Faculty Development for the 21st Century and Beyond

This is a talk I gave for a job interview almost two years ago. I’m still pretty happy with it, and I thought it was time that I share it here. 

I’d like to start my talk with a question, but perhaps not the question you would expect. My question, and how I am framing this discussion today belies my background teaching writing – it is a question about audience: Who does faculty development ultimately serve? The answer would certainly appear to be obvious, as it is right there in the title: Faculty, of course! However, I would point you to the mission statements of both Chapman University and of your own IETL.

To provide personalized education of distinction that leads to inquiring, ethical and productive lives as global citizens.

To promote the value and practice of excellent teaching that facilitates student learning.

I have a deep appreciation of both those mission statements as they focus on aspects of learning. And when we talk about learning, ultimately we must also think about the student. And thus when we talk about who we, as faculty developers serve, we can never forget that the student, along with their learning experience and outcomes, are ultimately who we all serve.

This tension can be best seen in the difficulty in the development of good Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SoTL). It was best articulated to me by faculty developers from the University of Wisconsin System who do a week-long workshop with faculty from across the state every summer, in order to facilitate the production of SoTL work. During their presentation at the POD conference in Dallas, they stated that the hardest part for faculty was turning their “teaching problem” into a “learning question.” Faculty development must always have these intertwined constituencies under consideration when working with faculty: on the one hand, you have the faculty who are sitting in front of you, but behind them, the students that they teach.

The university is a complex ecosystem where multiple parties work in a variety of ways to fulfill the goals of the institution. Faculty development is one piece of that ecosystem, much like the classroom, the lab, the library, the cafeteria, the admissions office, and other units on campus. There is an analogy that I like to use with my students when I am teaching them, and in particular when introducing a more active, peer-drive, project-based learning approach, an approach many of them are quite unfamiliar with and uneasy about. I took it from Douglas Thomas and John Seeley Brown in their book A New Culture of Learning, and it is the image of the Petri Dish.

What are Petri dishes used for? Experiments, where elements are added together, creating a nutrient-rich environment, in order for something to grow (or fester, as I would often joke with my students). What you add will be dictated by what you want to grow. And the growth is a complex process that does not always happen the way you planned. And what grows, when either expected or unexpected, can be quite beautiful.

I also like the image of the Petri Dish because it has clear boundaries, both in terms of transparency and in terms of boundaries. Good faculty development has clear guidelines, services, and accountability, while (as always) respecting the privacy and confidentiality of faculty members who visit us, while also always being encouraged to interact and play a role in sustaining and growing the “nutrient rich” environment. We need to create these safe spaces for faculty to come and learn and grow. As your Institute is a faculty-driven initiative, I have no doubt that you have strived to create such an environment, and looking at your poster presentation from the aforementioned POD conference, I see that you have grown something really special here at Chapman. But the landscape, the environment, will always be changing and evolving; it is up to the leader of the Institute to be able to react to these changes and maintain a place and a space for productive growth.

The Petri Dish is not a perfect analogy; no analogy ever is. One can read the previous slide as another analogy of the university and all the various units, with their own environments, growing on their own. There is transparency, but there are also walls, keeping the various spaces isolated from one another. This can be danger to creating proper conditions, when we cut ourselves off from parts of campus, or parts of the mission of the university. I return to the idea of student as being an important concern in our work as faculty developers. Faculty development, and an Institute or Center for Teaching and Learning, can move beyond the Petri dish, and instead be a place to integrate into the various ecosystems of campus.

So how do we create the proper conditions? I’m going to continue my talk with a story. My academic background is in Comparative Literature, so I’m drawn to the power of a story. I’m always looking for the narrative thread, the clever turn of a phrase, many possible meanings, intertextual references, and (as you have already seen) illustrative, if imperfect, analogies. About a month ago, my seven-year-old daughter made a skirt. I will admit to not knowing how to sew, how to read a pattern, or even owning a sewing machine, but about six months ago, my daughter started to ask about learning how to sew. Rather, she started begging me to teach her. So I began to put a plan into motion to help her achieve her goal of learning how to sew.

First, was to find someone who knows how to sew, as well as procuring a proper sewing machine. I began to work my social media circles to find the best resources to get started, both for her and for myself. Thankfully, my mother (who knows how to sew) was coming to visit, and was bringing a sewing machine as a Christmas present. My mother taught my daughter how to use the machine, and my daughter, in turn, taught me. We moved on to making a skirt, watching a YouTube video about how to read, pin, and sew a pattern. The day after watching the video, we started to make the skirt.

We quickly discovered that our scissors weren’t quite sharp enough and were too big for my daughter’s hands. It would have also helped to have a ruler. But we pressed forward, with my daughter and I trading duties. She even made a mistake and had to undo her work and start all over again. In the end, the hem wasn’t quite straight, but she wore it proudly on the first day of school, because as she said, that way, everyone knew it was special and that it was mine.

So, what was the point of this story? I think it illustrates, in a microcosm, what faculty development should and will look like in the 21st century. Much of it probably won’t surprise you. It looks shockingly like good pedagogical practice. Faculty development should be focused on process, not just results. Unlike the skirt pattern, faculty development, in fact all learning, isn’t nearly as neat and formulaic. It should be collaborative, and draw on the resources that are available to us. It also needs to be responsive to the faculty, the student’s, and the collective community’s needs, strengths, and motivations. We also need to have access to a variety of tools and resources in order for faculty to have a choice and use what is most appropriate. This ties into the need for faculty development to be community-driven, a model that you have already adopted here at Chapman. It also should be varied in its development method, taking a multi-modal approach. The workshop is just one way to deliver faculty development. And because we are focused on the process, productive failures (and reflection on them) are to be encouraged.

Again, none of this is particularly surprising. There is a nascent community here at Chapman, and until I understand it better, I hesitate to suggest prescriptive solutions (although feel free to ask about specific challenges or issues you are facing or are anticipating during the subsequent discussion). But I do want to introduce a few more radical elements to create a productive and sustainable environment for your teaching and learning community here through the IETL. Those elements are vulnerability, affect, and trust. The three, to me, are intrinsically linked. We cannot teach, nor learn, without being vulnerable, in admitting that there are things that we are not expert in, and that we need help. The willingness to be vulnerable and come forward asking from help is often a result of affect, of strong feelings towards either the subject matter to be taught, or feelings towards the students themselves, often both. These feelings can lead to research-based, sound solutions to whatever the challenge might be, but there must be that feeling that things need to change, strong enough to overcome the vulnerability. Finally, there must be trust, in order for the faculty to agree to work with you and each other in order to create and sustain the change.

As individuals or as peoples, by fighting for the restoration of [our] humanity [we] will be attempting the restoration of true generosity. And this fight, because of the purpose given it, will actually constitute an act of love – Paulo Freire

I want to end with where I began. I chose both my title and slide image because of the literary imagery they evoke: Don Quixote. Both Duck Dodgers and Buzz Lightyear can be read as contemporary reinterpretations of the infamous errant knight, tilting at windmills, imagining themselves guardians of a code and tradition or mission, one that we can see is incompatible with the reality of the world they are living in. I wonder if you can see where I am going with this. One could read the contemporary faculty (at least how they are portrayed in the media and elsewhere) as being engaged in a kind of Quixotic journey, powerlessly tilting at windmills, Cervantes stand-in for technological advancement, and guardians of The Institution. Perhaps some faculty even believe this of themselves! But who would these knight-errants be without their trusty side-kicks, their Sancho Panzas, their Porky Pigs, their Woodys? And if we truly believed that being a professor has become some sort of parody, then we wouldn’t have faculty development.

