Bad Teacher

I’ve been cleaning out files on my computer (nothing to write at the moment) I found this little essay I wrote in 2012 or so. Cracked me up and also reminded me how I got to Monte Vista. It took a couple of years but…

***

Sitting in an empty classroom waiting for my class to start, writing in a blog no one reads but me (that’s OK) Driving into school today I thought about how hard it is to teach anyone anything and how much has to be caught up before the students of today are ready to take the ball forward. It’s really too much. It’s all I can do with some of my English class students not to write, simply, “Stupid.”

The problem remains the selling of higher education and the absolute abyss that is secondary education plus the influx of international students whose English ability is poor. Students go to university so they can get jobs afterwards doing things like managing fast food restaurants and rental car agencies. These are skills no one should need university — or even college — to learn.

It’s not my fault they haven’t been taught or that they chose not to learn. This is a fact and yet I’ve taken it upon myself to rectify that. My bosses expect that of me, too. I’m relied upon to hold up my end of the bargain even though it is getting more and more difficult all the time. Students can’t even tell when they are reading something that should be taken literally and something that should be — obviously — a joke. Part of it is that for many (more all the time) English is not their first language, but as all languages have jokes, irony, hyperbole, metaphor they should be able to imagine that English would, too.

And, there’s the Internet. On the Internet — even and/or especially the news — people “choose” the reality they want to inform themselves about. They “choose” the point of view and they “read” with their mouths open, waiting to say their thing. They do not read to find out what other people think. They do not read to learn what the opposing view has as evidence or to learn anything about the argument. They read to “react” to “rant” to “like.” That I will attempt to teach them to read a short essay by someone and find out what the WRITER has to say, discuss WHAT CHOICES the writer made in organizing the essay or the language in which it’s written, none of that has as much currency compared to the students’ “like” “agree” “disagree.” These fuckers will like, agree and disagree without even knowing what the person says. That’s what I contended with today. Some stupid fucking housewife very openly “disagreed” with something she had read with 100% bias and 0% curiosity. When I asked her what she disagreed with, she said, “Everything.”

I followed this with, “What does the essay SAY?” she responded with, “I didn’t read it. I know what writers like that think and I disagree.”

As I attempted to show the class how to write an essay to a writing prompt, by showing how I would write the essay, the woman didn’t like MY perspective either (though the prompt is all about the individual writer’s perspective). She interrupted me and challenged me not from a position of enlightened awareness, but from the same abyss of ignorance that leads people to vote for Sarah Palin because she’s a hockey mom and knocks people like me because we’re educated.

Then I have to argue with a student about an essay (as I’m offering her one-on-one help because she failed a writing assessment necessary for graduation). Finally I say, “Here’s the thing. I’m not your teacher. I’m ‘Random Reader’ and this does not make any sense to me at all. As Random Reader, I’ll stop reading right here.” She was shocked. Imagine! A TEACHER (the martyr of the world) saying, “If I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t read it.”

Late homework. “Here’s my homework.”

“I don’t accept late homework. The syllabus is very clear on this point.”

“But I typed it.” (And how, I wonder, in this day and age, is THAT anything exceptional? You want to be taken seriously by a teacher, fucking TYPE your work and, guess what? It’s saved on your computer so it won’t be LOST, stupid.)

“Well, here’s the deal. That was supposed to be posted on Blackboard four days ago. I don’t read late work. I have 200 students and I must organize my life so I can teach all of them.”

“That isn’t fair.”

I think, “No, cunt, what’s NOT fair is you thinking your late work is important to ME. Your work should be so important to YOU that you turn it in EARLY, get help from me, revise it and get an A.”

Not having Internet for an online class. “Professor, I haven’t done any homework because I don’t have Internet at my house.”

“Well, you know this is an online class. You need to get to the library or a school computer lab.”

“I can’t do that. I have a job. How am I supposed to do that?”

“I guess you’re going to fail,” I say, “unless you figure that out.”

Signing up for a class does not equal taking a class.

The other day, as I drove to school I thought of just teaching to the quizzes and not trying to teach in any more profound sense than that. “Here are the answers. Go take the quiz.” It would be much less tiring OR I can do like some colleagues do and say, “Here is the exam. Ooops! Fooled you! You all fail but OK I’ll curve your grades up to C.”

