In the past couple of years, I’ve tried to embrace mindfulness more frequently in my life. I tend to be on the go a lot, and have multiple to-do lists and things going on at any one time; I do a lot of different things, and when you teach, this is just the way of things. Even without anything else taken into account, on an average day I could go from teaching a background to Latin American independence, to reviewing US history content, to leading a discussion on the Middle East.
You can probably guess where this is going, right?
This school year, I took one particular step to help me move towards a more mindful approach to my school day: closing my classroom door. Let me explain…
Last week was the start of my 2020 spring semester and although much of it was very familiar, it will be unique because it’s the first time I will be teaching entirely online. I first started teaching online courses 6 years ago after the birth of my daughter and thus it was an experience borne (pun intended) of necessity. Back then I was hesitant to accept the appointment, even though I knew teaching online would provide an income while also allowing me to remaining home with my child, because of the preconceived notions I had. I had doubt in the effectiveness of the medium, the caliber of the students, and my ability to find the same enjoyment or innovation in comparison to the traditional face-to-face class.
I’m happy to report that I was wrong on all counts and just as my effectiveness in the classroom has evolved over time, my effectiveness as an online instructor has gown with experience and experimentation.
Like in a traditional classroom setting, I begin my online semester with introductions. Not only does this allow students to get to know each other, it gives me a chance to learn a little more about who I’ll be working with, and vice versa. I was struck, particularly this semester, by what I read in these autobiographies: so many of my students where taking my courses online for reasons similar to why I was teaching them. People with full time families, with full time jobs, with illnesses, without transportation. People working on second degrees, people with GEDs, people in high school, or home school. Motivated, intelligent people with so many varied circumstances of life coming together in one online forum to explore art and its history together.
Continuing this sympathetic attitude and open communication beyond the first week has been a key to success in teaching a quality online course. In addition to being very clear about my time constraints, I am also very clear that during the week I am open to questions, open to suggestions, and available for guidance. I once had a student tell me that she’d never had an online instructor be so “present”. I was pleased by this, but also surprised. Since then, I’ve tried to be “there” even more for my online students.
Clarity in requirements and expectations is also a necessity. This means a lot of writing and revising of assignments and syllabi and it means being realistic about expectations. After my first semester teaching online, and deciding that it was something that I wanted to continue, I took an online teaching certification course that made a huge difference in this regard. The biggest lesson I learned was to avoid overloading my online course with too many assignments. There can be a tendency to over-compensate with an online course and increase the academic rigor to make up for the bad rap it gets. However, this can make the course overwhelming for both student and professor. Instead, I was advised to think of creative assignments that would enhance student experience and activities that didn’t compete or recreate a face to face class, but that enhance what the online format can offer. I have papers that center around experiencing, analyzing, and critiquing how art is experienced online. Students seem to enjoy these exercises, and many are even inspired to travel to see things in person.
I’ve learned that teaching an online class means fine-tuning every semester, not only in terms of content, but also in my use of technology. In just 6 years, things have already changed so much. Innovating classes can be impossible to do during the year, but I try to use my summers “off” to implement and experiment with the new advancements in online learning. 2020 will bring my attempts at creating my own “podcast” for students to listen to lectures, incorporating voice recording over my power points to walk students through visual analysis, interactive, jeopardy style quizzes that allow students to work together, or battle each other, and skype “office hours”.
I’ve got an amazing set of students this semester and I can’t wait to get started.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note: I’m taking a brief break from my recent series on the women’s history course I’m teaching. I’ll provide a final update on the course next time I write here, but today I want to talk about teaching something else: the history of slavery in the United States.
Do you remember when and how you first learned about slavery? I don’t. I wish I could say I remember, but I have no memory of when I first read descriptions of slavery and enslavement, nor how I felt about it. I suspect this is not uncommon for white people like myself who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement seemed to end, and as school bussing began declining in the late 1980s and 1990s. There was also the matter of geography: my parents knew few black people, having grown up in Southern California (dad) and Northern Iowa (mom), and until I was 15, we lived in places that tended to be majority white or Latinx.
