Saturday, January 12, 2013

Running, the Long Way Round . . .

I started this post intending to tell you about one of my plans for this new year, and I end up doing that, but I'm a bit surprised by the roundabout route I took. In fact, after rereading the first few paragraphs, I sat with my finger poised on the backspace button, ready to unravel the whole thing. But no, I'm going to let it stand, and if you're at all interested in some of my rationale for the goal I've set, you're welcome to read through.
Or you can cut to the chase and read my little announcement in the last few paragraphs. With all these words lined up, I'm afraid I have no pictures, but I'll remedy that soon. . . .
So here goes, my long and winding road . . . 

One day last week, chatting at our adjoining office doorways about our new classes, commiserating about some lingering problems from last term's classes, and exchanging catch-up news about families and holidays and growing children and grandchildren, my colleague admitted to me that he's been feeling "eroded," by the constant demands of a 4/4 teaching schedule (four courses in each of the fall/spring terms) and the slew of needy 1st-year students who quickly become part of our daily lives. We have a large contingent of international students, recruited actively by an administration focussed on budget-solving, and they come with a set of challenges that pose particular difficulties for those of us in the English department. We didn't enter this field intending to be gate-keepers, and most of us are grievously disturbed at having to perform that function, our ethical cores recoiling at the consequences of an F for a student from a family in India that has pooled resources to get her here. Yet passing that student, when she clearly has not mastered the basics of writing a university essay in English, poses its own ethical problems. This scenario repeats itself, multiply, almost every term. It does erode. . . .

And our own local students, as well as students from other parts of the province and of the country, they carry troubles into our classrooms and offices as well. A colleague chuckles when she retells the story of describing her office to her sister, insisting on the importance of the large box of Kleenex she always kept front and centre for weepy students. Her sister, she reports, was aghast: "You make your students cry?" The colleague is the gentlest soul, and it's easy, knowing her, to understand her sister's shock. But if we don't actually "make our students cry," their crying in our presence is a regular part of our teaching life. It erodes. .

As well, much as we find our own research engaging, fascinating even, with a 4/4 teaching schedule, this research happens "off the side of the desk" as we say. Not only does it fit in the cracks between classes and lesson preparation and marking, but it must also accommodate family time -- my colleague has a young family, and as much as he wants to keep his research current, as much as he needs it to keep his own intellectual engine revved up, sometimes it falls right off the desk and is in danger of landing in the waste basket.  This past fall, when I should have been submitting proposals for spring conference presentations, I was immersed in committee work that, on top of my four classes, came close to overwhelming. I made a decision in favour of sanity, and I ignored the passing November deadlines. This spring, I won't finish classes and immediately embark on researching and writing a paper. That will feel a bit of a relief, but I'll also miss the charge I usually get from that change of pace. And I'll miss the stimulation of the conference itself, which allows me to wear my academic hat with nary a thought of students . . . .

Instead, I'll use that time from the end of classes to begin preparing the two new upper-level classes I'm teaching next term. These will be exciting, rewarding classes to teach, and the students who choose them are likely to be engaged students who have very solid, some even stellar, skills in researching and analysing and in writing. These classes will build me up rather than erode, and I'm very much looking forward to them, although I know I will spend weeks and weeks putting the syllabi together and preparing lecture material.

Meanwhile, though, those classes are a long way off, and to ward against erosion in the here and now, I've got some plans. My colleague, after telling me how he was feeling, went on to say that he'd been invited to be part of a team taking on one of those Ultra-fitness Outdoor Challenges. I won't mention it by name, for fear of too closely linking to him, but it's a Challenge that will require a significant commitment to fitness over the next few months, concurrent with all his teaching. As he explained it to me, though, he and his wife agree that he needs to do something for himself, that allows him to regain a healthy sense of self while discharging negative stress. It's hard to do this, sometimes, faced with all the other responsibilities and obligations of life, to take time for one's own fitness. But it's a selfish act that gives to others, if that makes sense. I think my colleague is going to be a better husband, father, and professor if he regains the fitness he prides himself on.

Indeed, I made my own confession, after he told me about the Challenge he'd committed to. Despite the hours it will require me to divert from my teaching, from my research, even, I guess I should admit, from my family at times, I have committed to running the BMO Marathon in Vancouver this coming May (just weeks before my 60th birthday).

There, I've said it. In public. I'm frantically knocking on wood, here, superstitiously anxious about immediately injuring myself after making this bold pronouncement. In reality, I have no idea if I'll be able to manage running 42 kilometres. The most I've managed so far is 25, and that only twice.

