We’re five weeks into the semester and I’ve already caught my first cold. Stress weakens your immune system, so I suspect that the confrontation I had with two students last week probably contributed to my health breakdown. Or rather, not the incident itself but the fact that I dwelt on it for days afterward. Someone just posted this article on Facebook: “Why I Quit Teaching.” That struck a chord with me. This is the most challenging semester I can remember, and even though the vast majority of my students are following the rules and making progress, I still have a couple who are raising hell. And somehow that makes me want to leave the classroom, which is irrational. On Saturday night To Sir, With Love was on PBS—Sidney Poitier always reminds me of my father: the pencil tie, the fitted suit, the handsome smile. My father taught for more than 30 years, and he taught special ed students here in NYC. He fussed about his students (like I do) but loved them (like I do) and definitely saw himself as a father figure (I certainly don’t). In the film, the students give “Sir” a hard time until he cracks the code and figures out how to connect with them despite the difference in race, class, and culture. He finally gets the dream job offer he’s been waiting for, but then realizes that teaching is his true calling and so tears up the letter. Hollywood still makes those kind of films but the reality is that teachers aren’t meant to SAVE students—we’re there to SERVE students because that’s what professionals do:
A professional is a certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level, which includes making complex and disinterested judgments under conditions of uncertainty. Professionals deserve to live comfortably, but they do not enter the ranks of a profession in order obtain wealth or power; they do it out of a calling to serve.
But what do you do with the ones who don’t want to be served? Or think of you as a servant to be given orders? And of course this is about gender because female students never challenge my authority the way some male students do. And perhaps this is a “hypercritical woman thing” where I expect perfection of myself and so continue to focus on the ones who aren’t really trying to grow or learn. I applied for a fellowship today that would give me one full year without teaching. That prospect used to scare me, but these days…it’s looking pretty good! If that acceptance letter comes in the mail some day, I will definitely NOT tear it up.
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I haven’t blogged in a while because I figured out that I have 22 non-teaching days in the month of September, and if I write 900 words on each of those days, I’ll have the 20K words I need to finish Judah’s Tale. I got off to a good start last weekend, but this weekend I’ve fallen short—instead of writing 2000 words yesterday I wrote 200! But that’s because I spent most of the day completing a grant report (500 words) and working on an application for a faculty publication program (1350 words). That’s one thing about my job—you constantly have to apply for things. Still, it’s a pretty great opportunity—you get paired with a writing mentor, you meet eight times with other writers within your field, and you get 3 hours of course release for the spring semester, which means one less class to teach. My classes are going fairly well so far, but I’m reminded—once again—of how impossible it is to turn your brain off when you teach. It’s not like a 9-5 where you clear your desk at the end of the day and go home to dwell on other things. With teaching you’re always making a mental list of the things you need to say and do and plan and fix. And then there are the endless emails asking for help; I’m not a medical doctor but I do sometimes feel like I’m on call! It’s part of the job, and I do love to teach, but maybe I’m not being realistic about finishing Judah’s Tale this month. My (pipe) dream is to finish two novels this semester, which would free me up to start The Hummingbird’s Tongue in January. A friend and I are considering London for Xmas, which means I need to budget carefully so that I can do London in December, Nevis in January, and Ghana in May. My travel allowance is $450 so that means I need to get really creative…counting words and counting pennies!
