Show Yourself Some Love

Today was the first day of the fall semester, and while I did not have class today, I did go into the office to organize and prepare for the two classes that I have tomorrow and Thursday. It was a busy day on campus and over the course of the week there will all sorts of emotions circulating through the halls. There are many tasks I want to accomplish this semester, but I found myself re-committing to a promise that I made to myself about four years ago (around the time I was hired on full time at my community college). The promise was to take better care of myself during the semester and it is something I actively think about every term.

This vow to care for myself came from years of being a graduate student/teaching fellow and then an adjunct instructor. I wasn’t kind to myself in those years. I didn’t eat well, I didn’t sleep well, I didn’t exercise regularly, I didn’t take quiet time for myself and I didn’t say “no” very often. In fact, when it came to my time as an adjunct, I never said no. This was an active strategy on my part. I wanted to be seen as a team player and dependable and flexible. I felt all of these things would serve me well if I were ever in the position to apply for a full time position. As it turned out, that full time position popped up after I had been at my community college for about a year and a half. I applied. I was offered the job. I accepted.

At the lovely IMA.

The first year I was full time, I fell back into my old habits. The spring semester I took on seven, yes, seven, classes (don’t ask) and I suffered for it. I was cranky. I was tired. I felt gross physically and sluggish mentally. I ate poorly and exercise? Forget it. I decided that I needed to reevaluate how I was living my life because what I was doing wasn’t working.

The first thing I started to do was say “no.” Admittedly, this was easier given my past behaviors. I wasn’t criticized for cutting back, in fact, I was encouraged to, so I did. I focused only on my courses and the student creative writing group I advised for.  I also started getting back to exercise and eating better. I started cooking more and discovered I really enjoyed it. In fact, doing things I enjoyed made me happy, so I added to the list. I went on walks, read books I wanted to read during the semester, watched movies, got manicures, and went hiking in the woods. I was happier and more balanced. This taking care of myself was working.

I found myself in a familiar position this time last year, when I realized that once again, I was over committed to things I wasn’t necessarily that invested in, so I cut back. eliminated some stresses at work and re-committed to self care. I started going to yoga and discovered Zumba and turbo kick. I read more books, took time to go to the pool in the summer and spent some weekends away with my husband.

I need balance. I am much happier if I have balance and I’m fiercely protective of my own time because it is mine. It makes me sound self centered, but I don’t necessarily have to be alone to enjoy “me time.” However, I do need to give myself breaks and special treatment every now and then. This isn’t being selfish. It is being a human being. Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. Love yourself. You deserve it.

48 Hours in the Life of a Community College Professor

Thursday January 10, 2013

Professor is currently on day #4 of faculty in-service week. Over the past few days, the professor has answered emails, organized syllabi and begun loading course content on Blackboard. Below is a rough timeline of her day:

11:00 AM- Arrive at office.

11:05 AM: Check email/voicemail.

11:10 AM: Make “To-Do” list for the day.

11:15 AM: Begin prepping online American Lit course (this is the third day of prep for this course).

12:00 PM: Finish prepping online American Lit course.

12:05 PM: Make list of questions for course coordinator about online American Lit course.

12:06 PM: Email course coordinator with list of questions.

12:10-12:15 PM: Chat with office mates.

12:15 AM-2:00 PM: Continue to prep other courses for spring semester.

2:30 PM- Receives email from American Lit course coordinator that the professor’s section has been CANCELED  due to low enrollment.

2:31 PM: Professor’s head hits desk.

2:33 PM: Professor goes in search of interim chair so she can pick up another course.

2:35 PM: Finds interim chair. Only courses left are introductory composition courses at inconvienent times.

2:36 PM: Professor’s stomach starts to churn.

2:37 PM: Professor resigns herself to taking a section of composition that meets Monday/Wednesday night.

2:38 PM: Professor shuffles back to her office.

2:40 PM: Professor realizes none of her composition files are on campus because she has not taught this particular course since 2010.

