book recommendation: The Courage to Teach

I realize I’m behind the times here. Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach was published in 1997. I’m reading the 2007 updated edition, but still, teachers are facing new challenges that Palmer couldn’t have imagined when he wrote this book. But then again, maybe he could. The specific circumstances are unprecedented (I know; we’re all tired of that word), but the underlying issues are the same. Schools having to shut down due to a pandemic—that’s a new challenge. Teachers being required to go into work, even though their buildings are shut down, because the people in charge don’t trust the teachers to do their work unsupervised—that’s an old problem.

This is a book about inner work, and Palmer is a Quaker who talks a lot about the voice of vocation and stuff like that. Don’t let that scare you away. He’s a wise, level-headed teacher with years of experience. I was going to share some quotes today, but I’d end up quoting entire chapters. So I’ll just share one example of how this book has helped me so far: It’s allowed me to understand and admit that, when I’m not at my best, I’m deeply afraid of what my students think of me. And it’s given me some steps forward to deal with that fear—not “quick tips,” but truths that will require some reflection.

If you’re a teacher at any level, I highly recommend this book. If you’re not a teacher, you can read it anyway—or you might enjoy one of Palmer’s other books, such as Let Your Life Speak. If you’ve read any of his books, let me know what you think!

my weekly rhythms

The word rhythm, in reference to the daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual practices that provide a semblance of structure to our lives, is trending. I have to admit that I’m a sucker for the concept; I am drawn to links or magazines that tell me how to improve my bedtime routine or make adjustments to my home to make it feel more like winter than fall. (By the way, it currently feels like summer outside where I am, proving that while the natural world does have rhythms of its own, these don’t always correspond to our schedules.) I think the word rhythm is a little cheesy when applied this way; it always makes me picture a Jamaican reggae guy playing one of those portable drums. (Is that weird? Don’t answer that.) But in spite of the over-trendiness, the cheesiness, and sometimes the total lack of correspondence to reality, I think this idea of rhythms (or habits, if you want to sound more practical or less Rasta) can be useful.

It is particularly useful for those of us who work jobs that do not have a set schedule—a group of people that has become larger this year, since a work-from-home schedule is by nature more flexible than an on-site schedule. (Read more about this in my post from two weeks ago.) I am thankful that, as an online faculty member, I can set my own hours. I want to be clear about that—I realize my flexible schedule is a rare privilege. I also realize that many online faculty members don’t have as much freedom as I do, whether that’s because of a second job or a heavier courseload or small children at home. But despite all that, I thought it would be helpful if I shared a bit about why and how I have developed some flexible weekly work rhythms.

First, why. I actually started learning the importance, for me, of having a semi-structured work schedule two years ago, when I went from working a mid-level administrative position—in which I was expected to be on campus more or less all day, spent a lot of that time in meetings, etc.—to a teaching-only faculty position, in which I was expected to be on campus only during classes, office hours, and meetings (which were rare in this context; my university did a good job protecting people from pointless meetings, at least in my experience). This flexible schedule, combined with the fact that I lived only a two-minute drive or ten-minute walk from campus, opened up an immense freedom to do what I liked with my waking hours, unlike anything I had experienced since my own college years. Unfortunately, I spent a lot of that precious time pacing around my house trying to figure out the best way to use it. Here’s an example: In my previous job, the daylight hours were mostly spent in a windowless office, so when I got home from work, I wanted to spend the remaining daytime out and about. So I had gotten into the habit of grading at night, and I had a hard time getting myself to sit down and grade when the sun was out. When I changed jobs, I was so determined to use my free time during the day for doing non-work things (even if some of those things were time-wasters) that I still ended up shoving all of my grading until the end of the day, dreading it all day, and staying up too late to get it done. Again, I want to stress the fact that everyone has different styles of working, and some people work best at night. I am not one of those people. But because I didn’t have a schedule, or at least an outline of a schedule, for using my daytime hours, I wasn’t getting things done during the time I tend to be most productive and get the most enjoyment out of my work.

