My writing habits are usually fueled by caffeine, quiet music, an excess of 2+ hours free back-to-back. If pressed, I would say that’s my biggest change this term: the only 2+ hours I’ve had free in one space between 10am and 10pm is commuting to and from my doctors’ offices, jobs, and the social life I’ve got hanging by a string.
I’ve always been a productive writer; I think best in conversation modes (written or oral), and academic writing strives for conversation. I can write surrounded by an abundance of texts or without any; I like to synthesize, but I tend to get ahead of my audience because I have a difficult time conceptualizing an audience outside of myself or my girlfriend, who’s similarly associative and kind of frenetic, a fellow theory-head who casually remarks on Gramscian arguments for more bike lanes or situationism in Korean horror films. Fully explaining ideas can come later, I think. Instead, I want to discuss the macro forces surrounding the specifics, cite cultural studies to explain why the new Star Wars movie achieves radical queer utopia. (As you might have guessed, I’m a big hit at parties.)
Over this term, I’ve lost the space, both psychic and temporal, for composing. It’s probably a combination of new meds, old meds, chronic pain, anxiety, being overworked and underpaid, not eating well; in short, it’s not an ideal time for writing. I’m not as healthy as I’d like to be and that’s taken precedence over pretty much all other responsibilities in my life: getting out of bed, balancing everything so that my body is not so overwhelmed. Fibromyalgia is sneaky in that it’s tame as a sunbathing iguana one day and the next it hurts to groan, sit down, and swallow. Mostly, I’ve done a great job of managing this; however, it’s proven to be an almost full-time commitment, and my work has really been subpar as a result.
This balance has affected my reading habits as well, if we can even call them habits at this point. Essentially, I’ve really struggled with focus and concentration this term, much more than ever before. Part of that is definitely chemical (side effects include: dry mouth, decreased libido, heart palpitations, excessive perspiration, inattention, sleeplessness, excessive tiredness, weakness of limbs, et al), but part of it is thanks to our old friend capitalism. Replacing my single waitressing gig with 4 teaching positions has had a tremendous impact on my ability to do stuff with my brain when I’m not clocked in. Before my body cashed out, I could rake in $400 in one grueling 8-hour shift, then sleep ‘til noon the next day and write informal blog posts all afternoon. Now my brain is clocking many more hours so my body can rest a bit, but it’s impacting my concentration, my well-managed anxiety, and my ability to achieve mental restfulness (yoga notwithstanding).
While I’ve enjoyed and benefitted from what we’ve read in this class, most weeks I was just shocked to discover that it was Thursday yet again, and I had brought the complete wrong text to class, if I brought anything at all. Further, it’s been hard for me to strike a balance between what I want to read for my independent scholarly interests (which I’ve tried and failed to receive credit for) and what we read for class, especially the texts that I’ve worked with time and time again in an almost laughable percentage of L&L courses (Ferris, Freire, Matsuda, Brandt, to name a few). I get it: these folks are all influential and important, but I’ve been eager to move past literacy sponsors for over a year now. It’s always been hard for me to read what I’m told to read (haha, sorry undergrad professors!) (this is probably undiagnosed oppositional defiance disorder THANKS DAD, which would also explain my not-totally-over anarchist phase), and the conditions of my labor have really amplified that defiance this term: I have a 75-minute commute on a crowded train, am I really going to bust out this TYCA White Paper and notetaking materials while squished between two snoring dudes? *plays Candy Crush instead*
This is not to say that readings in this course have been totally lost on me. I’ve really appreciated the focus on practical teaching materials for basic writing courses, but also in general, as pedagogical ideologies.
Be a human person.
Don’t make assumptions.
Be generous with your time.
Set boundaries and enforce them.
While I get that BW is a field important to both (?) of the instructors for this course, it’s important to consider the diversity of experience of L&L students, and respect those learning sites and experiences. An upside to this program is its interest in applicability of learning theories and language development in a wide variety of settings, and one of our course values seemed to be application of specifics from our readings to diverse situations. Even the in-class presentations offered space for broadening the scope of many of the readings, and I was happy to participate in this expansion, even though my own teaching interests are at the college level (developmental too!). It was enjoyable to read Barbara’s earlier scholarship without her sometimes intimidating presence, and I truly think the imprint she left on the course was beneficial for us. As an instructor, Barbara can be pretty single-minded with her agenda; this is something I really respect, but it can register as closed-off to students not already familiar with her style and the broader discourse she operates under.
