Year End Reflections: What I’ve Learned

by Lynn Clement


In a prior post I wrote about my dedication to reading this year and I am happy to announce that I did reach my goal of completing 40 books.  I ended on a high note by reading Tara Westover’s memoir entitled Educated.  I greatly enjoyed this elegantly written reflection on the author’s unique upbringing and the tough choices she was forced to make as her academic quest conflicted with her family’s beliefs. I read a lot of memoirs this year, which is ironic since I spent most of the year refusing to think too deeply about my own life. (There were many quotes from Westover’s book that resonated with me and I’ve interspersed some here where I felt they summarize my feelings better than I ever could.)

I think this is one of the reasons I asked for a hiatus from my contributions to this blog when I was diagnosed with cancer is March.  Much of the year was spent actively avoiding reflection for mental self-preservation. “…I closed my journal and put it away. Journaling is contemplative, and I didn’t want to contemplate anything.”  However, my ultimate return to writing was for the same reason.

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Despite my apprehension about contemplation in 2019, I learned more this year than I’d like to admit.  I learned how to live my life when I was told I might lose it.

When I first met my oncologist, on a sunny day, in April, I was ridiculously optimistic, almost flippant, about what I was about to undergo.  The disease had just been found but I’d had no symptoms.  I assumed, falsely, that they’d caught it early and that I’d be training for another marathon in no-time.  When, instead, I heard the words “stage IV” and “aggressive treatment” and that if I chose to forego treatment I’d likely be gone in “3 to 6 months” the floor went out from under me.  I don’t know if he was looking at the wrong file (sometimes I still wonder) or if he was exaggerating to make sure I was listening (terrible yet effective), but either way I knew things were going to change.

“The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.

I call it an education.”

The first transformation, perhaps obviously, was my relationship with time.  My daily life changed very little this year: I still get my kid ready for school, I still go to work, I still watch tv and play games on my phone, I still talk to my husband about the major (and minor) plot points of our favorite TV shows.  However, I am much more protective of how I spend my time.

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Being an adjunct means always hustling. Finding new places to teach and expanding one’s contact list is essential for cobbling together enough classes to make ends meet, and this continues to be my reality despite cancer.  Recently I was stood up for an interview by a department head, twice. Prior to this years’ experience I would have agreed to a third, fourth, maybe even fifth chance at an interview. I’m an adjunct and having my time devalued is part of the game, but not this year. I knew it meant giving up a chance at more income, but more importantly, my new consciousness of time has manifest in a deeper respect for myself and a demand that my time be respected. “It has never occurred to you, he said, that you might have as much right to be here as anyone.”  It does now. I’m happy to say that I’ve also become more respectful of other people’s time and priorities.  This has not just be a reflection inward, but also outward.

In Raquelle’s most recent post she recounts a beautiful experience at a silent retreat.  That time of self-examination allowed her to reflect on how she is not entirely defined by her work and how she is able to find fulfillment in other areas of her life.  My own experiences this year have led me to a similar conclusion.  The problem with this new approach to time is the horrible pressured to live life to the fullest, while simultaneously acting like you’re totally fine. I don’t enjoy roller coasters so jumping out a plane was always out of the question, but prioritizing fulfillment was necessary. I realized that those mundane daily activities were what I wanted and needed: both the normalcy and the contentment of teaching students, but also reading and spending time with myself, my family, and my friends.  These are things I would never regret devoting precious time to.

My relationship with my body and exercise has also changed. Like the wisdom written in Angela’s post it’s now less about numbers and crazy goals and more about getting it done to stay happy with body and mind. I continue to be amazed that despite poisoning it for 4 months and then bombarding it with beams for 2 that I remain strong and well. I get on the elliptical almost every day.  I don’t go as fast or as far as I used to, but I can feel my muscles strengthen, my heart pump, my lungs expand, and that is enough. To do it at all is a success.

My relationship with people has perhaps been the largest transformation. “All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine—that the odds are better if you rely only on yourself.” Independent, self-sufficient, and private were words I lived by, but triumphing treatment truly took a village. Tanya, in her timely Thanksgivng post, wrote about gratitude and I, too, reflect upon this greatly this year. Recently a doctor asked how I was able to maintain such a good attitude through all this and the answer came easily; I am surrounded by the most amazing people.  Family and friends took care of me: they dropped off dinners, sent care packages, and sent me words and music of encouragement. Nurses watched over me and doctors healed me. My students brought me ginger candies to help with the nausea and my co-workers supported me in countless ways. To say that I am grateful is an understatement and there aren’t enough days in this year or the next 20 for me to show how thankful I am, but I still try and am much more open with my words and my gratitude.