But I want us to sit with this potentially uncomfortable analogy for a moment. I put it here as a serious acknowledgement that the landscape of higher education, pedagogy, and teaching and learning has changed for faculty, and quite rapidly, over the past ten years. The changes in technology, in our students, and in our institutions, have been profound and, at times, bewildering. I include myself in this characterization, having taught at the collegiate and university level for over 15 years. I was Buzz Lightyear, blindly and not a little naively barreling my way into the classroom, just as my mentors and teachers had done before me. One of the reasons I got into faculty development is because I was left on my own to navigate these changes, and while I was successful, I knew that there had been too many missed opportunities. I built a virtual community and a body of knowledge, and I want to bring that experience and expertise to help build the IETL and the faculty capacity. I want to be a part of the community here at Chapman University, and I’d like to spend the rest of the time today getting to know you and your culture here. Thank you.

Many Hands, One Manuscript

The Acknowledgement section of my book, A Journey in Translation: Anne Hébert’s Poetry in English, (WHICH IS OUT) is four pages long. That’s what happens when you’ve been working on something for more than fifteen years. And even that, to me, seems excessive. No one write that many pages of acknowledgements. No one thanks everyone. Not in the humanities. Thank your supervisor, thank who funded you, thank your family. Done.

At the same time, four pages is INCREDIBLY restrained for me. I could have written 200 more pages about the writing of the 244 pages the book ended up being. Four pages seems, to me, like too few to capture just how much everyone I did mention meant to the writing of the manuscript, and all of the people who didn’t make it in there because their influence and support were the kind that is hard to articulate in an appropriate way (“Thanks for helping to keep me alive and relatively sane!”).

There are a couple of reasons that I keep dwelling on these four pages that proceed the “meat” of the manuscript, the actual scholarship. There are people, so many people, who have cared for me and about me and my work. We do not celebrate nearly often enough those people who took the time to care. It is a community of scholars and friends and peers and acquaintances that make a piece of scholarship like this possible. Were there days (and days and days and days) of me alone, in archives, at my computer, in my office spaces, in libraries? Yes. But they were all because of the support of others that I was able to do the work that I did.

Especially because I have long been in positions where this kind of scholarship is not required or even expected. I was a contingent faculty member before moving into alt-ac positions in faculty development and instructional technology. I changed countries, making the relevance of things like translation and Canadian and Québécois literature even more spurious for my academic employment. I love and believe in my research, but it was the love and belief of others, in me more so than my work, that pushed me to not give up on what I was doing.

And so I want to tell some stories about the genesis of this manuscript, because really, it’s about one author’s story of her poetry being translated and transformed. This is an imperfect and abbreviated story of how this all transformed me.

It doesn’t start without the decision, of course, to go to Sherbrooke instead of, say, McGill or Concordia or, well, any of the large number of English-language institutions within a two-hour drive of where I grew up. But instead I decided to flex my supposedly bilingual muscles in Sherbrooke at a French university, studying English.

For the three years leading up to the class that introduced me to Anne Hébert’s poetry and their translations, I made some of the best friends, who helped me become someone who was really bilingual, rather than just having jumped through the various hoops in high school to confirm that I knew French enough to pass a test. Fun fact: I almost failed my French grammar class at Sherbrooke. But I started dreaming in French after all those years.

We all code-switched, regularly, and without even thinking about it. We were constantly translating ourselves and each other, depending on the situation, the conversation, the topic at hand. I remember my early days at Sherbrooke, out at the campus bar, unable to follow the conversations in French that were going on around me. I remember all the times I misused words and expressions. Those moments left me feeling foolish and lost and alone. But I made some of the best friends of my life during those years.

Julie and Sean in particular, you didn’t get a mention, but thank you for giving me another chance and becoming my friends.

I do mention Richard Giguère’s Québécois poetry class in my acknowledgements, because it was his class that specifically started this journey. But while I was going through my old files, I found that I had kept the paper I had originally written for his class, complete with his annotations.

Original AH Translation Essay

As you can see (if you go to the end), I got an A-, largely because I had completely disregarded the sonority of the original French poem. But re-reading the 30 (!) page paper, I was struck at once at how naively confident I was in my writing, but also that the paper was pretty good. It was, as my writing always has been, filled with typos and sloppy mistakes, on top of being well-researched, but poorly cited in terms of following any given style. As my copyeditor (who got a big thank-you in the acknowledgements as well) will attest, I haven’t really improved in the intervening years.

The paper, though, is a flight of fancy, written in a flurry of energy and enthusiasm. I remembered that feeling, that excitement, the drive I had to write that paper, to do the research, which stuck with me for all these years. Where did that voice go, I wondered. Was it still in my manuscript, buried deep beneath the academic prose and insecurity that graduate school breeds?

I’m grateful that Dr. Giguère fanned that flame, and made me feel like this was something I could pursue, and that it was something I was if not good at, then not horrible at either.

See here where I thank the alt-ac women in my life. That still stands.

I’ve written before about how things fell apart for all of us in our PhD program. And I did what I do when faced with a stressful situation in unfamiliar surroundings: I threw myself into the water. More specifically, I joined a Masters swim team. And those teammates got me through my last year of graduate school.

They kept me sane. My days (and nights and weekends) once spent stressing about teaching or my research or the department politics were now filled with swimming and camaraderie and laughter and physical exhaustion and friendship as we all tried to balance our studies with our swimming. But unlike the competitive college team, we were much more laid back, which suited all of us just fine.

I was only on the team for a year, but those teammates were at my wedding and remain some of my best friends. We came together at just the right moment in each others’s lives, around a shared love of swimming. We were different majors, different ages, different ability levels in the water, but none of that mattered, not that year.

I started to feel more like myself than I had since I moved to Edmonton that year. It gave me the confidence to keep going and not give up on finishing my PhD. They reminded me how much I valued a diverse community around me, that I needed a life outside of my work (but also work outside of my life).

So to the 2004-2005 Penguins Masters Swim Team, thanks.

When I gave up my tenure-track position to keep my family together and moved to rural Eastern Kentucky, I made an irreparable decision about the path of my career and my research. My scholarship had to take a backseat to the reality of a heavy teaching course load and little-to-no institutional support. Thus is the reality of contingency. I wasn’t prepared, however, for how personally isolating my new geographic location would be, and how professionally isolating my various “downgrades” in status would be.

But I had started the ball rolling on my second research project, still had all this research and writing on my dissertation, because of the year in a tenure-track position; I had spent my first (and only) year on the tenure-track having a baby and setting myself up for tenure down the road. When I left said tenure-track position, I kept the ball rolling on all of these projects because, well, I guess I didn’t really know what else to do. Contracts had been signed, manuscripts had been sent out, and I somehow held out the naive hope that this was some temporary blip and I would one day be a tenure-track faculty member again.

Stop rolling your eyes at me.

But of course, working in isolation takes a toll. No one valued my work with many going so far as to actively (but in a caring way) discourage me from doing it. The futility of it all weighed heavily. I wasn’t taken seriously where I worked, and because of where I worked, most others didn’t take me seriously.

So I wrote. And I spent money that I didn’t have to go to conference, not in the hopes anymore of getting a job but in the hopes of finding a community, a place where my work was valued. And I found it online, and I found it in EMiC.

I’ve written elsewhere before about how much being included in the project meant to me. And I’ve said thank you in the book. But I need to say it again.

A bit more on my social network.

My presence of Twitter lead to a couple of important connections that lead to my manuscript getting finished. One of them was my work that I did for Academic Coaching and Writing; if it weren’t for my digital presence, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with a coach and get a final push on reshaping the dissertation into the manuscript it became.

It also lead to the EMiC opportunity because someone who knew me from Twitter found me at a conference and made a recommendation that I reconnect with a former colleague.

