A workplace where people are kind – too much to ask for?

I’ve written about my bittersweet leaving of Longwood – but not about my new adventure in education.   Too busy working, I guess.  And the wound was raw last fall – in ways I didn’t realize until I landed in a new teaching job and found myself looking over my shoulder, reminiscent of a war vet with PTSD.  It was as if I was waiting for an IED to blow, for someone to knock my legs out from under me the way my Longwood colleagues did.

But secondary education is not higher education.   People are kinder to each other in secondary education.  I don’t know why, but I’ve worked for two universities and four high schools and it holds true throughout my work experience.

Maybe I do know why – in secondary education, teachers teach.  Almost all day, five days a week.  K-12 teachers log hours and hours with students, relentless, in-the-trenches.  It’s demanding work, work not well-respected or remunerated in our culture.  There are very few professors from American universities who could hang with the pace of preparation, face-time teaching, and feedback/assessment that effective high school teachers pull off.

University professors aren’t generally rewarded for being skilled teachers.  They are rewarded for doing other things well – but the effective teaching of undergraduates is not why they are hired or promoted.

I think this is the reason American higher education is destined to implode, probably in the near future unless this country deals with unsustainable student debt and undergraduates who wake up to find that their ordinary degrees don’t get them anywhere they want to be.

Kevin Carey overstates his case in The End of College, but some of his points make sense.  Especially that students have to plan for where they want to go.  It’s no longer good enough to simply get a degree and know that meaningful and relatively well-paid work is going to be waiting for you.  A college degree is not a ticket anywhere if you don’t use the time earning it well.

Which is what I told students at Longwood, and some of them disliked me for it.  But better to tell them the truth while they could still do something about it. I do think I helped a few prepare themselves for meaningful careers in communications.  One thing I know how to do is teach.

Unfortunately, universities aren’t especially interested in hiring effective teachers.  They want young scholars who will publish and make them look good.  I wasn’t young enough, and I wasn’t a man.  Despite what was said when they hired me, and no matter how hard I had worked for them and how effective I’d been teaching students, I wasn’t who they wanted around for the long haul.  Sucker punch.

But here’s the good news – and perhaps what the forces of the universe had in mind anyway.  I landed in Chesterfield County, teaching at their largest high school, and I feel valued there. I’m paid better, I have some job security and excellent benefits, my commute is less than half what it was to Longwood – really a better situation all around.  I like my students, I like what I’ve been asked to teach and the way they’ve asked me to teach it, and I like and respect most of the people I work with.

This year, they’ve asked me to take over the school’s journalism program and help students produce a digital-first student newspaper.  It’s going to be great – a digital-first web-based publication with a quarterly news magazine.  I’m excited by the possibilities.  Why not create one of the best high school journalism programs in the country?  Why not at Thomas Dale?

Sometimes people ask if I miss teaching college?  And sometimes I do.  But mostly I feel grateful to have found a teaching home.  A place where I can settle in and do my best without looking over my shoulder, a place to take some risks to see what works, pick myself up if I fail, a place where people are basically kind to one another.

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On disembarking the roller coaster

The end of this semester was bittersweet – my last at Longwood University in the Communication Studies Department.

Two years ago, I wrote about getting on the roller coaster – my anticipation of the wild ride that comes with teaching five courses a semester at a university, finishing a dissertation, and completing a grant-funded oral history project at the same time.

I was right about the ride, but  didn’t anticipate how completely consuming it would be to prep and teach five courses, commute over an hour to do it, try to complete any research or creative work, and to maintain my family and personal life.   This was one of those old wooden roller coasters that throws you around and whipsnaps your neck.  The kind that sends you to the doctor.

wooden roller coaster

Courtesy of “The Eggplant”, Flickr. Creative Commons License

To make it more interesting, my department colleagues created a tenure-track position that roughly matched what I was doing and told me to apply for it.  I did. They hired a young white man from another part of the country, and then eliminated the lectureship I’d held for two years.  This is a fairly typical story in academia – so I’m hurt, but not surprised.