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For 2020 I have a lot of hopes: to be cancer free, to be done with this journey, and to finally be able to write about something other than my illness! I also want to take what I’ve learned from this experience and build upon it rather than avoid it like I tried to do this year.  Despite the scare, I know I’ll be well. I still don’t have any symptoms aside from those caused by treatment, I still feel strong, and the same oncologist that had once warned of my demise now expects full remission.   On Dec. 20th I will undergo the last phase of my journey: surgery.  Recovery will be difficult, but I plan on beating the odds.

“To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both.  It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.”

Onward and Upward.

End-of-Semester Retreat & Reflection

I recently went on a four-day silent retreat at an abbey in Kentucky. Retreatants are given a simply furnished room to sleep in, and every day monks prepare three humble, plentiful meals for the guests. What excited me most about this abbey retreat is that guests have access to hundreds of acres where they can roam the beautiful hiking trails (right after I left, the grounds were officially designated a “Registered Natural Area”). Because of the abbey’s philosophy of hospitality, stays are completely donation-based. 

Earlier in the semester, I had imagined that late November/early December might be a paradoxical period of relief and anxiety, so I decided to schedule some self-care in advance. By the time the retreat dates arrived, the semester had just ended and I had also just submitted all of my academic job applications for Fall 2019. This is how I wound up celebrating the end of the semester by taking a break all by myself in the middle of nowhere to reflect and recalibrate. Continue reading “End-of-Semester Retreat & Reflection”

Gratitude and Giving Back

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Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.

-A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

My son is in first grade this year, and just last week I realized how much he’s into Santa Claus right now. This is not unexpected: I have always been a Christmas aficionado and used to love reminding people of such classics as Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Even so, in recent years I’ve struggled to embrace the holiday spirit fully: I still don’t have good traditions with my son such as baking holiday cookies, or Christmas movies we have to watch (correction: he will watch various versions of The Grinch on repeat for the next 4 months, but I’m afraid that doesn’t really count). There are moments each holiday season when the thought of getting the tree out, putting it up, and then having to put it away again just feels exhausting. (And that doesn’t include the gift giving part of the season, which is a whole ‘nother element.)

But the holidays have always been important to me, and I want him to love them as much as I do. The tricky part is helping him to understand that we can love the holidays not just because ooh, PRESENTS! but also because it’s a time of year to give to others.

I feel very fortunate to have a child who is kind and caring. Still, that doesn’t mean the thought of giving – or giving back in some way – comes naturally. As he gets older, I find myself thinking more and more about how we can foster that idea. How do you help your child learn to give and give back?

Continue reading “Gratitude and Giving Back”

The Best Workout is a Done Workout

The best dissertation is a done dissertation. When you turn it into a book, “Good enough” is good enough. Your work is never finished, it is merely abandoned. Every writer has heard this, and has experienced it. Once you’ve experienced it, you know that it’s true. Fitness works in exactly the same way. Tanya’s last post here was about her fitness goals and inspired me to share with you a bit about how and why I move my body, and why the best workout is a done workout.

Continue reading “The Best Workout is a Done Workout”

A Cross-Campus Collaboration: Mariannes Noires

On Friday afternoon, I went on a student-led campus tour of Fisk University with Mame-Fatou Niang (Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University), Roxane Pajoul (Assistant Professor at Tennessee State University), and Cara Wilson (Postdoctoral Scholar at Vanderbilt University).

The tour ended at Fisk’s Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery where Jordan Wright, the current gallery fellow, led us to the primary exhibit, “Artists in Residence 1888-Present: Fisk Faculty & Alumni Show.” When I stepped into the gallery, my eyes immediately graced the printing plates of W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The feeling of looking at these plates and the boxes in which they are cased—which still bear his home address—is indescribable. This book altered American (literary) history by articulating the “problem of the color-line,” and here we were, standing in a building that Du Bois had funded at his own alma mater, looking at the plates that printed and distributed his legacy. 

As we stepped into the exhibit, Jordan began to read a textual excerpt that was inscribed on the gallery wall. While he read these words that articulated the inspiration of music to Du Bois’ text, one of the undergraduate tour guides (who is also a Jubilee Singer) softly sang a spiritual in the background. Mame-Fatou was filming the event (and also on the phone with a collaborating artist), while Roxane, Cara, and I stood in awe of an interaction that we had—at least in part—helped to foster. I can’t do justice to the depth of this moment. But I imagine that the connection in that room was (in small part) generated as a result of the trust that was built in the small-group discussion that had preceded the tour. After several days of talking about Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang’s documentary, Mariannes Noires, and her contribution to Black French Studies, we were collectively inspired by Du Bois’ text and the talent and engagement of the students and staff of Fisk University, in which he was deeply invested.

