education, teaching

The first day of the semester

I recently added a Teaching page to my website, and in the coming months I’ll be populating it with links to blog posts related to teaching. I figured, where better to start than the first day of class? Here is how I handle it:

The First Day of Class

Opening class

The first day of class can be boring, so I try to open in an unexpected way to get them paying attention. I begin by asking, “What do you think we’re going to do today?”  Usually someone says, “Go over the syllabus?” I say, “Yep!” and then write “Syllabus” on the board. Then I ask, “What else?” Usually someone else says, “Introductions?” I say something about how great they’re doing already, then write “Introductions” on the board.

I tell them that every day, I’ll write an agenda on the board like this one that lists what we’re going to do in class. I say that I like to consider their input on things when I can, and ask “Which of these do you want to do first–syllabus or introductions?” Usually they pick introductions (but not always!). If the room allows it, I then ask them to move their desks into a big circle, where we stay for the remainder of the class.

What’s on the board will look more or less like this:

  1. Introductions
  2. Syllabus

Introductions

I write a numbered list on the board from 1-5. Next to number one, I write “preferred name + pronouns.” Next to number two, I write “year + major.” I turn back to the class and say, what else do you want to know about each other?

Students will often name things they’ve probably had to share in other courses, saying “where they’re from?,” “why they took this class?,” or “what their hobbies are?” (Yes, most of what students say at this early point sounds like questions–I don’t think they’re used to having a say in the class from the first moment.)

I write what they say on the board. Usually, by number five, we’ve gotten a less common one in there, often a “favorite” of some type. I know doing introductions this way takes more time, but students tend to seem more engaged when I do it like this, and there’s usually a playful, comfortable air in the room by this point.

What’s on the board will look something like this:

  1. preferred name + pronouns
  2. year + major
  3. where you’re from
  4. hobbies
  5. favorite food

I clarify what I mean by preferred name: “I’ve noticed that every semester, a few weeks in, after students get to know me and feel more comfortable, a few in every class will mention that they actually go by a name that’s different than what’s in Canvas. Whether it’s a nickname or a middle name or they plan on legally changing their name, they do not want to be called what’s listed, but they didn’t feel comfortable saying it on the first day. Well, I want you to share the name you prefer on the first day! We are going to have group discussions and interactive class exercises regularly. I want to learn all of your names, and I want all of you to learn each other’s names, and it’s important that we learn the names you actually like and use.”

Off to the side of the list on the board, I write “she/her/hers,” “he/him/his,” “they/them/theirs.” I say something along the lines of, “Most people use one of these three sets of pronouns, but some people use other pronouns I haven’t listed. We might be tempted to think that we can tell if someone uses ‘he’ or ‘she’ just by looking at them, but if our guess is wrong, they might find it hurtful or offensive. When we do introductions, I’d like you to share which pronouns you want us to use for you in class, if you feel comfortable doing so. This will allow us to treat each other respectfully, and our class is welcoming to everyone.”

(I’ve had students share their pronouns three semesters in a row now, and I’ve tweaked the way I introduce it a little bit every time. Recently, I came across this site about pronouns, which could be useful if you’re deciding if/why/how to broach the subject in your course.)

In my professional communication courses, I usually add a little more about pronouns in the workplace. I reiterate that the purpose of the course is to prepare them to communicate effectively in a professional setting, and that they don’t want to get off on the wrong foot by accidentally offending someone after starting a new job by incorrectly assuming their pronouns.

After explaining what I mean by preferred name and pronouns, I sit down and say, “I’ll go first. I’m Jay Summer, and I like for my students to call me Jay. If that feels too casual for you, call me Ms. Summer. I use she/her pronouns. This is my fifth year teaching at USF. I am a Visiting Instructor. Before that, I was a graduate student here. I hold a BS in psychology, and masters degrees in urban planning and creative writing. I’m from Chicagoland. My hobbies are reading and writing. I like food too much to choose a favorite, but I especially love Thai and Indian food.”