 

The students responded with warmth and support when I told them.  And they were stunned.  I mean, why would a university let an effective, well-respected teacher go?

So, I’m disembarking the roller coaster.  I’ll miss my Longwood students, but I get my life back.  Someday I’ll thank them for making me leave the ride.

 

Revisiting my last post as another semester winds down

College is not wasted on the young.  The student who made me sad in the last post has turned out to have the instincts of a reporter.  He’s not my most disciplined writer – so he doesn’t pull the best grades – but he goes out and finds stories that could be published in any news outlet.  Because they’re newsworthy.

I’ve had so much fun teaching media writing this semester.  We have to be generalists at Longwood; some classes feel like more of a stretch than others.  Teaching Media Reporting and Writing feels like breathing – teaching it comes that naturally.

Oh yeah, it’s a lot of work.  Lots of reading articles and giving specific feedback.  Depending on your perspective, I have the luxury and/or the misfortune of teaching 29 people in two class sections how to newsgather and mediawrite.

Of course, it’s the 80 I teach in three other class sections that brings me to the semester I’ve had.  Media & Society – a range-y course in which we struggle with two questions: how does media affect society?  And how does society create and control media?  Like I said – a range-y survey course in which we cover too much.  My goal, however, is not the content as much as teaching critical thinking, particularly media criticism.  This can be a lot of fun, but it means moving beyond multiple-choice tests and into the realm of blogging and small group presentations and writing.

That’s right – more reading of student writing, more feedback on student writing. And that’s time intensive.   Messier than A B C D.

But that’s what these college students need.  They need practice writing and they need my feedback on how to do it better.  And, like the rest of us, they figure out what they want to say be writing it out.  Epiphanies abound.

And I guess that’s why I’m here, teaching at Longwood U, working so hard that I neglect both my personal life and the rest of my professional life … this blog, for example, and my Eastern Shore Stories Project.

Is college wasted on the young?

I teach media studies at a small public university in central Virginia.  My classes are filled with students from the region – we’re a well-kept Virginia secret – and almost all the students are between the ages of 19 and 22.   I do have one older gentleman in one of my classes and he is excited to be in school.  So excited to be learning.  I understand that feeling, having chosen to get my Master’s and PhD as a “non-traditional” student.

Learning can be fun.

On Thursday during class, we left the classroom and walked the campus.  The course is media reporting & writing. The topic of the day was “where do story ideas come from?”  So much of university work is purely intellectual, but media writing is not.  It involves all of a person’s senses, with their curiosity completely engaged, to become an effective media reporter and writer.  So we walked the campus in search of stories.

Found them we did.  We walked into buildings that most of us hadn’t entered before.  Talked about history that predated any of our tenures at Longwood U.   Back in the day, there was no central pedestrian commons uniting the campus – there were streets that locals used to get across town.  Even after the commons was built, at least one older local resident drove down the sidewalks and flowerbeds – he still thought it was a city street.

In the music building, two professors emerged from their offices to talk with us.  More ideas for potential stories.  One eloquently urged us to explore the basement practice area, to talk with music students sequestered there – “for whom the homework is never finished.”

“It’s not like math,”  he said to us, “where there are right and wrong answers.  Music students have to practice again and again.  And to be self-critical.  Did they get the fingering, the feel of the piece?”  A solid feature profile idea from a chance encounter.  It was better than I hoped we’d experience on our walk around campus.

I also had a student disappear from the walk.  He apparently thought that a walk around campus was his chance to escape from class.   He’s the same student who keeps asking me why we’re doing things – “what was the point of that?” is his general approach.  It makes me sad – his youthful arrogance will cause him to miss so much.  And he’ll likely be paying student loans for years on classes he barely attended.

He makes me think college is wasted on the young.

And now … the rest of my professional life …

Since I started teaching full-time at Longwood University in August, I have had to focus on course preparation, the transition to new job, new routine, new institutional culture, and completing and defending my dissertation, which I did in October over Longwood’s fall break.

