At the end of August, when I told my colleague Liz about how Windows had crashed, how IT had tried to save my data, how I hadn’t backed anything up in months, how course materials, research notes and photographs were just suddenly gone, she offered her condolences and then said, “I wish there was a way to turn this disaster into some… I dunno, mindfulness… contemplative kind of thing for you…..” At the time I simply grimaced– the sting of the lost research too fresh, the prospect of recreating my classes too daunting for indulgence in mindfulness and contemplative practices.
I’ve repressed the sick feeling and anxiety whirling around the lost research (months of material–gone!). I’ll deal with that when sabbatical begins in January. Instead, for the last several weeks I’ve been squarely focused on my teaching. After the initial scramble to recreate syllabi, I launched into my classes assured that I had only lost material that had been created since June. Where did I ever get that idea? Wishful thinking. By September 3 I knew this was not the case. I’d recreate a lot more than syllabi this semester.
Now, as I prep for my classes, I search in folders labeled “Anglo-Saxon poetry,” “Shakespeare,” or “Arthurian Legends” for reading notes, quizzes, paper topics and assignments to update and reuse. Sometimes I find them. Certain files will open willingly and swiftly, sending a small thrill through me. Others will stubbornly insist that they include no data. Still others open but present me with unreadable code. I’ve stopped being surprised, angry, or even sad when I try to open a file I’ve known and loved for years only to find it empty or unreadable. When that happens now, I just open a blank doc and start anew. Frankly, I’m surprised by my own resiliency.
But enough of the computer woes. What I want to write about is the in-class experience and how losing most of my data has energized my teaching, loosened up my expectations, refocused my attention on the students, and given me an experience of my ability to teach.
So there’s the obvious: I’m not able to dust off old lecture notes. Not that I lectured per se, or that I even had “lecture notes.” But I certainly had schticks (page numbers for passages that illustrate key points, outlines of social and historical context I thought pertinent, ideas for connecting the material to other texts or experiences) for various texts and eras and these schticks were preserved in Word Document form.
I had initially made those Word Docs because, as a new instructor years ago, I didn’t know how to hold class discussion, I didn’t always know my material very well, and I certainly didn’t have an overarching plan for the entire course to which this text or class period was clearly contributing. Those Word Docs made sure that “class discussions” weren’t meandering, baggy monsters that went nowhere, frustrating all of the students except the three that constantly talked. They were safety nets to keep me on track.
But I now know my material inside and out. I have curricular understanding. And, it turns out, I’m pretty good at guiding class discussion; it’s much easier for me to helpfully prod and guide now than it was ten years ago. Having that schtick in Word Document form had, I now realize, been limiting and binding me. No longer a needed safety net, my notes were locking me into a tired and tiring agenda. For example, when students’ comments would lull, it was too easy for me to resort to my schtick, to my notes, rather than creatively respond to students’ needs and enriching their discussion. It took losing my Docs to realize I had outgrown them.
Now, because I’m pressed for time, I can’t overprep for class and stuff a new Word Doc full of my bombast or tired old observations. (I was of course tempted to do this each time I stumbled upon a corrupted file. Thank goodness I don’t have enough time for that!). Without that Word Doc I’m free to see new aspects of the text or concept. I’m forced to go into class equipped only with years of experience and an open mind. How scary! And yet, how beautiful it has been.
Never have I felt so truly present in the class. I’m feeling for the first time my self as a teacher confident in my knowledge of the content, able to respond genuinely to class discussion, mindfully adapting to students’ interests and energy levels. These are all things I thought I was doing before. I now see I was only doing a shadow of what could be done.
I think abashedly of past semesters when, time and again during “class discussion,” I would take a student’s comment and rephrase it so it would segue into the next point on my Word Doc. That ain’t no discussion. That’s manipulation. Now, instead, I think on-the-spot about how to shift the energy level in class, provoke the discussion in a new way, or follow up on a students’ point that got buried early in the conversation. And I’m genuinely interested in and surprised by what I’m learning, even about Beowulf and Midsummer Night’s Dream, texts I’ve lived with for years.
So, this has all been scary but class meetings have been more rewarding and relaxing for me than they have in the past. I’m not as drained after class. Without my Word Docs, I have no temptation to turn it into the Professor Kinane show. Instead I simply listen to these interesting individuals and try my best to provoke them to think more deeply and articulate more clearly. I know I’ll continue to make a lot of mistakes and more awkward and unsuccessful classes await me. But at least I feel like I’m finally starting to walk the talk. And I hadn’t even realized how very full of talk I had been. 🙂