Prepping for a New Semester

I’m still here, albeit I’ve been in emergency-mode only for too long (still checking but only responding for dire reasons; not blogging here). My desk is now set up, my office supplies are purchased, I’ve picked up the textbooks for my course, and I’ve started a less serious blog about Texas (on my to-do list) in Blogger.

This week in my department was The Week Everyone is on Vacation. I have a meeting next week with the director of undergrad programs in my department to talk about my course. For a while, I’ve been kind of bouncing around, not really sure what to do about this class.

After my meeting on Tuesday, though, I’ll know exactly what to do … right?

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The Cult of the Child: A Long Reflection on my Reluctance to Parent

I’ve made it no secret since David and I were married that I had no plans of giving birth to my own children. For a while, I even swore off children completely. I had good arguments for not having my own children, some of which are: I thrive in quietness and alone time, I like the freedom of being able to come and go when the mood strikes, and I’ve noticed that many people who do have children turn the entire focus of their lives on their family rather than trying to do some small good in the world. I’ve also never had the desire to be pregnant (the thought gives me a panic attack), unlike some women.

Now, in recent years we’ve discussed the possibility of adopting a child, which I’ve come around to. There are also good reasons for adoption, but I won’t go into them here. The point is: children and family-building are now on my radar.

That said, what really turns me off the most to the idea of having children are the virulent attacks against women who choose to have a career and a child. When Indra K. Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi, came out and talked about how hard it is for women to balance career and family (and she chose to privilege her career over her family), my friends flipped out and tore her apart. She was decried for her villainy (“What a sad person! Why did she even bring a child into the world if she’s not going to stay home and lavish her attention on it? Children are the greatest gifts a women can get” and so on).

And I see this happen all the time to women who choose to work. Those women who want a degree of independence, want to give back to those other than their family members, or who can’t afford to not work a full time job are lambasted and declared to be “bad mothers” or insufficient. My own mother had to work a full time job because she was a single mother with five children. She also mentored numerous young women outside of my family. And I have never, ever felt as if my mother was insufficient or did not love me. In fact, I treasure the fact that she worked hard and did not marry again for the convenience of staying home. She taught me that women can have high standards for themselves, they can work hard and contribute to family and community, and that they can still be awesome, caring mothers.

I know that much of the negative sentiment that SAHMs express comes from a sense of insufficiency themselves. They’ve created this imaginary world, though, where working women like myself must think that they are awful, stupid people who should not be respected for their decision to stay home. Because they’ve created this imaginary paradigm, they attack those moms who work.

I think that this working-mom-hating attitude is also a cultural shift toward something that I’ve deemed here “The Cult of the Child.” In the US, people are encouraged to give up all of their own interests and goals in order to give their children the utmost attention (constant, hovering attention); to be their child’s constant advocate; to plan out every minute of their children’s lives with activities and educational fun; and to not let their children experience hardship or struggle. Commercials advocate for this kind of life, as do shows like Modern Family (but does anyone really like Clare?).

I also see this kind of worship as a college instructor and advisor. Parents hover and micromanage and arrange their grown up children’s lives even after they leave home. My students ask their parents for paper topic ideas, parents fill out their children’s college applications and select their majors, and parents tell their children what they must do for a future career (this is the saddest part for me). My students have been worshipped their whole lives and have been told what to think about the world, and then they come to my classroom and find themselves backed into a corner where they have to start considering ideas and discovering that everything they do and think isn’t perfect.

Contrast this with my childhood. My free time was full of activities of my own creation. We didn’t have a lot of money for toys and gadgets, so my siblings and I invented stories and played outside in Grandma’s old clothes. We built forts in the woods and spent copious amounts of time reading books (all of my siblings are readers). I wrote poetry and worked on a “novel” and learned how to sew and embroidered and painted pictures. My mom let me talk and reason through ideas on my own and did not tell me what to do with my life. I can never remember my mom telling me that I should choose a major or career. Instead, she encouraged me to develop my strengths and let me come around to ideas about the world on my own.

I didn’t need my mom to plan out my daily activities because I learned how to form my own interests and developed skills on my own. And because of this, I learned how to make my own decisions and consider solutions to problems (and solve these problems myself) and I was ready to be an adult when I arrived at college.

When I adopt a child, I will be a working mother. I will work full time in a career that I love (teaching!). I will work full time because we need the money, and I will work full time because I love to work and engage with people. I will also continue to help people and be concerned with issues which affect my communities and the world. And hopefully my child/ren will also consider my decision to allow them to become their own, independent selves one of love.

Little Thoughts on Teaching a Writing Language

Today I subbed for a colleague in a class that I’ve taught before. The students were working on writing their first papers, and I was intrigued by the kinds of questions that they asked me. What we writing teachers forget sometimes is how teaching undergrads is like teaching little collections of writing advice and assumptions. Each of our students comes to a classroom with years of different English teachers and writing situations, and these backgrounds influence their writing methodologies.