It lead to me being able to move into a faculty development role, which lead to a professional renaissance, and money to actually pay the bills.

I got archives at the last possible minute to incorporate into my manuscript from someone I knew from Twitter whom I had never met but was willing to help.

But what my network also allowed me to do was to rediscover, over and over, the excitement I had around my research topic. Finding a community of researchers who were also interested and excited by my topic, finding new archives at the last minute and then being able to read new letters and new records into my manuscript…I was that 22-year-old again, writing her last undergraduate paper, and finding out at the end of it, there was more, and knowing in that moment, I was going to keep writing this. I was excited, delighted even, again and again, through the latter stages of this process because of people I met and knew online.

That last little anecdote is a small, tangible example of how important and supportive my larger social network has been. Even if it didn’t lead to a job or finding a coach or getting my hands on a piece research, my community online has provided so much positive reinforcement over the years, celebrating with me, as well as comforting me when things were difficult. And I, them.

We were in this together, through writing and teaching and career transitions and publications and rejects and births and deaths and and and.

There is a lot of ugliness and hatred and assholery online, specifically on social media. But it’s not only that. And I’ve been lucky that my experience has been largely positive, and even empowering. It’s a privilege. But it’s one that I am grateful for, and work to nurture and expand.

The book exists because I have, at various points, had people around me who supported me both directly and indirectly. I did not write this book alone.

And I don’t celebrate it alone, either.

And as much fun as it is to celebrate virtually with all of my friends and family, it was really special to have a book launch/birthday party thrown by my still-new coworkers. I think they all know, but it touched me so deeply that they would come out and celebrate this with and for me, because…

Most of the time, the way things have gone for me and my career, any party thrown in my honor is a goodbye party, because I’m leaving, again.

It’s a complicated feeling that begins to develop when the only parties you get are the ones that are thrown because you’ve leaving town.

But to have a party because you’re there and you’re staying and they’re happy about that and proud of the book you’ve produced, that meant a lot to me.

And it meant a lot to me too that my new co-workers put up with my taking days off with little notice to hole up in my basement to work on my manuscript in a flurry so I could meet a deadline that had suddenly appeared. And my nerding out over new archives. And tearing my hair out over copyediting.

None of which are directly related to my current job.

It means a lot to me that I have people that I can share this with in these moments.

I’ll leave the last words to my 7-year-old son, who goes around telling everyone that they need to buy my book:

“You’re a real author now, Mom. Everyone is going to know you. That’s awesome.”

On The Tragically Hip

Today, all of Canada, and most Canadians around the world, are suffering from a massive emotional hangover. Last night, CBC broadcast, live, the last ever concert by The Tragically Hip, as their lead singer. Gord Downie, has a terminal, inoperable brain tumor. You can read here a piece trying to explain to Americans what The Tragically Hip means to Canadians. There are so many of them floating around the Internet, starting from the moment he announced his prognosis to now, the final show of their final tour.

I wrote one, quickly and emotionally, as a note on facebook. I refined those thoughts, on growing up, on national and national pride, and being, as Gord described the band during the show last night, “scrapping and being really weird,” through the lens of another Canadian band that I loved, Barenaked Ladies. I loved BNL first, and then came around to The Hip.

This has been a rough year for losing our (long) generation’s musical heroes. We lost Bowie. We lost Prince. Both deaths were sudden and unexpected and left us reeling, with Bowie leaving us a good-bye letter disguised as an album. There wasn’t a chance to say goodbye, to be able to let us, the fans, let them know while they were still alive how much they meant to us. Gord gave us that chance this summer. I am grateful for that chance. This is no small favor to the fans. This is no small sacrifice for a dying man to make. A farewell tour.

I couldn’t make any of the concerts live this summer. I love concerts. I love the experience of a live, collective experience, screaming and singing and moving (and I would think in this case, crying) together. I haven’t seen The Hip nearly as many times as many of my friends did, but I remember those shows, those moments. A Hip concert was the thing that brought together the two disparate groups of friends that I had; first, my swimming and my school friends, then my Montreal (Anglo) friends and my Sherbrooke (Francophone) friends. I also couldn’t make any of the many viewing parties that sprung up, still being able to share the experience in a public, collective setting.

But in another way, I’m glad I was home watching it in my basement. It was intimate and it was personal and it was still beautiful. Being at the show meant that I wouldn’t have been able to see the raw emotion on Gord’s face, all the times he broke down into tears, especially during Fiddler’s Green. But I was far from alone; I was watching alongside my best friend, as we texted each other; I was watching with my friends from high school on facebook; and I was watching with my larger network of Canadian ex-pats on Twitter. We shared our memories in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to in a concert environment. We wrote through the memories and the grieving and the celebration.

The show itself did not disappoint. How could it? I was especially grateful for the reminder of how good the album Phantom Power was. I was glad to be able to hear the greatest hits and sing along and cheer as the opening cords started and I not-so-silently squeed and then bombarded my husband (and Twitter) with memories and meaningful lyrics. You can read the entire set list here, and while they didn’t play everything (Boot or Hearts, anyone?), it more than met the expectations that we all had for a final show.

I’m a greedy fan, however. I wanted more show, all the songs, but especially the songs that meant something to me. I was at once grateful for the experience, and simultaneously tweeting the songs they hadn’t played it. Namely, the song “Ahead by a Century” from Trouble at the Henhouse. As the two and a half hour set went on, and they played song after song that I thought would make a good farewell, I worried I wouldn’t get to hear the song I most wanted to.

There were so many good ways they could have ended. They did “Scared” from Day for Night, the album that changed my view of The Hip permanently for the better. I still have no idea what the song is about, but the last line is “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you” which would have been good. I would have sworn that the last song would have been “Nautical Disaster”, a song during which Gord is known for going off on long, incoherent and incomprehensible tangents. What a perfect way to end.

And the more I thought about it, the less I wanted the show to end with Ahead by a Century. They came out of an unprecedented third encore, and launched into an early hit, “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” could have also closed it up (“LET ME OOUOUOUOUOUOUT”), but “Gift Shop” (“The rest of the world/becomes a gift shop”) was followed by the opening cords of the song I no longer wanted to be the last.

It was too much. The song starts with the innocence and care-free nature of a hypothetical youth (first thing we’s climb a tree/and maybe then we’d talk/or sit silently/or listen to our thoughts/With illusions of some day/cast in a golden light) which is followed by a line that every single Hip fan knows and possible has tattooed somewhere on their bodies and their souls: No dress rehearsals/This is our life.

And that’s when the hornet stung me.

The next verse and the chorus is about the reality of life and getting older. But the last line, the last line of the concert, the line that Gord was going to leave us with was, “And disappointing you is getting me down.”

I’m crying just typing this out and remembering everything that The Hip has meant and will continue to mean to me and to my friends and to an entire generation of Canadians. I tweeted the following:

They never once did. There was never a scandal, there was never any seedy rumors or bad behavior. There was music and stories of kindness and collective experiences and generosity and the music and the shows and the friendships and the lyrics and the music, always the music.

You never, ever, ever disappointed any of us, even in saying goodbye and being generous enough to share some of your final moments with all of us. If we are mourning, it is because you never once disappointed. Never. You were more than we deserved, you were exactly what we needed, you were everything we ever hoped for in a band.

What a rare and wonderful and beautiful gift.

You never disappointed us. Please don’t let it get you down.


Reflections on Praxis at DPLI2016

It’s done. I did it. We did it. It was hard and challenging and exhausting and invigorating and inspiring and just so much fun. But it’s over, and I’m left trying to make sense of what exactly happened last week during Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute 2016.

I taught the Praxis track, and you can see my preliminary syllabus here, but as you will see, things changed, as they should, especially if you embrace student-centered learning and the co-creation of knowledge. Which I do. At least, I try to.

