many times when hiring committees/managers won't bother to let you know they received your application, let alone tell you that the position has been filled. Job hopefuls are left sitting on their hands, wondering whether they're being considered or their resumes have already been moved to the trash bin. The letter was a classy move.

Here is the body of the letter:

Rejection can make you feel worthless, but this letter actually made a point to remind the person who they were rejecting that it wasn't anything personal. It wasn't a reflection of lack. It was simply that someone else had what they needed at that given moment-- a simple business decision. 

I feel that the North Orange County Community College District went above and beyond in preparing this letter for rejected applicants because, even though I know this is a form letter sent to other hopefuls, they took the time to put a name on the letter, and they mailed it to my address. They treated me as an individual. A small, but significant effort that made a big impact, one that can be easily replicated.

I think more employers, especially universities, could take a lesson from the way that the North Orange County Community College District handled the hiring process. It's not very difficult to form-fill with computers. A mass email could even be sent, even without the applicant's name. It simply gives applicants closure and the ability to seek out other opportunities, instead of waiting on ones that they can't be certain are open or closed.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Bittersweet Beginnings: After Adjuncting

Yesterday, I did something I never thought I would do. I formally gave up my teaching position. This Fall, no one will call me Professor Papaioannou. I won't get to enjoy the shocked looks when someone asks me what I do for a living, and I tell them I teach at a university. I won't meet a new classroom full of new students who rely on me for guidance and support. I won't get to have the wonderful exchanges with colleagues during meetings and project building sessions. It's really a very bittersweet moment for me.

I love teaching. I do. I love students and collaboration and leadership and everything that comes with it-- except the system of adjuncting itself, which leaves you in a constant survival loop all for the chance of finding a job someday maybe. Leaving teaching behind really had to do with stability. I became anxious all the time, wondering how I would pay my bills or how I would find time to squeeze in writing my dissertation (which is costing me over $1300 a semester to write). I started to doubt that I was good enough to be in a doctoral program because I couldn't clear my head enough to make sense of my research. It made me feel like I would never finish or never get to reach the other life goals that I had for myself. This is something I hear almost every doctoral student starts to experience as they near the end phase of their degree. It might seem to some as impatience or not being able to deal with being uncomfortable, but it became about a basic quality of life.

A picture of me taken by a student
while teaching my first writing course
I started teaching 4 years ago as a doctoral teaching fellow during the 2010-2011 school year. The next year, I became an adjunct. I drove to Queens from central New Jersey once a week and spent my whole day on campus. The next year, I spent a semester on the Staten Island campus, which was a much shorter commute, before returning to Queens. Then, I took a job at my alma mater. I took the job because I was told it would be good prep for the possibility of a full-time position in the department, a Composition position that they had just gotten a line for. When that job came around, though, I was still working on my dissertation. I wasn't qualified for the position, and so I was passed over. I decided to stay on as an adjunct anyway because I loved the department and the students. Since the job search failed the first year, I figured I would try again the following year. Again, though, doing a qualitative study takes time, and I still didn't have the degree to qualify me for the position when the next year's job search came around. They found someone (who I happen think is a great fit), and I was left with the option to continue adjuncting at a university that was 86 miles away from home.

I intended to stay on this year, figuring that I needed to be teaching to be relevant after graduation and that the department was pleasant and the students were engaged. At the same time, the more I thought about this semester, the more anxious I became-- tuition, healthcare costs, commuting expenses that were topping out in the $3500 range per semester, hours spent in my car, and a lack of socialization because I couldn't afford to do anything anymore. I felt like I was paying to go to work. Some people would say to look at it like an internship, earning my way to a higher position, but let's be real-- no on wants to be an intern for 5 years. I also felt like every time I tried to go above and beyond, I was pushed back down, either by time constraints or unnecessary bureaucracy/micromanagement. I was afraid to talk to my advisor because I thought she'd just tell me I was being silly, that all doctoral students struggled, that real academics stayed in academia (she didn't, for the record). This all made me an unpleasant, unproductive person. I found myself complaining all the time to those around me. I didn't like the person I was becoming.

So I struck out and did some research to see what else I could do. And you know what I found? Lots. Lots of things that still involved education, writing, working collaboratively, making a positive impact, and being a leader. I realized that I was clinging to teaching in part because I liked the job, but also in very large part because I simply liked the respect that others outside of academia gave me for being a professor, especially because they always thought I was too young to be one, and because I felt that it was what was expected of me as a doctoral student. But liking that people are shocked at your title or living up to others' expectations for you aren't very good reasons for continuing to do something that has a negative impact on your life, especially for such little compensation.

The minute I heard back from my supervisor acknowledging my resignation, I felt a huge weight lifted. For the first time in a long time, I didn't feel like I was hanging off the edge. I felt closer to completing all my goals, including my doctoral degree. I went to work at the writing center that day not stressed about making money to afford gas to get to work or finding time to revise syllabuses, but making a schedule to work on my dissertation and plotting what I could do with the money saved. It felt wonderful.

I am still a writing consultant, so it's not like student interaction and writing pedagogy have been completed yanked out of my life. And while I'm sure I'll miss teaching, I also have some fantastic opportunities on the horizon. I feel re-energized by the possibilities I find as I explore my options.

Does this mean I will never teach again? I don't know. At the moment, though, I'm pretty committed to the idea that I will never adjunct again. In truth, I'm not sure what this all means for me in the long term, but I do know that I'm excited to find out and that's way better than what I've been feeling for a while now.