So I don’t know. I’m not in love with this any more. I was in love with it for a long time, but now I need to stop. I don’t know how I can. One more semester after this one if I don’t self-destruct. I remember Dr. Richardson back in 1984 at my and Jim’s house for dinner. A student called me. I talked with the student for a few minutes. Afterwards I said, “Students are great.” Dr. Richardson said, “Students are awful.” I said, “Seriously?” He said, “You’ll find out. Teach long enough and you’ll get there.” Sad to say, I have found out. I taught long enough.

Michael J. Preston (reprise)

 

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/11/04/rdp-sunday-mentor/

***

This blog post was originally published some 3 years ago. A person only has so many mentors. I’ve had three actual living people as mentors along with various and sundry dead people. There’s a difference between mentor and hero, but the line is kind of fuzzy, especially with dead mentors.

My First Time

When I graduated from the University of Colorado in 1974 with a BA in English, I had the idea that the world had been waiting just for that moment, and all I had to do was walk into the local newspaper office — the Daily Camera — and say, “I’m here, the reporter of your dreams.”

I’d worked on college papers, been the editorial editor of one (a column in that paper got me thrown out of that school but a good journalist doesn’t retract a valid opinion, right?), had articles published in the university paper, had even had a letter published in a national magazine. I was obviously awesome.

“Can you type?” they asked me at the Daily Camera.

What did that have to do with being a reporter?

“Before we talk to you, you have to take a typing test.” The bar was low, 35 wpm, but I failed.

“Sorry, sweet cheeks,” they said and sent me packing. I think the door might have hit my butt on the way out.

But I needed a job. I was married to a student, and half our income vanished when I graduated. I got a job on the line at the Head Ski factory in Boulder. It paid $5.85/hour and we were (obviously) rolling in it.

Time passed. My husband graduated. We moved to Denver. He got a good job. I decided to go to grad school. I was lost, and I had a good project for a thesis so why not? But until school started, I was learning the meaning of “ennui.”

I responded to an ad in The Denver Post for volunteer tutors at a new program — The Adult Education Tutorial Program — that had been started by a nun and was held in an old red, sandstone church a few blocks away from my house, in the Highland Park area of Denver that was — back then — considered a semi-slum.

I’d never taught anybody anything. I had a lingering dislike for teachers and teaching was for losers, not incipient famous writers such as myself. Still, it was something to do until school started.

I walked to the church, went down the stairs, opened the door and took a deep breath. My palms were sweaty and my heart was pounding. What was I doing?

“Martha? I’m Sister Mary Augustine. Thank you so much for joining us. The program is new, but we think for some adults who want to go back to school but are afraid, tutoring just might work. Here’s some paperwork for you to fill out. Your student will be here at 10:30. Our sessions are an hour long.”

I met my student, a Hispanic man in his thirties named Ramón Hurtado. He lived all the way out in Fort Lupton, back then an agricultural community. I spoke a little Spanish and he spoke a high level of survival English. I asked him why he’d come to tutoring. He explained that his little girl was now in second grade, and she knew that when he read her bedtime stories, he wasn’t reading the words on the page. He was ashamed. “I didn’t go to school much,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I liked working with my family in the fields.” They had been migrant workers. “I could make money, too, and that was good.” He smiled. “But now I wish I went to school.”

We had to start at the alphabet.

We met twice a week and Ramón learned fast. He had that magical quality — internal motivation — and he had a sense of humor about himself. After three months, he was reading at a third-grade level, a little ahead of his daughter. I thought a good way to end our “class” would be for us to go to the library six blocks away and get him a library card. He was so excited to have a library card! He checked out two books to read to his little girl. He hadn’t told her he couldn’t read or that he was going to school. It was his secret.

When we met for our last class meeting, he was ecstatic. He’d read her both stories.

Nothing in my life had ever made me so deeply and completely happy. My experience with Ramón showed me that I was a teacher, not a newspaper reporter. When I started grad school, I was most excited about my job as a Teaching Assistant, and I continued volunteering at the Adult Education Tutorial program. It was the beginning of my career in teaching, a career that made me happy for more than thirty-five years.

