Category Archives: career

on education: a day in the life of a humanities major

 

On a typical Wednesday afternoon, I’m in the adjunct office after class. I brought my lunch–a romaine salad with carrots, cucumbers, celery, and a lentil patty that my roommate made–and am contentedly eating it. I have my work laptop open and am answering questions via instant messenger from the marketing associate and new editor. This is a slow week at the scientific journal, as my current project has just been delayed a few weeks due to lack of content from my author. The previous project that I managed the past few months brought in unprecedented amounts for the company. I’m proud but exhausted. I pulled 80-hour work weeks to juggle my workload.

To my right, I have papers from my Tuesday/Thursday class, which I need to grade. I have a copy of my syllabus and am thinking about how to approach my next few class sessions on media studies and then shifting to our humanities unit. I’ve had to restructure a lot this semester, as expected when building a course from scratch. I have the pressure of a class observation soon.

When I arrived this morning, another adjunct was holding a conference with a student at my station. I unloaded the things I carried from home: a yoga mat, a laptop bag, a tote bag filled with essentials–food, travel mug, yoga clothes, books, heels, and overnight pouch with toiletries. I can survive a couple of days if I happen to get stranded somewhere.

I change from my red flats to my black heels and head to the kitchenette to boil water for my green tea. I make my way to class–one of three classrooms. Earlier this semester, I had trouble getting into the routine and actually walked into the wrong one.

The anthropology professor, with whom I’ve had discussions as we switched classrooms, warned me that the projector appears to be broken because he was unable to turn it off. He had forgotten that it was a touch screen command, and we both laugh about technology. He’s an older gentleman, and some of these gadgets are not user-friendly. He proceeds to ask another question about what kinds of writing the English department is requiring out of its students, as an anthropological “critique” he recently assigned is not going so well in his classes.

I respond, a bit hesitantly: “Why yes, I suppose so; the objectives of my course now is to prepare them to be able to analyze texts across multiple disciplines, but how this is implemented in each course obviously varies.”

Our current assignment–a rhetorical analysis–focuses on analyzing strategies in multiple kinds of texts (i.e., journal article, news article, video presentation, documentary, song) but not necessarily evaluating the efficacy of the content of anthropological research. We touch on perhaps how the data was presented, what the purpose of this text was, how to identify what the author was trying to argue, but we cannot know the nuances of whether this is significant or flawed within the field of anthropology or what specific elements students need to cover in order to satisfy the assignment. We are not anthropologists.

Even in an interdisciplinary Writing Across the Curriculum course, the disconnect exists between composition/rhetoric pedagogy and the specific needs of multiple disciplines. We have to cover all bases–teach to improve writing and critical thinking skills–which is generalized and cannot possibly cover nuance. Not all students are going to be prepared to accomplish discipline-specific tasks, but we’re trying to improve their abilities to grapple with these texts and synthesize information.

This exchange was thought-provoking and affirming that really, composition teachers have challenging jobs. Writing is so closely connected to the idea of learning that when students show an inability to process information in other disciplines, the blame falls on the English department. Learning is a cumulative effort; it involves, collectively, our abilities as educators to build on students’ knowledge, along with the students’ motivations to apply skills and knowledge. Additionally, writing isn’t just about grasping mechanics but also improving skills that are not easily assessed by standardized measures. How well students write, in short, is not the the sole product or fault of the English department.

During class, we hold a peer review workshop on their rhetorical analysis. I’m relieved that the majority of them were prepared with a 5-page draft. Some had trouble in shifting from a typical expository essay, in which they configure some thesis and support it with relevant sources, to an analysis of purpose and strategy. I gave them the extra challenge of determining their own “text” to analyze (i.e., anything from a photo, advertisement, video, song, essay, short story, poem, film, tv show episode, novel, etc.). In this instance, freedom of choice gave my students anxiety. Most come from educational backgrounds in which they are told exactly what to do. They are not usually encouraged to think and expand their approaches with independent critical thinking. A couple of weeks into this assignment, I’m glad that most have caught on.

After class, I eat my lunch back at my station while simultaneously answering emails from both jobs, posting Facebook commentaries about the education bubble, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, and a recent panel/presentation on Asian-American experiences post-9/11 in NYC. I’m processing experiences and getting ideas for class lessons. I’m thinking about the push for utilitarian approaches to education; I’m thinking about my humanist ideals within this space.

A few minutes into my lunch, the department administrator and a full-time faculty member hover at the door. I turn around–mid-chew with some lettuce hanging from the side of my mouth. They do not say anything, after I smile and greet them. They confer for half a minute.