I was still trying to figure all this out when I met my now-husband Jordan and made the goal of aligning my schedule with his (he works all day on weekdays except Friday, which is a half day) so that when we got married, we could spend our non-work hours together. And I was still in the process of making that shift when COVID-19 forced my spring classes online, thrusting me into the life of a fully-online professor several months before I expected it. Fortunately, I had received an excellent planner as a Christmas gift and was filling it out religiously every week. The planner and my motivation to align my schedule with Jordan’s helped me create a work week that resembles a typical 8 to 5 schedule, but departs from it in some key ways.

I won’t bore you with all the details of this schedule, but I do want to outline some of its main features in hopes that you might pick up an idea or two for establishing your own weekly rhythms.

  • When it comes to grading, I dedicate one day per week to each class. I reply to emails throughout the week, regardless of the class the student is in, but for grading, when I’m done with the class, I’m done for the day. (There’s an exception once every eight weeks, when I grade the big end-of-course projects. That week, I pace myself more carefully.)
  • I take Fridays off. (This works out perfectly right now, since I have four classes.) Again, I realize this is a privilege, and I’m thankful for it. But I don’t feel like it’s necessary to create busy work for myself just because this is a workday for most Americans. (However, during that big grading week, I sometimes have to work on Friday.)
  • I start and end work around the same time every day. I start a little later than Jordan, who begins his workday at 7 am; I use the first couple of hours of the day to do laundry or other tasks around the house. I take a lunch break with him from noon to 1 pm. And I finish when he’s finished, at 5 pm, if not earlier. If there’s something on my work to-do list that didn’t get done that day, I cross it off and move it to the next day.

I have other weekly work rhythms too, like posting my weekly announcements on Sunday afternoons, but I’m afraid this post is already pretty boring, so I’ll stop. Perhaps next week I’ll write about the non-work rhythms I try to incorporate into my life—the “restorative habits” I write into my planner each week. Meanwhile, do you have any regular scheduling habits or other work habits you’d like to share? Like I said, I eat this stuff up, so I’d love a new strategy to try! As always, thank you for reading my blog.

What’s your metaphor?

Several years ago, when one of the universities I teach for asked me to design and serve as the subject matter expert (SME) for a research class in the professional writing master’s program, I immediately thought, “How can I possibly be an expert in all of the subjects that my students will need to research?” (By the way, I can’t be the only person in the curriculum design world who always pictures Captain Hook’s sidekick Smee when I see the acronym SME.) True, one could argue that I wasn’t being asked to prove my expertise in all the topics someone might research, but instead in the process of research itself. But even research itself can look vastly different depending on the researcher’s field and the genre, audience, and purpose of the writing. So it didn’t take me long to decide that I didn’t want to create “talking head” videos for the course, in which I would simply share from my own research experience–which, while it isn’t to be discounted, has mostly been in one small corner of a field that most of my students aren’t even going into. Instead, to give my students a broader picture of what “research” can mean in a variety of career fields, I decided to conduct a series of interviews in which I would talk to a nonprofit fundraiser, a biologist, an education professor, and a pastor about the research and writing they do in their work. So my students are seeing me in the videos, but mine is not the main voice they’re hearing. I’m the interviewer, whose role is to ask good questions to draw out other people’s expertise.

Ever since reading Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space, I’ve been thinking about how metaphors shape the way we do our work. Her book has a whole chapter about writerly metaphors–for example, you’re going to approach writing very differently if you think of it as a voyage of discovery as opposed to an uphill slog–but I’ve been thinking about metaphors in the realm of teaching. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the best metaphor for how I approach teaching, especially with my graduate students, is that of an interviewer. Because the focus of my course is a process–research–rather than a body of information, I allow my students to choose any topic for their major project, with very few limitations. Occasionally, students will choose a topic that I’d actually consider myself an expert or semi-expert in, like composition education or, that one wonderful time, Charles Dickens. But usually, they’re researching and writing about things I have no clue about, like family law or urban foraging. So I can’t pretend I know more about the topic than my student does. Instead, I find myself once again in the role of an interviewer, asking good questions to help the student access his or her own expertise. Most of the time, when I ask my grad students, “Would this be considered an authoritative source in your field?” or “Would your intended audience know the definition of this word?,” I’m not playing that old teacher trick of asking a question I already know the answer to (although I usually have a suspicion one way or the other–otherwise, I wouldn’t have asked). Instead, I’m gently pushing the students to access their own developing expertise.