Oh and now I type 100 wpm. 🙂

Once Upon a Time in a Classroom, Far, Far Away

“Panoply”  makes my teeth itch. It’s an English teacher word (not its fault; I’m not blaming it), one of those that kids learn in high school as they develop their vocabulary so they can write longer more descriptive essays. Unfortunately, as a college writing teacher, it was my job to unteach them and it wasn’t always easy. Lots of students felt betrayed. “But my high school English teacher said…” I tried to explain it as the way a giant amorphous gaseous unfocused section of the universe could collapse into a singularity of immense gravity and power, smaller and more intense.

“Panoply” goes along with “plethora.” Back in the day, when I saw either of these words little worms crawled under the skin on my arm. I knew what was ahead of me.

So who were these kids? Mostly they were kids who thought using big words (that they never heard in real life) would impress their teacher. In their mind, “English teachers like these words. If I use these words, she will like me and I will get a better grade.” That smarmy, unctuous little creature didn’t get it.

“Why didn’t I get an A? I always got A’s on my English papers in high school.”

“Well, Lamont, you didn’t follow directions. This isn’t supposed to be an argumentative essay. It’s supposed to be an observation of a place in nature. I gave you a handout. All you had to do was fill it in as you looked around.”

“You never said that.”

“OK, that’s not a conversation I’m having, Lamont. If you look at this panoply of papers here, done by your classmates, you’ll see that everyone did the assignment except you. You tell me what that means, ‘K?”

“‘Panoply‘?”

“Lamont, you want a chance to do this assignment right? You don’t deserve it, but I’ll give it to you.” I didn’t say, “Because I’m the all-powerful deity in charge of this room for one hour three times a week and from my high promontory, I can make all things new again.” It was a PR stunt. A kid like this didn’t deserve a second chance, but if I gave it to him, it would speak well of me. It might (often did) turn into a teaching opportunity for a skill more important than writing. He might learn that his homework is for HIM not for ME.

“Really?”

“Yeah, really. I know you know what the assignment is. It’s on the syllabus, it’s on the handout I gave you.”

“Uh, I never got the handout.”

“How’d that happen?”

“Uh, I wasn’t here.”

“Awright. Here you go. Bring your paper Monday. You’ll lose a few points, but if you don’t do this project, a lot of the stuff in class won’t make sense, OK?”

“Thanks, professor.”

I had an immense panoply of these kids. An entire plethora.

 

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/09/23/rdp-for-sunday-panoply/

Residual Nightmares of the First Day of School

This time of year, I have dream after dream about school starting. I would be going back tomorrow if I were still teaching. Many students would be absent because of Burning Man and they would come back really pissed off that school didn’t start AFTER Labor Day. The air conditioner in my west-facing classroom might have gone on the fritz during summer (and no one knew) and the poor students might be sitting in 103 degree temps, their back against a passive solar panel (windows).

I always thought the first day of school was a joke anyway. Take roll, go over the syllabus (which, as time went on, got longer and more detailed) Here it is if you’re interested. It’s 9 pages long but it literally had EVERYTHING my students needed to get an A. They didn’t read it. (Note: I can’t believe I “Googled” my own syllabus or that it’s still there…) I’d deal with students hoping to add the class, (“Please professor”) always saying “No” and explaining the lottery system the college of business used at the time.

And in these dreams people from the past show up behaving very like themselves and then some, and I might be (appearing?) in one of the WORST of the numerous teaching situations throughout my career. It’s awful.

I was (for most of the 38 years) a teacher well-loved by students and despised by colleagues. Waking up yesterday from a VERY disturbing teaching dream, I decided to see what the wimmin of the American Language Institute (when I taught) were doing today. These vampiric entities had featured prominently in the nightmare of the wee hours of the morning.

As I searched, I had a few of those attacks of envy they say destroy our self-esteem if we use social media. Pout, pout. Then, out of nowhere, I thought of Desiderata, one section,

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Max Ehrmann

That’s wisdom. It made me think that rather than worrying about what THEY’VE been doing, I should think about what I had achieved in my career, my life. I mentally listed my little victories and my losses and thought, “Well, that was dumb. I’ve lived my life, they’ve lived theirs. Now if they would just stay out of my dreams! Especially since I haven’t seen them since the 90s!”