Then, we go around the circle, with each person introducing themselves. I try to give introductions a conversational feel by occasionally interrupting to ask questions (“You’re from Brazil? What made you decide to come here? What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between home and the US?”) and to draw connections among students (“Well, three people have named tacos as their favorite food, so maybe you should start a study group where you go out to eat together”). I know it’s sort of hokey, but I think it helps make the overall atmosphere more comfortable instead of stilted. After a few introductions with me asking questions, other students will usually begin chiming in here and there as they recognize commonalities (“I’m from Orlando, too–what high school did you go to?”), and I will smile with glee because organic conversations are happening on the first day.

Syllabus: Policies

I pass out hard copies of the syllabus and note that the syllabus is also in Canvas. I begin by saying, “I know going over a syllabus can be boring, but we have to do it. Hopefully this is the most boring our class will be all semester. We’ll skim most of the syllabus instead of reading it word-for-word, but I encourage you to read all of it on your own.”

I go through the syllabus section by section, spending only a few seconds on some sections, and minutes on others. I try to speak conversationally rather than just read in a dry manner. I emphasize policies and school resources, and only briefly overview course content. The students will encounter the course content week after week, but the policies are what might slip by them, and what they’re most likely to argue about later.

There are two policies that I think are extremely important to emphasize on the first day and repeat in subsequent classes: the attendance/tardiness policy and the late work policy. I’ve changed these policies over time, and don’t use the same policies for each course I teach, but I’m sure to repeat whatever the policy is, multiple times, on day one. I always do so with a smile and a friendly tone, rather than one that sounds strict.

For example, I might say, “10% is deducted each day work is late,” then pause for an unusually long time, until all the students are looking at me, wondering why I’m not talking anymore. Then I’ll repeat, “10% is deducted each day work is late.” I might ask questions, too, such as, “So, what happens if you don’t realize an assignment is due, then you turn it in a week late?,” or “If an assignment is due Monday by midnight, what will happen if you turn it in at 1 AM?”

Sometimes I repeat a policy so many times that the students are laughing, and I say something like, “Can you tell students have tried to argue with me about this policy in the past? What do you think will happen if you try to argue about it?” That seems to drive the point home.

I am transparent about my policies, and tell students why I have chosen the policies I have chosen. If attendance counts for 10% of the grade, for example, I might say something like, “This might feel like a drag to you, but it actually helps you quite a bit. You can get 10% just by showing up, which could bump you up from a B to an A without much effort. I tried teaching this class with no attendance policy one semester, and students’ grades dropped. When attendance doesn’t count, students miss more classes, and the less you attend class, the less well you understand the material, and the more likely you are to forget due dates. That’s why I reinstituted an attendance policy. It’s not to irritate you; it’s to help prepare you for the working world where you have to show up every day, on-time, and to help you earn a higher grade.”

I also discuss how I want students to message me, which is with a greeting and closing, always, and correct capitalization and punctuation, always. I make sure they understand that I don’t always check messages on nights and weekends, and that it might take me a day or two to reply when I’m very busy, which means last minute questions the day an assignment is due should be asked in person. (Almost all of my due dates are class dates.)

I say that I don’t have a phone/device policy, because they are adults and need to learn to manage their smartphone use. But, I remind them that I can see them when they pull out their phones and I find it disrespectful, and depending on my mood, I might ask what they’re using a device for if they have one out for more than a few seconds at a time that device usage is unnecessary.

Sometimes I ask, “How have your other professors handled smartphones in the classroom?,” partially because I’m curious, and partially because I want the students to talk and feel engaged, because by this point I have just said a lot and they’re probably getting tired.

When I’m done going over the policies, I usually ask if there are any questions, if everything makes sense, and if everything sounds fair.

Syllabus: Student Resources

Surprisingly, talking about the university’s resources has become one of my favorite parts of the first day. I begin by saying, “You were all intelligent and hardworking enough to be accepted to this university, which means you are all intelligent and hardworking enough to succeed at this university.”

That usually gets their attention.

I continue, saying, “In my years of teaching, I’ve noticed that when students do not get As in my courses, it almost always has nothing to do with their ability to understand the course material. It has to do with something else: physical illness, depression or anxiety, family problems, death or grieving, romantic or relationship issues, addiction or drinking problems, etc. Sometimes students are tempted to think their grades reflect their intelligence, when often grades actually reflect other things–how much you sleep each night, how well you’re getting along with your family, how solid your financial situation is, etc.”