Accordingly, one of the limitations of this program is the tiny faculty, and Barbara’s absence, though a bit disorienting, gave many of us the opportunity to work with a totally new instructor (or two!). For me personally, this was a relief. I’ve always carried a lot of anxiety around groups, affiliations, clubs, cults, religions, whatever requires an initiation or a joining up; upon entering the L&L program, the student body registered as a bit too chummy, between shared jokes over Freire and IE21-whatever-the-fuck, and I felt out of place as the only person with a weird haircut, visible tattoos, mood disorders, and a visibly queer identity (and later, a cane!). Then, I was desperate to find some queer pedagogy readings and stressed out over the cishet normative stuff we were reading; despite its foundational qualities within literacy studies, Ways With Words is startlingly neutered politically (don’t tell Barbara).
This term, I started to realize that the cool thing about lots of theories we read about, and maybe moreso with the strategies that we came up with in this course, can all get queered. Maybe especially in basic writing courses, there’s an opportunity to have these difficult conversations about institutional discrimination, cultural xenophobia, and embedded inequity that landed these students in a “remedial” course. In my own teaching practices, I try to implement these Real Talk approaches as much as possible, and to me, this is what Bartholomae’s “inventing the university” is really getting at: providing students with a safe space to excavate their own identities in conjunction with sociocultural stuff that they have probably never discussed in a formal setting. Acknowledging the need for code-switching in school is a crucial conversation to have with BW students, but also with my students at CCNY. In both classes, I have… 4 white students (?!?!?!) total, so ignoring my authoritative whiteness is, to me, a huge faux pas. Even though I’m teaching first-year writing courses, some of these kids could have just as easily slipped into a developmental course, many of them for reasons such as not having basic computer skills, a non-native accent, or difficulty discerning complex academic assignment prompts.
As such, it’s been a boon to read Catherine Savini’s piece “Are You Being Rigorous or Just Intolerant?” that unpacks some of the political implications of working with students with legitimate mental and emotional health concerns. It was really pivotal for me to read this piece this term, as I’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders for over a decade. It never occurred to me to reach out to my professors as an undergraduate struggling with mental health, largely because of the anxieties Savini addressed in the piece and what we discussed in class. My students who have disclosed mental health struggles to me, both this term and in the past, have almost all confirmed neurotypical responses to their disability disclosures: Yes, well, we all have anxiety. This, to me, is a political trainwreck and evidence of institutional ableism. Since these concerns were so widespread, I chose to implement a new policy, not included on my syllabus or anywhere in my course planning materials: I’m dropping the late penalty from the assignment that would most impact their final grades. As a class, we’ve discussed mental health, self-care, emotional well-being, and student skills over the course of the semester, both in readings (Jenny Chen’s “Asking for Help in a System That Doesn’t Speak Your Language”) and during class discussions; I wanted to imbue the course with a sense of safety or vulnerability, so I took the lead and disclosed my ongoing disabilities to my students within the first few weeks of class. I was anxious that this would dissolve into grotesque over-sharing, like a 12-step meeting gone bad, so I worked to include my sense of humor and authentically weirdo self as a coach, facilitator, and instructor. It seemed fair and anti-ableist to respect the widespread nature of the effects that poverty, stress, racism, and widespread discrimination are having on my students, and how it’s affecting their ability to get shit done. I get it; I’ve been a wretch since the election, and I wasn’t far off before that. Between my mood disorders and my fibro, I’ve been in the liminal space of being disabled enough to be occasionally bedridden, but not disabled enough to ask for specific accommodations. This is a practice that I want to improve upon as I move (hopefully [*ick*]) into a PhD program next year, and definitely a set of practices that I want to carry into my future teaching. As such, I appreciated the handout on suggested accessibility statements for syllabi; even though students infamously ignore the whole document, I have found it really useful in scolding folks for asking silly questions easily answered by reading the syllabus, such as “I didn’t even know about that assignment! Can’t you just give me a 100?” (No.) (Unless you have a good reason.)