2:41 PM-3:00 PM:Professor commiserates with colleagues about the annoyance of it all.

3:05 PM: Professor drives home. She is muttering to herself the entire way.

Friday January 11, 2013

9:30 AM: Professor arrives for day #5 of in-service week. She is armed with all her composition files collected from home.

9:35 AM: Professor vows to remain optimistic. She’s taught this course many times. It will be OK.

9:37-9:40 AM: Professor reviews composition textbook. Optimism takes a hit. Textbooks are boring.

9:45-10:00 AM: Professor begins to review/update composition syllabus. She has not taught this course since summer of 2010. Optimism takes another hit.

10:00-10:15 AM: Professor looks over assignments. 20 journals? 5 essays? 5 revisions? Optimism takes another hit.

10:15-10:30 AM: Professor realizes she cannot take her favorite turbo kick class now because she will be teaching class. Optimism is gone.

10:30-10:45 AM: Professor commiserates with collegaues. Again.

11:00-12:30 PM: Liberal Arts & Sciences Department Meeting.

12:30 PM: Meets with two colleagues to discuss creative writing student group

12:35 PM: Professor realizes that one of these colleagues had to drop a creative writing course due to scheduling difficulties. Said colleague offers this class to professor.

12:36 PM: Professor RUNS up to interim program chair and asks for the creative writing class to replace composition course.

12:37 PM: Interim chair agrees and makes the change.

12:38 PM: Professor sings praises of colleague who gave up her class. She offers her chocolate, wine, books, her first born child, whatever this woman desires. Colleague is just glad to help. Professor is ELATED.

12:38-1:40 PM: Professor chats with colleagues about how optimistic she is for the beginning of the semester.

2:00 PM: Professor arrives home and collapses onto her couch. Classes begin January 14th. 

Do I Really Have to Buy the Book?

Today marked my return to school after a two week break. Today also marked the first day I have felt halfway normal since New Years Eve. I managed to get up, shower, go to work, take the dog to the vet and (gasp) go workout. Watch out guys, I’m back.

But I digress.

I returned to my office to find my plant badly in need of water and also a boat load of emails. I don’t check email over break. I put up my out of office message on the day grades are due and I’m out. The emails were fairly mundane. There were several notifying me of various technical updates that had occurred over break, some messages about the Spring 2013 academic calendar that has apparently changed three times in 24 hours, and a lot of spam. Among these unassuming messages, were three emails from students. All of these emails came from students in the same class, English Composition online, and they all asked essentially the same question: Do I have to buy the book for this course?

Now, I understand textbooks are exorbitantly expensive. I don’t like it and I agree with students when they complain about how half of their financial aid goes towards said textbooks. That being said, this is an introductory writing course and its online. There are no face to face lectures, question/answer sessions or conferences. Online students certainly are welcome to come in and chat with me, but let’s face it, they don’t. Because there is no face to face contact, the textbook is even more important (in my opinion) in an online class than it would be in a traditional course.

The short answer? Yes, you need to buy the book.

My favorite one of these emails was from a young man who has apparently already completed English Composition one time but he received a B in the course, and he “really needs an A to get into his physical therapy program,” so he already went through the course without the textbook, but feels the need to “double check with me” about doing so again. I was tempted to reply with, “Well, Student X, perhaps if you buy the book this time it will give you that extra edge to get you that much needed A.” However, I showed restraint and simply gave him the only answer I can really give to an adult college student: “It is your choice.”

End of the Semester: Pros & Cons

I teach writing. I teach writing at the college level. These two statements could encompass a blog post all by themselves, but at the end of the Fall 2012 term, I find myself wanting only to focus on one part of my job: grading. I teach a variety of classes, so this term the “writing” includes research papers, literary analysis papers and creative writing portfolios. To sum up how this process has been going, I will quote myself as I responded to this post (courtesy of my friend, Sam) on Facebook:

Today in back-to-back newsfeed items:

“Man, my students really are blessing me this week. One just gave me a Christmas card that really touched me and let me know that I am doing something right in and out of the classroom. Humble”

and….

