This semester is passing quickly and smoothly (knock wood), but it's unnerving how many of my students are suffering from problems that seriously affect their abilities to focus on their classes. Physical health issues, mental health issues, caretaking issues, legal issues, you name it: I'm in conversation with so many students with documented and ongoing problems that are keeping them from following through with assignments or attending classes (even the Zoom ones).
A couple have dropped out, at least from classes and not the college, already this semester. As we're at the mid-semester mark that's hardly surprising, I suppose, and yet here I am, remarking on it.
I have a near-allergic reaction to social media posts from fellow instructors in higher ed who have this "don't complain about your students; if there's something wrong, it's wrong with you," attitude. It's virtue-mongering at its worst and virtue-signaling at a semi-offensive level and just ignorant and short-sighted at best.
But I do realize in a kind of clinical, non-emotional way that if a good quarter of your students are falling behind in their coursework because of what's going on in their personal lives, it's short-sighted and foolish to adhere to deadlines and policies with any kind of rigidity.
There is, of course, a large contingent of students who, after a year and a half in this strange, mostly-online modality can't or won't understand the requirements of a distance education course, namely their responsibility to do more than just show up and listen. (Or, as is the case with a handful of the students, do more than turn on Zoom, say "here" when I take attendance, and then walk away from the computer or tablet or phone and do something, anything, other than actually pay attention to the lecture/discussion/class activity.)
Both kinds of students -- the students with legitimate issues preventing them from attending school or attending to school, and the students who just don't/won't fucking get it (do the work I assign when we're not "in class," people) -- make up the majority of my courses, so am I going to fail them all? No. Not one of us benefits from that situation.
So I'm extending deadlines and accepting more absences than I would normally, but if the pandemic has taught me anything, it's how to shrug my shoulders and just let a lot of stuff go. There's only one me, and there are a finite number of minutes in a day and a finite number of days, too.
There is only so much energy I can spend pushing against something nameless and shapeless but larger and stronger than I am. At some point, I just have to go where it guides me. And that's less about my job, and more about all the other aspects of my life.
In cheerful news, I managed to actually follow through on a couple of different projects. One of them was this review, my first for the New York Journal of Books. I read and wrote about Mai Der Vang's second book of poetry, Yellow Rain, which is an immense accomplishment in terms of form, creative risk, and research.
M. and I are submitting our MS to agents and small publishers right now, to see what interest we can drum up for Every Second Feels Like Theft. This was my first time writing an actual query letter, an unnerving task but an oddly invigorating one -- a reminder that it's good to get out of one's comfort zone.
I remember reading about query letters when I was fifteen and just beginning to think about being a writer. I bought one of those enormous Writer's Market tomes that Chris Stuck references in last week's I'm a Writer But... podcast episode, and, as I was already a lapsed Catholic in my teens, it was the closest thing I had to a Bible. (I have to say that a lot of this episode hit home with me, particularly from a generational/writing trajectory standpoint ... with the exception of Stuck writing a short story collection published by one of the Big Five... Yeah, I haven't done THAT, lol.)
Another podcast episode that is resonating with me -- and I'm only partially finished with it because I listen to podcasts while I walk and my walks are not two hours at a stretch -- is the Elizabeth Gilbert episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. To be honest, I was kind of a Gilbert avoider after the Eat, Pray, Love media blitz and in general most spiritual talk makes my skin crawl, but after watching her performance at The Moth and her TED Talk, I gained a lot more respect for her as a writer, a thinker, and a person. This conversation kind of cements that. (Not that she needs, nor wants, my respect.)
Anyway. Besides reading books of poetry (ooo, and prose too, Rachel Yoder's Nightbitch!) and listening to podcasts, I'm trying to balance 1) getting my body back to some kind of working order (new meds seem to be helping mitigate the all-over-arthritis) with 2) my responsibilities to my family (soccer season x 3 kids is brutal, man), 3) responsibilities to my students and classes, and 4) responsibilities to my writing. It's the usual shit show.
BUT I'm feeling something akin to optimism and hope with regards to next semester. (I won't say I'm in the full flush of either optimism or hope just yet, but there's something there every once in a while, like a shiver down the spine.) Between teaching three whole classes in an actual classroom and booking flights and hotel rooms for two whole conferences, there's the pleasant illusion that perhaps we'll be back to a little of the old life by the time spring rolls around.
And it might be an illusion. But it's a pretty one, and it motivates me to keep going.