I don’t believe in grades.
I run my college English class like an off-grid hippie commune.
I don’t assign homework because I’m not a fan of futile endeavors. In my college English class, I’m talking about. Which is a required first-year class. Regardless of your major, or high school performance, or AP credits, you must take two introductory English classes.
I run my college English class suspicious of the teacher-student binary because students nowadays are so much smarter, more skilled, more savvy than their teachers.
I don’t assign books. Or papers. Or teach academic citations. Or take field trips to the library so a librarian can attempt to convince us that ProQuest Direct is as user-friendly and valuable as Google.
“Get them out of the way.” This is the student mantra surrounding core classes—required curriculum outside their major.
Since this is the case, instead of bludgeoning young minds with the standard antiquated hodgepodge of short stories, citation lessons, discussions about tone and meter, I throw all that stale bread overboard.
Instead of preaching a gospel my own experience tells me is false, I offer up the most helpful life and career lessons I can offer. How to have a meaningful 36-question conversation with a stranger. How to use hand-gestures while speaking. How to discuss your personal weaknesses during a job interview. How to have appropriate physical touch with other people via swing dance lessons, partner stretching. How to construct a wicked cover letter. How to defy authority. How to nurture your muscles and ligaments. How to explore your consciousness.
And of course: how to dig deep into your confusing and cacophonous cranium and examine yourself through writing. So yeah, we do write. I’m a firm believer in writing. On a daily basis, it helps me sift through my struggles. Helps me notice what my struggles are connected to, caused by. In class, when we share our writing, we share our struggles. And this bulldozes the widespread perception that so many of us hold: that it’s just us. That we’re a mess and everyone else has their shit together.
Nobody has their shit together. At least not as much as we think they do.
I feel like a fraud. Like if the Administration observed my class every day, they’d fire me for deviation from protocol.
Every day—and especially when I sit back and think about it—I feel like a fraud. Even though I can justify each and every minute of class time as a narrowly tailored means to a valuable pedagogical outcome. Even though I could lecture for days about how the creative classroom and radical teaching is absolutely essential if anything that comes out of a professor’s mouth is going to make an imprint on the students for longer than 7 seconds after class is dismissed.
If I were to sum up the main reason for my renegade approach, I would repeat the same dictum liberal arts colleges espouse as their highest institutional value: thinking critically. I agree. Think, think, think. Think in groups. Think by yourself. Think on paper. Think out loud. Think through audio recordings. Think on film. Think with colored pencils. Think with your hands. Think with your head.
Question everything. Especially what you’re told can’t be questioned—like the core curriculum. Especially what’s heralded as good simply because it carries historical precedent—like the core curriculum.
In English classes, for example, we need to stop reading wiff waft fluff like Flannery O’Connor. Why? Because the future will be bonkers. Technology is evolving so fast. Consider this: the Internet has only really been around since 1994. The first iPhone came out in 2007. Both early Internet and early smartphones are now completely unrecognizable and virtually useless. Is Flannery O’Connor going to help me navigate my fragile fickle future?
I’m honest with my students. I admit that I believe much of higher education is one of two things: a pointless game to get a piece of paper or a leisure activity better allocated to your couch on a rainy day (like reading Flannery O’Connor.)
If all else fails, I hope my students see my struggling with what I believe. Struggling to make sense of the complicated world-void-multiverse. I hope they see that I don’t have all, most of, or really any solid answers.
If all else fails, I hope my students hear my honesty. In spite of taboo, discomfort, cultural convention, historical precedence, etc. …
Because one day I hope they dare to do the same. Speak their truths…
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