I forget this sometimes when I teach my own classes because my first week is always full of teaching a language to use when talking about writing. Then I step into another classroom with a different language and I get to face their questions and confusions in a very surprising way.

Hindsight Bias and Teaching Writing

teacher cat is not a-mewsed

One of my larger critique of English graduate programs (or perhaps mine in particular) is that the focus in all of our classes is on ideas and contributions, but what I am actually usually graded on is my execution (in a very literal sense: sentence construction and style). Thus I tended to do really well on presentations and topic proposals, but when I wrote papers my professors would tear apart my prose (in different ways, depending on their own, preferred style of sentence construction) and give me lower grades.

So when I teach composition classes, I try to focus my lessons and course material on the things that matter in writing and the things that students will be graded on. I always privilege ideas and argument (you know, content) over how I feel about their sentence construction.

This is why I posted this transcript of a conversation with Steven Pinker(1) on all of my social media sites today: http://edge.org/conversation/writing-in-the-21st-century

Pinker calls into question out understanding of “rule books” and grammatical truths, and he also asks us to question the idea that different fields can have an ownership of ideas (particularly the science v. humanities idea contention). I’m going to focus on the first part of this conversation here, because the second part should be reserved for a post on English research. In the first part of this article–the grammar/usage part–Pinker challenges the idea that we should write in certain ways because people tell us that we should write in certain ways. Instead, it is better to examine pieces of writing that work really well and determine how and why they work well. Then we can practice these methods. Academics write poorly because they write into conventions rather than falling in love with language. Also, instead of critiquing pieces of “incorrectly used” words and sentence pieces, we should think broadly about communicating ideas.

There are many interesting thoughts in this piece–to many to summarize here–but I am reminded especially of his statement about “hindsight bias:”

Another bit of psychology that can make anyone a better writer is to be aware of a phenomenon sometimes called The Curse of Knowledge. It goes by many names, and many psychologists have rediscovered versions of it, including defective Theory of Mind, egocentrism, hindsight bias, and false consensus. They’re all versions of an infirmity afflicting every member of our species, namely that it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know something that you do know.

It’s easiest to see it in children. In one famous experiment, kid comes into a room, opens a box of candy, finds pencils inside, and the kid is surprised. Then you say to him, “Now Jason’s going to come into the room. What does he think is in the box?” And the child will say “pencils.” Of course, Jason has no way of knowing that the box had pencils, but the first child is projecting his own state of knowledge onto Jason, forgetting that other people may not know what he knows.

When David and I discussed this today, he rightly said, “I think that every teacher should be required to read these paragraphs every time before they teach.” I have to constantly think about what I know and what my students actually know. My eyes should be attentive to their facial expressions, and I should listen to what they say–really listen. And I should not assume that they know implicitly how to craft a thesis (or even what a thesis IS) or how to avoid plagiarism or why having my cell phone out during class makes me check out of the classroom. Nor should I assume that they know what my biases are for writing style.

There are so many ideas here, and I want to rant about them all. Instead, I’m going to end on this note for educators (and myself, because I need to keep this idea at the forefront of my mind when I teach): Try to understand your biases when you teach and try to think about what really matters when teaching writing.

 


 

1 Pinker’s political ideology is alarmingly foolish, but this article is not political in the same sense. To me, it seems that the good stuff that he does (psychological research and this stuff on language usage) is pretty awesome, but like many academics, he has some pretty serious blind spots in his political and gender ideologies.

6 Step Moving Plan

In addition to officially applying for a job I was unofficially offered, I am also preparing to move half of our belongings (the ones I’m living with) across the country. Travel logistics for any trip across the country are messy, and moving complicates matters greatly. Our best option is probably the following plan:

1. Husband flies to Delaware from TX to help me move (if he drove the car here, it would be a 3-day trip with no cruise control).

2. Pack things into a U-Haul pod in Delaware, which they will then pick up and ship to a U-Haul storage location in our Texas town.

3. Rent a small car to move ourselves + cat.

4. Drive across the country; maybe stop and visit family? Maybe just vacation in the mountains before descending into the deep south for a long time.

5. Arrive in one town in Texas. Drop off rental car. Pick up real car. Move husband’s half of the belongings from current Texas location to new Texas location (probably a two-trip shindig).

6. Rent a moving truck to pick up first half of belongings from Texas storage unit, where the pod was delivered.

Poor husband has to look at apartments all by himself, so I’m trying to coordinate The Long Move. I am organizing all moving information in a fancy spreadsheet, though, which makes it almost fun (yay, spreadsheets!).