Thursday, November 15, 2012

When work isn't work

Sometimes, my job becomes a grind. There are too many meetings that feel unproductive, too many students needing something from me, and too many assignments waiting for me to stick a grade to them. I feel burdened and forget the joy. This is how I've felt for the past few weeks, my enthusiasm dying a bit under the weight of my semester. Along with my students, I've been doing the countdown to fall break, a week that falls way too late in a semester, arriving after thirteen weeks of class. It's taken tons of my energy to get through the last couple of weeks, having not only to cajole myself into participation, but finding that I needed to also don a bit of a cheerleading outfit to keep both myself and my students going.

Fortunately, though, the air cleared a bit today, most likely because I knew that next week meant a week of break, a week devoted to relaxing, hanging with family, laughing, soaking in hot springs, cooking, reading, and hopefully doing a bit of my own writing. I could breathe relief. And with that sense, nothing felt onerous. Not even a meeting.

Today, I spent an hour and a half meeting with a small group of faculty and administrators to put together questions for a revised Student Opinion of Instruction, an evaluative device that has been through lots of operational snafus over the last couple of years, proving of little use for either constituency. Together, we hashed through language, discussing what we were needing to learn from such categories as Effective Communication and Flexibility in Approaches to Teaching. I enjoyed not only hearing my fellow faculty member's reactions to certain questions, but also found it instructive to hear exactly what Deans wanted to know when it came to measuring any of these categories. We debated a bit at times, but most of the time there was a natural consensus, a supportive atmosphere of revising and collaborating to put together a useful measure for students to evaluate instructors. With ease, we came up with next steps to get input from all faculty and from students before finalizing the questions. Dare I say, an enjoyable meeting.

Today, after plowing through some innocuous assignments and a bit of tedium, I found myself with one last pile of grading to finish before I could officially declare things caught up for now.

Fortunately, it was a pile of digital stories. As I began watching them, I became awed by my students. They triumphed with an assignment that gave me great anxiety because I had never taught it before--I had only created one digital story more than two years ago. I feared the project would tank, that students would struggle and not be able to produce a digital story. I had no exit strategy for the assignment--it had to succeed.

Even though I had support of two colleagues who were piloting this project in their classes, even though I had a multimedia graphics person who could be of some assistance, I felt alone, watching my students stress at times over all aspects of their digital stories. They worried whether their story was worth telling. They struggled with developing narrative arcs that contained an inciting incident and transformation. They grappled with all the dimensions of storytelling. And then they battled with movie technologies that I knew little about. I watched them lose parts of their story and have to rebuild the visuals. Yet, they never complained.

Once my students got going, they got going. Their stories are beautiful. Not only are they narrating with an attention to pacing, with an attention to the affordances of audio, they are heeding all the instruction about visuals focused on throughout the semester, clearly demonstrating their attention to the power of visuals as a way to enhance narrative. Their choices are thoughtful and their use of silence through a black screen or a static visual is artful. These students got their rhetoric on.

Most importantly, though, I am honored by their courageous stories and willingness to share them with each other, with me. A project like this would fail at the beginning of class because it needs trust, not only in each other and in me, but trust in their ability to compose.

My students inspire me. I am thankful for this batch of grading to sit with, to linger with, to replay, because I want to listen to their stories as I watch them again and again.

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