 

Archeological Insight: Who WAS that Teacher?

In the drama over the demise of the WordPress Daily Prompt, I went to my old Blogger sites to see about maybe you know, switching back? I haven’t looked at those sites for years. Among them are two I developed for my classes. One of them from WAY back before I evolved and changed, way back in 2011.

At the time, I was teaching five sections of basic business communication at San Diego State and several different composition classes at a couple of community colleges. The composition classes were online, hybrid and in the classroom. Being an adjunct teacher is a lot like being the cowboy who’s told to “dance” just before the other cowboy starts shooting at his feet. You have to be ready to do any and everything at the last minute. I taught online classes for as long as there have been online classes because — unlike many English teachers — I’ve always been interested in and comfortable with computers.

Many students signed up for those classes because they didn’t want to go to school or they thought it was an easy way out. It didn’t occur to them that an online class was basically “all writing, all the time.” After a few years, I understood this well and the very first page of a very detailed (cover-your-ass-so-we-don’t-get-sued-by-little-Johnny’s-helicopter-parents) syllabus was actually MEANT to discourage people from signing up. The goal was to help those who DID take the class succeed and to direct students who would not succeed into classes where they would have a better chance. More than traditional classes, online classes depend on reading and writing fluency. There’s no one to talk things over with.

This is a very important class for building a foundation for good writing and thinking skills that you will need throughout the rest of your education and in your life. Writing is a skill everyone uses in EVERY field of work. You will need to be a good writer regardless of your major or planned career.

In any online class, you bear a large part of the responsibility for your OWN learning. This is NOT the best choice if you’re a student who hates English, who hasn’t done well in English classes in the past, and is a second-language learner without native speaker proficiency.  

 Q: Why do most students take online or hybrid classes?
A: Convenience! Most students who choose distance learning choose it because they feel that they can work on their own when it’s convenient for them. Great, huh?
Fact: Online/hybrid classes require MORE self-motivation than traditional, face-to-face classes. They require excellent time management skills and the ability to work without a teacher pushing or praising you. Students need to be very self-motivated and organized to do well in an online class. 
It will be up to you to review lectures, take quizzes, post homework, participate in the discussion forum. You will find lectures online, information about writing online, grammar and reading comprehension exercises online and you are responsible for doing them just as you would be in a 16/17 week traditional class meeting in a classroom with the teacher standing over you waiting for you to hand in your homework. 
Important Things to Think About Before Taking this Class:
  • If you are NOT self-motivated and willing to work very hard for the length of this class learning to write, somewhat on your own, drop this class ASAP.
  • If you “work well under pressure” (meaning you are a person who procrastinates) drop this class NOW.
  • If you think that an online writing class is a good way to “get it over with” an online class is not your best choice. Online classes involve a major time commitment and unless you are organized, motivated and focused, it is very easy to fall behind.
  • Your homework will be posted online where your classmates can read it. If you are uncomfortable letting others read your writing or taking and receiving constructive criticism from your professor and your classmates that others will read, drop this class NOW.

If you are uncomfortable using computers, but you still want to take an online class, take an introductory course to computers FIRST. Your experience will be MUCH better in an online class if you don’t have to learn to use computers too.

If you are not sure about your ability to handle an online class, here are two surveys you can take to assess your aptitude in this area. Answer HONESTLY. It’s for your own benefit to know yourself well and to get the most from a class.

For those mature and motivated enough, the online writing class was usually a good choice and they learned a lot.  Once the mechanical agonies were over, things got good. Reading this made me happy this morning.

How to Comment on the Work of Your Classmates

When you comment on your classmates’ work, open their thread, read what they have written, then press the Reply button. That is the space in which you can comment.