I can count on one hand the number of African American people I knew before I started college, including a friend when I was six or seven, and a youth minister when I was 15. Even my reading was pretty whitewashed: I know I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cryand its sequels, but I have more vivid memories of Nancy Drew books and my obsession with British books (Secret Garden, A Little Princess…). I didn’t encounter A Raisin in the Sun until college. Probably the only thing I can tell you for sure is that I did somehow learn that slavery caused the Civil War, although I spent more time visiting battlefields than reading about the causes of the war. I know my historical knowledge expanded in undergrad, where I first encountered the concepts of analyzing race, gender, and class, and certainly graduate school deepened my knowledge and understanding much further.
Last year, I returned to teaching US History after several years of teaching only world history. Coming back to my specialty area was exciting, but also thought-provoking, as I worked to develop a new honors-level US history course that would spin off of AP US History (the class prepares students for that exam, while not being specifically an AP class). Over and over again, I found myself disappointed in how poorly I was teaching my students about the history of slavery. I could blame the AP curriculum, on the one hand, because there was so much to go through that it didn’t seem like it could be helped on the one hand, but on the other hand – that’s not the right place to direct the blame. As a result of this, I started a personal effort to better understand and teach the history of slavery to my students. It began with a lot of reading, beyond what I’d studied in grad school, to look more deeply at what I thought I knew, and how I’ve approached that in the classroom.
In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, self-care has been an important part of my cancer treatment. Self-care can be difficult for many of us, despite how important it is, because of the expectation that we stay busy on productive, worthwhile activities. Thus, for me, self-care often means exercise and reading-both useful and relaxing. However, another soothing activity is watching television…way too much television. Needless to say, I am at odds with this habit. With access to Netflix, Hulu, AmazonPrime, HBO-GO, etc. it’s rare that I can’t find something to distract and entertain at any given moment. However, while in graduate school a beloved professor/mentor likened watching television during the day to drinking before 5pm. As someone who does most of their work at home, this slightly nagging inner voice prevented me from diversions that would have interfered with work.
However, does watching tv and doing something valuable have to be mutually exclusive? After a particularly difficult day of doctor appointments, and after having already binged the new episodes of “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, I happened upon a show entitled “Fake or Fortune”. “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. From the start I was hooked, not only because I’m an art historian but also because the art mysteries were hugely entertaining. However, the more I watched, the more I saw the value in the series also as a teaching tool.
Bruce and Mould, along with historians, curators, art historians, scientists, gallery owners, cultural institutions, and librarians, show the lengthy and laborious process of research. What a gift this could be to students who struggle with exactly that. The hosts, and hosts of scholars who help them along, rely on interviews with collectors, connoisseurs, and curators. They dig through insurance inventories, gallery archives, and sales receipts. They travel to local libraries, foreign countries, and scientific labs to find clues in the unlikeliest of places. Perhaps most important in its accessibility to the viewer is the way they present research as a fun, and important, investigation.
Again, the more episodes I watched, the more I saw how I could use this in the classroom and how it could help my students in their approach to historical research. Although I have passed shied away from the use of videos in the classroom, and certainly pop culture programs such as this one, I plan to show my students an episode in the next few weeks. I’ll have to leave this post on a bit of a cliff-hanger (the value is currently in its theory stage), but my theory is that viewing research through this new lens will help them in their own projects. At the least, they will get a fuller sense of what goes into the research process; it’s just not lonely hours in a library with mountains of monographs. Research is also talking to people, reading journals, watching documentaries, looking at photographs, collaborating people in and outside your field, and confronting preconceived notions and hopes.
I’ve been taking a break from my own personal research projects during treatment, but watching tv has me getting excited about them again. Wait…did I just tun my only self-care guilty pleasure into work? Oh well.
It’s been a while. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I have. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and put my thoughts to paper and today I do so for release. Writing functions as such an important catharsis for me, which is why I was so desperate to get back to the page after a very long, and unexpected, writing hiatus.
I wish I could say it was for exciting reasons, but alas, it was not. As you read in my last post, 2019 started out much the same as it always has, but it did not maintain its mundanity. The next post I had planned to write was going to feature the professional conference I attended in February. Instead, directly after that conference, I was confronted with a life changing diagnosis; Colorectal Cancer, Stage IV.