But I'm going for a long slow distance run ( we runners call those LSDs) with two or three of my sisters tomorrow here in Vancouver, partly in preparation for the First Half Marathon we're running together in February. And I'll just keep adding distance, step by step, breathing along the way, remembering to smile, and see where I get to . . .

So there you have it, my goal for this year.

And now, if there's any part of this post you can relate to, I'd love to hear from you. Perhaps there are goals you'd like to share. Perhaps you might say something about that tricky balance between taking time for your own fitness while you're busy looking after everyone else or just trying to stay afloat at the office. Perhaps a few words about recognising the erosion of self and how you work toward restoration. Whatever you have to say, you know I value our conversations. Meanwhile, I hope your weekend is going well. . . what are you up to?





29 comments:

  1. I understand. It is a good way to describe how certain challenges can make us feel. The erosion of self. In an attempt to combat this, this year I am taking heed of your words, 'I want to want what I have.' No energy wasted on wanting more. And I have set myself some physical challenges. A half marathon and a triathlon. I find saying it out loud alot focus. No doubt they are so bored by my wittering the only way to shut me up was to agree. Very impressed by your marathon challenge. I think it is a great way to celebrate coming up to 60. It is inspirational.

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    1. Even committing to walking half an hour a day can be a solid commitment to self -- it makes a difference, doesn't it?!

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  2. I admire how you (and your colleague) take the positive road. Rather than allow the negative to bring you down, you have both set yourselves positive goals. Goals that you can be proud of working towards. You can live to work or work to live.

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    1. Your last sentence really suggests how enmeshed the two are, Liz, life and work -- sometimes it's hard to tell them apart, so it's good to make sure there's room for some kind of play in there!

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  3. Hi Mater, I have to say that these days I am particularly interested in what you say about your teaching, in light of the fact that my son is studying English at uni. I doubt that he is crying to his professors though - he seems to be thoroughly enjoying university life. School was just an annoyance to him (!), but university seems to be challenging and fulfilling.
    Actually, I have sent him this post, as I thought it might give him some insight into what his teachers have to go through.

    Good luck with your marathon goal - I'm sure you'll take us along for your training!

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    1. I'm so happy to hear that your son is thriving in the university setting! He's very lucky in the base you're able to provide for him, so that he can concentrate primarily on his classes for these next few years.

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  4. Bloody hell, pardon my French, but a marathon to celebrate turning sixty? I thought you couldn't get much cooler but that is seriously Antarctic chill. I can barely hobble to the end of the road and I am two decades younger than you! Serious respect, for even aiming for that challenge, which I'm sure you'll achieve but even if you don't for one reason or another, what a wonderful way to live - expansive, inspirational, life-affiriming, boundary pushing of Self and identity. So often at any age we seem to slip into a self-identity of what we are not or can't do, timid and fearful, rather than focussing with courage and optimism on what we want, hope, desire, intend to be. Brava!
    Hester

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    1. Thanks, Hester! The French makes your praise so emphatic, ;-)
      I'm glad you focus on process as much as on actual achievement of the goal -- I'm trying to keep that in mind, that every week of training, every step along the way, confirms something for me, even if I never finish on the Marathon day (although I do fully hope and intend to do that)

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  5. Yay, you! I'm just in awe of your physical and mental fortitude. Interesting what you say about teaching, after reading that article that Susan P. recently linked to. Back in my 20's I was married (briefly) to someone who was pursuing an academic career, and remember hearing "publish or perish" and about how the full professorships didn't necessarily go to the best *teachers* but to those who published successfully, bringing prestige to the schools. I'm glad your course load will include some upper-level classes. I imagine that will be a very satisfying and stimulating experience.

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    1. You're right that many schools emphasize research, represented by publication, over teaching, although sometimes that can be presented as more of a dichotomy than it really is. Our institution does emphasize teaching more, but the problem is that the teaching load (especially under the budgetary pressures of these last years) doesn't acknowledge that good teaching depends on scholarship, i.e. research. Still, despite the extra work, I'm really looking forward to my upper-level classes next term -- you're right that those will be very satisfying.

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  6. In short, I can't run to save my life, but I have all kinds of goals and aspirations that require the spirit and the body of someone determined to live as long as possible.

    So, I say go ahead. If you fail, so the F what?

