Friday, April 28, 2017

A Garden in a Battlefield: Teaching in Turmoil

by Nicholas Hayes

I am waiting to be bored, and it is hard given our current political and intellectual climate.

I’ve never been compelled to rush into exciting situations although I admire those who are. I think of an acquaintance who taught at the American University of Beirut and ran an organization to help children traumatized by conflict. He spent a life running towards the conflict. On rare occasion, I hear tumult I think about how I can avoid it. I will never be heroic, but I can console myself with the fact I am not complacent. Another former colleague would scold me because I am just talking about teaching and writing. Yet the mood of many people who work in education has become dire because of increasing uncertainties. I find myself wondering how I can address the needs of my students and myself in such times.

Betsy Devos is not lurking under my bed. (I am fairly certain of this point, but I will check tonight just to be sure.) Yet the concerns I have for the policies she might implement do keep me awake. The anxiety about potential changes that could be implemented by people in positions of authority drain energy that should be devoted to my students. Someone with a more heroic bent to their nature might be itching for combat, but I will grab my rhetorical arsenal only when called. Until then I will look for spaces where I can replenish my energies and practice self-care.

To that end, I have been reluctantly pulling myself to the gym twice a week. Less reluctantly, I’ve been giving myself time to work in the Lillstreet ceramic studio. The break from email and news is a welcome relief, and it makes me a lot easier for my family and friends to deal with. It also gives me the opportunity to relax, so I can better address the stressors in the rest of my life.

But the energy I need to guide my students comes from a different place, the classroom. For me the classroom has always been paradoxical. A few hours of orchestrating classroom discussions and facilitating small group activities means there is a good chance I will fall asleep on the train as I go home. Despite my physical exhaustion, a good class will leave me psychically energized. And when I am not nodding off or drooling on one of my fellow passenger’s shoulders, I will often take notes for next week’s class.

The classroom has this exhausting and energizing presence because it is a space set off from the rest of the world. It is in many ways sacred. This is why I try to perform little rituals every class. At the beginning of a session, we engage in a free writing exercise where students are allowed to purge themselves of the psychic noise and anxiety they carry with them from their day. I have to remind myself that I too should be engaging in this ritual instead of doing stage business at the front of the classroom. This moment where we purge our concerns helps us inscribe the next three hours with a focus on other things. Similarly asking a check-in question and having everyone (including me) answer it can help reassert the communal nature of and safety to speak in this space. For as Ilan Stavans reminds us that “Safety is a basic principle of education: Knowledge results from trust, and trust comes from care.”

There is never a way to fully sever the classroom from the rest of the world, and I wouldn’t want to. But in setting this space off from outside tumult and establishing its communal nature, I hope we are able to cultivate a vegetable urge to grow and change. In this time, we devote to tending our mental gardens I know that my heart will be nourished even if I must have patience. It is also a reminder of what could be lost if it’s not preserved. As the class draws to a close, I know I may need to turn my metaphorical plowshare into a sword to defend this space. But I will always know my plowshare is meant to help cultivate.

Heroes might spend the movie saving the world from apocalyptic threats (an alien overlord, an asteroid, or another political appointee) through non-stop action. Regardless of their success, real life will happen after the credits are over, and the rest of us get back to our slow work: cultivating thought, cultivating change. Andrea Lunsford says in her address “Composing Ourselves”, we need to say “I will teach writing, and I will teach a way to write a new story, a new political reality” (75). To do this, we must create a space in which we can care for ourselves and our students.


Works Cited

Lunsford, Andrea A. “Composing Ourselves: Politics, Commitment, and the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 44, no. 1, Feb. 1990, pp. 71-82, National Council of Teachers of English, www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CCC/1990/0411-feb1990/CCC0411Ourselves.pdf.

Stavans, Ilan. “The Safe Space.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 July 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2016/07/10/the-safe-space/.

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