(This whole process was inspired by Audrey Watters who taught the Action Track. I wish I had done this earlier, because I swear I don’t remember what happened on Wednesday. Not well. But I’ll try to recreate the week. You can see a long, heavily curated Storify of the week, focusing on our track.)

Monday was magical. We all came together in a space and allowed for ourselves to be vulnerable and creative. I first asked them to get to know each other by creating a picture of what their ideal class would be, prompting them to think figuratively about their pedagogical philosophy.

I then handed out index cards, in order for them to write down their three to five most important pedagogical values, with the goal of giving them a resource they can take with them beyond this week to remind them of those things most important to them when making decisions around their teaching.

And finally, we started to imagine what our dream course would be, with no curricular, institutional, or resource limitations. Very rarely do we get to engage in these kinds of big, bold, imaginative thinking when it comes to the courses we teach.

(Feel free to steal any of these exercises. Just warmly and accurately say that it was all my idea.)

My track was already starting to take my “this is your course, to make of it what you will, and to do in it what you will” by continuing to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk when I was trying to nudge them towards their goals.

Which was awesome. It became a theme.

The two keynotes Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning really helped reinforce a lot of things I had already said (as well as being thought provoking and awesome). Tressie McMillan Cottom put up two questions that she keeps returning to when making decisions around the Master’s in Digital Sociology, while Cathy Davidson celebrated collaborative, participant-driven pedagogy and “stealing” great ideas from other great teachers.

When we got back into our class space on Tuesday morning, we were all feeling overwhelmed and a little mentally exhausted…which I did nothing to alleviate by crowdsourcing what we wanted to do over the rest of the week. That afternoon, we crowdsourced a digital tools document, as well as begin to have a critical discussion around tool selection, accessibility, and values, started around the barriers people in the class people encountered using Google Docs, as well as the values therein.

And that I chose to make a doc and not a spreadsheet.

No one really remembers what happened on Wednesday. Seriously. I think we spoke a little about how we go about designing our courses, but then folks were off to the races themselves, creating their courses and assignments for the upcoming semester. We also talked about creating community within and outside our course spaces, but then:

That afternoon, during the unconference, I had the pleasure of participating in a raucous VConnecting Session, connecting with pedagogues from around the world, and generally making me feel like a superstar.

Thursday (OH GOD WE’RE ALMOST THERE), I had the honor of setting the daily intention, and said something similar to what I had told the participants in the Praxis track the day before: I was deeply appreciative of the time and resources the devoted to coming to DPLI, and that I also acknowledged the amounts of affective labor and trust that they were placing in us and each other.

And then, we got to talking about assessment. We solved all of the problems and have revolutionized the practice, but we forgot to write it all down, so…

Not really. We had a good airing of grievances and analysis of the boxes we all contend with at our institutions and within our disciplines, and began to explore ways to make space for a different kind of assessment of and for our students and their work.

And then, for the final afternoon, we unconferenced our way into whatever they still needed or wanted to work on, including setting them on with their own Domain. It made me so happy that only days after being introduced to the concept of an unconference, they were confidently using it in their own practice.

Is it Friday yet? I think it’s Friday now. Friday kicked off with a joint keynote of Martha Fay Burtis and Sean Michael Morris, and then, for our last activity as a track together, I had the participants write three superpowers they had and three areas where they still felt they needed help (stolen from Cathy Davidson’s keynote). They wrote them on the whiteboard, and then people put their names by the superpower they wanted to gain. Everyone got to be a hero to someone. And everyone also got a helper for their area where they needed to grow. I was trying to help them find their tribe.

I think they did.

I’ve finally found time to finish writing about this, a week later. Life, of course, doesn’t slow down, and at this time of the year, it just ramps up. The faculty at my institution have all gone back on contract, and so my days are filled with faculty consultations, opening events, faculty development activities, not to mention getting my own class up and running. But I approach it this semester with a renewed sense of purpose and energy; I did, in fact, learn as much from the participants in my track as they did from me, if not more. But I also was reminded that I had, in fact, found my place, found my tribe, and was doing the work I have always wanted to do.

My one hope is that each of the participants, at one point in their lives and careers, get to have that same feeling.

30lbs and a Two-Piece

Last summer, I finally relented and agreed to buy my daughter, then 8 years old, a two-piece swimsuit. She had been begging for one since she was old enough to express an opinion, which means since she could talk.

That’s not exactly true. When she was younger, she wants the ruffliest, most blinged-out swimsuits she could find. You know, the kind completely and totally unsuitable for swimming. The kind that look cute but are completely impractical if you wanted to actually swim; those ruffles and sparkles, when wet, weigh a ton and limit your range of motion. So, I said no, and insisted on the most practical, swimming-enabling suit I could convince her to wear. Often, it still had a lot of sparkle.

My issue with getting her a two-piece were the same: I wanted her to have swimsuits that allowed her the full range of movement and activity when it came to being at the pool or the beach, and most two-pieces just didn’t cut it. And, most suits that were appropriate were way more money than I was willing to spend.

I just used the word “appropriate.” I don’t really like using it to talk about buying my daughter a two-piece because the default assumption on what I mean by the word are things like “modesty” or even “age-appropriate.” I thought, and still think, that it’s appropriate for my then 8-year-old to feel good enough in her own skin that she wants to wear a two-piece. I want her to feel confident, comfortable, and, above-all, like she can do all the things she wants to do in the water.

We settled on a neon-floral print tank-style two-piece. Thick straps, minimal ruffles, solid fit. She wore it out. And I decided I had to buy my own two-piece.

Growing up, for a long time, I didn’t have issues with my body. I swam and I was good at it and my body was the thing that made me a good swimmer. It’s not that people didn’t try; one time in elementary school, I was told that I was going to have ugly broad shoulder from swimming, and at a school where the most popular girls with ballerinas and figure skaters, this was the worst insult they could find for me, the weird, slightly smelly, girl who swam.

No, it wasn’t until the equivalent of middle-school that I finally was burdened with the knowledge that my body was not my own to love. Standing in the bathroom with some friends, we were taking turns listing all of the things they would change about themselves (read: their bodies). Except, when it was my turn, I said that I was pretty happy with myself and wouldn’t change anything. They all turned and stared at me, in stunned silence, before one of them finally spat out, “Well, that’s the most arrogant thing I’ve *ever* heard,” and then they all rolled their eyes at me and walked out, leaving me, and my “arrogance,” behind.

But I never, ever felt uncomfortable or self-conscious in a swimsuit. Pool parties or class trips to pools or water parks were a brief reprieve for me from usual tween and then teen anxieties. Years of swimming (and years of being exclusively in a swimsuit) made it easy for me to walk around in front of everyone in a small layer of Spandex. And while I understood my friends who were more self-conscious in their suits, I didn’t understand the ones who just sat around in their bikinis, somewhere between mortified and bored.

In a lot of ways it was easier to be in a swimsuit around my friends and classmates, rather than other swimmers at swim meets. As I aged, and puberty hit, my body no longer looked like a “swimmer’s” body. There were two basic types for girls: tall and skinny as rails – lean and mean and sinuous, or broad and built – large and hard and thickness. I was curvy and (even worse) chesty. There were so many fat deposits on my body I could never get rid of. I felt betrayed by my body.

My body continues to betray me. I stepped on the scale this week, and it was official: 30 pounds overweight. I haven’t been this heavy since immediately after my son was born. I was doing ok with my weight, surviving the job transition and living without my family, the move, the holidays, but it couldn’t endure a major depressive episode. I slid, and the weight piled on.

