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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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On Unacceptable Rooms

How many of you teach in rooms not conducive to learning?

September 11, 2019
 
 

Our classroom was too warm. 

Charleston, South Carolina itself is too warm in general this time of year. Our ninety degree temperatures and matching humidity makes you feel like someone’s wrapped a wet, wool blanket around you when stepping outside. When I go from an air-conditioned space to the out of doors, my glasses fog.

Night brings little relief, slightly lower temperatures, but the humidity still plenty high. Our class is three hours, 6-9pm, one day a week, in an interior room of a classroom building, no windows. 

The temperature on the thermostat went up four degrees while we were together. I could see the students flagging more deeply by the minute, faces wet and flushed. I sweated through my shirt, my pants even. I thought about dismissing early, but we’d already missed a week from the hurricane and had too much to get through to begin with. 

I went home, showered, had a snack, went to bed, woke up the next morning with a headache and fatigue that I was convinced was related to having sweat through my clothes while teaching a college course.

I also woke up angry that we’d had to try to learn in a room so clearly not conducive to the task. The minimum bar for an acceptable classroom is incredibly low and even that could not be cleared. 

I wish I could say this was an anomaly in my career. Often I’ve had rooms that were fine, and there’s one room that became a kind of Platonic ideal, but just as often I’ve worked within spaces that were too small, too hot, too cold, missing desks or other equipment, or conversely, filled with extraneous equipment. I had one room with a projector where the bulb was clearly past its prime, at maybe 50% of its original lumens, but facilities were not allowed to swap it until it burned out entirely. This required turning the lights off in order to see the screen, a less-than-ideal way to stoke lively large or small group discussion. 

In every case, I simply accepted my fate to have a bad room or not enough desks or a malfunctioning piece of tech. A lot of things were at work in this acceptance, I now realize. 

As an adjunct/contingent instructor I figured this was part of my overall fate, that even if I made noise about my crappy room, my lack of status meant it wouldn’t matter, and I’d draw negative attention to myself in the process.

Spending my career in public institutions has also inured me to less-than-ideal physical facilities. In some cases, there were no good rooms. If you’re in an un-airconditioned building, there’s no escaping the heat, unless you’re willing to tolerate the sound of half a dozen box fans massing into roughly the noise of a 737 reaching takeoff speed.

Others clearly also had it worse. At least I’m at a college and not working in what’s been dubbed South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame,” schools of such age and poor physical condition they became a symbolic part of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Those schools have seen improved conditions, but as a 2018 Post & Courier series showed, the South Carolina legislature has continued its pattern and practices of malign neglect.  

You gotta do what you gotta do and all that jazz, and maybe my part in doing what you gotta do was muscling through what are, in reality, unacceptable conditions.

Except, I’m not doing that anymore. I’m not accepting the unacceptable. For one, I’m a one-course adjunct who doesn’t need the gig (as the positions were intended). Sure, I may have to get creative to feed my desire to teach if I become too big a pain in the ass, but I can do that. For two, given the time of the class meeting, there’s lots of alternative spaces on campus. Thanks to a highly responsive FYE coordinator focused on student well-being, we’ve already been assigned to an alternate location.

But what if the course had been during peak times when the school is at capacity? We’d have been stuck. 

Continuing in that room under those circumstances would clearly have been intolerable. You can’t spend three hours in a sauna with twenty other people and expect good outcomes. Still, I can’t help but think of all of the not-quite-intolerable, but still bad rooms I’ve taught in over the years. It’s as though we were asked to work with a low-grade fever. Sure, you can sort of function, but no one would mistake what’s going on for ideal, or even acceptable.

How many of you have been assigned rooms which fit this criteria, if not unacceptable, at least ill-suited to the job. What did you do? What could you do?

Have you had a truly unacceptable room?

While it seems as though my problem has been solved, I’m not quite prepared to let this one go. In class next Monday, I’m going to spend a little time asking students about all of their classrooms, if they are working in atmospheres conducive to learning. 

If the answer is no, you’ll be hearing more about it.

 

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