“Not many of you should become teachers”

I am slowly memorizing the book of James in the Bible. Right now I am focusing on chapter 3, which opens with this statement: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers” (ESV). The humor here comes from the fact that James himself is clearly performing the role of a teacher throughout his letter, with his terse tone in which love for his audience competes with exasperation with them, his frequent questions and illustrations, and his short sentences, after which I can almost imagine him pausing to make sure his students are tracking with him. I would personify James’s narrative voice in this letter as a high school boys’ Sunday school teacher standing in front of a whiteboard alternating between outlining serious theological concepts and keeping an eye on the cutups in the back of the room. “Really, guys? You can be better than this.”

If James himself is a teacher, why is he warning others to pause before following in his footsteps? The second half of the sentence explains: “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” This makes me think of two of the great sayings of James’s brother Jesus: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36) and “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). All of us will be judged on the careless words we speak, but the more people who hear the careless words, the weightier the judgment. James is talking about influence.

If James were writing his letter today, he might say, “Not many of you should become influencers.” I think nearly all of us are at least a little bit allured by the idea of having a large platform with a large audience, whether it consists of book readers, podcast listeners, or social media followers (or all of the above, if you’re branding and marketing yourself as you should be). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having those things, and I don’t think James would either. He is just saying: Before you take on that kind of responsibility, count the cost. Make sure your words have a firmer basis than your impression of what will sound wise or hip in the moment. People are listening.

James is talking specifically about teachers of the word of God, and I could write a whole series of posts about how influencer culture has…well, influenced the Church in the 21st century. But this blog is written for and by a different kind of teacher, and James’s principle applies to us too. Our students are listening. Preschool and elementary teachers realize this when they hear their students repeating their words and then wonder, “Yikes! Did I really say that?” (Most parents have had this experience too, I think.) I am always a little freaked out when one of my graduate or upper-level undergraduate students cites one of my course presentations in an assignment. [Fun side note: Now I’m starting to see my married name in citations: (Martinus, 2021).] My first reaction, even before I feel flattered, is a little bit of fear: “Oh, they’re actually paying attention. I need to be careful what I say!” I remember how cool and smart I thought my college professors were, especially those in my major. (And I should add, in case any of them read this, that they really were cool and smart!) I took their words very seriously. And I know I probably have some students now who think I’m cool and smart and who take my words very seriously. “Everyone to whom much was given, of [her] much will be required.”

Nobody is exempt from this principle, of course. We are all influencers. Some people have a wider (e.g. Instagram celebrities) or more intense (e.g. parents) influence than others. But no matter who you are, someone is hearing (or reading) your words and watching your life. You are a teacher. This is a great and a fearful honor. Yes, there is grace for when we make mistakes. But hear James’s warning whenever you are tempted to speak a careless word. Someone is listening.

What if I started a podcast?

I do a lot of writing in my work life (emails, course announcements, more emails, course revisions, more emails) and my regular human being life (planner, Bible study notes, text messages, social media posts, and the occasional non-work email). When I am writing, I constantly, reflexively revise, which both slows down the process and makes it more mentally taxing than it would be if I could manage to do the kind of one-shot, pristinely untouched writing that proponents of “silencing your inner editor” seem to be envisioning. I enjoy writing, I think writing is important, and I will never stop writing. But I’ve noticed lately that writing can burn me out in a way that talking usually doesn’t (the exception is teaching in front of a classroom, which, though I love it, can be draining for me).

So lately, I’ve been finding ways to substitute talking for writing–sending a Marco Polo to a friend when a text would be too long and complicated, video-recording grading feedback for online students so they can hear and see me and know that I’m not mad at them, etc. This has got me wondering what it would be like if I started a podcast.

So I’m thinking about it. I have a topic (it would be essentially the same as that of this blog, maybe a little wider-ranging) and a name (keeping it secret to increase the hype–actually, the truth is that I’m not sure if I like it yet) and am working on a logo. Beyond that, I got nothin’, except a mug I prematurely bought that says, “Proud to be a one-woman show,” with a little microphone on it. (I figure it can apply in a broad, metaphorical sense even if I don’t start the podcast.)