I’m not downplaying my work here. Being able to ask the right questions is a genuine skill. But I’ve found that approaching my work as an interviewer, at least with these graduate students (a lot of this applies to my upper-level undergrad creative writing students too), keeps me from overstepping my boundaries and doing more harm than good–and losing the students’ trust–by trying to act like an expert in something I’m not. My job is not to look like the most knowledgeable person in the (online) room on every topic; it’s to help students access and build their own knowledge.

Now, as always, I turn the question over to you. Whether you’re a teacher or not, what metaphor(s) do you use to characterize the way you approach your work? If you’ve never thought about this before, think about it and let me know what you decide!

home: the new co-working space

Yesterday afternoon, I took a break from folding laundry and replying to students’ discussion board posts to make myself a cup of tea. I looked outside and saw a chickadee in our birdfeeder. Chickadees are harbingers of colder weather and new birds to look at, and besides, ever since a small stand of trees near our backyard was cut down a few months ago, we haven’t seen any birds at our feeder besides the occasional mourning dove that plants itself there for hours and doesn’t do anything but poop. (Sorry, mourning doves. At least you have a pretty voice!) So, the arrival of the chickadee was an exciting event, and I hollered to my husband, Jordan, who was working in his home office, to come out and look. As if they had been waiting for his arrival, a flurry of birds suddenly appeared, including more chickadees, some cute little brown guys (look, I never said I was a real birder), and even a couple of Eastern bluebirds—my favorite songbird but one that I rarely see. For about fifteen minutes, they flew around the backyard, alighting now and then on our feeder, the neighbors’ fence, and the scrubby bushes on our property line, even daring to get as close as our patio picnic table. Then, shortly after Jordan went back to his office, they were gone, and they haven’t been back (though I’ll be on the lookout around 2:30 this afternoon).

I shared this story because moments like this are among the blessings of working from home, especially with someone you love. This year, millions of people around the world started doing what fully-online professors (and those in an increasing number of job sectors) have been doing for years: working in the space where they also sleep, eat, do chores, and spend time with those they love. Working from home comes with its share of challenges (e.g., distractions, guilt over unfinished tasks, the difficulty of establishing a quitting time), and those challenges are compounded for those with children at home. I don’t want to minimize those challenges, but in this post I am focusing on the joys of working from home, as well as a few of the practical considerations.

Jordan, an engineer, started working from home in March, like many people did. He already had a home office with a pretty sweet computer set-up (powerful processor, big monitor, headset, etc.) because he’s an avid gamer. With a few adjustments (purchasing a second monitor, downloading the primary software he uses for work), he was able to set himself up to work basically the same way he did at the office, with one major difference: his co-workers aren’t here.

Sure, he can and does email, call, and ping them on Microsoft Teams. But if he wants to get up and stretch his legs and decompress after a stressful meeting, the only person in his physical space is me, and I’m not much use in a conversation about solenoids. (They’re little magnetic parts that open and close things. I’ve learned that much.) But then again, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe what Jordan needs in that moment is both a cup of tea from a real teakettle (which I know he can’t get at the office) and a conversation with someone who’s doing something totally different, like grading English papers.

I think we all know that siloing is a major problem with the way our culture treats work, especially in the higher education sector. We specialize in one thing, starting with our undergraduate majors and getting increasingly narrower as we move through the levels of education and professional development, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with getting really good at one thing (like making solenoids), I fear we are neglecting skills and character qualities that transfer from one situation, context, or career to another. Perhaps we are losing the ability to have meaningful intellectual conversations with those in other fields.

