Where do you get stuck?: Process-oriented planning and organizing for teaching

I wanted to finish this PALS post yesterday but here it is today, and I have had trouble focusing on a topic to write about. It’s not because I don’t have a lot of ideas swirling in my head. Rather, I have been using much of my teacher brain the last couple of weeks to focus on course planning and organizing, and I just can’t get those swirling ideas about actual teaching to settle. So I have decided to lean in and write about the process of planning, and some ways I have tried to be a little more reflective about how that process works for me, or more specifically, where my process often breaks down.

I will spare you the details of my current course prep because they aren’t that exciting (my brother on the other end of the phone this weekend as I talk about my planning: “Brie, I literally stopped listening.”) But I am probably doing the most planning/organizing/figuring things out/being confused about how things work that I have done since the first year I was a teacher — oh, blessed be those who have never written an assignment sheet before. My circumstances this year are unique to my situation: new job, new education system, newish country, etc. However, I think some of my reflections might be more universal.

First, this post is written in part to recognize all of the administrative/planning/organizing labor that we have to do as teachers. That labor is often not thought of as an important part of the job of teaching. I’m not specifically talking about the kind of planning that involves envisioning texts for a course or making sure the course assignments meet the learning objectives. Rather, I’m thinking of things like posting to learning management systems, keeping track of add/drop dates, getting your room changed because the assigned room isn’t big enough, and so many more. Of course, every job has these more mundane but time-consuming aspects. However, whenever I had an office job, that kind of work — scheduling meetings, updating calendars, communicating with team members effectively-— was considered part of the work that I did. Whereas, now I have trouble giving myself “credit” for that work. I will feel like I have not accomplished much that day if all I did was put up course content on the LMS and finish planning the schedule for the semester.

For me personally, feeling like I didn’t do enough work makes me feel kind of bad about myself, which leads me to other kinds of time wasting/unproductivity. I have to feel accomplished to stay in an accomplishing-stuff zone, so not acknowledging organizing tasks as work has negative effects on what I achieve generally. In a broader sense too, we need to acknowledge all of the work of teaching and talk about it too. We need to talk about it to each other and also to everyone else we know. I don’t think people know how much and how many kinds of WORK go into teaching, and maybe being just a little louder about it would help us value teaching more and show that value with things like higher pay.

The increase in my need to organize and plan this semester got me thinking about the process of completing those kinds of tasks. One of the reasons that I like writing about teaching is that I love process. I like to think about how I get from point A to point B. But I, honestly, except for buying a lot of paper planners, have not thought much about my own process for getting mundane things accomplished. I have thought about my process of writing, certainly, and researching, but I haven’t dissected the process of me writing an email to the class, for example.

When I did break down the process a bit, I started to notice a few places in the process where I routinely get stuck. I don’t really have any solutions for dealing with these places yet, but it has been helpful to pull back and just explore a bit where I get frustrated and think about why that is. What follows are a few of my “stuck places”:

  1. Too many ideas. I love to generate ideas. I have a lot of ideas. But often I start too many things at once and that doesn’t allow me to focus on finishing them. See number 4.
  2. Not understanding how long things take me. I regularly block on 25 minutes for things that take me 3 hours or a morning for things that take me all day. Over-estimating what I can accomplish makes me feel unaccomplished when I can’t get everything done.
  3. Not being able to vary the intensity of my work. I was never a very good skim reader. And I’m not very good at knowing what kind of focus I need to put into something. I’m either completely focused or metaphorically picking dandelions. Putting a lot of effort into everything I do work-wise might sound like a good thing, but I have found that it can make things take way longer than necessary. See number 2. Yes, I can beautifully format a table in Word, but what if I just didn’t?
  4. Getting over the finish line. I have a lot of things from drafts of assignment sheets to academic articles not just half done but more like 75-90% done. Part of the procrastination here is trying to do too many things at once. See number 1. But another issue is once things are finished then they have to go out into the world. That is super scary with academic articles, but it is also even a little scary with assignment sheets.

I don’t want to suggest that my goal here is to “fix” these things and become a more productive worker. I see you, capitalism. But recognizing them and learning to troubleshoot a bit might give me more peace as a worker. Or at least be just a tiny bit less hard on myself.