I should make clear that the podcast would not replace this blog. I’ve maintained this blog for 10 years as of this past December (most of those years it was called Penelope Clearwater), and I see no reason to fold it now. I would probably alternate blog posts and podcast episodes, or do what the influencers do and create coordinating sets of posts and episodes (and Instagram stories–I need to learn how to make those).

I’d like to ask for your help. Would you answer the few questions below to help me figure out how a podcast could best serve you, my readers? (And if the answer is by not existing, that’s okay!) I appreciate your help. You can also feel free to make non-anonymous suggestions in the comments down below.

our teaching and learning preferences

The idea for this post came from a confluence of three factors: 1. I noticed that several of my new students started following my blog after I shared the link (welcome!). 2. I had a Twitter conversation last night with a former student about the conditions for a good discussion in an English class. 3. I am working on my goals for 2021 and have been thinking about ways to be more available and approachable to my students.

So I’ve decided to open up a discussion, in which I hope you will join me, about your teaching preferences (if you’re a teacher) and your learning preferences (if you’re a human being, because we all learn). I’ll start with a few observations; then I’ll ask some questions and give my own answers to begin the conversation.

Observation 1: The idea that there are three learning styles–visual, auditory, and kinesthetic–seems to have been largely debunked, or at least marked with a large asterisk noting that the concept pigeonholes students, is overly simplistic, and isn’t research-based. Anyone can learn in any of those three ways, and the dominant style may have more to do with the world we live in than with an inborn disposition. (For example, I meet few people today who call themselves auditory learners, but if we take this concept anachronistically into the past, I bet there were a lot more auditory learners back in the 19th century when people where accustomed to listening to long political debates.) When folks in the education field talk about how students learn today, they look at a whole constellation of factors that may include cultural and language background, classroom environment, sensory processing modes, past learning experiences, personality factors that may influence when and under what conditions a student will speak up in class, etc. But the best methods for finding out how a student learns are still pretty old-school: observation (which is harder in an online classroom, but not impossible) and asking the students themselves.

Observation 2: Teachers tend to choose their teaching methods based on their own learning preferences. For example, I usually enjoyed the wide-ranging, open-ended discussions we had in the literature classes I took in college, so I often attempted to conduct these types of discussions in the classes I taught. This isn’t a bad starting place, but good teachers are willing to try different methods when they see that the ones that worked for them as students, or even the ones that have worked with previous classes, aren’t working with a particular group of students. (Of course, this doesn’t mean giving up the first time a method is met with dead silence or confused looks–the students might need time to figure it out and warm up to it.) Also, a technique that works for most of the students in a class may leave out a few students who, for various reasons, can’t get into it. Teachers often talk about “teaching to the middle,” and sometimes that’s what you have to do in a live classroom setting, but that doesn’t mean neglecting the students who fall outside that average clump.

So, here are my questions: How do you prefer to learn? What classroom conditions (online or in-person) make you most likely not only to meet the learning goals of the class but also to enjoy yourself while doing that? What do you want teachers to do to help you learn and enjoy learning? (The answer could be “just leave me alone, thanks”–that’s a legitimate learning style.)

If you’re a teacher (and this could include a Sunday school teacher, a tutor, someone who gives private lessons, a parent, etc.), what are some of your favorite ways of delivering content and connecting with students? Why do you think they’re your favorite?

I realize this post is getting long (I say that a lot, don’t I?), so I’ll just give two quick examples for myself. First, as a learner, I find it hard to concentrate when I’m doing nothing but sitting and listening. I prefer to be doing something with my hands or feet (taking notes, washing dishes, walking) while I’m learning. I think I’ve always been like this, because I have this embarrassing memory from fifth grade: One time I was doodling during class; I don’t remember what we were learning about, but I’m positive it wasn’t a music class. And I raised my hand and asked my teacher if he could show me how to draw a treble clef. And bless his heart, he stopped what he was doing and drew one for me on the board.

