Thursday, September 4, 2008

The fray

today was my first day of teaching in something like two and a half years, and i've been nervous about it for some time. (hmmm, could that be what the terrible back-and-neck pain is about? nah...) would i remember how to manage a class? would i recognize my students? would they respect me? okay, let me be honest -- would they like me? do i still care about that? and how do i feel about caring or not caring? am i patient enough for teaching? is the syllabus organized? have i thought of everything? OMG, i need a key and a code for the smart room. what if they hate iclicker, what if they hate world writing in english, what if they act snooty and superior? and what am i going to wear? (yes, chie mihara shoes, but what else?)

there were a few mishaps. for one thing, i went to the wrong room. i teach in the humanities centre on thursdays and the business building on tuesdays but somehow i got it backwards and walked right into BUS 4-13 at 2:00 today. as karma would have it, there was an MBA class there. after i raised my question ("uh, do we perhaps have a scheduling conflict?"), the prof said, "oh, you seemed so pleasant i thought you were going to ask whether you could be in my class!" then he put his hand on my back and leaned in. i was so flustered by the whole thing that i didn't really absorb it at the moment, but in retrospect i kind of (kind of) wish i'd said, "no, no, that was last week's plan B. since then my partner has convinced me that i'm already qualified for whatever an MBA would qualify me to do, and besides, the ethos in the b-school is just way. too. conservative, so i'm moving on to plan C, which is to become an electronic mashup artist."

what i actually said was, "oh! no! uh, no, that's not it at all." then i pointed stupidly to my syllabus, which clearly stated the wrong information. the prof canvassed the class, none of whom proved to be english 123 students, and then acted very solicitously (in the other sense), walking me down to the admin offices where i called the english department which, reliably enough, gave me the totally wrong information ("you're supposed to be in tory 1-107!"), allowing me to deduce, all on my own, where to go.

so, yeah, i was late. and i was nervous. my timing is off; the classes weren't paced well. and there are many mistakes on my syllabus: readings listed that i've since learned we won't be able to do, unconfirmed class visits, days titled something provisional like "web 2.0" or "local writing." most dreadfully of all, the assignments don't add up to 100%. i hate being a stereotype of an english professor.

but the most surprising thing to me is how much poorer my memory is. i used to memorize every student's name in the first class. before your eyebrows head to the stratosphere, i had a simple trick: get students talking about themselves and listen with one ear. meanwhile, use your real attention to write down something visually striking about them. you have to give yourself permission to write whatever strikes you: "porn star," "pig eyes," "plain girl," "vivacuous" (which is my favorite student neologism of all time). of course, you must burn this piece of paper later that night. my theory is that meeting someone is an overwhelming experience, there's so much coming at you at once: visual details, mannerisms, emotions, expressions, stories, hopes, desires. it takes a certain length of time to quiet the riot in the brain, and the discipline of focusing your attention on the one visual detail that will connect a name to a body helps.

anyway, i tried to do that this morning. i had the students reveal their favorite book or movie or band. while they talked, i tried to jot something down about their physical appearance, things that might trigger my memory five days from now, when i see them again. even at the time i thought it was choppy, but when i got back to my office afterward i could see what a total disaster it was. my notes do not say things like "meathead" or "aniston hair" (not that anybody does that anymore, but you take the point) or "generic white boy," all of which would be meaningful to me; they say things like "blonde" or "glasses" or "headband." the last is particularly disappointing, since one of the tacit rules of this exercise is that you do not focus on the ephemeral -- maybe he's the kind of student who wears a preppy sweater, but he could just be behind on his laundry, or terribly ironic -- whereas a descriptor like "pinhead" will identify him even in a metallica t-shirt.

so, i have no idea what anybody's named, and will have to struggle along through the class list. what i'm left wondering is why i failed. am i just out of practice? and if so, unpracticed at what: meeting people? memorizing? or being blunt? is the problem that there is so much noise in my head now that i can't actually see people for themselves? or is the failure not about memory or distraction but about cognition: is it harder to multi-task now? and that, in turn, makes me wonder what other pleasures of aging might be in store.


Unknown said...

my dear heather, you are too hard on yourself. my father called every kid he met (other than his own) "skipper" no matter how many times he saw them, they were just skipper. That way he had some brain cells left to remember other things that were obviously more important to him. I really dont thing any of them minded it !

In a few more classes it will all be old hat again.

love yourself my heather, the rest of us love ya :-)

Anonymous said...

If it makes you feel any better, I can vouch that you're not out of practice at being blunt. I can also confirm that the whole remembering names thing only gets worse. I agree with Roberta -- call them all Skipper. :-)

jen alabiso said...

it makes me so sad that you call THIS a failure - are you kidding? You are brilliant and fabulous and those students are going to have a year that will shake them in the best ways. no matter what you call them or how many mistakes are on the syllabus you will teach them to be hungry for more. Plus, you are wicked cool and my lifestyle hero. 'member that bike and those pouches? And I challenge ANYONE to find a better collection of boots.

breathe deep medear - it's all easy peasy from here. (this is me channeling Dr. Seuss...)

of course, the feminist in me wants you to call them all skippette ;-)