What are your process concerns when it comes to work? Where does your process work well, and where does it break down? Comment below or tweet us with thoughts!

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Reflections on Teaching Poverty & Wealth through American Literature

PALS warmly welcomes a guest post by Leah Milne. Milne is assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. In this post she writes about a recent literature course on the subject of poverty and wealth. Milne reflects below on the course trajectory and potential lessons for future iterations of the course.

I just completed my first semester teaching a course entitled Poverty and Wealth in Literature, and part of my preparation involved envisaging the possible student responses to the subject and texts. Learning, for example, some general facts about the student body gave me a better sense of the audience, including the percentage of first-generation college students, the median income of their parents, and so on. My particular institution, for instance, is a small, private liberal arts college where about 40% of the students are first-generation, and many receive scholarships and/or financial assistance. Despite knowing this, however, discussing such a controversial subject as socioeconomic class elicited some surprises that I hope to better anticipate in the future.

I started the semester with two poems. Asking groups to interpret a poem or two on the first day of class is an easy way to establish the rigor of a course. In this case, the course required extensive literary analysis and classroom discussion. Since the course was directed towards students in their first semester of college, none of whom were English majors, I wanted to make the work requirements of the class clear. At the same time, these particular poems—Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (1883) and Gary Soto’s “Oranges” (1983)—established two scales of socioeconomic class that I planned for us to tackle that semester: the intimate and personal as represented by Soto’s nostalgic “Oranges,” and the global and grandiose as represented by Lady Liberty’s call of “worldwide welcome” in Lazarus’s poem.

While these two impulses of addressing both the intimate and the grandiose in class issues certainly formed the general foundation for the course, I had to quickly guide students in directions I had not predicted so early in the semester. For instance, during a class discussion about inequality on day 2, I felt compelled to encourage students to avoid the Oppression Olympics, a term I picked up from Elizabeth Martínez in her book, De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century (1998). Martínez addresses the problem with competing for the “gold medal of ‘Most Oppressed’” when she states, “Pursuing some hierarchy of oppression leads us down dead-end streets where we will never find the linkage between different oppressions and how to overcome them” (5). In other words, suggesting that we can rank who experiences the most oppression compounds the problem of inequality without addressing or solving it.

The most useful way I found for my students to comprehend the linkages that Martínez describes was through intersectionality. The originator of the term, Kimberlé Crenshaw, gave a TED talk explaining the dilemma of linked oppressions by way of Emma DeGraffenreid, a black woman who sued General Motors (GM) for discrimination. A judge ruled against DeGraffenreid, citing that GM had in fact hired black men and white women, and thus couldn’t possibly be discriminating against black women. Crenshaw illustrates what she calls the “urgency of intersectionality” by drawing attention (at 11:00 in the video) to the “law’s refusal to protect African-American women simply because their experiences weren’t exactly the same as white women and African-American men.” Considering intersectionality allowed my students and I to contemplate privilege without focusing on one singular characteristic like race, nationality, age, or location. Thus, for example, experiences of being poor looked very different in Zitkala-Ša‘s Yankton Indian Reservation and Carlisle Indian School in the late 1800s than in the relatively egalitarian community of Shaker Heights in the late 1990s, described in all of its glorious contradictions in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

Intersectionality also allowed us to complicate perceptions of wealth. For instance, the wealthiest character we discussed this semester was Dr. Jo Baker of Destroyer, Victor LaValle’s graphic novel and Frankenstein follow-up. In addition to having a name that hearkens back to the entertainer and agent of the French Resistance during World War II, Baker is also the last living descendant of Victor Frankenstein, with access to a nearly unlimited amount of wealth for her scientific and technological experiments and inventions. However, this wealth has its limitations, particularly given her status as a black woman. When her son, Akai, is killed by policemen in a shooting akin to that of Tamir Rice, Baker continues the Frankenstein heritage by using her knowledge and resources to attempt to bring Akai back to life. It becomes clear to students, though, that Baker’s vast wealth and knowledge are not enough to fully counteract her linked oppressions as a black woman.

I was fortunate enough to moderate an interview with the author at the Indianapolis Central Library and the Center for Black Literature and Culture. As an added bonus, LaValle visited my students on the day they were to discuss his comic series, and one asked him if Akai would be okay at the end. Pleased, LaValle responded that her concern was the best response he could hope for, especially given the reluctance of many to discuss intersections of race and class that differ from one’s own. In fact, empathy—most specifically, our inabilities to empathize fully with others—emerged as the central frame through which I guided many of our class discussions on inequality. Even if one of us were, say, a mother, a black scientist, or as wealthy as Jo Baker, our abilities to fully comprehend her pain at losing Akai would never completely match up. The best we could do was try to empathize while recognizing our limitations in doing so. As one student related, “I know I will never be able to truly empathize, but I will attempt to empathize more.”

I found it helpful to further complicate affective responses such as this one by discussing intersectionality through the public perceptions about the causes of poverty, the latter described in an article by Laura R. Peck, and which I summarized for the students using examples from our texts. For instance, a significant subplot of Ng’s aforementioned Little Fires Everywhere is a transracial adoption involving a Chinese-American baby named—depending on your take on the issue—either May Ling Chow (her birth name) or Mirabelle McCullough (her adopted name).

Students can characterize the poverty of the birth mother, Bebe, as individualistic—blaming her for being, say, lazy or immoral. On the other hand, they could point to fatalistic determinants, suggesting that luck or divine will is the reason for her poverty. Finally, they could highlight structural determinants, such as the lack of systemic support for new mothers and/or newly-arrived immigrants to the US, or the low wages provided to restaurant workers and others in the service industry. Analyzing their responses to the causes of poverty, students were better poised to empathize with someone whom they may have otherwise dismissed as simply a bad mother. As one student admitted at the end of the semester, “My perception of socioeconomic issues have changed as I was very unempathetic towards certain aspects of poverty. However, after reading and learning about the determinants of poverty, I am much more aware and open-minded about issues of class.” Or as another student stated, “There are so many more determinants of poverty than most people realize. In general, there is a stereotype that people in poverty do not work hard, etc. However, many factors that individuals cannot choose heavily contribute to class inequality.” Similar applications were applied to the adoptive mother, Linda McCullough, and her sometimes clumsy attempts at motherhood, with Ng providing background into Linda’s sheltered upbringing and her family’s long and honored history in Shaker Heights. In fact, Ng’s work flourishes in such nuanced characterizations; each member of the Richardsons—the white, upper-middle-class family at the center of the novel—have unique ways of dealing with these aspects of identity.

Finally, specific structural considerations of poverty resonated in ways I had not predicted. For instance, equitable access to housing—and its connections to issues such as redlining and gentrification—became a surprisingly prominent theme in many discussions. Whether it was discussions of race-based covenants in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun or observations of nearby neighborhoods experiencing gentrification, housing functioned as a concrete anchor for contemplating the material consequences of inequality. Housing also allowed me to return to the grander ideals that began the semester, highlighted in Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”: If we as a nation truly wanted “the homeless [and] tempest-tost” on our shores (13), then we would have to reckon with the conditions that they would face upon their arrival. And if we really believed that the American dream is possible, then we needed to consider how we might best help others attain that dream.

The next time that I have the opportunity to teach this course, I plan on emphasizing the importance of learning through discomfort and of thus directly confronting more concepts like intersectionality that can propel the conversation forward in a productive manner. I also hope to incorporate more opportunities for self-reflection. I believe that doing so will guide students toward a deeper recognition of the ingrained norms and beliefs they have about class and the ways it interacts with and is affected by government policy, individual responsibility, and social and cultural beliefs. Finally, in reading literature alongside these discussions, I aspire for students to see the importance of literature — and the arts in general — in providing us different perspectives on these complicated issues.

Bio:

Leah Milne is an assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. She teaches courses on American literature, nationality, young adult novels, postcolonial literature, and women writers. Her comparative book project examines writer-characters and forms of self-care in post-1945 ethnic American novels, focusing on texts by authors such as Louise Erdrich, Percival Everett, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jonathan Safran Foer. She received her doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Her work has been published in numerous academic journals and edited collections, including MELUSPostcolonial Text, and College Literature. Find her on Twitter @DrMLovesLit.