I like to think I have a good relationship with my Associate Dean. We communicate regularly, which is important to me. We work well together, helping to keep each other on top of what needs to get done. We're good at coming up with a common agenda and collaborating to make it happen.
Unfortunately, when I did a post-Memorial Day check-in with my Associate Dean, something showed up in my email that filled me with dread. My Associate Dean was asking, once and for good, for the final schedule and list of faculty staffing for all of the sections of our first-year writing course, as well as the themes that each faculty member had developed for his or her sections. These themes are shared with freshmen at registration during the summer so they can select which section of the course they prefer to take. As we are on the cusp of registration, of course this is information my Associate Dean would like to have.
Some background: about a year ago, we as a department undertook to redesign our first-year writing course, based on assessment findings and involving a lot of conversation and collaboration from faculty both within and outside English. From a more traditional approach involving readers and modes and the usual 10-page research paper, we moved toward a course heavy on content, engaging with big questions meant to prepare students for academic inquiry in the liberal arts. People put in a lot of time and work, and this past spring in particular, as we began preparing for next fall, I got to be especially impressed with the creative design and ideas for teaching my colleagues have been coming up with. Reading through the themes created by English faculty members to define their sections -- The Good Life, say, or The Duty of the Writer to Society, or Narrative as Agent for Social Change -- I’ve been first of all inspired by my colleagues and all their cool ideas, and second of all so grateful that folks are responsive and thinking about and sharing their work even as we're heading into summer.
There's just one problem, and this is why a seemingly innocuous request from my Associate Dean, one which I was fully expecting and is completely routine, filled me with dread:
I can't come up with a theme for my own section of first-year writing.
I've been thinking about this all year. The version of the course I ran in the fall didn't go as well as I'd hoped, as well as it had in the past, and so I was looking for a change. I've got reams of notes, all chock-full of good ideas from colleagues from across disciplines: a progressive paper assignment from Chemistry, interviews and reflective writing from Psychology, blogging and Twitter and building websites from everyone, even some ideas on better group work from Hospitality Management.
But no theme. No big question. No driving issue. Nothing.
I think I know the answer to the question I pose aloud in faculty meetings on this topic on a semi-regular basis: what is wrong with me? My problem? Too many tabs.
I’ve got too much stuff in my brain. It’s all interesting, but I can’t make a syllabus out of it.
I'm not saying the best teaching always happens when our obsessions align with what we're doing in the classroom, but a lot of the time that can result in a good experience. My interest in narrative theory contributed to an exciting first iteration of a new course in graphic narrative. My desire to be George Eliot when I grow up makes for an enthusiastic presentation of Middlemarch almost every time (even if I'm the only person in the room totally feeling it).
But I'm in a headspace right now where I just have too many tabs open. Too many things I'm obsessed with that I just can't envision bringing into the classroom in a meaningful way. I'm finishing up writing a book on narrative theory, but I've already discarded a more meta approach to reading and writing for my first-year writing course; too many times I've tried that and felt like I was spending the whole semester on a hamster wheel. Alone, in front of the room, looking increasingly uncomfortable. I'm obsessed with Stalinism at the moment, making my way through Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe and Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, not to mention Zizek's The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, but I can't even completely explain to myself why this is fascinating to me right now, let alone share it with students, and I am no expert on the topic anyway. I'm always obsessed with kale, but, well, we can see why this would be a poor choice.
I am in the very fortunate position of being able to pursue my obsessions in the form of my own research and writing, as well as having a career with enough flexibility that I can either design my work to accommodate those obsessions or I can set that work aside for a few hours to follow my rabbit-warren of thoughts wherever it may go. And I can feel passionate about what I'm doing because it comes from being excited by my obsessions and the energy they generate within my own mind. I want my students to have this experience, too -- to get obsessed, to fall in love with what their own minds can do, even to have too many tabs open so they have the infinite possibility of all that knowledge and information and idea-making in front of them. I can model this for them, but I also have to make a space where we can all be obsessed together.
I guess I can close some tabs and make some decisions, knowing I'm never going to be completely satisfied with what I've come up with. Maybe what looks like an intellectual version of restless leg syndrome is actually a desire to keep moving, to try new things, to seek a newer world, and every new obsession makes us smarter.