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I’m thinking about the best way to develop a curriculum on slavery for school-age children. I think you have to start with the larger ethical issues—what is just, and right, and moral. And you have to cite source documents so that children know how history is written. I’m reading the Journal of a Lady of Quality, and found it quite riveting as Miss Schaw departs from Scotland and crosses the stormy seas to reach Antigua. One black man was forcibly brought on board in Scotland, though he hasn’t been mentioned since, and one of her brother’s servants is described as an “Indian,” but I can’t tell whether she means he’s from India or that he is Native American. It’s 1774—either is possible. Now that Miss Schaw has reached the Caribbean I’m finding it harder to read her journal—there are endless descriptions of the food that’s served, and the wonderful company they keep, and the delicious drinks they sip while strolling along shaded paths. Hardly any mention of the enslaved Africans who make their plantation life so lovely…except for this:
We proceeded to our lodgings thro’ a narrow lane; as the Gentlemen told us no Ladies ever walk in this Country. Just as we got into the lane, a number of pigs run out at a door, and after them a parcel of monkeys. This not a little surprized me, but I found what I took for monkeys were negro children, naked as they were born. We now arrived at our lodgings, and were received by a well behaved woman, who welcomed us, not as the Mrs of a Hotel, but as the hospitable woman of fashion would the guests she was happy to see.
Watching this BBC documentary on racism and the slave trade helped balance things out a bit. I’m only reading this journal because the author apparently makes some keen observations about slavery in St. Kitts/Nevis. Not sure how many more pages I can stand…
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I had a moment yesterday when I wanted to quit teaching. As soon as I submitted my grades, the whining began…no matter how clear you are about the course requirements, no matter how many opportunities you give to earn extra credit, there are always a few students who think you owe them something more. I love teaching and I hope to teach for the rest of my life, but I’m wondering if there’s a way to build a life that lets me do what I love and discard all the rest. Yesterday’s meeting with Terry Boddie was great—I can’t imagine what I’d do without the support of fellow artists! Artist/professors who teach, and grade, and deal with ridiculous demands, and yet still manage to get their work out into the world (Terry’s got FOUR shows up right now). Giving up the academy would mean working as a teaching artist and supplementing my income with grants. I’ve gotten three grants so far this year, and right now I’m applying for a fourth. It’s a different kind of hustle but the good thing about writing grant proposals is that the process lends clarity to your work. Why do I do what I do, and what does my writing offer the world? I’m still working on my project summary but thought I’d share what I’ve got so far. This is Nevis book #1:
The Hummingbird’s Tongue
This nonfiction book—a blend of memoir, genealogy, and mythology—will attempt to trace the life of my paternal grandmother, Rosetta Elliott. Born on the small Caribbean island of Nevis, Rosetta was institutionalized approximately ten years after the birth of her two children, George (my father) and Ilis. Both children were removed from Rosetta’s custody when they were quite young; George was raised (alternately) by his maternal and paternal grandmothers, and Ilis was raised by her biological father and his wife (though his paternity was kept from her until adulthood). Stripped of her children, my grandmother continued to live in Nevis until the mid-1950s when she began having “fits” and was committed to an asylum in neighboring Antigua where she allegedly died.
Shortly after his mother’s death, my father emigrated from Nevis to live, for the first time, with his father in Canada. Fifteen years later, in 1972, my father returned to Nevis with my mother (who was pregnant with me at the time). They visited the asylum in Antigua and found no record of Rosetta Elliott. In his unfinished memoir my father implied that Rosetta was involved with prominent men on the island; I plan to investigate this claim and others, including speculation that my grandmother’s “fits” weren’t caused by epilepsy but by obeah (so-called “black magic”). My grandfather once worked as a policeman in Antigua—did he use his professional connections to make his former lover “disappear”? Was the news of Rosetta’s death prior to his departure for Canada a lie designed to sever my father’s connection to the less reputable side of his family?
I have lived with depression and anxiety since my teen years, and suspect that my father battled depression throughout his life as well. Fortunately, I evolved into a black feminist writer, though my commitment to self-expression led my father to call me “a stranger in the family.” I feel a strong sense of kinship with the woman for whom I was named, though we never met and I have not even a photograph of her. My great-aunt once told me that Rosetta had “hair down her back”—a significant feature for a poor black woman. Was she beautiful? Was marriage unavailable or uninteresting to her? Perhaps my grandmother traded whatever assets she had in order to survive.
