Mirror, Mirror: Core Commitments

So today in class we discussed our “core commitments,” the reasons we do what we do, the things that drive our aspirations. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially as I grow weary and exhausted and my brain chemistry falls out of whack, leaving me struggling even to cope with everyday things like bus rides and making dinner.

The biggest reason I do what I do is because when I look at the world, I see how terrible it is. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of beautiful and wondrous things. It’s not a hundred percent crapsack. But there’s a lot that’s pretty fucked up. Murder, torture, all manner of abuses physical and emotional, overt and subtle. The widescale destruction of a planet. Dishonesty and uncertainty and confusion and fear. Systems that oppress and harm and hold down groups of people simply because they have the misfortune to be born or to grow into people different from those holding power.

I grew up on fantasy and sci-fi novels. The kind where the evil or the misguided can be overcome, can be vanquished. Where heroic acts result in visible, measurable change. Sometimes that change comes at great and tragic cost, but it’s always something you can see and feel within the world being described. It’s not just that there’s a clearly defined good and evil, because there isn’t always; the important thing in sci-fi and fantasy is that the effects of actions are rendered visible. None of this working and working and working and never knowing what will come of all your efforts, if indeed anything comes at all.

The real world isn’t like that. It’s full of things that need to be fixed or changed. But sometimes all the effort in the world isn’t enough; unlike a fictional problem where the issue has a face, a person that can be vanquished, a disease that can be cured, a time limit that can be met, it’s not that easy to save our world. It’s too complex, too diffuse.

Sometimes I wish that I was a warrior. Sometimes I wish that I was confident and fully sane, that I could do big things with visible effects. Go into politics. Start a new school or university that values what I value, that doesn’t ostracize people with different ways of learning and knowing the world and expressing their knowledge. That I could raise large amounts of money to fund the work that I think needs doing. That I could dismantle capitalism in one fell swoop and institute a form of governance and economy that would nurture human rather than monetary resource, that would value the things I value.

But I don’t live in that world. I am not that person. I can’t stop seeing what’s wrong with the world or with me. I want to become a teacher, a mentor, a researcher, a knower and a doer, but I don’t feel like I have in me what it takes to do those things on a large scale, only a small one. I’m not the lone hero with a magic sword or a special gift. I’m not part of the Fellowship, traveling through untold dangers to save the world through the strength of the mortal bonds we forge together. I’m not even Gandalf, wise and powerful and full of hidden knowledge, or even yet Tom Bombadil, bound to the land with riddles and love.

I think what I can be is Old Ben Kenobi. I can be the quiet, strange person in the desert, the one who’s worked hard to know what I know and has struggled to survive so that my understanding can be passed on to the people who will move the foundations of the earth to change it for the better. I’m not really a leader; I don’t walk into a group of people and want to be in charge. I don’t like being the person responsible for big decisions. That sort of thing intimidates and frightens me.

Nor am I a follower, not really. I won’t take direction without a good reason, not unless I really truly trust the person giving orders. I don’t need someone to tell me what to do (at least, not all the time), I just don’t want to be the person doing the telling and bearing the burden. I sometimes describe myself as a beta, because that’s terminology familiar to the people I spend my social time around.

Now that I really consider it, though, I think that’s almost but not quite exactly right. I don’t want to stand entirely alone, to lead, or to follow. I’m at my best when I can advise and support, when I can tell the truth to power without holding the power myself. When I can instruct and provide guidance, can get my hands dirty, but not out in front. I don’t want attention. I want things to get done, and done well; I don’t need to be the one doing them, but I can’t sit back and pretend that it’s not my responsibility to do them every bit as much as it is the next person’s.

The most powerful thing that any of my students from the prison said to me was that I treated them like people. I made them feel valued. I helped them see that they had meaningful things to say, because I listened like they and their words mattered. That wasn’t something I did because I should do it. It was something I did because I believed it. I felt it. It’s not really the kind of thing you can fake, not for long. I put on a good show sometimes of being bitter and cynical, and sometimes I really am, but mostly it hides how very much I care.

I care about my students – both my debaters and the ones I’ve had in a classroom. I care about the people I don’t even know who are suffering. I don’t know what I can do to alleviate their suffering directly; I mean, I know some things that can be done, but a lot of them are things that I’m not equipped to do. What I can do, and (if the past few years are anything to go by) do well, is teach the way I’ve been taught. With care, with respect, with honesty. I can show students that they can contribute to a better world because it’s something I believe. I can make research that people outside of academic institutions can read, or watch, or participate in, or use. Even if I never get into a PhD program, even if I never teach at a prestigious university, I can do those things. Even if I only teach as a volunteer, even if I have to do the research in bits and pieces or have to try and find or start an organization to house it, these are things I can do in a variety of contexts.