I tried crying about it for about a week, contemplating my demise, but it didn’t suit me. Neither did eating my feelings instead of writing them down (although mindfully eating a bag of Doritos does have its merits). So here I am, doing something I usually loathe, making my personal life public. I’ve gone back and forth about this post, and about extending my hiatus, but then I remembered that “the personal is political”, and felt empowered by idea that one’s personal experience can help political or social discourse. Perhaps that is what I’m supposed to do with this experience.
I finished my 8th and final round of chemo at the end of July and today I start radiation as I also begin another semester teaching art history at 2 community colleges. My doctors and I have high expectations for remission, but it will be a long road until then. I remain my optimistic self and fortunately, the nature of my job has allowed me to use the summer to focus on my health and my family. I was also fortunate that, despite a demanding schedule of chemo, radiation, and surgery, I was, and continue to be, able to work, semi-normally, with the help of my family, friends, and colleagues. It truly does take a village.
Now let me pause for a moment right here, dear reader, to assure you that this isn’t intended to be a traditional cancer post. I’m not ready to detail my treatment or any deep insights I may have gained from this humbling experience. I may never have insights. I still change the cat litter and my daughter still steals my phone to use the toilet. I guess at the the least I’ve learned to be thankful that everyone else in this house has a colon functioning better than I. In addition, I have yet to fully face the fears that come with this disease. Not yet. I need space from it and time to figure out what my relationship with cancer will be.
However, fighting cancer has heightened the lens through which I view the world and my own life. Detailing my journey (thus far) to close family and friends, I quickly noticed my over-use of the word “lucky”. Lucky that I had doctors who took me seriously when I told them my pain was unusual. Lucky that those doctors sprung to action. Lucky my co-workers stepped in to teach the classes I was unable to attend and help me finish my spring semester so I didn’t lose the already tenuous hold I have on my contingent faculty position. Lucky that my husband has good insurance and kind co-workers as well. Lucky that I’m surrounded by family that are friends and friends that are family who have come to help take care of me, my child, my house, my cooking and cleaning, because considering hiring help on an adjunct salary is laughable.
As a long-term, career, adjunct professor, I’ve always kept up with information about the status of contingent faculty experiences, but that attention is now focused even more with one question: what if this happens to someone else who isn’t so “lucky”. The answer to that question isn’t hard to find since my story is not unique. The death of Margaret Mary Vojtko sparked much debate about the treatment of adjuncts as did the death of Thea Hunter. Both women had done everything right, in terms of securing degrees and accolades, which should have garnered them success in their respective fields. Instead, they both died in poverty. In addition, there are myriad articles detailing the realities of life as a contingent employee, including data on low pay and the need to secure additional jobs to make ends meet, which is easier said than done.
Reflecting on my mortality, and how expendable I seem to be to the field I’ve devoted myself to for decades, has made me realize just how integral I am. I have been teaching part-time at community colleges and universities in the DMV for about 15 years. At the onset, I felt as many in my position probably have: adjunct work was the consolation prize. I took the abuse about failure and not being good enough to be full time or tenured because I thought I deserved it.
Luckily, I’ve stopped thinking of my position in these terms. I am great at what I do: I’m invested in my students, I’m committed to my field, I attend (on my own dime) conferences, symposia, and local lectures that keep me up to date on research and pedagogy, and perhaps most importantly, I fulfill a need in the system. That’s something that seems to be lost in this: I’m not the desperate one. The adjunct, the graduate student, the post-doc, the non-tenured are not disposable. Not only is it common decency to provide a living wage and a safety net for any worker, this respect should be given to those upon who we so desperately rely. Instead, so many of us are left to rely on luck.
Despite our part-time status, we are not contingent humans. The problem now resides in a system that has not evolved to understand our power and our worth. Academia is not doing me a favor. It’s the other way around
Again, I survive the system purely because of luck, but many others do not have the same support system. Thus, we need to come together within the profession. It’s time for us to collectively bargain for rights we deserve. We didn’t lose the game, we didn’t fail, the job system changed, so our approach to it needs to change as well. I know people will balk at the idea of unionization and detail the varied reasons it won’t fix the problem. However, at this point we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas. (There really is a Simpsons reference for every occasion).
Luckily, I know I will survive both cancer and a life as an adjunct professor, but I’d like colleagues in a position like mine to have the same outlook.
In addition to writing publicly about this very personal struggle, my cancer diagnosis caused me to do something else uncharacteristic: I purchased a book of encouraging quotes.