I’m reporting in from one of my favorite academic conferences, the Modernist Studies Association. This year, I had the great pleasure of collaborating with Elisabeth Joyce on a workshop focused on overcoming writing obstacles.
In our workshop, we discussed the many obstacles that get in the way of creativity/productivity/writing. What became clear across the course of the conversation is that writing obstacles are a little like Tolstoy’s unhappy families; each writing difficulty is difficult in its own prickly way.
That’s actually good news as well as bad news. As we brainstormed types of obstacles, discussed sample scenarios, and produced possible solutions, it was refreshing to think about the fact that writing problems come and go, many are time-bound (writing with an infant at home) or otherwise based in temporal stages of life (whether that’s stage in career, family life, or simple the moment in the writing process). As a result, there are LOTS of possible strategies. If you’re curious about seeing how this might apply to your own creative/writing life, I’m reproducing our list of obstacles, scenarios, and solutions here:
Transition from grad school
Types of obstacles change over time
Writing Obstacle Case Studies
I was disappointed in the election result. More than disappointed, heartbroken, angry, scared. Like many, I felt blindsided by what happened.
I cast my vote early in the state of Nevada, but I still felt the excitement all day of having a woman president. Thoughts of future conversations with my daughter were on my mind, and every time I read about or saw pictures of a woman born before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment casting her ballot, I would start crying for joy.
Wednesday, then, was a hard day. Thankfully, it was a teaching day and so I was able to acknowledge to my students that the election results were in and that they likely felt very differently about those results, but then I was able to throw myself into the business of planning classes, lecturing, and talking with students.
It’s been harder to do writing this week. Having the discipline to sustain thought on the page without going over to social media or a news site has been incredibly difficult. The thoughts wander. The hard revision project stays neatly tucked into its folder.
But I’ve been able to do a little work, and I must admit that it’s a comfort. Yesterday, I found myself thinking about two things: a very sad conversation with a student and a tremendously optimistic description of what it means to write.
I start with the sad (and I’m speaking in generalities here, because it’s not fully my story to tell). On Wednesday, a student saddened and frightened by the election came by to talk. He was seeking advice about how to continue on in what appear to him to be very dark days to come and in a nation that appeared to have rejected him and the one that he loves.
To this student I offered the advice that has sometimes sounded frivolous but seems increasingly important. “You’ve heard of radical self-care?,” I asked. “You must take care of yourself and the one that you love. You must go forward and continue to be. You’re being here and doing work is political.”
While there are ways to challenge energies that are overtly political, and I think these are important, there’s also value to staying the course and staying voices in the public realm (here is my own account of being shamed for writing earlier this year: http://www.katherinefusco.com/yoga-and-academe/so-ive-been-publicly-shamed-on-writing-and-resilience ), especially at the very moment we feel our voices (or our persons) being pushed out. What I hope for this student and his loved ones is that he/they carry on in writing, in sounding voices, in making themselves heard.
And this is where I turn to the optimistic side of a writing life. If, on the one hand, writing matters because it is a way of insisting, “here I am, I exist,” it also matters because it posits a reader.
There’s a moment in Stephen King’s On Writing in which he describes writing as a magic trick. The writer imagines something in his mind (I believe it’s a tiger with a number on its back), and then through these squiggles on a page, BAM, seconds later, that same something appears in the reader’s mind. Magic!
To me, this is writing as utopian project. It is future looking and it suggests a connection, a coming together. It suggests a continuance not just of the author’s voice but also of an author and a reader going along together into a future time.
Sometimes the companionship we seek is that of our compatriots, but sometimes it must also be that of the people we feel ourselves fighting. Yesterday, I wrote a brief note to a relative who voted differently than I had. I wanted to meet her in that magic space of potential. I wanted to say, I am trying to understand what has happened and what you think and I am trying to ask you to understand the way I am feeling about what has happened. I don’t know that the exchange was perfect, but it was an attempt to explore this time and to see how we will meet in the future.