No time for blogging.  Not much time for anything really, except the job.  But I was “hooded” in a December graduation ceremony – officially becoming a Doctor of Philosophy in Media, Art, and Text.

Being “hooded” sounds creepy, but I found it to be a cool ritual.  I walked into the ceremony as part of the formal procession of faculty and graduates, carrying my academic hood over my arm like a four-star waiter’s towel.  During the graduation ceremony, my name was called, I walked forward, gave the hood to Dr. Kathy Bassard, chair of VCU’s English Department, and turned around so she could drape it over my neck and arrange it behind me.

Because she’s shorter than I am, I had to kneel down slightly – which added to the ritual of the moment.  Being hooded felt like a sort of soft-cloth knighting ceremony – with roots back into the Middle Ages and the birth of universities within monasteries.

My parents, my husband and my daughter were in the audience as witnesses, as well as several professors and some MATX’ers I’ve been in seminars with.

Also in attendance was the chair of my dissertation commitee, Dr. Noreen Barnes, who let me wear her academic tam instead of the standard-issue mortarboard VCU had given me.  Not only was the tam more attractive – the fact that she let me borrow it for the ceremony was a nice symbolic gesture. As an Associate Professor in VCU’s Theatre Department, she knows the value of ritual and gesture.

So now that I’ve completed the MATX PhD program, the question becomes –  how do I stay fresh and engaged with my field so my classes in Communication Studies at Longwood stay fresh?  And, given the interdisciplinary nature of the MATX degree, what constitutes my field?  What journals do I follow and what conferences do I attend?  Is that even the path I will take as an academic?

Those questions are why – although I could have spent the day grading the design projects I took in on Wednesday or working on notes for the Communication Theory class I’m teaching – instead I spent the morning investigating professional associations and journals.

The Oral History Association ?

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication ?

One I may join simply because I love the fact that they meet every March in Orlando, Florida, and cover topics like: “Gender and Feminism in Science Fiction”,  “Staging Monstrosity” and “Terrifying Futures: Post-Apocalyptic, Post-Human Dystopias” …  The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts

Who do I want to become as a writer, media producer, and scholar?

I can see the forest, but it’s a blur!

You know that moment when you’re riding a roller coaster and you’re poised at the top of the first rise for split second before the coaster releases and barrels forward?

Everest roller coaster, Walt Disney World, November 2009

Click, click, click … those few seconds of anticipation …  excitement and terror threaded together.

I know I’m not going to die, but as I slam through the turns, I feel like I might.

That’s the way I feel right now,  a few days away from the start of the fall semester.

The job search is over.  I accepted a position teaching communications full-time at Longwood University.     This fall, I’m teaching multiple sections of Public Speaking and Media & Society.

Meanwhile, my dissertation has been revised twice and is  ready to go to the full committee, with a defense planned for this fall.

It looks like I might graduate in December.

Oh yeah, and the ESVHS & I were awarded a second grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to continue collecting farm life interviews for the Eastern Shore Stories project.

There’s more, but I’m breathless.

Wheeeeee … here I go !

Does this mean if I look behind me I’ll see the forest now?  I think the answer is yes, but the trees are a blur ’cause I’m moving too fast.

Alien invasions or pandemics? How much do we need radio?

Found this piece in On The Media radio archives, called “Covering the Apocalypse” – about the role of journalists during the apocalypse if the Mayan prophesy of the world ending 12/21/2012 happens … or the world ends on any random Tuesday for that matter.  Started off as a whiteboard discussion at  conference I didn’t catch the name of.  Here’s a link to the piece :

Covering the Apocalypse – On The Media.

One of the things Andrew Fitzgerald says in this radio piece is that the first thing to fail will likely be the communications network we depend on for news. Ironically ham radios might become the most reliable place to get news.  Which is why I may have to play this in my Radio & the Internet course later in the semester … the history of early radio starts, not with Amos ‘n’ Andy or jazz music, but with hobbyists – ham radio operators.