My body will continue to betray me. If the research wasn’t depressing enough, my genetics will ensure that I won’t ever be thinner or lighter, at least not without the kind of effort that would encompass my life in a way that would be as destructive as the depression. I look exactly like my grandmother and my aunt, from our faces to our coloring to our body types. I look at my face and see theirs, I look at my body and I see theirs. It is too much.

It is terrible to say, but if I am grateful for anything, it’s that my kids both got the genetics of my mother and my brother; my son is in the second percentile for weight despite eating nothing by cheese and bread, with some bananas thrown in for good measure, while my daughter, the ballerina, can out-eat everyone in our house and keep the shape needed to get anywhere in her chose activity.

But I also know that this doesn’t guarantee any less stress when it comes to body issues for my kids as they grow up, as they age. I work hard to make sure my kids have a healthy relationship with food. No being made to feel guilty about seconds (or thirds), no insisting they clean their plates either. Eat until you are full, eat good foods to fuel you, eat delicious foods to feed you, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of the foods you like. Listen to your body. No being made to feel self-conscious about how their bodies are shaped, formed, or looking. Embracing that all bodies are good bodies, capable of many different things.

Which means practicing what I preach. No more talks of diets, or calorie counting, or working out to lose weight. Dad runs to help his blood pressure, Mom does yoga to get strong again. We make better choices about snacks and meals, because our bodies need different fuels, and some fuels are better than others. I try so hard not to show how much it hurts me when a dress doesn’t look right anymore, or I can’t get pants done up. I try to hide the pain and the shame I feel when I look at myself in the mirror and wish I could change my body, melt away all of the extra fat around my middle, which keeps expanding and stretching.

The first time I ever wore a two-piece, it was when I went away to Florida for training camp with my college swim team. I didn’t have one, and I was the only girl on the team without one. I bought one when I got there, wearing it the entire time. I was the only one who didn’t have a bikini to change into when not training.

It was my Freshman year, my first time living away from home, and I wasn’t fitting in on the swim team. My schedule had me in class during practice just about every day, and I no longer had the motivation to get up and do morning workouts. I didn’t really get along with any of the other girls on the team, and I was acutely feeling how mediocre a swimmer I really was. I had been sick, as well, off and on, the entire semester thus far, due to taking poor care of myself.

But there is a picture of me, at the end of the camp, with my training group. I’m standing in front of the four guys, hands on my hips, tanned, hair bleached light from the sun and salt water, smiling. And, there, where I had never noticed them, were four clearly delineated ab muscles. I had abs. I had never noticed my abs, too embarrassed about my gut to ever show that part of my body.

I quit the team soon afterwards, unable to find the motivation to keep swimming. That summer, my last one lifeguarding, we had the choice of purchasing a two-piece alongside the usual one-piece Speedo we would always get as a part of our uniform. I got one, but I was freshly embarrassed of my post-swimming, Freshman-weight-gain body. I didn’t know how bad it would get, weight-gain wise, for me.

When I decided last summer that I would get a two-piece, I didn’t realize how complicated a process that would be. But then again, I should have; shopping for jeans has long been a fraught and complicated affair. Why would getting a two-piece be any different?

I didn’t want to just go with a straight up Speedo-style two-piece. For one thing, the style now was thin straps, and thin straps just weren’t going to offer enough support. Because, I had suits for real swimming. I wanted a suit for hanging out at the pool or beach with the kids not doing much more than ensuring they don’t drown.

So many of the suits, as well, are modeled and marketed for women much thinner and…flatter than I am, making it almost impossible to see if the suit would provide enough coverage (those lovely stretch marks my son gifted me) and support. And, because I started mid-summer, many of the styles I was interested in were already sold out in my size.

My size. This was also a bit of a challenge. Not quite plus-sized, but *just* outside of the size-range of many traditional brands. It’s fabulously frustrating. It’s also why I own many, many dresses from a small handful of brands and designers that actually make a size that fits me well. I mean, for now.

I took to Twitter (as I do for most things), to try and find little-known or boutique brands. The Canadian small label Nettle’s Tale was suggested to me, and I immediately knew that these were suits I would wear, but also a business I wanted to support. The women in the promotions are of all shapes and sizes, ages and races, wearing the same suit, to show how it looks on all types of bodies. They have honest sizing that is easy to understand, and recommendations for different suits for different body types.

I now own the equivalent of five of their suits, including a lovely one-piece.

I live-tweeted the whole ordeal of finding the suit, and so I also quasi-live-tweeted the wearing of said two-piece suits to the pool. They were jokey, largely: “Wore my two-piece today at the pool. No one died. Apocalypse averted for another day!” One day, a girls, maybe 11 or 12 shyly came up to me to compliment me on my suit, telling me it as pretty.

Maybe it was the way I carried myself that summer – fresh off of four months of yoga, where I could now do a push-up for the first time in forever, and was feeling stronger in my body than I had in a long time – that made it so easy to wear that two-piece. Even when my mom turned her nose up at the suit when I took it out of the box to show her. You’re going to wear *that*, she asked? And as I wore it, she kept subtly giving me a hard time about it.

Never mind that she used to always wear a two-piece when I was growing up. I have a picture of her in one, from a vacation, where is is probably the same age as I am now. It was ok for her to wear a two-piece, the message was then, and it still was today, because she had the right body for a two-piece. She no longer did. I never had, and certainly did not now. But last summer, it didn’t matte to me.

This summer, it’s a different story.

We went to the beach yesterday. I put on one of the two-piece suits, but all I wanted to do was hide under a giant cover-up. But I love the beach, and I spent a lot of money on these suits, so I was going to wear the suits, to the beach, and I was going to smile and sit in the sun and splash in the water and enjoy the time with my family, even if I wanted to hide away and never come out so that no one ever had to see my body.

Of course, no one care. No one gave me a second look. And, there were so many different sizes and shaped bodies wearing all kinds of suits. The beaches closest to where we live right now are distinctly working class. And I realized how much class has shaped my view of whether or not it was ok for me to wear a two-piece based on my body.

There was always an implicit (and sometimes explicit) message about the kinds of women who would wear a two-piece “when clearly they shouldn’t.” That they were low-class, with all that that implies. Growing up, that was also wrapped up with the issues of language, with low-class Québécois being seen as less-than for wearing two-pieces. I realized I wasn’t just ashamed of my body, but ashamed of how I might be perceived as low-class. Low-class because I am clearly unhealthy. Low-class because I should know better. Low-class because it looks trashy. Low-class because it looks like I’m lazy and don’t care. There are rules about bodies, beach bodies, and I wasn’t following them. Only low-class people don’t follow the rules.

This particularly weight – the weight of my upbringing, my biases, my perceptions, my deep-seeded need to be seen in a certain way – is far heavier than the extra 30lbs or so I’m carrying on my body. This weight, these expectations, so deeply ingrained from being alive in this body in this world for almost 39 years, is even more difficulty to lose, to shed. No diet, no exercise plan, no disciplined regime will rid me of this weight. That is the weight I see and loath when I look in the mirror.

It became more important than ever, for me, to show my kids that it was ok to wear whatever kind of swim suit that they wanted, to be comfortable in their own skins. That my body hadn’t, in fact, failed me. I am working so that they don’t have that extra weight of what society wants them to think about their bodies, policing their bodies and their attitudes towards their bodies.

And so I wear my two-piece. I walk around in my two-piece. I swim in my two-piece. No one died. Least of all me.

On Failure

My kids are on the swim team this summer, for the first time in their relatively short lives. They both love the water, and have taken swimming lessons occasionally on our various stops to here, alongside my attempts at teaching them how to swim (a total failure, despite my continued instance that I USED TO DO THIS FOR A JOB AND WAS REALLY GOOD AT IT), but the first few practices have revealed that the lack of consistent and formal training has left them literally and figuratively behind just about all of their teammates.

