emotional labour · student engagement · teaching

Post-term Tristesse

I’ve just finished my OMG 18th year of teaching at the UofA, and still, at the end of the semseter, I feel an agonizing sense of loss and regret when I walk out of the classroom for the last time.

Loss, because it’s over; regret, because I’m sure I could have taught them just a little more. I can’t help feeling I should have written fuller comments on SB’s map assignment, spent more time in my office, commented on more blogs, sought out PT after class. I should have been less focused on the meeting I had right after class (every class, it seems) and made myself available for … whatever. These students – already no longer “my” students – accomplished amazing things this term. One of them produced a video featuring his own car being broken into and used it as the basis for a critique of the Edmonton Police Crime Map (no white collar crimes reported). RS, who came into the class saying he was heading for Toronto as soon as the term was done, wrote a meditation on the arbors in downtown office buildings: he just sat in the lobbies, he said, until he saw things differently. Another student took on alternative city futures by mapping the Mill Creek Trails, and one woman – a first-year student, if you can believe it – created a two-sided, multi-panel, metre-long found poem on the High Level Bridge. She went on to give a presentation on the city as a Deleuzian assemblage. Smart? Jesus.

Teaching only becomes more poignant over time, as I realize that much of what’s just happened will be forgotten – by them, by me. Their early-term comments are already fading; in six months I’ll remember only half of their names. They head off in all directions, into their lives (wow, to be 21) and I carry on in mine, and we all just take it on faith that what we did, here, together, mattered, even though we can’t know how or why.

language · student engagement · teaching

Ten-cent budget

My grade 9 homeroom teacher, the fearsome Mr Uzwyshyn, taught me to eschew obfuscation. Actually, that’s not exactly true, because he taught me never to use a ten-dollar word where a ten-cent word would do.

(Also, he taught me to avoid cliche, so I should probably reword that last sentence.)

The point is: Mr Uzwyshyn, may he rest in peace, would have a stroke if he worked at the university today. And by “university” I mean mine and, I’m willing to wager, yours too.

For one thing, Mr Uzwyshyn did not believe in actioning things. In those days, we barely accessed things, and we certainly didn’t incentivize behavior. I cannot imagine what would he make of trending toward research constellations (a group of stars?) instead of hiding in our traditional silos. We did not blue-sky in grade nine homeroom. Low-hanging fruit was an insult, not an easy win. A win-win in Mr Uzwyshyn’s class meant explicitly not ramping it up, since taking things to the next level meant a visit to the principal’s office. (You can bet we hit the ground running.) He would not have understood the concept of synergy nor the constituency “stakeholders”; he was entirely uninterested in cultivating success on the bleeding or any other edge. His idea of competency was to teach us to speak in a way that did not cause anyone to shudder unpleasantly. That was, you might say, his vision and his mission.

Mr Uzwyshyn explicitly taught me to distrust the verb enhance. I can still hear him. He’d call one person up to his desk to read their essay aloud (sorry, Mr U, but non-sexist simplicity trumps noun-pronoun agreement) while the rest of us beavered away at grammar exercises on our own – yes, you read that right: no deliverables, just quiet grammatical work. In the midst of this silent toil, his impactful voice: “Say what you mean!,” he would boom at some luckless classmate. “How does the diction ‘enhance’ the meaning of the poem? Does it make the meaning clear? Say so! Does it make the poem stronger? How? Does it improve the quality of the writing? Demonstrate! Enhance is an empty word. Go back to your desk and rewrite your essay from the beginning!”

Good ole Mr Uzwyshyn. Never big on student engagement. But a helluva teacher.