That just got really philosophical. But I went there because I’ve been thinking about the relatively recent phenomenon of co-working spaces. You’ve probably heard of them: they’re buildings (or floors) where anyone who needs a space to work—freelancers, private practitioners, telecommuters looking for a change of scene or some peace and quiet—can rent a room or cubicle alongside others who are doing the same thing. Though I’ve never worked in one of these spaces myself, I can imagine that one of the benefits—besides having someone to split a lunch order with—is that you get to have conversations with (and possibly eavesdrop on) people who are doing very different work than you are. Maybe you learn something from them, and maybe you even come up with ways you can partner with your cross-disciplinary co-workers. I wonder how many new businesses and community services have been hatched out of these almost accidental partnerships.

During this year’s pandemic, many couples, families, and roommates found themselves in a co-working situation with people they already knew and loved, but had never worked alongside. For Jordan and me, who just got married this year, this has been basically an unadulterated blessing. It has allowed us to spend almost all day, every day together during the formative early months of our marriage. It has allowed us to become familiar with each other’s work habits and given me a peek into Jordan’s relationships with his co-workers, who I know are very important to him. We have been taking an hour-long lunch break together, which gives us time to prepare and eat healthier meals. (And as a side benefit, we’ve gotten through all the seasons of Friends and most of Avatar: The Last Airbender during our lunches.) And sometimes, we get to share special moments like the bird-stravaganza of yesterday afternoon.

The only thing we’re still trying to figure out with regard to working from home is where my space will be. This was Jordan’s house before we got married, so I didn’t already have a workspace of my own as he did. I started out working on the dining room table, which had its benefits (good lighting, plenty of space, good view of birds), but I felt like I had to clean up my stuff at the end of every workday, and I wanted a more permanent area. So lately, I’ve been working in the bedroom. Next to one of the windows, I’ve set up a small, brown and green vintage metal table that I bought at an antique shop a few years ago. My laptop sits there all the time, along with my planner and a few other items. A chair doesn’t quite fit underneath the table, so when it’s time to work, I pull over a vintage wooden chair reupholstered in a bird print (another antiquing find) that usually sits in another part of the room. So far, this setup is working pretty well, but I’d also like to try setting up a little work corner in our living room. Jordan and I have talked about sharing the home office, but we don’t think this would work very well for meetings, and I’m happy to let that be his space since my work is more mobile than his.

I’m still figuring out my space, but trying out different spots is more fun than inconvenience. I’m thankful that I get to work from home, and even more thankful that I get to do it alongside my favorite co-worker.

What does your workspace look like? Who are your co-workers, in both senses of the word? What are some of the challenges and benefits of your work setup? I’d love to hear from you!

Imposter syndrome: You probably have it.

Today I’m writing to you about something that’s so central to my experience of being a teacher and an academic that I considered calling this The Imposter Blog. (I decided that might be confusing.) Imposter syndrome has become a widely documented phenomenon in the fields of psychology and education. It simply means feeling like everyone else in your group (whether that’s a class, a doctoral cohort, a department at work, or even a group of gaming friends) belongs there, but that you’re an unqualified, inexperienced imposter–a poser, as people my age used to say when we were teens. If you’re a teacher, have you ever though as you approached your students (whether online or in front of a classroom), “I don’t know enough about this topic to be teaching other people about it?” If so, you’ve experienced imposter system. (If not, are you lying?)

One of the strongest triggers of imposter syndrome in my life has been joining the faculty of the university where I earned my first two degrees, coming to teach alongside professors who once taught me. Besides the perpetually awkward conundrum of what to call them (there are some whose first names I’ll never be able to bring myself to use), I have a really hard time shaking the feeling that I’m just the annoying kid who tags along with the adults. Although it’s been a few years and I’ve started coming into my own as a colleague, there are still situations that send me straight back to being a shy nineteen-year-old sitting in my first British lit class. These include having to express disagreement with one of my former professors, serving on a thesis committee with them (especially if I’m the chair), and being asked to share my expertise on something (gut reaction: what expertise?).

