Mothering at Mid-Career: Teaching, Farming, and Curricular Change
I’ve got a few weeks left in my CSA share. We’re in the leafy-greens stage of the fall, it seems: last week’s share included kale, collards, and mustard greens as well as arugula; there were also carrots, peppers, and turnips. We’re a long way from the weeks of tomato bounty and huge bunches of basil, but I’m still enjoying it. This past weekend I had some time to talk to Ali, the farmer, when I picked up the share.
I’ve got a few weeks left in my CSA share. We’re in the leafy-greens stage of the fall, it seems: last week’s share included kale, collards, and mustard greens as well as arugula; there were also carrots, peppers, and turnips. We’re a long way from the weeks of tomato bounty and huge bunches of basil, but I’m still enjoying it. This past weekend I had some time to talk to Ali, the farmer, when I picked up the share. I asked if we’d have any more sweet potatoes or squash (both were terrific just a few weeks ago) and he said no, that those crops hadn’t done very well this year, so they ran out early. On the other hand, he’d had a great and unexpected spinach harvest, and the greens (as I just mentioned) were still rolling in, so no one’s going hungry.
Somehow the CSA reminds me of teaching. We can plan all we want, but some days no matter what we’ve planned for, there just aren’t any sweet potatoes, and we have to figure out what to do with kale instead. As long as we’re prepared for a few surprises, we’ll be all right. Like Ali and his wife, Lisa, who planted far more spinach then they thought they’d need, we need to overprepare so that we have enough material to get through the class. And, like them, sometimes we may have to make some bigger changes just to keep up.
I read Scott Jaschik’s piece about curricular change in today’s Inside Higher Ed just after coming home from a departmental faculty meeting where, among other things, we discussed the possibility of a curricular change. I didn’t talk about our CSA in the meeting, but I wish I had. I think there are a lot of possible connections to be made. For one thing, like farmers, we make plans for the future based on the past—along with some hunches about what might change. That works well enough, of course, but it does require some flexibility and improvisation; if we didn’t predict accurately (how many majors? What kinds of backgrounds? What areas of interest?) we add a course, or drop one, or revise what we’re doing to work with the students we have. In other words, we’re a lot like the other faculty in Jaschik’s piece—changing our curriculum in response to a changing environment.
But it’s not all about responsiveness. We do have some ideas of what will work and what won’t. Ali and Lisa grow a variety of crops so they can satisfy a variety of customers; I don’t want to suggest that our students are like customers, but we do have to prepare for their variety. At the same time, we have firm ideas about what does and doesn’t belong in an English major. Ali and Lisa won’t use pesticides, and are great evangelists for some of the vegetables that their customers may not be entirely ready for; we, too, sing the praises of past traditions, and let students know that there’s more to life than the books they read in high school. (I know, I’m skating perilously close to extending this metaphor too far—any minute I’ll be saying my students should “eat their spinach” as if reading Milton were like getting your veggies, whether you want them or not. I’ll try to avoid that.)
This year everything I’m teaching is new. Last year I taught only courses I’d taught before, but one course was a major overhaul from its previous incarnations, while I introduced a new pedagogical technique (freewriting) in another. The year before, one of my courses was brand-new; the others were repeats, but again, with either major or minor variations. In other words, I’m a pretty typical faculty member, according to the survey cited in Jaschik’s piece—it “found that 86.6 percent make some revision to courses at least once a year.” These were faculty from 20 different 4-year institutions, both public and private.
I wonder, though, why they make the changes they do. While the respondents to the survey wondered if they were adequately compensated for their innovation, I think I do it for more selfish reasons: I get bored doing the same thing over and over. I went into education because I like learning new things, and I can learn new things best by teaching them. So I teach books I haven’t taught before, or I try new ways of approaching old texts; in either case, I’m keeping myself fresh in the classroom and, I hope, serving my students.
But there’s no question, it’s hard work. This semester with my all-new course I am actually repeating a few books I’ve taught before, but they’re in a whole new context—my old notes won’t really do. So I’m re-reading, probably only a few pages ahead of my students on some days, and at the same time I’m planning new exercises, new assignments, and new approaches. And every time I do, I still have to be ready for the unexpected—for the possibility that my sweet potato crop simply won’t make it this year, or that my innovations won’t go over quite as planned.
I’m a little sorry to hear us considering revising our introduction to the major—I’ve only taught it once, and am developing a whole new module for it for next semester. The practical side of me wants to recoup that investment, to re-use my hard work for another class. But I’m coming to see that, at least for me, teaching doesn’t really work that way. It’s not as if I can make a deposit in the course-preparation bank and simply call on it later—months later? years?—when I want it. My course preparation doesn’t seem to work like a deposit account I can simply draw on. In fact, I seem to be rediscovering what Paolo Freire noted about students many years ago: the “banking concept of education” doesn’t work any better for me than for them. Rather, my teaching is like the field that the farmer wants to plant: I end up doing a lot of preparing of the ground, a lot of weeding, and a lot of watering before I can reap anything from all my hard work.
My CSA is about to go into its dormant phase—I know Ali and Lisa will still be working, but we won’t see any new vegetables between the end of November and next May. My own dormant phase as a teacher is right when the CSA is most active, in the middle of summer. It’s then that I make my plans and prepare my field—in the hopes that, now, in the midst of things, my students and I can reap the benefits.
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