At the same time that writing is a way to be strong and hold ground, to say, “I’m still here, whether anyone likes it or not,” it’s also a meeting ground. It is vastly flexible and remains worth doing.
This is just a short little post because I have work to do!
In general, I’d never advise a writing binge. Like most lifestyles, a writing life is built gradually, a day at a time. When my students ask me about whether they should be writing or doing something else, I will usually tell them that the answer is both, even if only a little bit. What makes a writer is writing, I tell them. Writers write.
And while I am generally a fan of the incremental, the tortoise-like slow and steady, it’s also the case that the controlled binge can have its purpose. In a workshop about writing productivity led by Helen Sword (http://www.helensword.com/), I recall Professor Sword discussing the judicious balance writers might achieve between “snack” and “binge” writing.
So, while the advice that I and others offer here—that a lot can be done in incremental, daily practice (30 minutes of writing; 10 sun salutations; a 20 minute run; 15 minutes with an artist’s journal)—that kind of incremental work can sometimes leave the writer/artist/creator with a hunger for a more sustained period of work. As a new mom, for example, the idea of doing anything for more than 30 minutes at a time seems an unimaginable luxury.
On the other hands, sometimes there are creative tasks that are either so daunting or so tedious that we cannot bear to approach them unless we know that they will be quarantined in our schedule, like some nasty virus, limited in its capacity to spread.
In either case, the controlled binge can be useful. This month, I’ll be doing two versions of the controlled binge.
First, I’m headed to a conference this month. In addition to attending interesting sessions and meeting up with old friends, I’ll use this special time in which I am freed from the little but time-consuming tasks of daily life (student appointments, laundry, cooking dinner, committee meetings, dog walking, etc.) to have some sustained writing time. I love going to airports early for this reason—a good airport bar or coffee shop, followed by time in the suspended world of the airplane, can be a mini writing retreat. A place and a time to put away all but the pages at hand. For me, I’m hoping to make the revision of a particularly ornery article the focus of my off hours during the conference. It’ll be what I’m mulling over on my runs, what you’ll see me annotating over breakfast, and so on.
On the other hand, I’ll also be working on a scary, big task during a longer, but still controlled period. It’s currently NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. And while I’m not writing my great unsung novelistic work, I’m using the inspiration provided by all the would-be novelists at work this month to launch my own, slight less-sexy challenge NoBoProMo: November Book Proposal Month.
I find writing book proposals horrible—simultaneously boring and hard, the worst of both worlds! And yet the documents are crucial, for practical reasons (presses need to see them) and for writerly purposes (they are super-clarifying). So, I am giving myself both the permission slip and the assignment to devote (only) November to banging out a rough draft of my proposal. It’s a task of every day writing I’ve set for myself, but it’s limited. Given that I hate this particular genre of writing, it’s nice to know there’s an end date—the quarantined binge makes the writing possible.
And that’s it—back to work!
Even those who don’t go to yoga may have heard this bit of yoga lingo, “Namaste.”
I have heard yoga teachers translate this as “the light within me honors and recognizes the light within you,” or “the divine within me recognizes the divine within you.” Although it can sometimes feel like a brief moment of spirituality or philosophy slapped onto the end of an exercise program, this greeting that indicates interconnection can be a good starting place for thinking about how we conduct ourselves off the mat.
I was reminded of this recently when listening to a favorite podcast. On Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft’s Happier podcast (http://gretchenrubin.com/podcast/), they recently featured listeners’ manifestos. The short lists of rules to live by that the audience presented applied to many aspects of life, but I was particularly struck by a teacher’s manifesto.
Among the many good precepts of her teaching manifesto was this: presume good intentions.
In other words, give the benefit of the doubt. None of us perceive ourselves as the villains of our own life stories. We attribute good intentions to our own actions. What happens when we attribute these good intentions to our students, or others in our lives? To make Namaste a little secular and banal, what if we really do acknowledge the light within the other people we meet?