As a teacher, I’ve had to adjust my methods since I’ve moved to teaching fully online, but my favorite part about teaching is still connecting with students one-on-one or in small groups. (I used to be a writing tutor, and I loved that because it involved some of my favorite aspects of teaching and none of my least favorite–grading.) I love it when students reach out to me by email or phone, whether they have a question or just want to chat. I’ve said this before: in the online learning environment, it can be really difficult for students and teachers to think of each other as real people, not just writing machines. So I seize on any opportunity to make sure my students know I’m a real person and to learn about them as real people.

Okay, it’s your turn. Go back to those questions in bold and tell me what you think!

Here’s everything I know about time management.

Okay, not everything. Some of the most important things I know about time management are highly personal, abstract, and difficult to put into words. Maybe I’ll attempt a post about those sometime. But today, I want to share some of the practical “tips and tricks” about time management that I’ve accumulated over several years of reading magazines and productivity books and teaching courses that I didn’t write and that have a time management element.

This is on my mind because next week is likely going to be my busiest grading week since I wrapped up teaching on-campus classes back in the spring. I’ve made a rough outline of which class I’ll need to tackle on each day, but I haven’t come up with a specific plan yet, and in the back of my mind, I’m starting to panic a little bit. But in the other side of the back of my mind, I’m reminding myself of all these tools that I can use, modify, or drop as I see fit, and I know I’ll be okay. So I hope this pep talk to myself will be useful to you as well.

The Pomodoro Method. You can Google this well-known method to find out about the Italian guy who invented it and named it after his tomato-shaped timer. I’m sure you can also find hundreds of variations on it. I like this method–which simply involves working for a set time and then taking a break for a set time, then repeating–because it allows me to divide my tasks into discrete units of a definite length. When I’m grading big final papers as I will be next week, I spend one pomodoro (i.e. work period) on each paper. (I’m not going to tell you how long my pomodoros are because it opens up the perennial English-teacher can of worms of how much feedback is the right amount, which may be a topic for a later blog post.) It ensures that I’m giving the same amount of attention to each student (with exceptions allowed, of course), and it gives me a clear view of how much I have left to do. I use the Forest app (see my review) as a timer and incentive.

The Kanban System. This method, which you can also Google, was developed in Toyota factories back in the 1940s, and according to a student of mine who grew up in Japan, it’s still widely used in Japanese workplaces and schools. One of my online universities teaches it to students in their first course and reinforces it in the writing course I teach, so I learned about it alongside my students. Like the Pomodoro Method, it’s stunningly simple yet rewarding. You make three lists: To Do, Doing, and Done. Then you put each of your tasks on the appropriate list. There are apps for this, and I’ve seen people do it in Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, but the best way, in my opinion, is the lowest-tech way: with sticky notes on a wall or piece of posterboard. Many of my students have attested to the sheer joy of physically picking up one of those notes and moving it to the “Done” column. They say crossing items off a list gives you an actual chemical rush (endorphins or dopamine or whatever; I’m just an English teacher, but I can testify to the feeling!), and physically moving your sticky notes amps up that rush just a little. I don’t regularly use the Kanban System because I have a fantastic planner that makes it a bit redundant, but occasionally when I’m starting to freak out about the amount of work I’m facing, I’ll slap a sticky-note Kanban board on my wall to get a visual of what I have to do. I know of its effectiveness mainly through my students, many of whom find it revolutionary as they attempt to fit online education into their already busy lives.

I’m going to stop there and let you give those a try! Here are a couple of quick bonus suggestions:

Highlighters: I over-plan my week, so each morning, I highlight the tasks I actually want to focus on each day.

Email breaks: I read about this one in the latest issue of Real Simple, though I’ve seen variations of this suggestion elsewhere: Instead of keeping your email open throughout your workday, schedule a bit of time at the end of a focused work session to check it. That way, you keep up with it, but it’s not distracting you while you’re working. (Yes, this is a variation on the Pomodoro Method.)

I hope you find these helpful. Let me know whether you’ve tried them, whether you’re going to try them, and what time management methods work for you!