If my grandmother did indeed suffer from some type of mental illness, I would like to know what symptoms she exhibited and what services were available to women in the eastern Caribbean at that time. Could any “undesirable” be institutionalized? Was Rosetta truly a danger to herself, or was her sexuality deemed dangerous to an insular, patriarchal society that expected women to know and stay in their “proper place”? The 2009 study of Nevisian girls, Pleasures and Perils by Debra Curtis, reveals disturbing patterns of coercion and early experimentation with sex; my book will consider contemporary conditions for women in Nevis and will offer strategies to ensure that girls have the tools they need to recognize and resist exploitation and marginalization.
Green-Throated Caribbean Hummingbird
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The only good thing about waking at 4am this morning was finding this email from a former student in my Facebook inbox. You’ve probably heard about the teacher in Michigan who was fired for mobilizing her students around the Trayvon Martin case. Radical teaching—which is what we NEED to achieve social justice—should be celebrated, not punished. You can sign a petition and learn more here.
I know it’s been awhile, but I wanted to let you know that I am still following your work and to also, again, thank you for your inspiration and support in my scholastic endeavors. I am currently in my second semester at ___ State University and am in the process of getting my masters in the teaching of writing. I am currently interning for a class titled “Theory of Composition,” where we actually just attended a lecture given by Dr. Y. I wrote the following email to my professor, Dr. S, that I thought may be of interest to you and to also remind you, again, of the impact you’ve had on me as a learner/teacher. Having had some experience as a teacher working in foreign countries for the past three years, I know what it means to receive genuine and honest feedback; it is one of the many things that makes teaching so rewarding. So, I thought I’d send you a copy of the email I sent my professor to not only demonstrate the effect you had on me, but to also demonstrate how the messages we teach, when they are truly meaningful, can spread like wildfire to places or, in this instance, to classes you hadn’t imagined.
She then shared my blog with her professor so that their conversation about young adult lit can include a consideration of race and equity in publishing! Touched and very proud…
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Grading. Grading on the subway. Grading while on line at the burrito place. Grading before going to bed and again first thing in the morning. Sigh. I took a stack of papers with me to France but didn’t make much progress, in part because I got off the plane with a cold. The south of France is lovely but French culture doesn’t really work for me: I don’t drink or smoke, I hate baguette, I’m not crazy about little dogs, and I can’t eat cheese. Sitting at a packed outdoor cafe doesn’t appeal to this solitary Scorpio, and so when I first arrived on Wednesday, I actually wished I could speed up the clock. I don’t like to travel alone, and as a woman—and a woman of color—with only limited French, I felt insecure in Aix-en-Provence (though I generally found the people to be friendlier than Parisians). It’s a pretty town (photo above is Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix) but it seems people mostly go there to shop, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. I got some ibuprofen and vitamin C from the pharmacy and spent the first couple of nights recuperating at the hotel. Then Laura arrived on Friday and everything changed—I had a running buddy! A sounding board. A friend. I’m not a big talker but whenever Laura and I get together, we find endless issues to discuss: teaching, grading, the pros and cons of being in the academy, the pros and cons of US & UK publishing, immigration, ambition, relationships. And the conference itself, of course, which was interesting and really well organized. I think both our papers were well received, and we met some interesting people, including American graphic artist/illustrator/professor John Jennings whose hotel room was right across from ours. We ate at Chez Grandmere Friday night and had “authentic Provencale cuisine.” The next day we checked out the local bookstores, ambled through the outdoor market, and had pizza in a candlelit, cobble-stoned corner of Aix. We shared our family histories and projected where we’d be in five years. John requires students in his hip hop visuals class to come up with a tag—“What would yours be?” I woke up this morning trying to answer that question. I think I’ve settled on “bittersweet” or “bittasweet,” though it’s probably not wise to pick a tag that can be reduced to “b.s.” This morning I was at the central branch of the BPL listening to the amazing poetry my two middle school classes created. During our second workshop I asked them to circle ten words that represented the essence of a special memory. A tag is sort of like your essence—if you had to reduce yourself to ONE word, what would it be? I thought about “scribe” but