Hmm… so Brooke Gladstone and Andrew Fitzgerald are having lots of fun with this, but I’m still going to think about this again.  How dependent on streaming have I become?  Could I get news another way if I had to?

On seeing the forest …

I’ve been in a job search frenzy for the past week or so.  Starting to lose sight of why I enrolled in an alternative, interdisciplinary PhD program in Media, Art, and Text.  Starting to think that dragging my family all over the US in search of that tenure-track faculty position is what I did this for. That was never my intention.  Never.

Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast, summer 2011

Like the picture?  I took it this summer on our family trip – inserted here simply because I like it.  Okay, and because it has trees.  So … I never intended to chase after that elusive tenure-track position.  I’m a teacher by trade, a good one.  I’ve been working on my Teaching Portfolio this morning – adding a few things, modifying a few things.

Because I’m working on an application to teach core communications classes, I pulled up the Core Curriculum Course I designed to take another look at it.  I call the course: Obsession & Outliers, Insiders & Outsiders: Whose Story Is It?   The idea is that I use interesting course material from media studies as a Trojan horse to provide students a place to practice and improve core academic skills:  presentation skills, writing, information fluency (we used to call it research), critical thinking.

Here’s the syllabus: Obsession & Outliers, Insiders & Outsiders: Whose Story Is It?

So what was my intention in pursuing the Media, Art & Text PhD? I do want to teach at the University level – I do it well and I needed the paper credential to have a shot at earning a living wage.  I wanted to continue to improve as a writer. I’ve done that. I’m also gaining skills as an audio documentary producer. And an oral historian. I designed my own website and know enough about coding to clean up the posts on my blogs.

Oregon Coast

The forest? I’m kinda deep in the trees right now.

Applying for jobs that sound interesting and that I’m qualified to do. In places we might consider living. ‘Cause it’s the next right thing to do, sort of like getting this degree was the next right thing to do.

“Way will open” – that’s what Quakers say. Kinda like what you see in this picture, also from our summer trip.

At the start of this trail, I smelled something strong, with a twinge of ammonia. I thought it was urine.  My assumption was drunks partying and peeing in the woods, but the park rangers said that a mountain lion had been there, that the scent was hers.

There’s much I don’t know.  I do know, because I walked it, that the end of this sandy trail through the woods opened onto the vista I posted in the other photograph.  Sand dunes and small stands of trees and the Pacific Ocean stretching out beyond everything.  I was with people I love on a beautiful day, in a beautiful place.

When I looked back, I could see the forest.

finding cool pics for a slide show on bookmaking


Books as repositories of knowledge and magic – people still travel thousands of miles to Ireland to see the Book of Kells. I suspect there is no way a picture of a page from this book can do its materiality justice. Even here it’s incredibly beautiful.

I’m working on a slide show for a bookmaking workshop at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts. Teaching a unit is a requirement for my bookmaking seminar, but I’m also having fun putting it together.

Meanwhile, Google is going to make thousands of books available on any web browser. NY Times article: Google Sparks E Reader Fight with Kindle

Are the days of physical books as numbered as the days of a wet darkroom for photography? I think that’s when the artists move in … art books and art photography made by artists and photographers using non-digital technology, because quickly anything non-digital is becoming arcane.

want to write with me this weekend?

I’m teaching an all-day writing immersion workshop at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond on Saturday, Oct. 17, from 10 am to 4 pm.

It’s open to writers of all levels of writing experience … costs $75, unless you’re a member, then it’s less.

In the morning, expect lots of prompts and starter exercises – adaptable for all genres. In the afternoon, each participant will choose one promising writing “start” to develop and spend the rest of the workshop writing or they can work on a project they’re already stewing about.

At the end of the day, if folks want – we’ll share what we’ve written.

To sign up, contact the Visual Arts Center .

They have lots of other cool classes, programs, exhibitions too! If you live near Richmond, Virginia, and love the arts – check out the Visual Arts Center.