And I’m not saying this is easy! As a fellow teacher, I know that this is likely on that other teacher’s manifesto list because it is hard to do and a practice that requires constant reminding.
But it’s also a reminder worth having in mind. At mid semester, I find myself tired. My students are also tired. The shine is off the semester by this point, and crises, both real and fabricated are starting to emerge. This semester, some 300 students are in my classes. In the last week or so, I have heard about student illness, students’ parents’ illness, and tales of domestic abuse, car crashes, opportunities that cannot be missed, and a tragic accident at a fraternity house.
Some of these are no doubt fiction. But some are true.
When I am very tired and at the end of my rope, I find a nasty voice inside me doubting my students, presuming the worst. It’s an unpleasant feeling—I become an adversary pitted against those very people who I hope to coach and encourage.
In contrast, I find that when I presume the best and work with a student to make their success possible, I feel better…. even if I am perhaps being a dupe at that moment—what is the most charitable reason I can find for being duped? And often, I’m not being duped. For a young man who needed to take his exam late because he was spending time in the hospital with the friend injured at the fraternity party, his goodness in supporting his friend was something that was easy for me to support. The thing is, in many cases, giving the benefit of the doubt need not be effortful, it’s just a habit we can fall out of.
I happen to know that this student’s story was true because news of the accident has circulated quickly around the campus, but even when uncertain, there are costs to attributing bad intentions. In her blog post, “Academia, Love Me Back,” Tiffany Martinez writes about a professor marking “not your words” on a paper when, in fact, the writing was Ms. Martinez’s own work (https://vivatiffany.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/academia-love-me-back/). In her post, she writes of the pain, anger, and doubt she feels as a result of this casual, and uncharitable comment.
For me, this young woman’s story again drove home the point that believing in the good of others is a pretty low cost activity, but not so the reverse.
Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy. Last Sunday night, the babies in the house kept the grown-ups running. It had rained all day, unusual for Nevada, and this meant that the fur baby didn’t get her walks. Instead, she got a bunch of treats because we felt guilty. In retrospect: not a great idea. Meanwhile, the skin baby is getting her top teeth and is uncharacteristically fussy.
Over the course of the evening one or the other of them cried every hour on the hour. Fur baby needed to be let out again and again and again to hunch miserably in the yard and shake her bottom two and fro; and skin baby was just flippin’ pissed, wanting to be held, jamming her little fists in her mouth, and wailing at the top of her lungs.
Mom and dad did not meet the morning with a smile.
Mondays are my heavy teaching days, difficult days to squeeze in writing and yoga even when I am in top form.
Additionally, because every member of the household was feeling junky and logy, we were slow to get out the door, which only added to my grumpiness. I write in the morning, so if we are late to drop me at the coffee shop on the way to daycare, that little sliver of writing time is ever more diminished. As I dragged the poor loos-stooled fur baby around the block and watched my husband fill and label the skin baby’s bottles for daycare sooo slowly (has any man ever mixed formula and wielded a sharpie with less sense of hustle!), I could feel my jaw clenching, that tight feeling rising in my chest.
Finally, after what seemed like eons of finding clean baby socks, figuring out where wallets were hidden overnight, and so on, my computer and I reunited at the coffee shop for what was now twenty-five minutes of writing time, 30 if I decided I didn’t need to pee before teaching.
I could feel myself starting to make the excuses, feel the pull of Facebook, of twitter, those siren calls. But I also remembered the wise and very moderate advice of a woman with whom I once shared a writing group. In our message board about writing goals, successes, and failures, she offered that on truly hellacious days her goal for her writing project was “just touch it.”
I like the modesty of this goal. It’s sneaky modest. Even if Nike’s slogan is too bold and brash for a total crap day when fumes and third cup of coffee are all that keep you from sobbing in a little heap under the desk, surely, no writer worth her salt can claim that she doesn’t have time to just touch her document. Like I said, the “just touch it” slogan is sneaky modest.