Instead of giving you my five steps to overcoming imposter syndrome (as a matter of fact, I don’t have those), I’d like to ask you to share your expertise, or at least your stories. In what situations, if any, have you felt imposter syndrome? Is there anything you can do that helps? Is there anything your colleagues or administrators have done that helps, or that you wish they would do?

Thanks for being part of this community! Next time, I won’t make you wait so long for a new post.

on “putting oneself out there” and how it feels to fail

I thought I’d start this blog on a positive note with a post about rejection and failure.

That’s a joke; you can laugh. I’m not trying to make a profound statement about the value of failure. I believe it can be valuable, but that’s not what this post is about. Today, I want to start a conversation about how rejection and failure—and the fear thereof—feel in the moment you are experiencing them, before you start looking for life lessons and recalling all the inspiration quotes you’ve read about Thomas Edison and people like that. Let’s talk about what makes us feel these feelings and what we do to deal with them.

Academics are always at risk of rejection and failure. I am reading a book by Helen Sword called Air and Light and Time and Space: How Successful Academics Write (and really enjoying it! Perhaps I’ll review it here when I finish), and I found it delightfully ironic but not surprising that she included a chapter on failure in a book about successful people. The book consists largely of quotations from Sword’s extensive interviews with prolific and well-regarded (but not necessarily celebrity-level) scholars from across the disciplines, and in this chapter, they speak of rejection letters, bad reviews, discouraging colleagues and “mentors” (I put this in scare quotes because a discouraging mentor should be an impossibility), and the all too familiar fear of sharing one’s words and ideas with an audience of any size.

Sword’s book is addressed to professors who publish academically on a regular basis, which means I’m a little bit outside her target demographic. Perhaps some of you, like me, are in a position in which your primary duty is to teach and there is little or no expectation for you to publish. But that doesn’t mean you don’t consistently face rejection and failure too. For one thing, if you have a blog, a social media platform, or even a regular-person social media profile that your colleagues and students can find, your ideas (and your photos of sunrises and pumpkin spice lattes—I’m talking about myself here) have a larger audience than you might feel entirely comfortable with. If you are an online faculty member with creative control over your own course, your students are reading your words, hearing your voice, perhaps seeing your face each time they log into the course, and there’s always a risk that the students will find your mannerisms awkward or your teaching style overbearing, or that an activity or reading you assign will fall flat. Even if you see yourself as merely a facilitator of a course that someone else designed, you are still the breathing, human face of the course for your students, and every time you post grading feedback or send an email clarifying an instruction, there’s a chance your students will misunderstand or be offended or ignore you.

Why do we keep setting ourselves up for potential rejection or failure? Well, think about the alternatives—you could just not reply to your emails, or you could never try anything new in your course, or you could wear a paper bag over your head in your course videos (as just a few examples). I hope you agree with me that, while these alternatives may be enticing, they are not desirable options. The very same conditions that set you up for failure and rejection are also the conditions that allow you to teach, to encourage, to model, and—possibly—to change lives. But now I’m getting too inspirational. Let’s back up for a minute.

I want to talk about the specific scenarios that trigger those fears of rejection and failure. Please share in the comments below—what, in your teaching career, has made or regularly makes you want to hide under your desk? For me, one of the worst triggers is reading course evaluations. I think a big reason why these are so consistently scary for me is that my first full-time college-level instructional job was teaching a required, zero-credit course that many students regarded as remedial (which it was, even though we didn’t use that word) and as a punishment for not passing the placement test. Some students welcomed the opportunity, some begrudgingly came to admit that the course wasn’t a complete waste of their time, but others bore a semester-long grudge toward the course and took it out in the course evaluation. And of course, I read all the negative comments in the evaluations as if they were about me, as a person, even though many of them weren’t. So even though I’m now teaching courses that students tend to enjoy or at least find valuable, my heart rate still goes up and my palms get sweaty when I open those evaluations. I rush through them, seeking out negative comments so I can get them over with, which causes me to skim over and not fully appreciate the positive, sometimes even glowing, comments that now typically outnumber the bad ones. Course evaluations are supposed to be a tool to help faculty know how to improve their courses, but for me, they’re too tied up with ugly emotions to really be helpful. Like other things in academia that are supposed to be useful, they have become an ordeal instead (perhaps another post for another time?).