Christmas anticipation–online professor style

When I taught on a university campus, the Christmas celebrations began as soon as the students arrived back from Thanksgiving break. (I should add that I taught at Christian universities, so the specific holiday of Christmas–not just a general air of festiveness–was celebrated loudly and proudly.) Everything had to happen early to get all the various departmental parties and campus traditions in before winter break. The maintenance crew had to start putting the lights up early (one of my universities meticulously outlined every tree on the main street of campus) so we could enjoy them for more than a day or two. Christmas music started floating out of various doorways, and colleagues started dropping cards and cookies on each other’s desks.

Even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have been able to experience all of that this year, my first year teaching completely online. While I’m probably going to get more accomplished this December than ever before because I’m not getting interrupted for things like the faculty Christmas card photo and the office decorating competition, I miss the excitement of December on campus. So I’m making a list of ways that I can make these next few weeks special as I work from home, and I’m sharing that list with you in hopes that it will inspire you to add a little anticipation and jollity into your December, even if you’re not an online professor.

  1. Listen to Christmas music. This is obvious, but what if you’re tired of the cycle of the same 50-ish songs that gets played on every radio station? Also, what if, like me, you prefer to listen to instrumental music while you work? Good news: There’s a ton of wordless Christmas music out there, in a range of genres from classical to bluegrass. Just search “instrumental Christmas” on Spotify or Pandora. One of my favorite artists in this niche is Craig Duncan, who has released a whole series of Celtic and other folk-inspired Christmas albums over the years. Also, a fun activity for you classical fans is to repurpose pieces that aren’t normally considered Christmas music. For example, this morning I was listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” I listen to it year-round, but on December 1, it becomes “What Child Is This?,” like magic.
  2. Start your workday with an Advent reflection. You can take this in many different directions. I’ve never tried this, but I bet you could come up with readings for the whole month of December from Charles Dickens’s Christmas stories. For the past few years, I’ve been enjoying Biola University’s Advent Project: http://ccca.biola.edu/advent/2020/#. You can sign up for free by entering your email address, and every day from now until Epiphany (January 6), you’ll receive a multimedia devotional that includes two pieces of music to listen to, a work of art to look at, and a scripture passage, a poem, a reflection, and a prayer to read. Biola also does a Lent Project in the spring, and if you sign up once, you’ll get both series of devotionals every year. And they are very good about not sending junk emails; you’ll only receive the devotionals. I love this because it’s a moment of reflection and worship that comes right in the middle of my morning email check–a time when I very much need it!
  3. Upgrade everyday items. On December 1 or slightly earlier, I bring out my Christmas items. These are not just tree ornaments, though my husband and I do have three trees to decorate this evening! (That’s what happens when you get married after living alone for years and accumulating a lot of stuff.) I have Christmas mugs, Christmas coasters to put them on, Christmas socks, Christmas sweaters, Christmas earrings, Christmas candles, Christmas hand towels, Christmas notepads, Christmas soap and matching-scented room spray, a Christmas tablecloth, Christmas cookie cutters and tins, even a Christmas salt and pepper shaker set. I realize that to some people, bringing all this out every year and putting it away a month later probably sounds horribly stressful. But for me, a person who loves ritual and tradition, this is one of my most dearly anticipated activities every year. And you don’t have to go all out; even one or two special items can do the trick. Try it–a grading session is more fun (or at least more bearable) when you’re drinking tea out of a mug that says, “Have a cup of cheer.”
  4. Have your own office Christmas party. I haven’t tried this yet, but because my husband and I are both working from home right now, I’m hoping we can take some breaks during our workdays over the next few weeks to do something seasonal like watching a short Christmas movie, working on our cards, or taking a brisk walk in the frosty air (or the snow, if we ever get this lake effect snow shower they keep talking about). Our activities this year will not be centered on food because we’re doing the Whole 30 right now (great timing, right?), but if you’re working from home with someone else, you could have a cookie-baking party or re-create the classic office potluck (i.e., each of you searches the pantry and fridge and puts something yummy on a fancy plate). This is also a great time to listen to your favorite non-instrumental Christmas music.

I hope you got at least one idea from this post, and I hope you’ll share your ideas for making December special with me in the comments!

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.