I tell the students about free resources available on campus to help them deal with issues they might face. I then go over the Counseling Center, Students with Disabilities Services, the Center for Victim Advocacy & Violence Prevention, Title IX, the Writing Studio, the Office for Multicultural Affairs, and the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement. I also briefly mention Student Health Services, the gym, and student groups. For each resource, I ask if there’s anyone particularly knowledgeable about the resource–sometimes I find there are students who feel comfortable explaining the resource to the class.

Of all of those resources, I spend the most time on the Counseling Center and Students with Disability Services. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly comfortable with the students, I openly tell them that when I was a graduate student I went to the Counseling Center regularly to help manage anxiety, and there is no shame in it. I often make a joke about how, after they graduate, they might seek therapy one day and realize what it costs and kick themselves for not taking advantage of it when it was free. Ever since I began saying this, I’ve had at least one or two students every semester come to me at some point and thank me, saying that they now go to the Counseling Center because of my comments and they find it helpful.

When explaining Students with Disability Services, I emphasize that students may get accommodations for any mental or physical health issue that might affect their coursework or their ability to attend class, even if they don’t consider themselves “disabled.” I usually give two examples. I say, “If you’re thinking ‘I don’t have a disability,’ but you have a severe food allergy that could make you miss a week of class if you accidentally ingest the wrong thing, then it might be worth it to have an accommodation, just in case. If you sometimes have panic attacks during times of stress that could make you miss class, having an accommodation in place might result in your professor excusing your absences rather than not.” I emphasize that most professors, including myself, feel more comfortable being lenient with students when they have an official accommodation from SDS for their illness.

(I’ve gone back and forth about how to discuss SDS over time, and this is what I’ve settled on for now. I don’t know if it’s the best way. I do think it might encourage students who don’t need a true “accommodation,” such as extended test times or assistive technology in the classroom, to go to SDS for paperwork. That said, I do genuinely believe that most professors are more lenient about things like attendance and due dates when students have official accommodation paperwork, even though the paperwork can’t dictate anything related to attendance or due dates. I know I feel more comfortable being flexible when SDS is involved, and my students have anecdotally shared that other professors do as well. I could probably write a whole post on this alone, and maybe, eventually, I will.)

Finally, I ask if there any questions about our school’s resources. I tell them that I leave time for questions every class, and that I do not stay after class to answer one-on-one questions. They can ask questions during the designated class time, or, if they have a question that truly needs to remain confidential, they can come to my office hours or send me a message to ask their question. Then I wish them a good first week of school.

Thoughts? What do you on your first day of school?

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education, learning, mfa, money, teaching, writing

MFA Halfway Update

I am officially halfway done with my MFA creative writing program. It’s been a wild ride! I’m giving an update because I’ve blogged about MFA programs so much before (whether or not to get an MFA, how much it cost to apply, what’s up with MFA creative writing rankings, where to apply, update after first semester). I’m not sure where to start, however. Most people who want to read about MFAs are those considering pursuing one, and I have no clue whether or not pursuing an MFA is a good thing for any specific person. It’s such an individualized decision, I can’t say “do it” or “don’t do it.” I can, however, ruminate on the positives and negatives of my experience.

Positives

I’ve been teaching writing to undergraduates and I’ll be credentialed to teach college when I graduate. This is the biggest difference between doing what I’m doing within an MFA program and doing something similar with writing on my own. I am teaching and I love it. Before coming to USF, I didn’t really know if I had an interest in pursuing an academic career. I am still not 100% set on it, but I’m open to it and think it’d be fun, challenging, and a good fit for me.

I’ve found an amazing community. This will probably be the biggest benefit of the MFA program. Before coming here, I was attending a weekly workshop and I had friends and family who would read and critique my writing so I wasn’t community-less, but my network was nothing like what I have now. I’m surrounded by people who are as motivated by and interested in writing as I am. My hope is that we stay in touch and act as readers for each other for years after graduation.

Just being in this environment is enriching and encouraging–the people I’m surrounded by regularly introduce me to new things and challenge me as a writer. My professors have given me lit mag and author recommendations based on my writing style and I finally feel like I’m finding my niche in the writing world, largely because of their help. Also, there’s no way I would’ve started weirderary and First Draft if I hadn’t met TJ and Colleen.