Please write something more than, “I thought it was great.” The hard thing for writers is to know how their writing comes across to other people. To get credit for commenting (worth 1/2 grade point to you) really TELL your classmate what you read. Tell them when something makes sense (and tell them what it is) and tell them when something doesn’t. Comments like, “Great job!” aren’t very helpful when your teacher comes along later and writes more suggestions for correcting your homework than you wrote for your homework. Remember: writing concrete and useful comments to your classmates about their work will help your grade just as reading their comments and applying useful suggestions to your own writing will help your grade.

Things to look for:

  • Small grammar problems (sentence fragments, spelling)
  • Something beautiful
  • Something confusing
  • Places where your classmate’s work doesn’t make sense
  • Places where your classmate’s work makes GREAT sense

Give examples in your comment so your classmate can get concrete help and encouragement from you. Ideally you will write at least 100 words.

I remembered how well this had worked out; how enthusiastically and helpfully my students usually commented on their classmate’s work. I thought of the online classes I taught that turned into communities of writers.

I cared SO MUCH about this in 2011, more than did my students, certainly more than did my bosses who just wanted a competent warm body to plug into a slot on the schedule.

That’s the thing about education. It’s predicated on the dedication of teachers. As school shooting is followed by school shooting I wonder that teachers even go to school, but there they go, trucking off with the white board markers they bought themselves, their lesson plans, their iPads, their laptops, their dreams for their students. There they are, staying up until the wee hours, worried about the kid who seems to be suffering from some secret trouble that’s affecting his/her work. There they are, staying late to help a kid understand a story, polynomial equations, the thesis statement. There they are, sitting in the bleachers, sun in their eye, perspiration running down their back in the rented regalia showing the colors of their university, during an interminable graduation ceremony because a student asked them to give him/her his/her diploma. Who does that? What other career “demands” that?

Yesterday I took my walk and on my way home, saw my neighbor outside and stopped to talk. As we were talking, my OTHER neighbor from across the street came running over with rhubarb cake for me. ❤ We were instantly in an animated and funny conversation about being pulled over for making a rolling stop and then arguing with the cop. At one point I said to my neighbor (a retired teacher) “We have that teacher look, E. We kind of scare people.”

We had to laugh. But I’ve seen her when the kids and young teachers walk by on their way to the park. Her face lights up, “School kids! Young teachers!” and she has to say hi to all of them that she knows. And that enthusiasm is really the jist of it. I wanted my students to succeed; I honestly and sincerely cared very much about that even if it meant starting the semester with a tough-love message telling them to drop my class.

http://cactushaiku.com/2018/06/02/ragtag-daily-prompt-rdp-2-insight/

If you’re interested in participating:

Saturday: Mary, Cactus Haiku
Sunday: Patty, Lovenlosses
Monday:  Sgeoil
Tuesday: Lorna, Gin and Lemonade
Wednesday: Curious Cat
Thursday: Tracy, Reflections of an Untidy Mind
Friday: Steph, Curious Steph

Every Generation Throws a Hero Up the Pop Charts

I hate LinkedIn, but I have a LinkedIn account. Why? Well back in the day when I was teaching Business Communication I had to make sure my students were ready for the post-graduation job-search and that meant I had to teach them how to set up a LinkedIn profile.

My profile might be one of the most anti-LinkedIn profiles on the platform. It verges on hostility. I set most of the features to “private.” As hostile as it is, it’s been MORE hostile than it is now. It used to say, “I’m retired. I’m no longer teaching. I am not in the least interested in making connections or writing recommendations for former students.” When I retired I had reached the point where I was disgusted by my students. It’s true; the final few batches were — well, thinking about them (with some notable exceptions) still makes me shudder. I haven’t included my teaching in the section labeled “experience,” either. I doubt I ever will.

Among my 33 connections are some old friends, a legit business connection or two, one former colleague and four former students.

Periodically I go to my LinkedIn page to see how the former students are doing. Are they famous? No, but they are truly wonderful. There is Travis, a tall, gangly kid from Trinidad, Colorado, who came bounding into my writing class asking to add. The room was tiny — and packed. There were not enough desks. I said, “OK, but you’ll have to sit on the floor.”