Here are some other scenarios that might trigger a fear of rejection or failure:

  • Presenting an idea in a committee meeting or email discussion
  • Asking for something (a pay increase, time off, the opportunity to teach a desired course)
  • Meeting with a new student who thinks you’re cool and wondering the whole time if her illusions about your awesomeness are being shattered (Does this sound oddly specific? It’s happened to me. By the way, this scenario involves imposter syndrome, a subcategory of today’s topic that I plan to write a whole post about soon.)

What are some of your scenarios? Why do you think they are triggers for you? Do they cause physiological symptoms like the ones I mentioned above? (The raised heart rate and sweaty palms are not just metaphors!) Is there anything you have learned to do to deal with these fears or at least mitigate their symptoms? (For example, in my welcome post, I mentioned that I might have my husband hold my hand while I read course evaluations.)

I’m excited about the community we are forming here, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on this topic. If you found this post helpful or mildly entertaining, tell a colleague or friend!

What’s next for Penelope?

I’ve been blogging at this site since December 2011. I started the blog so that I could review a couple of books that I wanted to receive for free. Since then, I’ve written about topics as serious as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and as frivolous as my hypothetical Roller Derby name. I’ve told numerous embarrassing stories about cooking mishaps and breaking things. I’ve reviewed movies and albums, shared a couple of fan fiction stories, and hijacked the blog for a couple of months as a promotional platform for my self-published novel. I once seriously considered and made some steps toward re-branding this into a “Hufflepuff leadership” blog. (I still think someone should do that.) I’ve written about my job, my faith, and lately, my marriage. And I have nine partial drafts in my queue, including a “zany” travel mishap story that turned out to be boring when I wrote it down and a post tentatively called “what Ross Geller has in common with almost every Jimmy Stewart character (and me?).” (This one was doomed from the start.)

I realize that if I kept pressing forward for another year and a half, I could celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog. But I think it’s time for me to end this long chapter in my writing life. I’ll keep the WordPress account in case I want to write a special post now and then, but these will likely be rare. Writing will always be one of my primary means of processing my thoughts and feelings, but not all of that writing needs to be shared with a readership.

Speaking of you, my readers–I know I’ve always had a small following, but you’ve been incredibly faithful. Some of you left long, frequent comments on my posts; others read the blog quietly for months, maybe years, before dropping into a face-to-face conversation the fact that you were reading it–always a delightful surprise. Thank you for paying attention.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to have a podcast or a YouTube channel (actually, I have a great channel idea that I’m trying to convince my husband to help me with), but I don’t think I’ll jump into anything like that anytime soon. I’m thankful for the years I’ve been able to share my thoughts with you, and I hope we can stay in touch by other methods. Now I’m going to go cry a little.

a quick guide to being a great teacher

Like my title? Yeah, that’s clickbait. (And if you’re a teacher, you should know that.) But it also fits the story I want to tell you today.

Since 2016, when I designed the main online college course I teach right now, I have been requiring students to create a “research quick guide” in one of the last modules. The assignment is supposed to get them to reflect on what they know about how to do research in their field (“field” can be academic or professional, or in the case of my creative writing students, genre) and come up with a succinct way to share that knowledge with others. The important thing is the content, but somewhere along the line, I’ve gotten a little hung up on the design element of the assignment. I often find myself deducting points when a student’s guide is “hard to visually scan” or “more of an essay than a quick guide.” The problem is that there’s not a general consensus across contexts as to what a “quick guide” actually is. I’m committing that terrible teacher sin of asking my students to read my mind.