I’ve learned a lot. I had almost no formal creative writing instruction prior to this aside from an entry-level undergrad class I took over a decade ago so I wasn’t sure what to expect from an MFA program. I’ve learned so much about writing craft and technique, and about pedagogy and teaching practice. I’ve also learned very practical things, such as how to create a good CV and what to put in a teaching philosophy statement.

I got to move to Florida. I grew up in Illinois and adore it (particularly Chicagoland), but for most of my adult life I secretly felt shitty about myself because I knew that I’d wanted to move away and had never done it. Finally, at age thirty-two, I followed my desire/faced my fears and moved to Denver. I think that played a big role in me gaining the confidence to apply to MFA programs all over the country. I don’t know if I’ll stay in Florida forever, but I like it a lot and regularly feel grateful to be here.

I trust that I am “all in” as a writer. I know getting an MFA is not necessary and I admire workaday writers who are able to view writing as their true love and passion even though it is not related to their day job. For me, however, having an unrelated (or, I guess, only somewhat related) day job led to me feeling all sorts of insecurities about myself as a writer. I worried that even if I wrote on a daily basis, writing would remain nothing more than a hobby in my life if I didn’t pursue it as my primary career. Quitting my job, moving across the country, and focusing on an MFA program full-time proved to me that I am “all in,” and it gave me confidence in myself as a writer. I no longer question my commitment to writing or worry that it’ll get sidelined in my life or become something I never pursued as fully as I wanted to.

Negatives

My writing practice has suffered. My novel progress has stalled. I had a completed draft (actually a third or fourth draft) of a novel manuscript before coming here. The single most difficult part of being in an MFA program is knowing that I probably would’ve had that manuscript all polished up and sent to agents by now if I hadn’t come here. At times, I’ve resented class assignments, knowing my time spent doing homework could’ve been spent revising my novel. I’ve had to remind myself that I am becoming a better writer during my time here and, although my novel is taking longer to complete, it should be of a higher quality when I’m actually finished with it.

I realize that this difficulty is partially due to how I work–it’s not that I never have a spare minute to write; it’s that I prefer longer blocks of time. When I worked 9-5, I could work on my novel for 3-4 hours on weeknights, and upwards of 10 hours on weekend days if I wanted.  Now, if I have only one hour free, I tend to use it on other things because it doesn’t feel like a long enough stretch of time to be able to dig into my novel and do substantial revising. I’m trying to work on this, though, and get used to revising in 30- and 60-minute bursts.

It’s really hard to be this busy. Moving forward, my workload should be a little lighter, but the last two semesters felt overwhelming. There was never a day where I didn’t have a long to do list (and never a day where I actually completed the list). I essentially spent two semesters feeling behind, stressed, and unprepared. I consistently completed work at the last minute and almost always felt as if there was too little time. I forced myself to continue to maintain a social life and do fun things alone such as watch movies. I realize this time could’ve been spent on school and maybe that would’ve helped me be less overwhelmed, but I refuse to live a life that has absolutely no leisure time.

I’m going to write a separate blog post about health in the near future, but I deal with fibromyalgia and other chronic health issues. One of my fears was that coming to grad school would trigger an illness flare-up. It did! I spent months running ragged, feeling awful, and on the brink of burnout and health disaster, which again is unique to me and I’m sure colors my view of the “negatives” of being in an MFA program.

It’s really hard to be this poor. I was/am also barely making it financially. This is difficult when being so strapped for time. I know I can do more outside work to help my financial situation, but that takes away from my writing and school work and adds to my busy-ness and stress. It also hurts my self-esteem and has caused me to question my decision to come here a few times. Many of my friends are in the getting-married-and-having-babies stage of life. I can’t afford to buy them nice gifts and that feels awful. I missed my cousin’s wedding because I couldn’t afford the flight, and was also unable to visit a close friend who suffered an injury because I couldn’t afford the flight. I knew going into an MFA program would involve financial sacrifice, but I guess I didn’t know the feeling of sacrifice would be so pronounced. It’s been a big challenge to focus on the positives when these types of things run through my mind on a daily basis.