“Hey, would you mind if I brought a student in here to take a test?” Of course not. It’s a shared space, which I happen to like, despite the lower rung on the “hierarchy of importance” that it indicates in the department. I am assigned a computer and a desk (“C”) out of four stations. I’m grateful that I have a station at all.

In the past, I’ve been so lucky to do the majority of my work at student computer labs because it was more convenient than a dusty, cold office where they were drilling into the wall for a period of two months. In contrast, I’ve also had my own office at an honors college, complete with a shared bathroom and view of a chapel and a secret garden. At this college in NYC, I have the choice of three shared spaces, one of which has a spectacular view of the city (pictured above). (I don’t go in there often because I sit and stare instead of do work.)

I return to the kitchenette to get more hot water for tea and to wash my salad container (a takeout container that most people dispose). I’m thinking about waste and sustainability and simplicity. I’m thinking about how much freedom I have that I’m not motivated by money or prestige or security. As I leave the kitchenette, I see the decorated doors and offices of full-timers. I’m thinking about the future, about my next step.

I recently had discussions with friends and other adjuncts about being a full-time lecturer. I commented that I don’t believe it’s the best use of my energies, that I’d be able to deal with the politics. I like being on the periphery. I question my ability to conform. I love teaching and believe in the transformative power of education, but all institutions have agendas I can’t wholeheartedly promote. Sure, it’d be comfortable, but if I were ever concerned with that, I’d be a different person now, embodying a much different space.

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updates from the city of dreams in action

As the Year of the Dragon progresses, lots exciting changes have arose for me in this city of dreams. This semester, I will be teaching again–this time at the City University of New York. I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity to do so and even more grateful for the freedom in being able to teach a course without a textbook! It’s a Writing Across the Curriculum course that emphasizes rhetorical analysis (or the ability for students to understand a piece of writing for its craft—how it was put together). Initially, I thought that I would use theme of social inequality, as I did a year ago in St. Louis, but there were a few limiting factors: 1.) that course had three textbooks, which I didn’t bring with me, 2.) I only have two weeks to design the course this semester, 3.) the curriculum was somewhat repetitive and didn’t fully execute the potential of a solution- or action-based approach.

This semester, I’ve decided to explore the cultural relevancy of happiness within the fields of social sciences, media studies, literature, and philosophy. I’m incredibly excited to teach, learn, and interact with students again. As in the past, I’ll be using this space to write and process my thoughts and experiences regarding pedagogy and ideas that are relevant to our lives as humans.

As if this news isn’t exciting enough, I also had an opportunity to connect with a young, world-renowned, New York Times-bestseller novelist, who encouraged me to “write books that people will read,” (i.e., non-literary). I’m not sure the direction of my craft, yet—I haven’t seriously considered the commercial fiction route—but I’m grateful to have been able to witness this genius at work so far. Creativity at its peak, transcends genre–in all art forms.

Furthermore, I’m excited to be involved with global tolerance, which promotes communication with a conscience. I am amazed, every single day, to discover the amount of ground-level and high-impact work that is being done to promote global consciousness and humanitarian efforts. Please consider joining gtconnect to share with individuals doing incredible, powerful, work. We are all agents of change, even if we are currently not in a place of freedom to be able to do exactly what we want. As long as the intent is there and followed by action, we can progress toward our ideal sense of self and community, which impacts the world, little by little, and eventually changes our current “reality”—that is, a world in which not every creature is happy or free. When our internal values are in synch with our external actions, change continues to happen. Our dreams and ideals are nothing, if we don’t follow through with action.

In the four months I’ve lived in this city, I’ve met incredible people who are promoting GLBT rights (Q-Wave) and establishing literacy programs in the Congo (The Mama Project). There are also teachers and artists and writers and dreamers who are part of the solution. And prior to moving to this city, I’ve come to know countless spirits who are doing the same. I’m continually amazed and inspired. It seems clear that our current state of consciousness involves full awareness of the inequities in the world, and our young minds and souls are getting to work to eliminate them globally.

 

–O. Ayes

Full Disclosures on Freedom and the Storms that Brew in Offices

 

INTRODUCTION

Prior to arriving in New York City, I’d made decisions that once again limited my freedom—that is, maintaining a relationship for which I was the sole financial supporter during the five months abroad in Southeast Asia and the first month in New York City. This happens in life, occasionally. Perhaps your partner gets laid off. Perhaps your spouse becomes temporarily disabled. One breadwinner in a two-person relationship is an acceptable heterosexual model, although it is less frequent in society now, as the idealized American “middle class” gets replaced by “working poor.” (You know the story—occupy everything because the flow of money has been uni-directional towards the 1%–an integral component of capitalism, but I digress.)

