………And then I forgot to put the laundry in the dryer, and I still need to grade those Elements of Literature presentations before I grade my Rhetoric and Writing essays, and I’m hungry, and I need to go grocery shopping because I ran out of oatmeal, and all I want to do is drink wine and explore my new environs – not necessarily in that order or together. Are we all just immaculate jugglers? Did we ever imagine that juggling would become our primary skill as teachers? And all those other side hustles we do that no one trained us to do like write 1,000 professional emails, plan your life in four-year-course-rotations, and make mystifying, acrobatic leaps through space to go from classroom to committee to grading to research. Oh yeah, when am I going to revise that article for resubmission? But first laundry and then dinner.
*Special thanks to Elisabeth Ellington for this wonderful prompt*
Sometimes in the chaos of grading papers, going to meetings, planning for class, and doing committee work, it can be difficult to stop and check-in with our students. My mentor during my Master’s program at Appalachian State University, Georgia Rhoades, taught me the value of reflective writing activities in the Composition classroom. 13 years later, I continue to prompt my students to reflect on their own writing process after completing assignments. For example, I write the following questions on the board:
- What are you most proud of in this essay?
- If you had more time, what would you work on and why?
- What did you learn about yourself during this project?
I take these up, read them while I evaluate the final draft of their essays (ideally, though sometimes it’s much later), and then hand them back with a few personal comments. These reflective writings about writing are not graded. They are merely a kind of check-in for the students and for me to gauge what and if they are learning.
Even outside these meta-writing exercises though, the nature of English courses often asks students to connect with material in personal ways, and instructors in these classes learn things about their students which can be concerning.
Lately, however, I find that reflective writing is not the only way to check-in. When a student misses a few days in a row or when I notice a forlorn expression, I make a mental note. I used to e-mail students if they were absent to remind them of attendance policies or remind them to turn in missing assignments. Just prompting them to turn in late work does not always translate that I am concerned about their well-being. More recently, I email them to ask how they are. When they return, I ask to see them after class, making sure to add, “you aren’t in trouble.” I find that when I take a few extra minutes to ask, “how are things,” they are more inclined to share.
Just last week, one student told me she went to her grandfather’s funeral, and when she got back home, her brother was missing. She later found out he was having suicidal thoughts. She missed assignments because she was dealing with the incredible pressure of taking care of her family, but she was afraid to tell me because she assumed I would think she was irresponsible. Another student revealed that her grandmother was dying. I cannot claim to reach every student, and it keeps me up at night. I cannot pretend to be a therapist. However, I can work on being an empathetic human who recognizes the suffering of other humans near me. I can try to listen and be compassionate, and sometimes I can give an extension on an assignment.
I despise being micromanaged or having to micromanage others. I try not to give ultimatums, which means I try to provide enough choice to myself and people around me, so no one feels controlled, probably because it is the thing I loathe most in the world. However, I am constantly confronted by the consequences of giving too much choice – especially when I design major assignments.
Recently, I introduced the next writing project by conducting a freewrite geared toward generating topics. My students were prompted to write about what angered them, inspired them, or interested them. I want my students to examine and analyze the politics in everything. It annoys me when they avoid the political. For example, a student just the other day asked if she could write about glitter “because it’s just happy.” She acrobatically attempted to be apolitical. How can’t they see that even something as frivolous as glitter can be politicized?
Then I remembered that the freewriting exercise was intended to give them choices for which they eventually choose an article. What I learned from hearing their ideas – “what if we write about the Book of Revelations” – is that I need to impose more structure, and structure can be guidelines which are not the antithesis of choice.