I should note that this is also somewhat unique to my situation. I’ve never been great at managing money, and I entered into this MFA program even though I had a fair amount of debt and no savings. Because I already have a graduate degree, I am unable to take out student loans. I am not willing to make certain sacrifices I made last time I was in grad school, such as living with multiple roommates and going without a car. If I could do it over, I would’ve prepared savings in advance and paid much more attention to the financial side of programs when selecting which schools to apply to.

Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m doing this too late in life. I’m thirty-four years old. I already had a completed novel manuscript before coming here. I have a lot of “real world” work experience. While I’m not the oldest person in my program, I am often the oldest one who hangs out socially and most of my friends here are five to ten years younger than I am. Although I don’t place a lot of importance on age, I sometimes feel a little too old to be a poor grad student. I have to actively fight off that voice in society/my head that says I should be making more money by this age and that I should be heading up my own projects, not taking classes, at this age. The experience has been humbling and forced me to check my ego and cast aside society’s conventions about what someone “should” be doing in their 30s.

I’ve really had to embrace the “better late than never” adage. Sure, I wish that when I was twenty-five years old, worried I was in the wrong grad program, researching MFA creative writing programs online, that I had had the confidence and motivation to move past idle internet searches. I wish I had reached out to people in MFA programs and learned more and made the switch then, ten years ago, when I first wanted to do it. I wish that I had left Illinois then, when I wanted to do it. But I didn’t. That’s just not how my life happened. I guess it’s taken me longer than some to find my career path, to become aware of my desires and goals, and to muster up the courage to go for it. Instead of focusing on regret over not having done this sooner, I’m learning to focus on feeling grateful that I’m doing it now.

Conclusion

My biggest takeaway from reflecting on my MFA experience is that when you’re really living and you’re pursuing the things you want to pursue, life is going to be huge and hard and amazing no matter what. I think getting an MFA is like doing any other big, major life thing. Beforehand, it sounds great and you know you want it, but once you’re there, it’s hard and takes a lot of work and isn’t always fun, just like any challenging job, or marriage or parenthood, I’m sure. Still, I’m glad I’m doing it.

My biggest goals for the second half of my MFA are to enjoy it and feel grateful for it every day. In the first half of my MFA, I allowed my stress to take over more times than I’d like to admit and I often found myself wishing for time to pass, aka for the semester to end. I don’t want to live or think that way. Time is so limited; I never want to wish for it to pass more quickly. That’s insanity. That’s avoiding the present moment and literally wishing to be closer to death. My other major goal is to finish revising my novel, to stop wishing for the expanses of time I had when I worked 9-5, and to learn to jump in and take advantage of the small pockets that pop up at different times on different days.

I know some other MFA students and some MFA hopefuls follow my blog–if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments and I will answer them.

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education, events, live lit, readings, teaching

USF English Department’s Fall Colloquium 2014

jessica thompsonAfter updating you on three-month-old news, I realized I never updated you on one year and three-month-old news. My first semester in USF’s MFA program, I took part in the English Department’s Fall Colloquium. It was a formal yet relaxed event that included both academic and creative presentations connected by the loose theme of horror. (It was held in October.)

In my time slot, I put up a slideshow of mug shots of men who had been arrested for sexual violence in the area within the previous year. I went back and forth between reading portions of Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (pdf here) and the mens’ names and alleged crimes. I had some people come up after and tell me it was creepy, which is what I was going for. My hope is that I’ll get a chance to mix fiction writing with non-fiction images again in the future for some presentation or another.

colloquium3

I was teaching Composition that semester and encouraged my students to present something at the colloquium, too. (By “encouraged,” I mean offered extra credit.) Four of them, as a panel, presented art and writing on creepy topics. It was a lot of fun to see them share their original creative work in front of a larger audience. They were nervous, but they did a great job and I felt proud. :)

 

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labor, learning, personal growth

On going sweatshop-free

 

I’ve written and rewritten this post for months. Time to stop being a perfectionist. Here I go, starting with a blank page and writing it once and for all, being okay with publishing it even if it’s raw and unpolished.