In any case, it is clear that when we value something as individuals, we try to keep it by whatever means necessary. During most of my adolescent and adult life, my philosophy had been that money is merely material—that is, it’s replaceable. Love—true, unconditional, compassionate love—however, is not. Of course, this leaves me as a prime target for a plethora of debacles. How can you know what is true up front? I just believe so and let the rest unfold.

What unfolded in those final few months abroad and my first month in New York City was that my then-partner and I needed to part ways. I was depleted and could no longer continue to limit my freedom for the sake of a fragile relationship. But I would help her transition in the city—one that she detested before meeting me—until she found employment. I did so on the premise that our friendship was true and valuable, but subsequent unfolding indicated otherwise.

I didn’t realize then, that when you limit one kind of freedom, you consequently limit other freedoms, such as being able to choose a job that actually coincides with your own values. While I’m not exactly against medicine, I don’t entirely value its agendas. To me, the body is finite, but ideas, culture, literature, meaning—those actually resonate with my soul.

Of course, as a naturally curious person, I enjoyed science enough. I even finished a minor in biology, thinking that I would be a conservationist of some type. I knew I would enjoy the co-editor position at a medical journal, at least for the next year until I was able to get settled in New York City, a city I’d dreamed of living in since my first visit.

In fact, I was extremely happy and grateful. Not many people can find jobs now, especially not through Skype ten thousand miles away with Hurricane Irene in the Atlantic and Typhoon Mina in the Pacific.

Read the rest on scribd: here.

 

–O. Ayes

 

Prior to arriving in New York City, I’d made decisions that once again limited my freedom—that is, maintaining a relationship for which I was the sole financial supporter during the five months abroad in Southeast Asia and the first month in New York City. This happens in life, occasionally. Perhaps your partner gets laid off. Perhaps your spouse becomes temporarily disabled. One breadwinner in a two-person relationship is an acceptable heterosexual model, although it is less frequent in society now, as the idealized American “middle class” gets replaced by “working poor.” (You know the story—occupy everything because the flow of money has been uni-directional towards the 1%–an integral component of capitalism, but I digress.)

In any case, it is clear that when we value something as individuals, we try to keep it by whatever means necessary. During most of my adolescent and adult life, my philosophy had been that money is merely material—that is, it’s replaceable. Love—true, unconditional, compassionate love—however, is not. Of course, this leaves me as a prime target for a plethora of debacles. How can you know what is true up front? I just believe so and let the rest unfold.

What unfolded in those final few months abroad and my first month in New York City was that my then-partner and I needed to part ways. I was depleted and could no longer continue to limit my freedom for the sake of a fragile relationship. But I would help her transition in the city—one that she detested before meeting me—until she found employment. I did so on the premise that our friendship was true and valuable, but subsequent unfolding indicated otherwise.

I didn’t realize then, that when you limit one kind of freedom, you consequently limit other freedoms, such as not being able to choose a job that actually coincides with your own values. While I’m not exactly against medicine, I didn’t value its agendas. To me, the body is finite, but ideas, culture, literature, meaning—those actually resonate with my soul.

Of course, as a naturally curious person, I enjoyed science enough. I even finished a minor in biology, thinking that I would be a conservationist of some type. I knew I would enjoy the co-editor position at a medical journal, at least for the next year until I was able to get settled in New York City, a city I’d dreamed of living in.

In fact, I was extremely happy and grateful. Not many people can find jobs now, especially not through Skype ten thousand miles away with Hurricane Irene in the Atlantic and Typhoon Mina in the Pacific.

Two Weeks in a City That Never Sleeps

After a whirlwind 4-day visit to St. Louis from Southeast Asia, I arrived in New York City. I didn’t have time to absorb the shock my body and mind was experiencing after several months abroad, traveling. I would start my new position as co-editor at a peer-reviewed, scientific journal almost immediately.

My life in circles: I return to publishing, more appreciative of its purpose and thus my approach. Having had a hell of a time trying to survive as an adjunct, I’m more than glad to be doing something that fairly compensates my time and effort. As much as I enjoyed teaching, I also value my time off. I may teach a class, once my schedule settles a bit, but perhaps I’ll use that time to enjoy New York a little more.

Two years ago, during my first visit to NYC, I fell in love. I wrote in my notes:

I’m not moving to the city to say I’ve lived there as a writer, as so many writers do. I’m in love, really, only with her water, all of her streets. I want to study her and more than dream of her seasons. People say, I might never come back, never leave because they know me, how I sometimes disappear into everyone and cannot be reached. There, I would be free.