This has been hard on both the kids in different ways. For my son, who taught himself to swim when he was two, it has been tough on his ego to know that, no, in fact, he doesn’t know everything about swimming and may still have something to learn from someone else. For my daughter, who needs to be the best at everything and often is, she has been confronted with the reality that sometimes that isn’t as easy as it has been.

As a parent and former swimmer and coach, this has been challenging for me, too. I want them to excel and I feel badly that I didn’t do more to prepare them (admittedly, I feel the same way when I watch my son play soccer). I want them to enjoy swimming, because it brought me so much joy for so many years. But I also know that being last and lapped and struggling isn’t fun.

And so, I told my son that anything he has ever accomplished hasn’t come without some work and some effort, even if that work was unpleasant, and that those struggles happen in public. He has never really embraced the public struggle, in anything, always waiting to do things on his own time, in his own way, and only sharing with others once he had it perfect. It’s a process, and you will get better. Nobody starts from perfect.

I told my daughter that she just needed to keep working, working on her technique, sticking with it, and not being so worried about being the best, but instead just making small improvements every day. They will make a difference, and one day –

“I’ll win! Just like you did!”

I laughed. Honey, I told her, I never really won anything the entire time I was a swimmer. But the trophies, she said. Those trophies were for most dedicated swimmer, the one who was there the most, not the one who was the best. I never really won first place, individually, in all my years of swimming. I even stopped improving my times for the last four or so years I swam.

She looked at me incredulously, like I had just poked a hole in a long-held view of who I was in her mind: Champion Swimmer. Nah, I said, failed swimmer who wouldn’t give up. Failed swimmer who wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything in the world. I can have “failed” and still find satisfaction, and even joy, in those experiences.

I just finished writing a piece for Women in Higher Education on that recently-viral Failure CV. I didn’t have a hot take to share in the moment because that last thing I needed or wanted to focus on were my failures as they compared to the (supposed) failures of others. And, besides, I couldn’t take another person (read: white male) being celebrated for things I had done previously and been vilified for.

Because so much of my old blog(s) were about failure. Repeated, crushing, trivial, self-inflicted, systemic, personal, social, public, private fails. Going back over some of them, I a) can’t believe I ever wrote about them in such a way and b) can’t believe I haven’t learned anything from it. Going back over the comments, I understand why I never went back to re-read the posts; I don’t remember the lessons I learned through writing those posts, I only remember the lessons that were taught to me from those comments.

Of course, I also cringe at how naive I was, how uninformed, how gullible, how ridiculous so much of it sounds now. Not that I stand before you today hardened and jaded, but instead just more aware of the larger conversations I was desperately trying to be a part of. And thinking about how much of it, seemingly failed. I learned the wrong lessons, I failed to have the kind of impact I dreamed of having, I failed at even improving as a writer.

Which is, of course, the wrong lessons, once again, to learn.

But failure, as a result, is clearly on my mind. And success. And how terrified I remain of both of those things. Or that I’ll even know the difference when they happen.

But the kind of failure my kids are grappling with is a very different kind of failure that I was grappling with. And how they deal with those failures, how I dealt with my failures, are very, very different as well. I think what I am writing about is actually anger and frustration in the face of failure, and how that reaction is perceived and received.

Roxane Gay recently wrote a piece in the New York Times, Who Gets to Be Angry?  Rightly, she points out the gendered and racialized differences on how anger is received. And in her conclusion, she points out:

But anger is not an inherently bad thing. Most of the time, it is a normal and even healthy human emotion. Anger allows us to express dissatisfaction. It allows us to say something is wrong. The challenge is knowing the difference between useful anger, the kind that can stir revolutions, and the useless kind that can tear us down.

The anger and disappointment that I expressed in all of my posts on failure, on my failures, on higher education’s failures, was dismissed and disparaged in all the ways Gay describes (“When women are angry, we are wanting too much or complaining or wasting time or focusing on the wrong things or we are petty or shrill or strident or unbalanced or crazy or overly emotional”). I did not meet these failures with stoic acceptance or strengthened resolved; no, I met them with anger, which is the cardinal sin of a failed female academic.

I’ve tried to channel my anger in productive ways, like blogging for those who couldn’t, by being a part of a community of fellow disenfranchised “failed” academics online, by speaking out and speaking up every chance I could. But for so many of us, that anger hardened and we turned away from teaching in academia, in a lot of ways accepting the failure, not ours anymore, but more systemic, and finding new, more successful paths, but still mourning the academy we idealized and wanted to desperately to be a part of.

The failure that my kids are struggling with is one that is not career-defining or life-altering. They are young, and if swimming isn’t for them, so be it. I failed at an awful lot of sports before I finally accepted that I was a swimmer. My daughter is a dancer, ballet to be precise, and she has already shown a great deal of dedication and determination to that particular activity, one that she loves. My son has not yet shown any sort of interest in one activity or another, but when he does, I’ll talk him through the bad days, reminding him to channel his anger and frustration in positive, constructive ways.

And maybe, like all too often does in my writing, it comes back to love. My greatest frustrations and moments of anger generate from those things that I loved and cared for the most: teaching, higher education, scholarship. My daughter loves learning and ballet, so her greatest frustrations come from those two areas of her life. We have flashes of anger when we are momentarily thwarted. We have deep-seated anger when it involves those things and people that we love.

To bring back Gay’s essay, so much of the anger from the current election cycle comes from a place, unfortunately, of love, misplaced though it may be. Who or what do you love more? Who are what are you most afraid of hurting that thing or that person that you love most? And what, if anything, are we willing and able to do about it?

Of course, how we express that love, and the anger it can fuel, or at least how we’re allowed to, differs. There is so much anger in me right now generally about the state of the world, the state of affairs, the state of politics. I am powerless, in a lot of ways, unable to vote and participate in the political process. I am largely removed from the classroom where I used to be able to teach in such a ways that may make a difference, channeling my anger in somewhat productive ways.

And so I’m back here, at my keyboard, blogging. We have failed each other in so many ways, out of love, out of desperation, out of anger. I don’t see that ending anytime soon. My heart breaks every day my daughter comes home, worried that her dad and I, as well as many of her friends, will be deported, sent away. Getting angry doesn’t serve much purpose, to me, to make my kids as needlessly and unproductively angry as the parents who are telling their kids that this is a good thing. Because the potential is there, as the people they love most in the world are being threatened.

And maybe that’s another failure of mine, but it’s one that comes from love.

#YesAllWomen – A Response to Rape Culture

This post first appeared on Educating Modern Learners, and I’m finally republishing it here in reaction to the recent light sentencing of convicted rapist Brock Turner. The intended audience for this piece was K-9 teachers, but I share it here because it needs to be said, over and over, we still have far to go. 

When I was in Grade Nine, I was in a math class with my best friend. We were both “good girls,” geeks even, placed in the advanced classes, competing for highest GPA. I was also a tomboy, wearing athletic clothing (often oversized reflecting the styles of the time), with no makeup and little attention paid to my hair. We sat in the front of the class, and next to us sat two boys. They were “cooler” than we were, and at first we enjoyed their attention. Until they started groping us, sticking their hands up our shirts and our skirts and shorts. The teacher (who was male) did nothing save ask us all to “keep it down.” We asked them, begged them, to stop, and when they didn’t, we moved, but instead, the harassment got worse, with them hurling insults and curses and rape threats at us. Again, the teacher did nothing, save ask us to keep our voices down. We avoided the boys in the hallway or outside, as they continued to make lewd comments and gestures at us whenever they saw us.

