classrooms · community · learning · reflection · teaching · thank you

Teaching and Learning

On Thursday last week I sat in my office all day and waited for my first-year students to pick up their graded papers. As they filtered in and then out my door, a few of them paused, smiled, and thanked me for the semester.

I think I forgot to say “you’re welcome” for at least half of them. I know I always smile, sometimes a little awkwardly, but genuinely. But occasionally I find myself at a loss for words. “You’re welcome”, I suppose, somehow just doesn’t quite seem to cut it. 
Perhaps it’s because those students who have paused to thank me are often those ones to whom I am also grateful: grateful for their commitment to learning, their effort, for their essay re-writes, the way they’ve taken my feedback and pushed themselves, how they’ve made their papers convincing, persuasive, and drawn stronger links to textual evidence. I’m grateful for their genuine searching questions, their involvement in class discussions, and their respectful comments. I’m grateful for their their earnest fastidiousness, their engagement, and perhaps most of all, their deep concern for each other. 
My students this semester have been all this and more, all the more remarkable because for the vast majority this is their first semester of post-secondary education. For some, my class was their introduction to city-living, the cold dark of Northern Novembers, being far away from family and old friends. For most, this semester was their first experience of the university classroom space; their first lesson in self-directed time management, in living life without direct supervision, in juggling financial obligations with academic ones. 
For any first-year student, the experience of university can be challenging, difficult, and overwhelming. For the students that started out at my university this term, they also had to deal with two “non-criminal student deaths” on campus. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to experience the loss of a fellow student, a classmate, a friend. What I do know is that this first semester is hard for most students, and that without contact from caring, compassionate people, students can feel nothing but alienation and loneliness as they begin university life.
Earlier this semester I had two of my students approach me to explain their tardiness to class. They had been trying to get ahold of their friend, also in my class, who had been missing classes for a week. The reason they were late was because they’d decided to track down this friend at her house. Waking up early in the morning, they’d to travelled off-campus to their friend’s home, to see if she was going to make it to class. She didn’t answer the door.
When they told me this story, I was prompted to pass along resources–contact info for the chaplain’s office, peer-support centre, and others–to pass along to their friend, if she needed it. While I don’t know if they were used, I do know that the student did return to my class a few days later.
I’ve always implicitly seen teaching as collaborative, reciprocal learning, but this semester my students have pushed me to consider how to care beyond the classroom space. My students’ concern for their classmate and friend prompted the realization that perhaps other students in my class needed these resources, too. Following the lead of other instructors at my University, I ended up talking to my students towards the end of term about on- and off-campus support. I acknowledged that this is a difficult time of year, a challenging term. But mostly I just wanted them to know that people do care, and that what they may be feeling is important and valid, and that there are people who can help. And it was brought home to me by the demonstrative concern of my students.
I think the next time once of my students drops by to thank me for the semester, I’ll know what to say. A simple “thank you” in response will probably suffice.
Have your students taught you something valuable this term?
academy · appreciation · change · community · faculty evaluation · feminist win · job market · thank you · you're awesome

To all the men

Right now, I’m on my sixth conference / presentation / workshop trip of the last nine weeks. Let me just say that if I never get on an airplane again for another year (barring the flight home from here of course) it will still be too soon.

Still, traveling and conferencing and workshopping is great, and one of the reasons  is the opportunity to catch up with old friends, with mentors, with former students, and to make new contacts. This latest round of travel for me has felt really strange and wonderful because, for me, it feels a little like a victory lap: I got on my first plane right around the time my tenure was confirmed, and as I had tweeted and facebooked and emailed my friends about it, word spread. Every where I went, people congratulated me, sincerely and joyfully. People I knew well, and people I hardly knew at all. That really made it real for me, and even when Air Canada lost my Congress-bound luggage and I had to present in yesterday’s traveling clothes (hilariously, on a social media panel, wearing a t-shirt that reads “I have tenure and I blog”), I still felt supported and comfortable. Well, as comfortable you can be in a yoga bra in public, without a belt to hold your pants up. (I don’t like to set off the metal detector at the airport …)

What were we talking about? Oh, right. Men and why I’m thanking them particularly, today.

What has really struck me, this spring, is how much of my career and its success I owe to, well, men. Men who have supported me, even when I told them our field was dominated by middle-aged white guys. Men who held a plum gig for me even when I bowed up one year, to give birth, and plenty of others would have been happy to take my spot, and keep it. Men who wrote letters explaining what I contributed to a collaboration. Men who happily agreed to explain how work in my field doesn’t look like regular English professing, and what it’s worth. Men–high-profile, senior, busy men–wrote obviously very supportive reviews of my tenure file.

