Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Other Side of the Desk: On Being a Student Again

I’ve taught college for almost twenty years, but it was only recently that I got an itch to actually take a class myself. Perhaps the bleak and monotonous winter had worn me down. Perhaps I was hungry for some new interaction. Perhaps—dare I say it?—I was bored. I had a long winter break, and decided to try out three different classes.

I. Poetry Boot Camp

Just the title was a bit terrifying, especially since I’m primarily a prose writer, but lately I’ve been interested in language and sound and I thought: why not? I was late to the first class, which was held in the instructor’s apartment in Rochester, and when I walked into a group of eight people sipping wine and chatting amiably, no one said much. The instructor’s cats slunk around the living room and made me nervous. I checked everyone out and made some assumptions. We did not introduce ourselves, but were instantly catapulted into a writing exercise. From a handout, we were to choose 3 items and write a 14 line poem using those words. “I’m setting the timer for 13 minutes,” the instructor said. “Go!” She scuttled off to the kitchen.

It’s hard to fully express the panic I felt. Holy shit, I thought. This is insane. I don’t even know these people. WTF? I chose the words, “orange, cloud, and mother” from the handout. My whole life had been consumed recently by grief ever since my mother, and then, shortly thereafter, my father died. I knew I would plow into the grief—I couldn’t help myself—but then I worried about being a “downer.”

This was my first epiphany about what my students go through in my classes. The performance anxiety in a writing class cannot be underestimated. It looms large, beginning with the very content you choose, then what to leave in and what to leave out, and then, of course, having to “share” what you’ve written with the class. In my own courses, I’ll say, “Okay! Write a scene in which a father and son are making a stir fry together and having the ‘sex talk.’” Go!” I expect them to do it, share it, and feel okay about it. What an enormous expectation.

We did eventually introduce ourselves, which settled my heart a bit. We dragged shrimp through cocktail sauce, smeared blue cheese onto crackers, laughed when the cat started batting someone’s head on the couch. Again, it’s hard to explain: I wanted to be liked and to “fit in,” but I also wanted to prove that I was a good writer. There seemed so much at stake, both socially and artistically. And let’s be honest: you compare yourself with your classmates. I was quite taken by the French teacher’s poems, plus, she was so warm and had such an easy smile, I instantly liked her. The psychologist seemed remote, and used cerebral language play. The artist was the hippest dresser, had beautifully arched eyebrows and wrote about her South American mother. I tried to gauge where I fit in, writingwise. Somewhere in the middle, I thought, or a teeny bit above middle? Oh god.

Why did that matter at all? I was ashamed to admit it, but it did. And this helped me to understand my students even more so.

II. Yoga: Private Session

We met on a snowy night in the large yoga studio above the old bookstore. I was as antsy as if it were a blind date, though I knew the instructor from various parent/town events: still. She was so tiny I could easily lift her up in my arms and carry her around. Quiet jazz was playing. I told her about my bad back, how I’d tried everything, how desperate I was for help. She rolled me out a mat, but stood looking me up and down first.

“Hmm,” she said, ‘’you have hips, and curves.” She walked behind me. “Stand how you normally stand,” she said.

I did. She ran a hand up and down my spine.

“Yeah,” she said. “That’s showing a lot of vertebrae. You want no vertebrae to show. See,” she said. “Like this.” She stood and lifted the back of her shirt up so I could see. “See how no bumps are showing on my low back?” I did. I even felt it. It was so indented it was like a deep valley.

She said we’d have to start with some basic biology, and dragged a big skeleton out from the corner. She laid it down on the floor very gently between us as if it were alive, then
began manipulating the skeleton’s hips. “Your pelvis is like a bowl,” she said, “See?” She shoved her fist into the skeleton’s pelvic cavity. “The muscles below have to hold everything up. When you have babies, especially very quickly like you did, these muscles can get torn and weaken.”

I nodded and made eye contact. We were sitting close to each other and I wanted her to know how attentive and focused I was. But I was also distracted. How would learning about my bowl of a pelvis help my back? I’d tried yoga before but it gave me a headache and caused my mind to race like a hamster wheel. As she continued to explain the importance of lifting the pelvic floor, I started wondering if “Modern Family” would be a new episode tonight, and whether I should make popcorn or have cheese and crackers for a snack and whether or not we were out of red wine. Oh my god, I thought. This is exactly what my students did! I was no better than them! I just wanted to be done and go hang out at home and check Facebook and watch TV.

Eventually we did some planks and bridges. I held the positions precariously and grunted while she scribbled instructions down for me to take home. She drew little stick figures in various positions. She underlined instructions and used exclamation points. Later, I would read these while drinking white wine in front of the TV. “Remember, the pubic bone is the high point,” she wrote. “Imagine a marble rolling from the pubic bone to the belly button.”

I tried to imagine the marble and to perform the pelvic lifts from a sitting position, but it was not very effective as I simultaneously ate chips, texted my sister, watched TV and checked Facebook for all the latest. Perhaps I was more like my students than I thought.

III. Simple Sewn Book Workshop

I took this class with two friends: safety (and fun) in numbers. It was in our town’s new art gallery and sun burst through the big windows onto our work table. The teacher was loud, boisterous, and informal. At first I found her off-putting, but then I warmed to her. Sometimes she was so exuberant about the subject that her instructions were unclear, and I found myself frustrated. I mentally filed this away for my own teaching: remember, students are often just beginners so don’t get so carried away and be very clear about the basics.

As someone with degrees in English and creative writing, I had never had such a tactile class before, and found myself fascinated by all the equipment and materials: waxed linen thread, a “bone folder” for making sharp creases, a Japanese screw punch, binder’s needles. I liked the “thingy-ness” aspect, though the mess and chaos in front of me was a challenge.

One of my friends was very precise about measurements and took her time and care. My other friend was very motivated to learn as much as possible and to gain and practice skills. I found myself somewhere else—wanting to magically channel some of my mother’s creativity, wanting to gloss over, wanting to goof off and rush through. This last piece—the rushing—bothered me. “Do I really have to measure this?” I asked the teacher. “Or can I just eyeball it?”

She said I could eyeball it, but when all was said and done, it didn’t look very good. My two friends’ books looked better. Then, like a toddler, I got hungry and couldn’t concentrate. Luckily, the teacher had brought a bag of oranges and giant chocolate chip cookies. We ate and told stories, and though I didn’t feel the same performance anxiety I felt in the poetry class, I did sense in myself a desire to tell stories, to relay information about my life; I’m not sure why. It wasn’t likely I’d ever see the teacher again. But it did, again, serve as a lesson to me, pedagogically speaking. So much of the learning experience is about learning about yourself, especially in relation to other people. In just a single class, I had learned 1) that I hated clutter, 2) that I had a better time learning if personal information was shared, 3) I cared more about speed than precision (disturbing), 4) I was a chatty student, 5) lack of clarity irritated and frustrated me, and 6) I could only sit still and pay attention for 30 – 40 minutes, tops.

Conclusion #1 : taking these three classes has helped me as a professor more than anything I have ever done, and I will take it all with me as I roll into my 2011 classes and beyond.

Conclusion #2 : I love homework.