that seemed too one-dimensional. I like bittersweet because it represents contradiction but also balance. In my third workshop with the students I asked them to make two lists: words others would use to describe them, and words they would use to describe themselves. “Sweet” isn’t a word that would appear on either of my lists, but I like “bittasweet” because there’s at least a little sugar in me…though these days I’m so stressed out that I’m consuming more sugar than I really need. While I was in France I got thirty emails a day, including two stressful surprises: the book I plan to write about African American YA speculative fiction is going to be announced later this spring at another conference (never mind that I haven’t actually finished the proposal), and the editors of an anthology on urban children’s literature asked me to contribute a chapter (by June). Trouble is, I haven’t had any time just to write for myself and that’s why the “bitter” is threatening to overwhelm the “sweet” in me. I don’t even have time to record all the details of my time in France. I made a dozen mental notes but can’t remember half of them now: sugar cubes in the shape of hearts, Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and the theme from Flashdance playing on the shuttle bus radio, a thin sliver of a moon in a starless sky. On the flight back to NYC I watched Puss ‘n Boots and (when I wasn’t laughing my head off) nearly wept at some of the coloring—I remember seeing a Maxfield Parrish exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and having a similar reaction. How do you capture the color of a child’s dream? Do illustrations teach us how to dream? I need to write but can’t afford to let myself drift. Not until spring break. I had tea with a friend this afternoon and she reminded me that there is a time to “frolic” and a time to work. What matters most is that you apply yourself fully to every task, trusting that you will be changed by the experience. I think that’s what worries me…
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Yesterday was not my best teaching day. I try to let my students express themselves in class, and I try to listen patiently even when problematic ideas are coming out of their mouths. After all, the point is to figure out where they’re starting from—what they know now so that we can try to move forward together. I’m usually ok if they disagree with me on something—so long as they can back it up. But when we’re talking about sensitive issues (like homosexuality) I find I sometimes lose my patience. Yesterday was one of those days. I knew we had fifteen minutes left in class and I didn’t want to “go there” when it was clear that this one particular student wasn’t ready to reconsider her position. So I left her there and moved on. Didn’t feel good about it, but I had another class to teach and a faculty film group to facilitate after that…and there will be opportunities later in the semester to revisit the subject. I got back to my office after the faculty group wrapped up and another student from that class had sent me this email:
Good afternoon Professor Elliot, I’m _____ from your noon class on Tuesday and Thursday and I just wanted to say that I’m really enjoying this class. I almost didn’t sign up for it but I’m happy i did. You are a excellent professor and I’m really learning more in this class than my others. By the way this Isn’t sucking up or anything I’m just showing that i have interest in your class.
Sounds like sucking up to me, but you know what? I really needed to hear that yesterday! Attendance in my morning class was down by about a third, and I couldn’t help but wonder if students skipped class because they didn’t want to talk about homosexuality. I need to do better. And I’ll try, though this semester is proving to be much harder than I thought. On Monday I got this sweet email from a former student, which reminded me of the long-term impact great teaching can have:
I am SO happy to hear you are still teaching and showing some of the materials you used for us at MHC; I really cannot even begin to tell you how much your courses continue to help me. It is really crazy to see how so many students have never spoken about or taken any classes on race relations in the US or on Black studies/Black history at an education school like ____ of all places; so, I find myself longing for and appreciating the work we did in your courses at MHC all the time. I am using so many of the readings from both of your courses, particularly from the Black Studies Reader, Tricia Rose articles, and poems from Amiri Baraka to conduct a literature review on work regarding ethnic studies courses, hip hop collegians, and language (particularly signifying–to this day, the most fascinating thing I ever learned, so thank you!) Please stay in touch and let your students know just how incredibly fortunate they are to have you as their Professor. Best of luck with the launch of your new book!
So tomorrow I’ll put on my new school marm dress and try to get it right. I did learn yesterday that I got a travel grant to help pay for my trip to France, so I’m going to focus on the positive and keep pressing on…
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