My second visit last summer, when I circumnavigated the country by train, I continued to fall.

This time, I’m definitely deep. It’s difficult, enlivening, everything I imagined. Some days after working too many hours, I don’t want to walk through crowded, grimy, urine-infused subway terminals. Most days, though, all I need as a reminder is a walk down the street where I can catch glimpses of humanity and our connected lives. Of course there is disconnectedness, too, but we coexist here in a way that’s unlike any other place I’ve been. I’ve heard many versions of this summary from other people. Everyone seems to be from everywhere else.

New York City is a place where people from all over the world come “at the pinnacle of their careers,” as an acoustic engineer said over drinks at The Frying Pan. It’s intense. Indeed, today, I attended a meeting in The Corinthians with a panoramic view of New York City and was chauffeured back to work in a 100K Benz sedan. Juxtapose that with a day volunteering with my co-workers at the Bowery Mission where we sorted through and lifted crates of donated food, cooked, and served meals for the less fortunate. The stories and conversations I had with community members were tremendously enlightening, heartbreaking, uplifting. Imagine this contrast in one day, one minute, one second. It’s a lot to sort through. See why I’m in love?

Last Weekend before the Fiasco Starts

I’m somewhat ready. Last week, I had to meet with the Writing Director at campus #1 to go over my syllabus for Honors Freshman Composition. This is the class that I had to redesign based on my sub-par evaluations. I spent a few days re-working it–adding a blog component to initiate more discussion, working in some designated “instructor input” sessions, even typing up some formal lesson plans with time marks.

The feedback that I received was that I was heading in the wrong direction. That is, the blog component was propagating the “decentralized” nature of this class, and we want to go the opposite direction (which I thought the “instructor input” sessions would do). It seemed that I was also attempting to cover too many concepts in one session. The Writing Director said that I should try to stick to one or two things (for a 75 min session) that the students can walk away with. (I wish I’d known this earlier.) My concern with this is not having enough content to go over, but I believe it’ll give us the opportunity to thoroughly cover the nuances of these concepts.

Another advice was that I needed to directly tie concepts with practice (their essays). Duh, right? What I had trouble with was the order in which I presented material. Previously, I’d covered a unit on “Academic Writing”–complete with integrating sources, when their next assignment was a personal narrative. (I blame the textbook on this one–academic writing is Ch. 3, while narrative writing is Ch. 4.) Although I’m aware that I can and should deconstruct the book to fit my lessons, I did not particularly think skipping a chapter was a good idea. We’d covered the first two on “Critical Reading” and “The Writing Process”–which is pretty much review–so “Academic Writing” was grouped with that. But I do see the benefit now. This semester, we’ll cover “Academic Writing” with their persuasive essay unit, which does require them to apply the concepts therein.

Lastly, the Writing Director emphasized three things that “professors from other disciplines” want students to learn from composition instructors: 1.) how to formulate a thesis, 2.) how to evaluate text, 3.) how to integrate research. Sounds very simple, and while it’s only about 10% of what I actually do have to cover, this piece of advice will help me focus my lessons.

Learning pedagogy is like learning how to write. Unlike occupations that objectively train you how to do something by following a certain number of prescribed steps, pedagogy and writing urge us to learn through our own process, by trial and error. The Writing Director simply could have given me her tried and true syllabus or sat with mine, pen in hand, to tell me how to structure it, but she didn’t. She asked questions and helped me see my own mistakes. No wonder why she consistently receives great evaluations, per the Associate Dean. I’m appreciative, and I only wish we could have met earlier–like last summer.

Because of having to completely redesign my syllabus (for the second time) for this Honors Comp course, I’m a little behind on my other three syllabi. The semester starts for two classes next week, so the only other one I had to focus on this week was the Comp II at campus #4, which–thank the universe–provided a course plan. I love specificity. And while the course plan can seem rigid to some, it completely lessens the burden of having to pull pedagogy out of my ass within a short period. (I did just get hired a couple of weeks ago.)

The second great thing about this course is that it’s themed: social status and inequality. I’d wanted to redesign the Honors Comp class based on something thematic, but I didn’t have enough time to gather materials. Sometime last semester, I’d looked at the writing programs at the six colleges at UCSD and thought how neat that would be to learn writing concepts based on interesting topics: culture, technology, arts, social justice. At times, it felt as though my composition courses lacked relevance because the content was really repetitive. These students have heard these before. The themes, then, seemed to fill the missing link between “relevance” and “content.”