I first found out about sweatshops in high school and was appropriately horrified. First, I boycotted the Disney store. Over the next few years, I boycotted the GAP and Old Navy and Banana Republic. Then Nike. Then Victoria’s Secret. Then Wal-Mart and Kohls and JCPenney. Then the Express and Limited. The more research I did, the more “bad” clothing labels I found and the more I boycotted.

As the internet fleshed itself out with information in the early 2000s, I finally realized that “uses sweatshop labor” was the default for clothing manufacturers, not an exception to the rule. I realized it made little sense to approach this by opting out of confirmed sweatshop-using brands. If one wants to avoid sweatshop-made clothing, one must consider all brands guilty until proven innocent. One must boycott everything and only opt in to brands that declare themselves Fair Trade, ethical, or sweatshop-free.

For years, I tried to do this. I tried to avoid supporting sweatshops by buying used clothes from vintage and thrift stores and supplementing them with Made in the USA clothing from American Apparel. It wasn’t enough, though, and at least a couple times per year I still ended up going to regular stores and buying the same old stuff that was probably made by children or slaves (or both). I justified this by telling myself there weren’t enough sweatshop-free options out there, and that I didn’t make enough money to be able to afford them anyway. I rationalized my guilt by telling myself I was helpless to do anything about the situation so I should stop wasting time thinking about it.

This past summer, I became more mindful. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and I turned to long meditations to deal with it. This led to me becoming more aware of my emotions. I noticed that my sweatshop guilt had not left me. I noticed that every time I got dressed in the morning, I had a slightly unsettled feeling of doing something wrong, of contributing to something bad. Although I wanted to keep pushing those feelings aside, in the spirit of mindfulness and acceptance, I looked straight at them.

It was rough. At first I found myself defensive and argumentative, wanting to push back against this nagging voice telling me to pay attention to the unsettled feeling I had. “You’ll do this later. You care. You’re a good person. That’s enough for now. You’re a broke graduate student. You can’t afford to make any change this minute. Wait until you graduate and have a real job and more time and then you’ll only buy sweatshop-free for the rest of your life.”

It didn’t take much reflection to recognize the absurdity of that. First, the sweatshop issue isn’t about me or my identity as a good or bad person, or at least it shouldn’t be. It is about the workers who are suffering. Second, how ridiculous is postponing action until after grad school? “Slavery is bad and should end, but right now is inconvenient for me. Let’s end slavery later, when I have completed my luxurious graduate degree in creative writing.” I mean, really.

So I told myself I’d listen to the nagging voice and begin paying attention to the issue I had tried to push out of my mind in recent years. I started doing research. True Cost, a documentary about the fashion industry, was immensely helpful and I encourage everyone to watch it (it is available to stream on Netflix). I plan on watching it every few months just as a reminder, as something to motivate me to continue living in line with my values on this issue. I learned about Fashion Revolution and the “Who made my clothes?” movement. I read countless articles about various specific sweatshops and began compiling lists of ethical clothing brands and organizations.

Most importantly, I vowed to start buying sweatshop-free clothes only. I recognize that this is an imperfect action, and probably not enough, but it is a start. Ideally, the US should ban the import of sweatshop-made clothing. That would make sense in a country that is anti-slavery, right? For our country to boast about ending slavery then voraciously consume slave-made goods is disingenuous.

We didn’t end slavery–we moved it outside of US borders. I’m not discounting the significance of the end of US slavery. That was a good, important thing that needed to happen. But to pat ourselves on the back and talk as if that was the end of that, to teach our K-12 students as if that was the end of that, is disingenuous. We did not end slavery; we pushed it onto other people that we don’t have see in person.

I’d like to do what I can to help people realize that slavery has not ended and that we as Americans continue to benefit from it and perpetuate it. I’m not sure of the best way to approach this. People don’t want to feel guilty or bad, especially for something that seems out of their control. Also, I don’t think the responsibility should fall on the individual. Our corporations and government are failing us. They are creating and perpetuating this situation, and then obfuscating it so individual consumers have trouble figuring out what’s what. To make an individual buying a shirt feel guilty when these systems are to blame seems misguided and will probably backfire. Most people will probably feel defensive or make excuses, just like I did for years.