He did. I put the tabletop lectern on the floor in front of him to use as a desk, and for the rest of the semester, Travis sat “in Japan.” Travis is gay, obviously not an easy thing to be in Trinidad, Colorado. He was so happy to be in San Diego. We became friends and remained so for years. He was a drama major and exceptionally talented. Among my many great memories of Travis was his decision to stage the “Witches’ Kitchen” section of Goethe’s Faust as a 1970’s disco for his final project. We had a lot of fun figuring that out. Now he’s teaching screenwriting and working as student affairs coordinator at an arts university in the bay area.

There’s Manny, who was a tough gang-banging kid from Oakland when I first met him. He’d had trouble with the law and had finally decided to come to school and pursue a law degree. His dream? To be a public defender. Manny was hilarious and completely real. He spent hours in my office doing his homework, joking around, talking about his plans. He was in an alien world at the White Bread University that was SDSU at that time.  He graduated, got into law school in Florida, finished, did his clerking, and is now an assistant public defender in Jacksonville, Florida.

I see these guys doing so well, doing what they hoped to do as younguns, and I feel warm inside and proud of them. I taught many, many remarkable people in those 30+ years, but I never got famous. I will always be grateful for that.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/famous/

“Authentic?”

Back in the day when I was a teacher, I was often called “authentic” or “real.” People said, “You’re yourself, even in the classroom!”

I found this very odd. Who else would I be? ESPECIALLY in the classroom. It was one of the many mysteries of my career that fell under the heading, “What do other teachers do?”

I have no idea. When anyone said it to me, I wondered if other teachers put on a “teacher suit” and walked into their classes every day. For that matter, anyone at any job is not 100% themselves. We all play roles at work. Here’s me teaching:

Walk into the classroom — probably early. Sit down and assemble tools for the hour or however long the class is. Get the file of this class’ work out of your bag, gather handouts if appropriate, load the slide show if there is one, answer questions from the ones who’ve learned if they get there early they get time with the teacher. Joke around with students. Class fills. Look at the clock. At the appointed hour (or a couple minutes after, depending) assuming a (usually sincerely) friendly smile, look around the room. In my eyes is a SECOND message, “We’re starting now,” and the show began.

It was a performance. Always. I haven’t done any of it ONCE since I retired.

But, there were surprises, too. Maybe my “authenticity” emerged in THOSE moments like the time a student I liked, who liked me, said, “Fuck you!” He was angry and he meant it.

How did I “authentically” handle that? “You might want to leave now,” is what I said to him, quietly knowing that the other students’ eyes were on me. What I authentically meant was, “Get out of here before I call security.”

Of course, the kid had to come BACK to class. I knew the moment would come but not when or how. Sure enough, several days later the kid was waiting for me in the hall outside the classroom.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was…”

“I know. That kind of thing just hurts you. You have to learn to keep your shit together. Come back to class.”

Was that authentic? Yes and no. I happened because of the contract I had signed with the university that carried with it the implication of a contract between me and my students. And that contract carried the notion that “You’re going to be interacting with 19 year olds. There’s no way to accurately assess their mental states at any given moment. Wear a psychic flak jacket when you go in there, and carry vases for the roses you’ll receive.”

What was authentic? I believed in what I was teaching. That was 100% real. I liked my students. I enjoyed the classroom. All of that, authentic. Maybe that was “different,” but I’ll never know.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/authentic/

The Wonderfulness of Ignorance and the Limitations of School

I was a teacher. I even — as a student — mostly liked school. BUT I had a dad who was maybe a little unusual. In second grade when I decided to become an archeologist, my dad handed me the book, Rivers in the DesertIn second grade, I couldn’t read it, but I could KIND of read it and I thought it was GREAT that I was lying on my stomach kind of reading a grown up book about archeology in a place very far away. The Negev Desert — what the book is about — showed up again later in my life when I was ten and saw David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Of course THAT led to my first love, T. E. Lawrence, and reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom. ❤ Good times.

I didn’t know what foundation all that was building until grad school, which I hated. By then I had learned that I am a self-directed learner and the greatest thing I got as a kid is curiosity and the willingness to do research. The best thing I got in grad school was a refinement of the research skills I’d learned all through school.