I knew that the colleagues I had solicited to write support letters for me were awesome. But as I travelled around this spring, tenure assessors came out of the woodwork, eager to know what had happened and very eager to wish me well. Other interested parties made a point of welcoming me to the next stage of my career, expressing genuine support for my work.

We talk a lot here about women moving up the ranks and taking positions of power and influence as chairs or deans or full professors or even vocal members of hiring committees. But for a moment I want to recognize the men who’ve made my climb a little smoother, my ascent a little higher than it might otherwise have been. Starting even with the man who emailed me to solicit my application for the job at which I’ve just been tenured.

Thanks, guys. I’m impressed by your caring, and by your outreach, and humbled by your support. Now, let’s tenure and promote some more women so they can share some of this avuncular glory 😉

thank you · time crunch

It’s the small things

What kind of collaborator would I be if I didn’t follow my lovely colleagues’ generous lead and write about my many blessings? This frantic month of October, it’s the small things that count.

  • I am thankful for having thick long hair, so that when I trim it on my own with a dull pair of kitchen scissors, because I can either find the time to make an appointment or go to a hair appointment, but not both, my skilllessness doesn’t really show.
  • I am grateful for a biggish turnout at Pilates the other day, so that the teacher didn’t really notice I was dogging it.
  • I am thankful that I spent all weekend cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my family, 12 in all, not only because we have leftovers to eat this week but also and more importantly because it means my sister will have to take on Christmas. (Sidebar: grateful not to have leftover Brussells sprouts.)
  • I am thankful that I live with a wonderful partner who is approximately my age, so that when I start the same story for the third or fourth time, it still sounds new to her.
  • I am thankful for the kind of pleasant fall weather that means you can wear long skirts with bare legs, which means a) you can get away without shaving and b) you don’t have to replenish the stocking supply.
  • I am supremely thankful that a colleague canceled a meeting yesterday morning. There is no gift sweeter than the gift of an hour on a Tuesday masquerading as a Monday.
  • I am thankful for payday, which can come around anytime. Seriously. A-ny-time.
  • I am thankful the farmers’ market is over for another year, which also makes me feel guilty because I really really love the downtown Edmonton farmers’ market and I believe in buying locally and supporting your small producers, but I won’t lie to you, I am already daydreaming about lying in bed on Saturday morning reading the newspaper.
  • I’m thankful for the invention of the combustion engine, through the wizardry of which I can have locally produced food delivered to my door.
  • I am thankful for Dr Phil and Oprah, whose TV guests make me feel better about my life, and in particular help me deal with my white liberal guilt over having local organics delivered to my door by a climate-destroying automobile.
  • I am thankful that I live with a wonderful partner who is approximately my age, so that when I — wait, did I say that already?
  • I am thankful that we have a working alarm clock, and I swear to god I will remember to set it tonight.
appreciation · paying it forward · reflection · thank you · you're awesome

Heartfelt thanks

Following Aimée’s lead, I’m giving thanks today.

I am thankful for my incredible partner who gave up a flourishing freelance career to move across the country with me when I took what was at the time only a 10-month LTA. We could have tried long-distance, but he chose to support me. He is a truly wonderful person. I’m so grateful to share a home with him.

I am thankful for my family, far-flung as we all are.

I am thankful for my friends, here and there, without whom I would be a lesser person.

I am thankful for my mentors. Almost speechless with thanks. I will work to pay it forward in the way you have for me.

I am thankful for articulate reminders that holidays aren’t neutral, and that we must continue to work for equitable futures in the academy and outside it.

I am thankful to have the privilege of working in a department that is supportive and engaged (I had the opportunity to give a draft of an article to my colleagues and students on Friday: the discussion was thoughtful and the audience worked to help me address some parts of the paper I didn’t feel were yet finished. When I walked out of the room an hour and a half later I had solid essentially workshopped suggestions for how to finish the piece. One colleague even wrote a follow up email with her thoughts!)

I’m thankful for my colleague and friend with whom I’m researching a new project.

I’m thankful for my colleague(s) who offer to take time out of their busy lives to offer commentary on my work. I’m thankful our department has such strong, forward-thinking, humane leadership.

I am thankful that I have–and have had–the opportunity to teach such incredible students. In addition to working with students from first to fourth year, I am grateful for the opportunity to work with graduate students and aspiring graduate students.

I am thankful for Halifax’s Farmers market, and most especially to the farmers for growing the things I get to buy there, and for the incredible luck that brought my farmer’s market pal and I together.

I am thankful for the Halifax Ashtanga Yoga Shala, without which I would be a far more hunched, stressed person.

And I’m thankful for you, readers, who have let us here at hook&eye know there’s an engaged audience out there.