I debated writing a journalistic style article detailing the atrocities and widespread nature of sweatshops. Right now, I just don’t have the time. Also, my purpose isn’t journalism. My purpose is to identify what I personally can do to help end this injustice. (If you are wanting information on sweatshops and modern slavery though, look here, here, and here.)

Moving forward, I will only buy sweatshop-free clothing and accessories. I will probably write about the items I buy here and post photos of some of them on instagram. I recognize that this is an imperfect, consumerism-centric start, but I believe an imperfect start is better than no start. I recognize that, as True Cost points out, the whole “fast” fashion industry is a problem. That we cannot just slightly improve working conditions yet keep the whole larger system in place. But this is the start I see available to me now.

I have faith that, with time, I will learn more, gain knowledge and wisdom, and gain clarity on what action to take. I have faith that, with time, I will be able to do more than “conscious consumption” and a piddly blog post. I have faith that I will think of ways to join a larger movement, to put pressure on corporations to change, to put pressure on government to properly regulate. I know that this issue does not only extend to clothing and accessories. That is where I am beginning because that appears to be the most accessible “in” to ethical manufacturing and consumption. I have faith that, with time, I will find ways to promote modern slavery-free food, furniture, technology, etc.

If you have any knowledge on this issue that I do not yet seem to have, please leave a comment. Share your resources. Share your thoughts. This isn’t something that can be tackled individually.

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death, education, internet, police, race, society, teaching, twitter

On Ferguson

Along with much of the country, I’ve followed the aftermath of police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri for the past few months. Through this, I became more aware of institutionalized racism in the US, particularly where it overlaps with police brutality and the militarization of police forces. I was already aware of these issues to an extent, but really had no clue how often the injustices lead to death, specifically the death of Black men. The Guardian article comparing lynchings of years past to police killings today was one of many that opened my eyes.

As is usually true when I turn my attention toward death, I’ve felt helpless as I’ve watched the scene in Ferguson unfold and learned more about similar incidents happening all over the United States. I’ve wondered what I could do. Thanks to twitter, I found three concrete things:

1. Donate to the Ferguson Library.

I learned about the Ferguson Municipal Public Library fundraising effort via Ashley Ford. The Ferguson Library’s website has a donation button in the upper right corner of the front page. They received around $300,000 in donations last week, which exceeds their yearly budget. They might hire a second full-time librarian as a result. They stayed open when the local public schools closed as a result of unrest and they host many community events. Although I did not have very much money to give, I felt good supporting this community institution. I believe in the transformative power of reading and writing, and donating to a library is a way to translate that belief into action.

2. Talk about Ferguson in my classroom.

I learned about #FergusonSyllabus via David M. Perry, who wrote an article calling upon academics to use the lenses of their disciplines to analyze Ferguson-related texts such as Darren Wilson’s testimony in the classroom. Next semester I am teaching a composition course focused on rhetorical analysis of public campaigns so this will fit in perfectly. I originally wanted to use local social issues as examples in the class so I might choose a police brutality case from Florida to focus in on instead, but the conversation will be similar and I can easily relate it to the Mike Brown killing as well.

The challenge here will be approaching this as objectively as possible. Clearly I have strong opinions on police brutality in the US right now–I will not share them outright in the classroom and I don’t want them to become immediately obvious to my students through the structure of my lessons. The purpose will be for them to think critically about the rhetoric used by all of the involved parties, engage in dialogue about it, and draw their own conclusions, which could very well end up being different than my own. Maybe I will share what I come up with on this blog as I develop course objectives and create my lesson plans.

3. Start conversations with people. Write a blog post.

I follow many writers on twitter and several of them wrote about Ferguson. I am often awed by Roxane Gay’s writings on current events, and her response to Ferguson was no exception. She is consistently eloquent and moving, putting forth honest, raw emotion that only bolsters her often strong and logical arguments. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article on Obama’s official response to the Darren Wilson non-indictment is another one that got me thinking more deeply about the issue.

At first I hesitated to write about Ferguson. It’s a blatantly racially-charged situation and I’m White. Also, I don’t have a journalism background or regularly write about current events. I worried I’d mess it all up and look both racist and stupid (or, perhaps worse, faux-enlightened and arrogant). Then I realized that allowing my self-conscious fears to determine my action (or inaction) would be the ultimate selfish, ego-driven act. This tragic event–one of many in a nationwide pattern of similar events–is not about me.