For me on the tired day, I was able to check a fact, and the answer to my research question caused me to slightly revise my argument. I wrote about 500 words based on this new information using the trusty and terrifying WriteorDie app. I also made a list of tasks to discuss with my undergraduate research assistant. Not earthshaking stuff, to be sure. But also better than nothing.
Also, whereas logging in to social media would likely have perpetuated my grump cycle (X politician said WHAT!!!!), I had the minor victory of doing a little work to carry me into my teaching day. I didn’t need to accomplish everything when I was exhausted. Just a touch.
I’ve noticed a pattern in the instructions of some of the yoga teachers whose classes I visit regularly. When the time comes to practice yogic splits (Hanumanasa—Monkey pose), they’ll ask the students in the class to close their eyes.
There are lots of good, noble reasons for this, I suppose. The instruction to close the eyes is a cue from the teachers to take the ego out—the pelvis doesn’t have to come all the way down to the floor to be in the pose—and to pay attention to the physical sensations and the way breathing can help ease the way into a challenging pose.
That’s all fine.
But sometimes I think it’s also because our various Hanumanasanas look like crap and a good teacher knows that seeing the teacher’s pose and our own, wonky, tilted, far-from-the-floor nutter poses is nothing if not disheartening. So, close your eyes.
I’ve been thinking a little bit about this feeling from which wise yoga teachers shield their students—that painful gap between what one can do and what one wishes to do.
This summer, I was invited by a literary journal to contribute a personal essay. In my professional writing life, I make academic arguments for my living, not imaginative, lovely personal essays. When I read the email requesting work from me, I was deeply honored but also deeply scared.
The thing is, I love writing and want desperately to be a good writer. But, like most wannabe writers, I am also a reader, and the writers whose work I return to most are not just good, but scary brilliant. When I think about the great essayists, I think of Joan Didion’s unsparing prose, her sense of her era, her home state, and herself captured with unflinching clarity. Or, I think of the wonderful contemporary essayist Eula Bliss, whose Notes from No Man’s Land made me want to run out into the streets and shake strangers by their lapels, so ferocious and heartbreaking an account it gives of race and life in America. I’d never put myself in the company of these writers, but given the opportunity to work in their form, I at least wanted to approximate a shadow of their work.
The ever-generous Ira Glass of This American Life has created a wonderful account of the problem I’ve been experiencing. If you do an Internet search for “Ira Glass taste gap” or “Ira Glass creative gap,” you’ll find videos with the text overlaid by Glass’s reassuringly nerdy voice explaining, “there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?”
Because most of us are consumers, sometimes rabid ones, of the thing we aspire to make, we are often faced with the painful realization that our work is not that great. I experience this regularly myself and I see it in my students as well.
A couple summers ago, a local Tahoe art studio offered locals free drawing notebooks and a weekly email prompt to inspire we denizens of the Northern Sierra to develop a sketching habit. I was pregnant at the time and casting around for things to do with my increasing immobile, and uncomfortable self. Drawing!, I thought, this could be a fun thing I do over the summer.
It was not. It was neither fun nor was it a thing I did over the summer.
Instead, after trying to fulfill what seemed at the outset a lighthearted and whimsical prompt, I gave up after an embarrassing fit of rage. The instruction was to draw a personal crest adorned with meaningful symbols. I wanted to decorate mine with an image of my dog, a yoga mat, and a typewriter. What I produced was something like a dog emoji, a fruit roll-up, and a square covered in lots of other squares—this last, unrecognizable as the object it was meant to portray.
Too, I recall a student turning in an essay, and proudly telling me that I’d be impressed by a word she had used: “I wrote, by putting the two authors in juxtapose, we can see their similarity.” She was wrong and she was right. She was wrong because she was reaching for the word juxtaposition, not the verb form she had used. But she was right to guess I’d be impressed with her—as someone who knows the terror of stretching for a new skill, I appreciated the effort, even if the result was a misfire.
