Stephanie J. West-Puckett

writing, teaching, studying digital writing and rhetorics

Peering through the Cracks

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“The point is,” said Anna, “as far as I can see, everything is cracking up.” –Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p.1

Every good narrative, I suppose, should begin with a crack, an ever-widdening fissure that exposes the discontinuity of our lives.  Today is the first teaching day of a new academic year– my 10th year teaching writing at this university.  And while you’d expect I’d be over the panic by now, I’m not.

This was not readily apparent to me this morning as I shook the wrinkles out of my skirt, packed a day’s worth of food into my son’s new Columbia lunch box (he doesn’t start school until tomorrow, so I’m giving it a test run), and inventoried the contents of my Medela Pump-in-Style and Macbook Pro bags,  making sure I had all the implements necessary to express myself multimodally.  I dropped my husband off at JH Rose High School to enjoy his last “lack-of-planning” day before the school-year starts, talked to my best teacher-friend in a neighboring county about our upcoming staff development workshop at her middle school, and cracked the door on the first day of school.

Students were already milling around the foyers, deciding on halls, and checking room numbers against schedule listings on their phones and papers.  The wax on the floor was blinding, and I stood in a group of folks waiting to board the elevator.  Like Percy Jackson, I thought, “Floor 600, please.”  The gods of the English Department await.

The mob filled the elevator, and I was the only one who didn’t get in.  With Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” soundtrack playing in my head, I impatiently pressed the button again–probably two or three times.  The second car appeared almost immediately (probably because I pushed the button so many times, right?) and I darted in it.   Then, in an act of supreme selfishness, I hit the “door close” button.   It was all mines.

White noise, dim yellow lighting, and stagnation.  Stillness.

After a week of intensive syllabi and schedule authoring–doing, doing, and doing–I had just a moment of pause.  English 1200 materials posted, check.  English 1200 Service-learning, check.  English 3810, check.  All good, right?  Well…yeah…they’re there.  But…

Are they clear?  Any glaring omissions?  Is the workload too heavy?  Too light?  Are the readings too academic?  Too folksy?  How will we manage all these interviews and site studies?  What can of worms am I opening with a course that has students researching the history of desegregation in our county schools when many fear that they are resegregating? What does it mean to teach with a printed text whose chapters are titled “Facebook”, “Twitter”, and “The Dark Side of New New Media”?  Is the textbook dead?  Am I even qualified to teach these classes?

At some point, gods know how many minutes later, the elevator doors slid open again, and I stepped out.  It wasn’t until I was about half way down the hall that I realized I was still on the first floor.  In my haste to have a personal chariot, I hadn’t even chosen a destination.

Now I was paralyzed with fear.  If I can’t get to the second floor today, how am I going to face scrutiny of sixty-five pair of eyes, staring me down and sizing me up?   A teacher-friend once told me she spent more time picking out her clothes than preparing her lessons and readings.  Another told me recently some chunky jewelry would really create a good student-teacher rapport. Maybe they’re right.   I’m not ready for this.   No matter how diligently I prepare, I never will be.

And neither are my colleages.  Numerous Facebook posts from my teaching friends, from public school teachers to tenured professors today have echoed the same sentiment.  In fact, you can read a great account of fellow Writing Project colleague and high school teacher Heather Holland’s back-to-school mini-panic narrative, “First Day of School Revisions and Decisions” on her blog.  I find it interesting that she, as do I with Lessing, alludes to the Big Brits at a time like this, employing Elliot’s “Love Song” to compare her own unease with the infamous Mr. Proofrock’s.  And then there’s Dr. Dre and Percy Jackson.

For my best teacher-friend today, it was Sesame Street and for my husband,  Iron Maiden.  So as we face the new faces this year–infinite possibility for success and failure– what do you see when you peer through the cracks?  What lenses do you try on to help you see?  What’s your teaching soundtrack?  What poems, books, films, shows, and characters do you invoke?

Author: Stephanie (she/her)

I am an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island where I direct the First Year Writing Program. My research generates critical theories and practices for transforming the teaching and assessing of writing in the classroom as well as in community literacy settings. My scholarship has been published in journals such as College English, Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, Community Literacy Journal, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, and Education Sciences as well as in several edited collections. Her forthcoming book Failing Sideways: Queer Possibilities for Writing Assessment (co-authored with Nicole I. Caswell and William P. Banks) with UP Colorado/Utah State UP is expected in spring 2023.

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