“Time to get out my student-beating stick.”

My comment:

As I read this post, I am knee deep in *research papers and I feel the constant push and pull of pride and despair.

This pretty much sums up the feelings I currently have and will continue to have throughout the next week as I move through the mountain of writing before me. And with this sentiment, I give you the pros and cons of grading college essays at the end of the term.

Pros

1. Improvement. This is a huge pro. Arguably, this is the best result of a final piece of writing. It’s not that it is an “A” paper or that it is “well written” or even that the student has stumbled across some insight that has never occurred to me. It is that they finally mastered APA formatting, or they wrote a killer thesis statement, or their poem finally came together or for the love of all things, they finally formatted their title page correctly. Hallelujah! 

2. Creativity. An interesting quote in the introduction, a piece of fiction inspired by an author they admire, a well crafted sentence or a research topic that resonates on a personal level. All of these make me happy.

3. Directions. This may seem obvious and even trivial, but writing that meets the word count, writing that correctly uses APA format, writing that contains a title page and reference page, writing that includes the correct number of sources, etc. Never underestimate the power of following a simple set of directions.

4. Eloquence. Beautiful sentences, vivid imagery, clearly organized paragraphs, thoughtful conclusions, grammatically correct sentences, no misspellings, the correct use of a semi-colon and a clearly worded thesis statement. 

Cons

1. Apologies. It is not a good omen to get a message from a student before reading their essay that apologizes for how terrible it is. Seriously?

2.  APA Format. Admittedly, I don’t like this type of formatting but it is a necessary evil. It is also the #2 reason why students lose points on their papers. If you’re not sure, LOOK IT UP.

3. Directions. Repetition? This is the #1 reason students lose points on their papers. Word count isn’t met, sources are not present, APA, etc. 

4. Sloppiness. This is not be confused with “poor writing.” Poor writing doesn’t anger me. Sloppiness does. Examples of sloppiness? Sentence fragments, misspellings, typos, missing words and sentences that don’t makes sense. 

5. Laziness. My number one example of this problem? I take the time to read and comment on rough drafts. I do this so that students have the benefit of revising their papers before submitting final drafts. However, if you choose not to read my comments and then turn in the same exact paper with the same exact errors? Well, let’s just say, your grade is going to reflect that choice. 

*In this comment I refer to research papers in particular, but this applies to all the writing I am grading this semester.



First Impressions of a Fall Semester

The fall semester started at my community college August 21st and so far it’s been a solid three weeks. A fellow colleague mentioned that there “seemed to be something different in the air this semester” and it got me thinking about some of the things I’ve observed over the past few weeks.

1. The enthusiasm for extracurricular activities on campus is increasing. This may seem like an odd observation given that I work at a college, but our students are all commuters, so sometimes drawing them towards student organizations and community service events can be tricky. They are pulled between work, family and classes, so when we had our annual activities fair the second week of school it was a pleasant surprise to see lots of new and returning students signing up for email lists and asking questions about how to get involved.

2. Our campus feels more like a campus. When I began teaching at my community college, the campus consisted of two buildings at our downtown location. This past spring we moved into a brand new academic building that houses offices, student lounges, classrooms, a food court and a coffee bar. We recently finished construction on our new culinary building and we now have a skywalk that joins two of the busiest buildings on campus. I love walking into my building in the morning and seeing students line up to buy coffee.

3. Students seem more organized and better prepared for classes. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but I think our increased attention to new student orientation has helped in terms of teaching students how to be students. A lot of our students are non-traditional, so assimilating back into a college environment presents a whole other set of challenges.

I’m embarking on some new projects this semester as well and I’m reminded of how much I like the energy and excitement that comes with a new semester. Here’s hoping that energy continues. 