School is bullshit except for the things it teaches you how to do. You might learn some interesting stuff, too, you might get a foundation in the mainstream basics of everything (I did and it was great!) but, as I used to try to explain to my university students, anything you WANT to learn you’re on your own. Godwilling you have good tools.

One of the things that happened to me as a student in university — undergrad — was the discovery of an interest in what people in the past were ACTUALLY doing on a more individual level. You can’t get much of that in a history class.

Human life is a tapestry; even looking at my OWN life I see that. Maybe this will make sense. Today I spent alone, in pain from physical therapy yesterday, I was tired, but I walked the dogs which was nice, I fussed on my front flower beds and talked to the mailman and planted my second Scarlet Emperor Bean in a pot. I had contact with friends via computer and I missed a phone call. BUT — an example of just one design — in Colorado Springs, at the hospital where I will have surgery, they’re busy trying to get me organized for that. In the background, a nurse is planning a phone call because I don’t want to drive 3 hours for the pre-surgery class and 3 hours back and board the dogs. MY part of the tapestry (that they weren’t aware of) is where I live. THEIR part is to get me ready. WE have to come together and work that out. I will answer the phone at 10 am and we’ll weave our parts together for a little interval.

That’s how I think about the past or the lives of characters in my novels. I am interested in what ordinary individual (probably fictional) people were doing in an ordinary day. That isn’t taught in school. Martin of Gfenn is full of details of life in Zürich in the 13th century. To write it, I had to become a medievalist. I wasn’t before. I’d “specialized” in 19th century American literature, but that’s minor. It was the way I learned to do research. And how did I get interested in something like that, anyway? I was following an Irish monk (St. Gall) whom I’d just learned about and my friend’s mom said he should take me to see the little medieval church in the village of Gfenn. It was nearby, so why not? Well, turned out the pamphlet explained (in German which I could barely decode) that it had been part of a leper community in the 13th century.

I knew nothing about the 13th century, leprosy or Swiss history at that moment but my curiosity was piqued and I had been struck by the paintings on the walls inside the little church.

In my new role as a medievalist (Swiss medievalist to add absurdity to absurdity) I was frustrated because I couldn’t answer questions. It was only when I found — and hung out with — a Swiss Medievalist Historian who was interested in the same period in the same place, that I understood, “We don’t know.” We were “in” the 13th century, and the further back you look through time’s reverse telescope, the less certain knowledge there is.

To make it worse (better? more interesting?)  history like all other aspects of scholarship these days, is making giant strides thanks to technology. What was believed to be true about lepers in the high middle ages at the time I began writing the novel (1998) had been disproven by paleohistorians by the time the novel was pretty much finished (2005). In MY case, because I prefer primary sources — the words, paintings and artifacts of people living at the time — it wasn’t much of a problem for me. Nothing in the primary sources said ANYTHING remotely resembling the common view of the medieval leper as it was perceived in 1998 (marginalized, shunned, and persecuted). Nothing.

The most important thing is never what we KNOW but what we don’t know and how curious we are to learn more. I do a lot of research because I write historical fiction and I care a LOT about capturing the moments of people in my stories. I don’t write historical romances or didactic, polemic fiction to push an agenda. I have no agenda and romance is (to me) just pretty boring.

I don’t know why I write historical fiction. No idea at all. But when I get into a “new” world I love it. It’s like a great glowing labyrinth I can just wander in and glean what I need for the “world” that will (hopefully) live between the covers of a book. All the schooling I’ve brought with me to my novels is how to read, write, and do research. The facile superficial present-centric stuff that passed for history in my education doesn’t begin to help me — but every once in a while some little bit of it gleams, “Hey! Look at me! I’m useful!”

The biggest moment of THAT was when I was living in China in the early 80s and WISHED I’d paid attention to that paragraph in my sophomore world history class on the Boxer Rebellion. BUT the humiliating recognition of how my juvenile hubris betrayed me later in life was a lesson in itself.

As a teacher, I believed the best thing I could offer my students was something worth pursuing — they were already trained to pursue a grade, but an idea? Or a fact? Or a better answer? That was (for a lot of them) something new. But that was the best thing I got out of my time as a student — the desire to learn and the drive to pursue what I wanted to know. As for why I’m a writer, I have no idea other than I like it.