We were 14. It was not the first time I was sexually harassed and assaulted at school, but it was by far the most scarring because of the complete indifference of the teacher towards the boys behavior. By simply telling both us and the boys to “keep it down” we were sent the message that a) the boys behavior was ok as long as it was kept to a whisper and b) somehow the girls were at fault as well. I shouldn’t have had to preface the story in the previous paragraph by describing what kind of girls my friend and I were and what we typically wore, but in the almost 25 years since the math class from hell, not much has changed, and if I hadn’t, how many of you would have leapt to the conclusion that we were somehow inviting this kind of attention through our dress or behavior.


My story is not uncommon. Look at the #yesallwomen hashtag on Twitter (or from a WOC perspective, the earlier #fasttailedgirls), and you can see the damage that young girls, now women, have suffered because this kind of behavior has been tolerated in our society and institutions. If I didn’t tell anyone about what was happening in my math class, it was in part because I didn’t believe anything would be done about it and in part because I believed that this was “typical” behavior to be expected of a 14-year-old boy. I also was not a trouble-maker, and saw that fighting back or complaining would cause too much trouble, so I endured. I sucked it up. I remained silent.

But female students are refusing to stay silent any longer. The #YesAllWomen hashtag empowered a number of young women to protest the dress codes that schools often impose on girls, in the name of keeping girls “safe” and to keep the “focus on learning” and to “keep distractions to a minimum.” I wore oversized tracksuits and sweats, but that didn’t stop those two guys from harassing me. And who was more distracted, the boys, or my friend and I who were the target of a barrage of insults and taunts daily? Girls are more than their physical appearance, and boys can and should be taught to treat women with respect, regardless of dress. Girls should not fear going to school because of unwanted sexual attention. Or to be publicly humiliated by the school because of what they wear.

Possible Legal Issues

Recently, there have been a number of lawsuits against US institutions of higher education citing violations of Title IX due to the colleges’ handling of sexual assault on campus. 55 campuses are currently under Federal investigation for possible Title IX violations. Universities are more concerned often with optics than with justice. Students are being expelled for reporting rape. Professors are being denied tenure and terminated for speaking out. These students in college who are perpetrating these assaults didn’t become this way when they entered the hallowed halls of higher education.

Certainly, we can throw out the cliché “it starts at home,” or throw up our hands and blame “society”; but we cannot let the institutions that we do have direct control over off that easily.

Changing the Culture

If it is happening outside of school, it is happening inside of school, too. We can act and work to change the culture within our institution, one that doesn’t blame and shame girls, or excuse boys. We can make and actually implement policies that protect all the students, as well as a charter of values that create an environment where the policies are rarely invoked. We can look at the classrooms we create, the materials that we use, the language we utter, and decide we can and have to do better.

Title IX applies as much to high schools as it does to colleges, and it isn’t just about sports. How many girls at your school are afraid because of sexual harassment? We are creating unequal learning environments because we continue to ignore, excuse, and sometimes even encourage the objectification of girls within the school system. And this isn’t about punishing girls either, getting rid of dance or cheer or fashion shows. It is about educating students, all students about respecting the personhood of their fellow classmates.

As a parent of a young daughter, I will tell her that unwanted sexual advances are unacceptable and that if they happen to her at school, that I will help her raise hell about it. As a parent of a young son, I will teach him that his gender/hormones/peer-pressure does not excuse treating anyone in a demeaning and degrading way. And if I hear that he has behaved that way, he will be held accountable. And I won’t explain it to him by asking him if he would want me, his mother, or his sister treated that way.

I will tell him, that’s not how you treat another human being.

Keep Fighting

Years ago, when I had just started blogging, unemployed, trying to start a business, taking care of two kids under the age of three, in a new town, etc, etc, etc, I had also started yoga, something I never thought, ever, I would do.

Then again, I had never imagined I would find myself in the situation I was in at that moment, so I figured I might I well try it. I wasn’t sleeping, so I chose one that was meant to be done at the end of the day, calming the mind and the body.

If you’ve done yoga, then you know that the end of the practice is spent in a kind of meditative state. The Yogi encouraged us to ask ourselves in that moment if there was anything that our inner-voice wanted to tell us. Typically, I would roll my inner-eyes, and half-heartedly asked myself, well, what ya got for me? Then then one day, I heard an answer.

“You are exactly where you are supposed to be.”

It became a mantra for me over the next few years, as I struggled with the failure of my business, the years in my contingent faculty position, and many other things, things that all felt like failures, setbacks, and roadblocks. I held on to that message, maybe one that I needed to hear, but one that I certainly didn’t believe, nor did I even want to hear, in the moment it came to me.

Maybe the universe does send us messages. Maybe I’m just stubborn, and my subconscious even more so.

Fast-foward six years. I’ve done yoga off and on over time, even joining a yoga studio during my brief sojourn in Lexington. But I always carried a copy of that particular yoga video, to return to when I wants to do a series that was familiar and effective. I started doing yoga again, recently, in an effort of self-care.

A quick detour here about self-care and depression: it’s really, really, really, really hard. When you feel like you just want to sink into nothing, it’s difficult to find the motivation for self-care of any kind. Yoga always helps, but I have to start getting better before I can really start doing yoga again, because if not, it just exacerbates things; look at how horribly out of shape I am and who am I to take time for myself anyway so what is the point of any of this?

I dusted off the familiar sunset yoga sequence, and found myself at the end, asking my inner-guide if there was anything that I needed to know.

“Keep fighting.”

Keep fighting? KEEP FIGHTING?

When I got the job in Lexington, leaving my contingent teaching position behind, I slowly let go of many of my side jobs and places where I fought the hardest. At least, I thought I was letting go. I certainly didn’t think I was giving up. And even if I was, I was tired. I had spent the past five years working multiple jobs to help make ends me and try and hustle my way out of my professional situation. It’s not an unfamiliar fight, one that I fought alongside fellow contingent academics, freelancers, and unemployed members of my larger social media community.

The last piece of that period of giving up and/or letting go was shuttering my Inside Higher Ed blog. And, really, when I look at the majority of the things I let go of, most of them were writing projects, assignments, and spaces. I was tired, and I couldn’t write anymore. I didn’t want to write, I couldn’t write anymore. What was once the easiest, or at least most obviously effortless, thing I did became the hardest.

I hated writing.

Academic writing, blogging, essays, freelance pieces, even emails and tweets, I hated them all. I was exhausted from all the words, words that (in that moment) never seemed to make any difference. Or maybe that had served their purpose so no longer necessary.

I began resenting being known for being a blogger, a prolific writer. There is more to me, I screamed, than my words, but I was really worried that I was no longer what everyone associated me with, and that I would just let them all down by my loss of words. Or, the loss of confidence in my words. What if there was nothing more to me than my words? What was I if not all these millions of words spread out over the internet? What was left?

I wasn’t writing for myself anymore. I was writing to piss off the trolls, I was not writing so maybe they would leave me alone. I was writing because people had told me my writing had meant something to them, I was not writing because people had told me that my writing was awful and useless and pointless and so many other awful things. I was writing because it was my job, I was not writing because it was no longer my job. I was writing because I thought I wanted to be a part of the conversation, I was not writing because it was all just noise. I was writing because I thought had something to say, I was not writing because I thought someone always seemed to say it better. I was writing because people seemed to care, I was not writing because people seemed to care.

When I started blogging, I wrote for myself, but I was hungry for an audience, for attention, for a community. At the same time, because I didn’t yet have any of this, I just wrote. I didn’t care about narrative and being perfect and polished and having the hottest take (all the time) and sticking my foot in it. I just wrote.

And now, I seem to have come full circle. I’m writing again, for a few different places, including here. And I’m in a place, here, where I can say, once again, this is my space, and I’m going to write whatever I want to. I don’t have to worry (as much) about shoehorning it into some sort of professional narrative, or its (relative) virality, or even if anyone reads it at all.