The thing is, this particular student would never get to juxtaposition without falling into the valley of error that was juxtapose. For me, I’m ashamed to say that I gave up on drawing. But I wrote that invited essay. It was a stretch, and it didn’t glimmer or fully express all the contradictions of middle-class American life that I meant it to convey, but it’s me on the path working towards something just out of reach and which I’m willing to go through some ugly stretches, some bad work to achieve.
When only a few of us show up to yoga class on a given day, I feel a delicious shiver of anticipation. A class with just a handful of students, anxious and awkward feeling at being in an unusually empty studio space, is also an opportunity.
Among other things, it means we’ll be more one-on-one with our teacher than usual. Among other things, it means no hiding. Among other things, it means going to the wall!
In a yoga class context, “going to the wall” means getting to practice inversions (handstands, headstands, forearm balances) with a bit of support. For scaredy-cats like me, it means getting to practice them at all.
Though I will do headstands and sometimes forearm balances away from the wall at home, I almost never do them at yoga class. I’m too scared of flopping over onto the hardwood floor, too aware of the possibility for embarrassment should I flail and land on someone else’s mat, too obsessed with the one story I hear the one time about a friend who kicked up and caught another woman in the face, breaking her nose. To doing such advanced postures in class, my answer is a firm and polite “no thank you.” I just quietly hang out in my wide leg forward fold, letting the more intrepid members of the class press up into tripod headstand.
But when there’s just the few of us in the room, and when it’s a teacher who knows me, I find myself scared but also a little excited. “What will she make me do,” a quick little voice whispers through my head.
This week it’s Scorpion, a pose I love.
Well, let me back up. I love the idea of Scorpion. I love watching other people do it. I don’t practice it and I love it in many ways because it feels so beyond me, both in terms of my capabilities and in the way I perceive myself.
Even the name, it seems dangerous and sexy. I feel like it's a pose I’ve seen used to advertise a fancy brand of sake. It’s a pose that seems at the edge of yoga and cirque de soleil, a combination of strength and flexibility, something exotic and wild. It is, in short, the kind of pose that the stolid, polite, cautious person looks at with longing, but does not approach. It’s a pose from my alternative dream life where I am a secret agent traveling the world, not a mom and English professor with papers to grade and a committee meeting to attend.
And yet. In the near-empty yoga class, there I am. And there it is.
We go to the wall, the three of us, too shy to make eye contact. And the teacher shows us Scorpion, our next option. She says, “know what you can do. This is a difficult pose and there’s no extra credit to be earned.” But she also says something else, quoting a master teacher, “if you can, you must.”
And so, I do. Not wildly, not without the support of the wall. But still, I kick up, press down through my hands, which are now acting as feet as they ground me, and try to keep breathing. I press my pelvis forward and walk my feet backward down the wall. For a moment, I am arcing, pressing, stretching and strong—I am in!
And then it’s over, quick-fast. But I have had a taste, a little bit of something I might be brave enough to try again. And maybe again.
It’s the bit of a possibility made possible by close attention and a little push.
Recently, I’ve had opportunity to think a bit about the joy of one-on-one attention and its capacity for cultivating bravery when wielded well in my teaching life.
Before my current job, I worked as a college writing center administrator and I loved the intensity of collaboration that took place between a tutor and a writer, especially when the tutor was able to coax the writer through taking a leap, into saying the thing that was harder to express, but which rang more true to the writer’s thoughts and feelings.
As my teaching career has changed and adapted, I find myself with less opportunity for this kind of work, this serving as handmaiden to students’ brave acts of expression. At present, I’m teaching more than three hundred undergraduates, and so it’s mostly my Ph.D. students with whom I’m able to sit down and work exhaustively with the scary thing that is putting words to paper.
But this week, the same week in which I experienced the short-lived delight of testing a pose I didn’t think of as part of my repertoire—too sophisticated and lovely, that Scorpion—I also got to touch back with one of the delights that belongs to those of us who teach for a living. An undergraduate student came twice (!) to talk with me about her paper and to work through her changing ideas about a famous memoir.