Grateful for Good Friends At Work

I’m lucky in many things when it comes to my job. I get to teach a subject I love, I teach a challenging and diverse student body, I have much more scheduling flexibility than most and I find myself teaching class in a brand new, beautiful academic building. However, I am most lucky in the friends I have at work. This occurred today when I saw a friend who has recently taken on a new position at the college and as a result, I see him a lot less. We were both attending the same meeting and afterwards we walked over to the new building, grabbed a snack from the food court and went up to my office to say hello to my office mate. We proceeded to chat about our students and our classes and all things academic (and a few non academic) and we had a good time.

I am lucky that when I come to the office in the morning there are two people who are smart, funny and excellent professors. We solve problems, we vent our frustrations, we talk about how to make our classes better and we make each other laugh.

I am lucky to be involved in a division (LAS) that believes in hanging out after hours. That cultivates good relationships in and out of classroom. That supports staff and faculty in good times and in bad and that genuinely cares about the professional and personal happiness of its faculty.

I am lucky to be part a department that creates things like a book club, chooses Jane Eyre as a book, and then hosts a full English tea to celebrate. I am lucky that my department chair is understanding, smart, knowledgeable and efficient. I am lucky that the faculty in my department are creative and supportive.

I am lucky to have made an especially good friend at work and I am lucky that she and I were hired at the same time. She’s one of the smartest people I know and she knits beautiful shawls and mittens and socks. There are days that I would have surely lost my mind if she weren’t around to talk to. I’m really lucky to know her.

Teaching can be a grueling profession and often times you need a plan A, B, C, D, etc. It is rewarding but that is because it is a lot of work and it is so important to have a support system among your peers. So thank you to all my friends at my community college. You are awesome and often times you are the reason I can get through a particularly brutal day.

Love you guys.

Guest Blog: A Letter To My Community College

I’m a guest blogger over at A Librarian’s Lists and Letters. Here’s an excerpt from my post. To read the rest, check out Shannon’s blog.

To My Community College:

If you had asked me ten years ago as a graduating senior from a private liberal arts college what I knew about community colleges, I would have said absolutely nothing. However, this would not have been a true answer because I knew one thing about community colleges: I knew they were looked down upon. How did I know this? Because occasionally when I would tell people unfamiliar with Allegheny College where I went to school they would pause and then say, “Oh,” you go to CCAC.” CCAC stands for Community College of Allegheny County. The first few times this happened, I corrected the questioner but didn’t think much of it. I didn’t know anything about CCAC and I’m not a native of Pennsylvania, so whatever. They were confusing one school for another. Who cares, right? I was quickly set straight when the same mistake was made in the presence of a friend of mine from Pittsburgh. “No, no, no,” she interjected quickly, “we go to Allegheny College not CCAC. That’s a community college.” Then she laughed and made a face, and I started to get the picture.

Read the rest here.

A New Office for the New Year

Over the winter break my community college packed up the Liberal Arts & Sciences department and moved us over to our new building, currently named Illinois/Fall Creek (these are the two streets it sits on). When I arrived Tuesday, things were a bit chaotic. There is still a lot of construction going on, so there was plenty of dust and power tools and men with hard hats. Our offices were in a state of disarray with extra furniture and cube walls that were not in the right spots. Luckily, by Wednesday the extra furniture was gone, our computers were up and online, our spiffy new phones worked and the cubes were all the correct size.

My cozy cube.

My new window! I brought two plants in immediately.

This view from my window shows the front of the new building. If you look off to the right you can see downtown.

I’m very pleased with my new office space. I currently share it with two other professors and they are awesome. There is a lot of natural light and the air quality is much better than where we were before. The building as a whole is gorgeous and will be even more so once it is completely finished. They are letting students in on Monday. Let the spring semester begin.

Recognizing the Danger Signs

The beginning of the semester arrived on Monday for the community college where I am a full time assistant professor. I teach composition and creative writing and recently have taken on American Lit. I only have two face to face courses this semester, the other two being online (that’s a whole other post altogether) however it’s always nice to walk into a room of fresh faces at the beginning of the term.