I should also point out that it’s pretty ironic that I’m judging other people’s design skills, as may be evident from the fact that I’m still using this template from when I started this blog in 2011. I mean, I know basic principles like “don’t use Comic Sans in a work email” and “don’t put too many words on a PowerPoint slide (and then turn your back to the audience and read straight from said wordy slide),” but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. So not only am I asking students to read my mind, but I’m also asking them to do something I don’t really know how to do myself.

Now, as part of a larger update of the course, I’ve set out to create a quick guide for my students. My initial motivation for this project was not to create a quick guide as such; instead, I wanted to respond to a suggestion a student made last fall. (I’ve been carrying around the now-grubby no-longer-sticky note in my planner ever since then.) It turned out that some of the off-hand tips I gave her in emails were actually quite revelatory for her as a first-time online graduate student who hadn’t written an academic paper in years, and she thought that other students might also benefit from the advice. She suggested some categories, like “how to check grades and feedback,” “what is an annotated bibliography?,” and “getting to know your professor.”

Meanwhile, many students have asked for an example quick guide, so I decided to combine these two endeavors. I would create a quick guide to being an English 602 student (very meta, if you ask me). I hoped to be able to send this out to current and future students and tell them, “Hey, I’m not a designer, but I made this in Word and it wasn’t that hard and didn’t take me that long. You can do it too!”

I finally started on the document yesterday. For visual interest, I decided to use a variety of Word’s prefabricated text boxes and sidebars. I also used some relevant clip art icons to create a short border between two of the sections, and I inserted a photo from my computer. Nothing fancy, but I think it looks pretty good (though I still need to do the second page).

Here’s the problem: It wasn’t easy. Once I got some of the text boxes on the page, dragging them around to accommodate new elements was frustratingly difficult. Inserting and resizing the picture was a stab in the dark–I wasn’t sure what those numbers meant or why most of the photo had disappeared off the bottom of the page. I had to get my husband to help me, and even he, who’s all-around better at this stuff than I am, admitted that he didn’t know how to do everything I wanted to do.

So I don’t feel honest telling my students that creating a document like this will be easy. I sometimes have students who have design backgrounds or who use Publisher regularly in their work, and they turn in beautiful, readable, user-friendly quick guides. But for students who are having trouble centering their title or inserting a paragraph break in a basic essay, what I’m asking them to do in this assignment could be panic-inducing.

I’m going to finish the quick guide and send it to my students with the message I had planned to give them, minus “it wasn’t that easy and didn’t take me that long.” I am also going to add that their quick guide doesn’t need to look as good as mine; even some bullet points or a numbered list will show me that they’re thinking about how not to overwhelm their readers. I am going to continue assigning the quick guide, because I think it’s useful for students to work on problem-solving skills in a class about workplace writing–who knows what their bosses may ask them to create someday? But now that I’ve gone through the process of creating a quick guide myself, I’ve learned what’s most important about this assignment, and I’ve developed some empathy for my students. And I’ll be able to answer questions better in the future.

Lesson learned: Don’t ask your students to do something you’ve never done yourself. That may not be a quick guide to becoming a great teacher, but it might be a small step to becoming at least a good one.

Jesus was busy.

Last week, I told you about Forest, an app that helps with productivity. I’ve been using it again this week, and it’s helping me a lot. I have quite the little forest going. Actually, it’s more of a meadow; I’m currently planting grass tufts instead of trees.

This week, I want to tell you about something infinitely more important than productivity: a quiet heart. I would like to quote at length from a book I am rereading, A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller. Here is what Miller says about the integrated nature of the praying life:

Many assume that the spiritual person is unruffled by life, unfazed by pressure. This idea that the spiritual person floats above life comes from the ancient world and, in particular, the Greek mind–although we see it strongly in the Eastern mind as well.