We currently live in a society where White police kill Black citizens once every few days and face few or no repercussions. It isn’t okay. It is systemic, institutionalized violence and murder. To recognize that and remain silent is to assent to this system of injustice. Although my initial responses to Ferguson were sadness and helplessness, I will not allow those to lead to complacency or inaction. The three things I’m doing about this issue might be small, but they are the actions available to me.

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education, learning, mfa, teaching, writing

MFA Update

Hi, friends! A few days ago, a lovely (I’m assuming) man emailed me saying he’s found my MFA blog posts useful. Then, yesterday, Tony Pierce–the Blogfather himself–contacted me to say hi. Coincidence? No way. Direct message from [insert your fav deity] encouraging me to blog again.

It’s been a while, but I will not apologize. I’m busy. I’m in the thick of it. Half-way through the semester. It’s going good. It’s going well. It’s going great. I LIKE IT. The above emojis adequately represent how I feel on a consistent basis.

When I originally searched for MFA program information online, I found many blog posts about the application process, but not many posts from students currently in programs. I understand why–I’m busy, and writing about school just isn’t on my mind. Still, I want to hit you with an update.

What I’m doing, as a first-year MFA creative writing fiction student:

  • taking three courses: Craft of Fiction, Intro to Grad Studies, and Practice in Teaching Composition
  • teaching one course: First Year Composition
  • consulting in the Writing Studio ten hours per week

The amount of happiness I feel about all of this astounds me. I thought the giddiness of being here would wear off after the first week or so, but I literally walk around unable to hide a shit-eating grin the majority of the time I’m on campus. Craft of Fiction is my favorite class, which makes sense since I’m here to study fiction, but I also like the other two classes. That turned out to be a surprise, honestly. I thought they’d be boring requirements I’d want to rush through, but I’m learning a lot in each.

The in-class lectures from Intro to Grad Studies combined with our textbook readings have helped me gain awareness of why I am here, what I want to get from the experience, and where I hope to go next. The graduate program I was in years ago did not have a class like that. I wish it had; I probably would’ve realized the program wasn’t a good use of my time and the associated opportunity cost when it hit me that I lacked a clear plan.

The Practice in Teaching Composition course is for Graduate Assistants teaching Freshman Composition. In class, we discuss exercises and assignments the week before we carry them out in our own classes. We also read and discuss various pedagogies (teaching methods/theories). Although I am not able to implement it this semester, I am particularly interested in the community engaged pedagogy and hope to use it in my teaching beginning January. Community engaged pedagogy is essentially the method of teaching students through experiences with a community partner, which should also benefit the partner. I see community engagement as the link connecting my previous educational experiences with my current one.

Overall, my entire MFA experience is fantastic thus far. My classmates are all friendly and kind and already true friends. My professors are helpful and kind and interesting. The Writing Studio is fun and I’m grateful I received that opportunity. I hope to keep my Writing Studio appointment all three years. Florida’s nice. There are lizards everywhere. I do many of my readings while lying next to the pool.

Being in grad school isn’t easy, but I’m not drowning in readings, which is something I worried about after hearing MFA horror stories. My workload is manageable. I only exercise about once a week (compared to every other day before moving here) so that’s something I need to work on, but aside from that, I am not neglecting other aspects of my life outside of school. I sleep eight hours per night. I maintain a social life. I’m still revising my novel (albeit, more slowly). Still, it is graduate school. I don’t think an MFA is a good choice for someone with romantic notions of sitting around writing all day instead of working a day job. It’s a good choice for someone who likes school.

Since I am only half of a semester in, I don’t know that there is too much else for me to write about the MFA program at this time. If there is anything you think I should blog about–MFA-related or not MFA-related–let me know in the comments.

P.S. If MFA information is what you’re looking for, know that one of my classmates, Carmella, blogs regularly about her experiences as an MFA student at The Restless Writer. Also, MFA students who I (virtually) met through the Facebook MFA Draft group last year blog about their school-related experiences at The MFA Years blog.

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