This morning, while I was drinking my one designated cup of coffee for the day, I came across this article in The New York Times: College’s Policy on Troubled Students Is Under Scrutiny. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you’re aware of Jared Loughner opening fire in Arizona. Among his victims Representative Gabrielle Giffords. However, what I’ve found particularly compelling about this story is the narrative surrounding his attendance at Pima Community College.

I know I think this an important part of the overall picture because a). I’m a professor at a community college. 2). I had my own experience with a troubled student last spring. My student was young, erratic, and physical. He was bi-polar and ex-military. His behavior became increasingly unpredictable as the semester progressed to the point where he made his fellow peers uncomfortable. What finally drove it home for me, was when he showed up one day in my office looking for me while I was off campus for a meeting. He proceeded to talk to my officemate for several minutes, becoming more and more animated and making no sense whatsovever. When I returned from my meeting, he was long gone but my officemate and several other faculty told me I needed to file complaint. His behavior made them fear for my well being. This is the part of the story that I relate to the article from the Times. When I filed my complaint, I learned that this student had had a previous altercation in Financial Aid and that other students had complained about him. However, no one ever followed up on my complaint with me or my chair or the dean. Furthermore, my student vanished until the last week of classes when I received a letter letting me know he had been hospitalized and would not be back.

In the wake of the events in Arizona and even the incident at Virginia Tech, it is obvious that our community colleges need more support when it comes to students suffering from mental illness. I’m not saying that more resources or available care would have changed the outcomes for Loughner or Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) but I think the fact that authorities know something was wrong but didn’t know what to do about it is indicative of a larger problem. The only course of action seems to be to remove them immediately from the school, but in Loughner’s case there is speculation that this action may have served to aggravate him further.

What’s the answer? I think more education and more attention paid to students themselves. It was obvious to me that my student’s situation was not a priority and that just isn’t acceptable. We need a counseling center, with trained medical professionals. We need seminars for students and faculty. We need to stop waiting until something happens to take action.

A Week in Review…

While I think it’s kind of silly to end the first full week of classes with a three day weekend, I’m not going to complain. The first week of classes was uneventful and that’s just the way I like it. My students seem relatively enthusiastic, and I have eighteen enrolled in my creative writing class. My online class had a few small hiccups early in the week, but they were resolved quickly.

I’ve continued with the working out and eating at home. Right now I’m making some bread for the week and some bread to freeze. I haven’t had a chance to fire up the bread machine since we moved into the new house, so today seemed like the perfect time. I also put the first coat of paint on the bookcase that’s going to go in the dining room. It’s definitely going to need two coats, but the painting itself went pretty fast, so I plan to have it in the dining room by next weekend.

I’m in the process of making plans to travel to Erie in February to see Michael Pollan at Allegheny. I’m pretty excited and it will give me something to look forward to that month. Sometimes the spring semester has a tendency to drag, so I’m constantly looking for things to break up the monotony.
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Thursday night I went to Starbucks for about two hours to read before my night class. I left Ominovre’s Dilemma at home, so I pulled The House on Mango street off my shelves and read the whole book while I was at Starbucks.

I really like this book and it is a fast read. I was reminded at how the pacing and description are so prefect in how they fit the narrative. The section “Hair” is perfect when it comes to showing students how important sensory detail and image are in writing of all types:

But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly, and pretty because she pinned it in in pincurls all day, sweet to put you nose into when she is holding you, and holding you and you feel safe, it is the warm smell of bread before you bake it…

Also the section “Red Clowns” always disturbs me. Part of it is the subject matter and part of it is that I’ve always found something seedy and garish about the circus and don’t even get me started on clowns:

Why did you leave me all alone? I waited my whole life. You’re a liar. They all lied. All the books and magazines, everything that told it wrong. Only his dirty fingernails against my skin, only his sour smell again. The moon that watched. The tilt-a-whirl. The red clowns laughing their thick-tongued laugh.