Keeping fighting. Maybe what I’m fighting for is to get my voice back. Maybe that’s the thing that I had been slowly losing over the years, the big, loud, messy voice that found a place on the web. I thought I had found a place where I could be that person, professionally, but I wasn’t that person anymore, not really. I stopped writing for myself, as myself, so of course I felt like no one heard me anymore.

But of course, work is never far away from my mind, even when I’m in a space I’m trying to claim as my own, because nothing in my life is separate from anything else. I read my colleague, Deborah Schleef’s piece Who’s Afraid of Domain of One’s Own, and think to myself, well, me. What does it mean, to me, to enter this fourth phase of my mature digital presence (undergraduate, upstart academic blog after a long pause, big-time blog, and now this)? This is my space, and a space that is wholly and totally my own. What does that even mean?

I am, also, after everything falls away, a teacher; I have been for as long as I have been a writer. And a practitioner (or at least a dabbler) in what it is that I teach. I tell my students to embrace the messiness, to try and to fail, and to make space for those experiences and experiments and play and passion. My messiness, my own bumbling and failures and do-overs and trying again, done often publicly, has been well-documented, and lately, I have been moving away from that, while trying to push my students towards it.

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” – Virginia Woolf

I have my own Domain, and it is mine to do with what I please. What an incredibly terrifying and liberating and privileged and intimidating opportunity. And, I am in a position to truly make it my own, regardless of if the writing matters for ages or only hours, or maybe not at all. And for it to be messy and complicated and incomplete and imperfect and full of digressions and personal and intimate and rife with run-ons and asides and topics that seem unrelated and blog posts that become essays with no heading breaks because that’s how I write and that’s who I am. Evn if it’s “wrong.”

This is how I keep fighting. This is my domain. So long as I finally write what I wish to write, how I wish to write it.

The Fog is Lifting

Timehop is helpfully reminding me of the time back when my son, only a few months old, screamed and cried about about 90 minutes every night when we put him to bed. Of course, it felt like hours (and some nights it was). And even though it only last a few months, to our family, it felt like an eternity. It started right around April and continued into the early summer, just in time for the end of the semester for me. And then one day, without warning, it stopped.

As I lay in my own bed, recently, crying and unable to stop, my poor husband at a loss as to how to comfort me, I pulled on this memory, this trying moment in our family’s life, to reassure him, to reassure us: this is just a brief moment, a brief challenge, that right now feels like it will last forever and never end, but it will end, and it will be better. We just have to get through it in this moment the best we can. Our son eventually stopped crying, and I will eventually stop crying, too.

It came without warning. Or maybe, there was warning, just signs I was unwilling to acknowledge were actually signs: I couldn’t write anymore, my attention was waning, I was having trouble sleeping, I wasn’t enjoying anything, not really. I thought it was the stress of moving, of starting a new job. But it had been going on longer than that.

I’ve written before, both more and less publicly, about my struggles in the past with depression. I have followed the same pattern as I had in the past: blame anything and everything else for my darkening mood, make major life changes to try and fix the thing that is unfixable. Most times, I can cope, I can pass, I can hang on. But this time, I fell over the edge.

It has been a really, really difficult couple of months. The worst possible time for it, too, in a new job, trying to take care of a family that is also trying to deal with massive changes. As if there ever is a good time to find yourself unable to stop crying, unable to focus, unable to control mood swings, unable to silence dark thoughts, unable to articulate any of the crushing feelings.

The reasons I finally sought help are both too personal to share and not wholly mine. But I found myself on the phone, crying, trying to get help. Over and over, I answered the same questions: no, I wasn’t in immediate danger of harming myself or anyone close to me; yes, I had had thoughts of self-harm. Health care bureaucracies are challenging to deal with in the best of times. When you are depressed and already predisposed to giving up on self-care, and are forced to admit to person after person that you are having mental health issues, telling and re-telling versions of the same story, breaking down over and over.

I was diagnosed. I was told I was doing remarkably well. I was prescribed medication. I explained, as best I could, why I was going every week to see a doctor to my kids. I tried to be kinder to myself, to articulate what I needed, in a given moment, to just endure and survive. I reached out to friends again, people I had been avoiding because I didn’t want to be “that friend.” I started writing again, even if it was just for myself. I waited to start getting better.

And thus, not long ago, it started to happen. That tweet started a tweet-storm that attempted to explain what it had been like, what I was going through.

And now, I’m writing more publicly, again, about this, and hopefully, about other things as well. I’ve been too quiet for too long, too quite for me. And for far too long now, I’ve been writing afraid; afraid of what others will think of it, afraid of the judgement, afraid of letting people down, of being a disappointment. But I think, now, it’s time.

I’m trying to get back. I know, however, that this reprieve is as temporary as the depression that preceded it. I might as well do as much as I can in the meantime.

Praxis – Digital Pedagogy Lab Tentative Course Outline

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that I’m going to be teaching the Praxis track at this August’s Digital Pedagogy Lab here at UMW (Sign up today! Spaces still available!). I’ve written elsewhere about my approach to the course (Intimacy! Vulnerability! Fun!), but I was inspired by my fellow instructor, Audrey Watters, who is teaching the Action track, to share the beginnings of my course outline for feedback (and advertising).

I’ve pasted it below, but I’m also opening up the Google doc version for comments, suggestions, and (as always) praise. This is a very preliminary version, so please be kind.

This track will be an in-depth application of pedagogical philosophies to our day-to-day practices in our classroom spaces. Participants will collaboratively support one another in the development of assignments both large and small that reflect a critical digital pedagogical approach. We will be also be working on solidifying the language we use to describe and explain our practices to our students, peers, and beyond. Finally, participants will have the opportunity to think about how these individual activities can fit into a larger course or program. This track will be less about specific tools and more about talking through ways we can empower our students to use them in meaningful ways.


  • Translate our critical digital pedagogies into practice in our classroom assignments and policies.
  • Create meaningful learning experiences with students.
  • Removing barriers and opening paths to experimentation and creativity.
  • Strategize ways to collaborate with and communicate our pedagogies to diverse stakeholders.

Questions and Provocations:

How do your assignments reflect your critical pedagogy? What are your critical pedagogical priorities? Where do you find support for the potentially experimental and unconventional assignments in your classroom?

“What Will Start Taking Shape By Friday” Project:

Participants will have a collection of resources, as well as their own assignments and/or syllabi that incorporate their critical digital pedagogy.

Recommended Readings:

“Play” by Mark Sample, from Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities. https://digitalpedagogy.commons.mla.org/keywords/play/

“Learning in the Collective” by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas. http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/learning-in-the-collective

“How Not to Plan Your Entire Course” by Chris Friend. http://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/how-not-to-plan-your-entire-course/

“We have Personalization Backwards” by Mike Caufield. http://mfeldstein.com/we-have-personalization-backwards/

“Bob Ross-ing It” by Lee Skallerup Bessette. http://readywriting.org/uncategorized/bob-ross-ing-it/

Tentative Schedule:

Monday 8/8
What are our values?
Magical Thinking*

Tuesday 8/9
Looking for inspiration, evaluating
How do we adapt for our students and institution?
How do we compromise? What do we never give up?

Wednesday 8/10
Looking for tools.
How do we prioritize?
How do we “hack” the tools?

Thursday 8/11
Workshop our assignments
How do I talk about this to my colleagues? To our students?

Friday 8/12
Presentations and feedback

*So…what does this mean? I think we spend too much time focusing on the limitations placed on us and not enough time dreaming and imagining when it comes to putting our pedagogy into practice. Magical thinking is a space where there are no limitations, and we seek to conjure up the stuff of dreams. Or, nerd out over the perfect possibilities of our pedagogies.