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    1. Yes, those are the kinds of goals and aspirations worth nurturing.
      And I'm trying to think exactly that, so what if I don't complete this one -- I'm going to try to celebrate the steps I manage on the way.

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  7. I have no doubt whatsoever that you will finish that Marathon - and taking that time for yourself is really important. I never begrudge the time Spouse spends on his running and triathlons because I know that he needs that space to himself. I'm less good at finding that time for myself, but I'm trying this year!

    Both Spouse and I have taught at university and faced the same challenges with students from non-English speaking backgrounds. It really is hard. Even teaching young kids (as I now do) has an emotional element that can be incredibly draining, even while it's rewarding ...

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    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence re the Marathon, especially since you know what it looks like, up close!
      I can well imagine that teaching young kids drains emotionally as well -- we want so much for our students!

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  8. What an awesome goal, though I absolutely cannot relate to it! :-) I am so happy that you will have a chance to teach the more senior students in the coming while. Teaching newbies of any sort is SO labour-intensive - even as it is the most wonderful of yeoman's work. You are actively enriching the lives of so many young people. Just remember that when it all seems overwhelming. And then take some LSD :-)

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    1. Thanks, K. Wondered if you'd rise to that LSD bait. . . ;-)

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  9. I'm in awe of your goal. Runners are such disciplined souls. I wish you all the best as you slog through the training. That in itself will be life-affirming and build, rather than erode, your inner self.
    Teaching motivated students is pure joy.

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    1. It's true that I have become disciplined in my running, and I liked discovering that I could be that.
      I do love teaching motivated students, but I am sometimes frustrated on their behalf by the costs and the impediments that the system can put in the way.

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  11. What a fabulous goal. I wish I could run but my body just doesn't enjoy it so I stick with a brisk 2-3 mile walk. Wish you the best luck.

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    1. I suspect walking offers the same physical benefits, really, without the impact on the joints. But I like other aspects of running, for now at least. Thanks for the luck!

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  12. I've never taught a 4/4 load, but I have taught a 3/3 that was the result of choosing longer class sessions and more credit hours per course by the department in order to avoid a 4/4 when that institution switched from quarters to semesters. I taught two surveys a semester often different preps, and it did erode. Teaching upper level courses gives me great joy because I don't feel as much like a gate keeper in those classes or like I'm constantly battling the apathy of some students who will hate me and my course no matter what because they feel forced to take it for their GERs and for no other reason. Even though I had a course release last semester there were times that I felt eroded by my 100 level gen ed. Anyway, this is all to say that I empathize. Good luck with the training! I'm excited to follow your progress and no doubt will be motivated and inspired by you during the course of our training cycles for BMO.

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    1. You know what I'm talking about!
      The tricky part of the 1st-year English courses is that students aren't taking them by choice. . .

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  13. Mater, congratulations on your goal! I can relate to ALL of what you write here, and admire your ability to find balance.

    Thank you again btw for sharing your teaching thoughts with me. I know I'd already decided what to do, but your thoughts stayed with me, and they helped after the fact, if you know what I mean.

    Martin and I had such a good time in NYC last week. Now that I'm not in the MA program we're bursting with ideas for our new teeny tiny biz venture.

    As they say, a door closes and another one opens.

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    1. I'll look forward to following the development of your new project -- exciting!

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  14. Sitting here with the biggest smile for you, ma! Whoo-hoo!

    Re the demands of teaching: you have captured so well the intensity and velocity of professional and personal demands. It's one of those professions that will take every shred of energy and attention one is willing to give. (I've worked both with teachers (at nearly all levels) and ex-teachers.) Good for your colleague and- this is so exciting.

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    1. You're spot on, Duchesse! The work I do never, ever feels finished. It's easy to succumb to guilt over not reading one more article or extending office hours for students who missed appointments or . . . .
      Hence the running. Thanks for the Whoo-hoo! I can feel the energy, and it's very encouraging!

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  15. Oh my, I relate to all of this--the 4-4 load (plus being appointed the new dept. chair) adds up to an extraordinary amount of classroom performance, bureaucratic, and emotional work. Your marathon sounds like my theatrical work; knowing there's a proper show I have to practice for, something that of course seems beyond my capabilities, thrills and inspires. And lets me tackle something for me, for a change . . .

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    1. Not to mention your three relatively young children! Honestly, I don't know how you do it, but I do know why. I'm not sure I'd compare my one-foot-in-front-of-the-other marathon goal with the, ha, drama of theatre, but they do both carve time away from the classroom's gaping maw. . . .

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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