Let me tell you about how we got to this moment. Continue reading “A Cross-Campus Collaboration: Mariannes Noires”

Television in the Classroom: An Update on How This Old Prof Learned A New Trick

by Lynn Clement


A couple posts ago I wrote about a fabulous show I’d found on Netflix and the excitement it inspired in me to use television in the classroom, something I rarely do.  I’ve noticed, as I examine my approach to teaching (and its evolution over the past 15 years) that I often need to fight against the traditional way my own collegiate education was administered.  During undergrad and graduate school my professors followed a very teacher centered pedagogy in which the instructor was in control of the communication of knowledge.  Lectures were the primary, and often the only, class format. While this had (and has) its merits, I’ve found that this approach works less and less the longer I teach.  Although lecturing still has a place in my classroom, active student-centered learning makes up the majority of my class.  Large and small group discussions in which students are asked to lead has been incredibly successful this semester largely due to the stellar group of intelligent and talkative students I’m working with.  Despite my evolution in how I structure my class, and despite the wonderful new material available, I have remained hesitant to incorporate film, television, podcasts, and the like, into my curriculum. Gfp-lecture-hall

Luckily, this old salt has learned much from her contemporaries and acknowledges that the types of educational materials my professors would have spurned are valuable sources to take advantage of, especially with all the new technology available in the lecture hall.  Thus, when I came across an art history related program on Netflix I knew it was finally time to give it a try.  To recap, briefly, from my previous post “Fake or Fortune is a BBC program hosted by journalist, Fiona Bruce and art dealer, Philip Mould.  The two come together, along with various researching side-kicks, to investigate the style, material, and provenance of art works in order to determine their authenticity.”    Last week I finally had the opportunity to test this show in the classroom, and I am happy to report that it was huge success.

So, here I am to give you the update, just in case you also need an excuse to let your students watch tv in the classroom.  First, and I think this was extremely important, I explained the reason I was excited for them to watch. I often do this when discussing what we do in class, or when discussing what requirements I’ve included in the syllabus.  Showing this show wasn’t to give me a break or to fill up time.  I discussed the merits of the show and how it would reveal to them the various ways in which art historians come up with and research a topic.  This was especially timely since we had just discussed their final research project. Film_projector

Next, as we were watching I utilized the wipe board and wrote down the research process as we saw it unfold.  The show is very compelling so it would be easy to get caught up in the “history mystery” and forget how these researchers were uncovering information.  I was able to pinpoint how these researchers developed a topics, how they came up with the questions they wanted answered, when and where they found clues, how they followed that up with research into primary and secondary sources, and how those questions and answers changed as more information was uncovered.  My students were able to see how the show arrived at its “thesis statement” and, again, how they were able to uncover appropriate information that could support, or shift, the main idea.  I have to admit that deconstructing the show helped my students, and myself, rediscover the important process that goes into quality research and writing, setbacks included.

After the conclusion, we not only discussed the content of the show, but also the process that they had seen.  We talked about what surprised them, what confused them, and what excited them about both the research and the outcome.  All in all, I would say that it was a huge success and it made me realize that I had been remiss in overlooking television and film as an important part of the learning process.  While reading a research paper (examples of which I provide each semester) is great at conveying your expectations of the product, being able to see people research conveys important lessons on how that research project actually came together.  As we continued to talk about their ideas I saw that my students seemed more excited and more confident about how they were to go forward.

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I am happy to say I am a changed woman and I think my students, present and future, will be equally happy about this.  So, now I’m curious to what else I’ve been missing all these years.  What films, shows, podcasts, etc. do you use in the classroom?  How have you found them helpful?  I would love to learn more from you, dear reader.

 

Resolved: Let’s Move

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I have never been the most athletic person. The only marathons I’ve ever participated in have involved reading books or watching screens for hours on end. Give me a choice, and I’d always choose a story over playing outside (much to my sister’s chagrin). As a kid, I didn’t try sports until middle school; my resume includes a couple of seasons of basketball at the Y, a little bit of soccer, and one brief foray into softball. In high school, I moved to martial arts, which is where I not only earned my black belt, but also got my first teaching experience and participated in a world championship weapons competition.

That was a long time ago.

In graduate school, I flirted with the gym on and off. I don’t think it was until my third year of grad school that I really got consistent, but in the second half of grad school, working out became an almost-daily activity. I completed The New Rules of Lifting for Women, Couch to 5K, and generally spent an hour each day working out to stay in shape.

By the time I finished my PhD in 2011, I was in the best physical shape of my life. And then I started teaching full time.

Continue reading “Resolved: Let’s Move”