Teaching college composition, week 1

On reflection, anxiety was the theme of the week. While in the past I would have described my anxiety as “free-floating,” I’m grateful now to know there are different flavors, with some types bringing benefit. The mood in the first meeting of ENGL 103 at Northern Illinois University was anxious, no doubt about it.

In fact, probably taking a cue from my own guarded nature, the anxiety has returned in slightly different guises each of the three class periods. In myself, I notice the anxiety in the slightly trembling hand, the dry mouth, the eagerness to please, the teaching points that, launched with strong voice, disappear, unrealized, into some breach in the time-space continuum. In the ENGL 103 students I see myself, a disoriented freshman, navigating between the boxed buildings of a public university campus, parking each morning in a field of weeds, bearing my burdens, knowing no one.

As an undergraduate, I learned what “impostor syndrome” felt like, although at the time I could not name it. The syndrome has visited me at every school setting. At NIU I encountered yet another iteration, although I was pleasantly surprised to see the topic surface in so many course readings, including First Time Up by Brock Dethier.

I take comfort in seeing myself in students. This is a never-failing bulwark in my teaching – empathy and patience – which does not depart even though the voice and professorial acumen and self-possession often are absent. For this empathy I thank the practice of Buddhist meditation and the writings of Parker Palmer and, most especially, my first students, the “Briarwood Recreation Center Six,” from Guerrero, México … among other sources.

So what happened in week one? As students and I gasped for breath, this group of twenty-two pushed forward, filling out info sheets (chronicling various cases of writer’s block, citation anxiety, and difficulty “putting my thoughts on paper”); making introductions; trying to remember names (DeShawn, Loralee, Parker, et al.); discussing the syllabus; previewing Blackboard; freewriting in lab on a statement by Toni Morrison; circling into awkward breakout groups; and writing a short paper about justice.

And I acknowledge here that without the freshman-composition team of instructors, Michael Day, Ellen Franklin, and Eric Hoffman, precious few of these things would have happened. More than once, taking a cue from students’ discomfort – which merely mirrored my own – I was tempted to prejudge those at whom I gaze across a generational gulf, as I have heard adults and other authority figures do, as overly compliant, sedated, plugged into electronics, unplugged from life.

Fortunately, taking time to contact my compassionate side, I sought evidence that, as if there were any doubt, such judgments are nothing but timid self-preservations.

First, I recalled my own first-year experience at the University of Maryland as an island among a similar archipelago of freshmen, taking “The Short Story.” I wrote passionately and freely about the Norton anthology stalwarts, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Updike, Woody Allen, and, my favorite, Isaac Bashevis Singer. I typed these essays (“attempts”) on onion-skin paper on a sturdy Royal manual typewriter with forest-green keys. When I finished, the pages were always punctured by my emphatic keystrokes, tiny holes where there should have been periods and semicolons.

What I most remember, though, was the last day of the semester, when the instructor, probably a Ph.D. student, returned my onion-skin sheet and asked me, in front of the class, “Can you speak?” So I had been judged, not for the last time, by silence, and I felt the heat of shame in my face and what felt like blows to the stomach. The positive outcome was that I vowed never to diminish anyone else in this way.

Second, and most influentially, the ENGL 103 students spoke themselves. Another positive about the classroom circa 2016 – the students can speak! On Friday the twenty-two of us went outside, to the gravelly sculpture garden behind Reavis Hall, and formed an “awareness circle.”

The awareness circle is not my creation. As I read statements, some innocuous (“I’m a picky eater”), some challenging (“My family is dysfunctional”), students and I stepped forward silently to claim these statements for ourselves.

We went back to the room. “What did you think?” I asked. A student raised her hand. “I think that we all have a past,” she said, and, for the first time in a week, I felt some of my tension release. Truth had emerged. I go into week two with the intention of investigating, with Bryan Stevenson’s help, more of this theme.

Note: All students’ names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

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