The student worried that the complex idea she wanted to express was going to come across muddled. And though there were some things to hammer out together, a place or two I asked her to say more about her evidence, her idea was not muddled. Instead, it was difficulty and twisty in a way that did justice to the complexities of the narrative she was describing. She was nervous about attacking this hard idea that didn’t reduce the memoir into something neat and easy to describe, fretful about edging up on the kind of writing that is scary but exciting to do.
I wish I had been to yoga class before our meeting. If I had, I would have told her, “if you can, you must.” But, that’s probably putting too neat of a point on it, being a little too cute. And, honestly, overemphasizing the importance of anything that I could say.
The thing about an exhilarating idea or posture is that it has its own way of convincing you—it invites you back in. The thrilling qualities of our materials, whatever kind of teacher we may be, should humble us. One thing I learned when working at the writing center is that, very often, the student needs no more from you but your patient witnessing. As I worked my Scorpion, I just needed a teacher in the room, someone to have put that pose on my path. And when meeting with the bright young woman in my office, the best talking that happened was all hers, and my job was to be her audience, her witness, and her scribe—the person watching so that she didn’t turn back in the face of her own prickly, smart thinking.
So, for the time being, this is my new thought in my ongoing, not-so-brave person’s contemplation on how to be brave: sometimes we just need to know we are being seen. Sometimes we just need a witness to keep us trying.
Like many of my friends, my husband and I binge watched Stranger Things, the new nostalgia-fest from Netflix. After the heavier pleasures of series like Mad Men, Narcos, Breaking Bad, or The Americans, part of the joy of Stranger Things is the condensation of real troubles (class distinctions in a small town, sick kids, and crap parents) onto a clearly fantasy demon that can be battled. In this case, some weird skinless, faceless thing called a demogorgon. In the show, the demogorgon lives in a place called "the upside down," a shadow world to our own, from which he sometimes breaks loose to terrorize the good people of the show.
The upside down and the demogorgon seem like a good metaphor for the way the world looks when things get bleak, scary, or out of control. There's the world as is, and then there's the world as it appears to us when shadows of jealousy, anxious expectation, or rumination cast their unlovely pall across it.
I had occasion to think about this as well as to take some of my own medicine the day before school started on my campus. As any teacher knows, it can be less than 100% fun when your institution changes educational technology. The few days before classes began, I was scrambling to learn new course management software, to add captions to video clips to meet ADA standards, and to update materials for a new film studies course. The night before school started, I was in near panic mode when my husband stopped me.
"What's the worst that's going to happen?," he asked me.
"Well, my technologies will all fail and then I'll be humiliated in front of two-hundred plus students." Duh, husband!
Sometimes you say something and your partner just stares at you. This was one of those moments.
"Um, that's not a thing that can happen. That's how you'll react to it."
Aha. This is my mindfulness talk back to set me straight. Taking your own medicine is always a bit bitter, but he was right. Part of what's encapsulated in that old chestnut, "Be here now," is the advice to see what's actually happening in the present moment, to be there for what is really happening, rather than spinning it out into a narrative about how the present event is connected to what's come before or expectations for the future. Instead, mindfulness would ask us to pay attention to what's actually contained in the moment.
And the truth of the matter is that my technology, quite predictably, did fail. In my first lecture of the day a polling slide in my PowerPoint didn't open, and in my second class the link to a film failed. But the earth did not open and swallow me whole, sending me into the upside down and my students did not turn into faceless demogorgons intent on devouring their foolish teacher. Instead, I apologized and told the students I'd look into the problem. And then we all moved on.
Now, the evening after the first day, my whole family came down with a wild case of food poisoning. Let me tell you, that was real.
I can't sing. Never could, never will.
I mean, sounds come out of my mouth, but rhythm?...pitch?... those preciouses have never been mine.
Periodically, if I’m singing along to the radio, my husband will stop what he’s doing and just stare at me in disbelief.