I have two more syllabi to make from scratch: Comp II (different textbooks) and Technical Writing. But I have until next Monday. Today: much needed play time with my nephews, and then Lauryn Hill, live in concert.

—–

Post-script 1:
Another university called to ask if I wanted to teach some courses. This is the second semester that the coordinator called way after I’d already filled my schedule. Last summer, after I quit my job and begun my around-the-country train trip, she called while I was around the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I’m sure she appreciated the live music and screaming children in the background. She asked me to consider her again for the future. It’s somewhat validating to be in demand. It gives me hope that eventually the demand will be for full-time positions. And I’ll take non-tenure track.

Post-script 2:
Speaking of, for another post, I’m looking at New Orleans for next school year, if a job pulls through. Details later.

Post-script 3:
Two poems from my first manuscript were accepted for Lavender Review (#3).

Very happy minus a life issue or two.

Make Waves and Conquer

Like most people, I am perpetually looking for my next move–upward mobility, the sign of success in our culture. The past two years, because I was unhappy with my career at the publisher, I considered various avenues for change: a 1-year post-bacc BSN program, a 2-year Associate’s in Nursing program (since graduates incur less debt and are paid similar wages as BSNs), 1-2 year post-bacc program for medical school, officer training school for the military, film studies programs, and of course, PhD programs in humanities.

All of these choices represent my internal conflicts between needing job security/reasonable wages and my ideals. I wanted, for instance, to go into nursing because of the potential for options: I could work contractually and be a traveling nurse making $60/hr. Or I could pursue medicine on an expert level and be an MD. (Endocrinology and neuroscience interest me the most.) There is also the military who would pay for my loans if I enlist (as a non-officer), or provide job security and a way out of this city. Film school would be a dream with no job security, but an opportunity for creativity. PhD programs in humanities represents my intent to continue along the path I chose for myself during my junior year in college, when I decided that science, with its reductionist motives, were in conflict with my core values. Lately, I’ve been thinking that a PhD in media/cultural studies would be a perfect confluence of my interests and perhaps offer more job security than a PhD in English, although I’m sure the difference is minimal.

Last night, at a cafe in the city (I reside about 40 mins away), I heard young urbanites who attend MA/PhD programs in social work discuss their troubles. They were all under 30, so no doubt they’ve never tried to survive without the construct of academia. One took photos and remarked on the cafe’s ambiance–her outlet from being anxious about the results of her survey/research. They were all brilliant, filled with ideas and doubt. They talked about the system, how they wanted so much to change it, but then got lost along the way. Now they are unsure about the “next step.” They do not want to be social workers. They want to teach and research, except there are very few opportunities–like in English, hundreds of applicants for one position.

Through my experiences in graduate school for my MFA, I’ve come to realize that academia is not sustainable, and here is another case, more evidence. Academia needs brilliant minds, but it cannot offer jobs because there are none, unless more universities pop up. According to The Chronicle, roughly half of all doctoral graduates get jobs in their field. Slightly less than a Ponzi scheme, but pretty close.

Recently, I read through some emails between my AP Lit teacher (who has since passed from a brain tumor) and me. I had just switched majors from Biology to English, and I was so excited about this new path into the humanities. I knew then, in 2003, that teaching and writing would be my goals:

O the possibilities!! 🙂 I’m excited but terribly afraid…At least I know life will not be mundane, huh?

Seven years later, I’ve achieved those goals: teaching and and writing, but I have a long way to go. Doubt gets to me, especially when I see those from my high school cohort, who’ve pursue medicine or some other practical route, do very well and present themselves with much more glee and confident purpose. Most have families now and are accomplishing those “emerging adulthood” milestones, while I’ve regressed a bit. (I did have a mortgage once and a series of partners, although none of it worked out.) I have difficulty at times in feeling secure about my life decisions–not just pursuing a career in the humanities, but life in general.

My 10-year high school reunion is coming up this summer. I was co-valedictorian and had very high expectations for myself. (The other valedictorian is now in her residency as a family physician.) Perhaps, I feel some measure of failure. I did take the path less traveled, but what do I have to show for it besides an overdeveloped consciousness and three towering bookshelves filled with ideas? I’ve acquired very little in the same terms that “accomplishment” is usually measured in the world (ie, wealth, prestige, security).

Regardless, I do feel good about my life’s progress. I’m somewhat accomplished. I’m self-aware. I’ve assessed what happiness means to me: freedom, love, meaning. I have lived without the security of the box. I have enjoyed life as opposed to be burdened by it.

My AP Lit teacher also wrote on my senior book: “Make waves and conquer.” The message was to not subsume the ways of the system but to be one step ahead.

Indeed. I’m trying.