But even a cursory glance at Jesus’ life reveals a busy life. All the gospel writers notice Jesus’ busyness, although Mark in particular highlights it. At one point Jesus’ family tries to stage an intervention because he is so busy. “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him,, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind'” (Mark 3:20-21). Given the sacredness in the ancient world of eating together, Jesus’ life seems out of balance. But he loves people and has the power to help, so he has one interruption after another. If Jesus lived today, his cell phone would be ringing constantly.

The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed, focused on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life: it offers us a less busy heart. In the midst of outer busyness we can develop an inner quiet. Because we are less hectic on the inside, we have a great capacity to love…and thus to be busy, which in turn drives us even more into a life of prayer. By spending time with our Father in prayer, we integrate our lives with his, with what he is doing in us. Our lives become more coherent. They feel calmer, more ordered, even in the midst of confusion and pressure.

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life (NavPress, 2009)

I feel both a longing and a conviction when I read this. I deeply crave this life of inner quiet. But I recognize in myself the misguided pursuit of external calm. I can use all the focus apps I want do yoga in the middle of the afternoon but still feel frazzled and worried and bitter toward people who (as I see it) demand my attention. Quietness of soul is not about tools or resources, though those can help. Miller concludes his book with a section on prayer tools, and he acknowledges the importance of having a literally quiet place to pray (though he never says that’s the only appropriate environment for prayer). Quietness of soul, though, comes from acknowledging my need for the Lord from the outset—not waiting until my day is falling apart around me, but even when I wake up feeling pretty smart and together (which sometimes happens).

I’ll conclude with a quote from Emily P. Freeman that nicely sums up what Miller wrote and what I am contemplating these days. (This quote is from the show notes of an episode of her podcast, The Next Right Thing: https://emilypfreeman.com/podcast/the-next-right-thing/59/)

Just like any ordinary practice can be a spiritual discipline if it brings us into the presence of God, so can any ordinary place be a sanctuary if we will to see it so.

Cultivating quietness in our lives is less about our stage of life and more about our state of mind. You can be busy and soulful at the same time. The key is in paying attention.

app recommendation: Forest

I’m writing to you today at the end of a productive and surprisingly relaxing day of grading Week 7 assignments (the big, culminating projects on which I try to give students their money’s worth in grading comments) for my online classes. I graded six assignments today (on track with the schedule I made yesterday), plus I did this week’s laundry, had lunch and watched a Friends episode with my husband, and even took a yoga break. I attribute my success and Zen-like calm partly to the fact that my classes are fairly small this term, but also to one of my favorite apps, Forest, which I’d like to recommend to you.

Several years ago, I learned about the Pomodoro method, a popular productivity technique that simply involves working for a period of time (usually 25 minutes) and then taking a short break (usually five minutes). There are plenty of apps for this, let alone the fact that you could easily replicate it with any timer or clock, but my favorite one is Forest, which I’ve been using for about a year. I believe it was my good friend Allison who introduced it to me, and I think I happened to be in England when she texted me about it. I actually did a fair bit of grading during my vacation in the village of Knutsford last summer—I was there visiting my dad, who was on a work project, and during the weekdays, he went to work, and I sat in the flat and graded, punctuating my work sessions with little breaks in the charmingly walkable streets of the village. I remember choosing my first Forest tree style while I was waiting for my takeaway sandwich at a delightful cheese shop/cafe.

So, about those trees: Forest is simple—if you succeed in focusing on your task for your selected span of time (I usually do 25 minutes but have also done 30 with equal success), a little virtual tree (or mushroom, grass tuft, bush…you get to pick) grows in your little virtual forest. If you use the app in Deep Focus mode, which I always do, your tree will die if you do anything else on your phone for more than about five seconds, and that’s a devastating enough consequence to keep me on task. There are gamified aspects to Forest—you can earn coins to unlock fancier tree styles, and you can even choose to have a real tree planted in your honor if you earn a large enough number of coins. But for me, the basic functionality is enough (though I have leveled up my trees a few times). It’s simple and charming (like Knutsford!), and it’s been making grading less dreadful for me since June 2019. Find it in the app store and let me know what you think!