This should give you a sense of the awfulness that is my thinking. Once, during a candlelight vigil held by an anti-death penalty group on the evening of a man’s execution, a friend turned to me after a round of “Amazing Grace,” and said, “Wow. You are a bad singer, aren’t you.” Even at this most serious of occasions, the petty thing that is my singing voice was notably bad enough to merit comment.
So, it should be no surprise that I have an ugly Om. I think, like my singing, it sounds kinda flat.
But the thing is, it still works for me when I’m true to it’s sound. And here I think the extended metaphor about my singing has to end. The singing does not work. Trust me.
But the Om does, and as we’re preparing at my campus for another school year, I’ve been thinking about being authentic to your voice and what works for you.
The thing about chanting “Om” in the long resonant way you may have heard at the beginning or end of yoga classes, is that it doesn’t really need to sound good to do the work you need it to do.
Now, do I wish my Om sounded good? You bet your asana! But, I’ll file that under the category of wishes that don’t tend to get in my way much in life: I wish I had a great eye for design, I wish I had a better memory, I wish was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller, etc.
The thing is, that when I’m really doing my practice, my ugly Om gets me where I need to be. I love that it’s more sound than word. I love that it makes me feel connected to others around me. I love that it’s connected to many thought and belief traditions. I love that it reminds me of the relationship between sound and body. I love the feeling of vibration in my skull.
When I’m focusing on my own practice, I get all that, even with my ugly Om.
But, as you can see, I’m using that niggling little word, “when.”
Sometimes how other people sound distracts me. Especially when students or teachers get very sing-y and pretty with it, and I start thinking about how short my Om falls. Then, it strangles in my throat, it’s off, off, off, and not just from them.
It’s off from me too.
And then, not only do I still not have a pretty Om—just some wretched, strangled syllable, unable to crawl fully from my mouth—but I also don’t get the benefits that I get when I’m true to my ugly Om.
I’ve been thinking about this lately both because I Omed ahead of the rest of yoga class today, but also because I’ve been doing some mentoring of early-career teachers lately.
In response to questions from my TAs about how I want them to dress or conduct themselves in their discussion sections, I’ve been saying, “be professional, but also, figure out what that means for you. You need to think about the way you show up in a room given who you are and think about what the professional that goes along with that means to you.”
When I first started teaching, over a decade ago, I was very young, very close to the age of my students. I remember buying clothes that would disguise the proximity between our ages—a number of striped, button down shirts from TJMaxx, as I recall. The thing was, I hated these clothes. I felt like some weird imposter. Worse, it seemed like what I was mimicking was someone’s wardrobe from Working Girl or 9-to-5. Needless to say, the clothes didn’t last. I had to find the version of professional that worked for me.
I think this is true of teaching personas, or other creative or artistic personas more broadly. When I began writing as a graduate student, I was reading a lot of difficult, Marxist-inflected theory as well as law-and-literature materials. My writing became plagued by the verb “produces” and a tendency to refer to people as “persons.”
Like those striped shirts, I was here trying out a voice that didn’t fit. In both cases, I was worried about my lack of fit; I worried that I didn’t look or sound right. But the imitation was worse.
There’s a tradition among college teachers to not smile for the first two weeks of class. The theory is that you need to seem like a hard ass so that the students will respect you. The stony-faced professor conveys gravitas, is the theory.
That teaching persona is so so different from the way my personality is interpreted and the way I engage with the world. I am smiley person. It just looks weird when I try frowning—I’ve practiced, believe me!
Instead, the buy-in I get from my students has to come from a different place, one that is truthful and sustainable for me. My professionalism comes through my habit of being rigorously organized, and my seriousness comes in the form of a deep enthusiasm for my subject matter and for teaching more generally, not in the form of affective gravitas.
The point is, this is what works for me. It’s what “sounds true” when I step into a classroom. It’s not traditionally professorial. But then, traditionally, I wouldn’t have been part of the professoriate. It’s my ugly Om, my variance from being a corduroy swathed old dude.
It’s what works for me. It won’t necessarily work for every one of my new TAs; they’ll have to find their own ugly Oms.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote