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The Moments When We Become the Teachers We Are Now

posted: 2.1.13 by archived

I’ve been trying, since I started writing this blog, to think through the ethos, if you will, of the Paperless Writing Class–and how I got to the point of living within this ethos. If you’ll bear with me for the next few hundred words, I’ll tell you what I think is the story of how I got here.

In the spring of 1999 I completed a Master of Arts in Teaching degree at the University of Iowa and found a position teaching high school English. I got right to work reading or re-reading the books I was to teach in the fall, but as the summer progressed, a creeping feeling kept trying to tell me that something wasn’t right. I remember the day I knew I had to back out like it was yesterday. I was sitting on the beach on a beautiful day in late July, trying to make my way through Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. I couldn’t do it and I knew that there was no way I could teach such a book–or many of the books I was told I would need to teach, for that matter. I called the department chair and told her I wouldn’t be coming in September. I felt horrible–and relieved.

What came next was a leap of faith. At Iowa, I had been fortunate enough to teach first-year composition for one year while pursuing my degree. High school may not have been for me, but teaching college seemed like it could be a real possibility. I went online and found a list of all the colleges and universities in the state of New Hampshire, where I was living at the time, and began making calls to people I knew who might be able to help me find work as an adjunct English instructor. While I would have to go without health insurance for a little while, I was confident that if I could scare up enough sections of first year composition or introduction to literature, I could earn enough to get by.

Soon I had lined up teaching gigs all around the state–at a private college, a state university (my alma mater), a community college, and the continuing education branch of the public college system. I became a freeway flier. I taught at all hours of the day and night. I taught writing, literature, public speaking. I taught traditional and non-traditional age students. And I never looked back. I was too busy and having too much fun.

Because I needed the money and had nothing to lose, I accepted just about every teaching offer that came my way that year, including an offer to teach online. This was 1999 and colleges and universities were just beginning to experiment with online education. As I indicated in an earlier post, I was, at this time, a bit of a Luddite–and proudly so. But something in me said Give it a chance. So I did.

The first course I taught online was a first-year composition class. I designed the course from scratch and then taught it. The students and I met the first class and the last and everything else was done online. We were all guinea pigs and it was a mixed bag, I think, for all of us. The work of doing the class online seemed to outweigh the work we were supposed to be doing with writing. The second class I taught online was creative non-fiction and again, I was given the opportunity to design the class and then teach it. This, too, was a mixed-bag experience. There were, I was beginning to see, limitations to teaching entirely online. But there were also considerable opportunities, especially for the right kind of student… and the right kind of teacher.

These days, I don’t teach fully online courses. I don’t even teach hybrid courses. But my work with and disposition towards instructional technology these days is very much rooted in that moment over a decade ago, when someone offered me the opportunity to design something I had never envisioned and to teach in a way I had never imagined. I was dispositionally open to those possibilities at that time and I believe that being so set me on the path on which I travel today: using instructional technology to help create the Paperless Writing Class, where my students and I meet face-to-face and use online tools to facilitate and mediate our work together.

What I’m trying to describe when I talk about the Paperless Writing Class, I think, is what it’s like to inhabit a particular pedagogical mindset or system of beliefs and values where writing instruction and instructional technology come together in rich and productive ways. We all carry a pedagogical mindset around with us all day, every day, bringing it with us not just into our classrooms but into every conversation we have with our colleagues about teaching and every presentation about teaching we attend. It’s not something that is easily or quickly externalized, this mindset. But it is, I’m finding, well worth trying to do as one thinks through the how and why of one’s teaching practice.

Categories: Michael Michaud
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