The upshot is that I know a lot of weird stuff no one needs to know and that isn’t useful to anyone but me. The way I see it, everyone else knows weird stuff that’s useful to them and useless to me (until I find I need it, then I will seek you out whether you’re dead or alive). That’s the essence of the great tapestry of human knowledge and experience. Ignorance — which is so often derided — can be — is! — the launching pad for curiosity.

Going Along

It’s taken a long time, but I’ve finally realized people don’t always see things the way I do.   😀 When I was growing up, that was already true at home. “Your feelings don’t matter,” my mom said more than once, right out there, a clear message. At school I got a different message, which was that my ideas mattered. I entered the world with the understanding, “Feelings? Useless. Ideas? Good.”

That isn’t true. Feelings are not useless and the world has been — generally — no more interested in my ideas than my mom was in my feelings. It’s kind of a surprise when, somewhere in adulthood, later in adulthood, usually, I think, but I could be wrong, we realize that we’re not all that important in the grand scheme. We’re actually pretty invisible.

To advance our ideas we have to express them, support them, often fight for them and, if we fight, it is often against something a lot more powerful than we will ever be. It’s often against the invisible force known as the zeitgeist. If we’re not (as my brother would say) “on the public pulse” our chances are not great. If Hillary Clinton (whom I did not like but believed would be a better president than His Orangeness) had listened to me, she might have won. What did I tell her? Oh, stuff like, “It’s not about being the first woman president, sweet cheeks. It might be to YOU; it isn’t to US. In the immortal words of Jello Biafra, ‘We have a bigger problem now’.” But she didn’t hear me and probably never heard of the Dead Kennedys or of Jello Biafra and, for all I know, thinks punk rock is a bunch of skin heads…

It isn’t just Hillary. Through my whole life, I have been relentlessly off the mark. Here’s an example. During the 20+ years I was teaching writing at community colleges, many theories about the teaching and learning of writing were gaining traction. In the last decade, one was a particularly formulaic five paragraph essay taught in basic writing classes. It was not the five paragraph essay as I’d learned it in high school, but something far more rote. Begin the essay with a quotation to get the reader’s attention; cover some basic information in 3 sentences following the attention grabber (which you purloin from BrainyQuotes); write your thesis statement.

Students who learned this, universally believed that, to find a thesis statement, all you had to do was look at the last sentence in the first pagagraph. Wrong.

Since I taught writing at a slightly higher level than this five paragraph essay (next class and at the university), I got to read a lot of these. They were horrible, especially when the writer was writing about something he or she had read and could actually glean a relevant quote from their reading. OK, well, it was a start, but I didn’t think it was the best start because there’s more to writing than that formula. I also knew that — at the university level — this patent structure was scorned.

Time marched on and a job opened up at a community college. I got an interview. Part of the interview was my boss pretending to be a student coming to me for help revising the paper. I did my best. Told her to find a relevant quotation from her reading rather than Googling “quotes about XYZ”. I suggested some other things that were absolutely counter to the formula.

The next part of the interview was a teaching demo. I had a PowerPoint (because most of my colleagues were still struggling with it and it was a requirement of the job to have that kind of techxpertise). The topic of the lecture was supposed to be “the four sentence types.” I did my lecture and that was the end of the interview.

I had no idea that I had stepped firmly on the feet — not just the toes —  of many of the people on the committee.

Turned out it was my BOSS who had come up with the formula for THAT particular formulaic five paragraph essay, something that had been discussed in numerous conferences over a period of a few years. She was the one who came up with the idea that students could Google salient quotations to hook the reader. She’d contributed to a textbook and so on and so forth. The four sentence types? Well, in that world it was far more important that students memorize the four sentence types and how to construct them than it is that they learn to use language to say something.

Form over substance. That’s how I saw it. I didn’t get the job. Obviously. BUT they continued to give me as many classes as they could every semester because what I did in the classroom worked.

Was I right? Were THEY right? I’d say both, but IF you’re not going with the tide, you are against the tide or carried along in spite of yourself. I was carried along and grateful to be because I needed to earn a living, but when the water level dropped, I was left on the bank.

Thank God.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/invisible/