This is my passion. My fundamental belief. My core commitment. The world isn’t a very good place, but it can be a better one. It will take people, many people, to make that happen. And I can be one of the people behind that change. I can support and guide and believe in the people changing the world. I can show them their strength and their potential, help them build the tools they need, and quietly, incrementally, make the world better. I can write that paper, read that book, go to that class, give that presentation, sit through that meeting, because those are all steps along this path.

And this is a path that needs to be walked.

The Red Couch: Musings on The Slow Regard of Silent Things

Today was not the best day.

Allow me to be precise. There was nothing wrong with today. Nobody (in my immediate circle) died. There was no breakup. I went to work and was productive; went to the library and was productive; came home a little tired and hungry but prepared to be productive.

The world was fine. I was not.

There were no explosions. There was nothing dramatic. This post is not a complaint. But all was not well with me; I was feeling lonely and disaffected and discouraged and a little overwhelmed. I’ve probably taken on too much responsibility and too many projects again. It’s nothing new. I always find a way to deal with it. But today I wasn’t; today I was feeling isolated and, not broken, but a little bit bent out of true.

And then I saw the Slow Regard of Silent Things on my bookshelf, waiting. Patient. I was about a third of the way through and had set it aside because it isn’t a book to read while distracted, and because I did not want to finish. I wanted to savor it. So it was still there. Waiting.

I took it down and read it while I ate my dinner/snack. And I nearly wept because it was lovely and sweet and a little bit tinged with sorrow. As Pat says, and as many reviews concur, it is not a book for everyone. But tonight it was a book for me.

Of course, since I am in the habit of asking “why?” of everything, I began to think about why that was. And I realized it was in part because of what Pat describes in the Author’s Endnote: it’s a book about a girl who is slightly broken, and it speaks to the many, many of us who are slightly broken in a similar fashion, and who know it, and who feel alone because of it, in whole or in part.

But more than that, I love it because it is exactly what it is. It is what it says.

When I was first introduced to creative writing and began taking it seriously, I was in seventh grade, and I heard for the first time the maxim Show, Don’t Tell. And this book does that. It shows Auri’s loveliness and her sweetness and her fragility. I can relate to that.

But while a good story shows rather than telling, a great story goes one step further. It doesn’t just show what you are supposed to understand. It lets itself be what you are supposed to understand. With word choice, with sentence structure, with every rhythm and moment, it goes beyond telling, beyond showing, into being. This story doesn’t tell us that Auri is sweet and lovely and a little bit broken. It doesn’t just show her to us, though it does do that. The story itself is sweet and lovely and a little bit broken, just as Kvothe’s story is arrogant and clever and daring and tragic.

It takes more than skill for an author to write a story like this. It takes seeing and being both. Anyone who takes a little time can see. But being…being needs more than that. For a story to be what it is in addition to showing what it is, the author has to feel it, not just on the surface where the mind works, but under that. In the bones.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things sees, and feels, and when I feel along with it, together we be.

Paper Personae: What Masks Reveal

In theory, one of the major draws of tabletop roleplaying games is the opportunity to create alternate personas. Through gaming, we can be anything we want to explore – shining knights, daring rogues, dastardly villains. We can be anything, do anything.

So why, I have to wonder, are there traits that all of my characters share? I think, for me, it’s that no matter how much I try to step outside myself, there are certain things which are so central to my self-concept that I am categorically unwilling to abandon them, or which are so habituated that it is difficult to set them aside, even temporarily, even in pretend-land. Whether this is true for others or not, I’m unsure, but I find it interesting to trace those traits.

The first thing I noticed came up in my larp experiences. Something central to an interconnected live-action roleplay world is the character tie – the connections between characters that, in sum, create the feel of a real social world. From these ties arise loyalties and conflicts alike, and one thing I can say is that I have never betrayed a primary tie. At times, events in games have compelled me to sacrifice lesser ties to preserve greater loyalties, but even to the profound detriment of my characters, I have been unable to betray my allies.

The second thing came up in my current tabletop game. It’s not that big a surprise, but I never really paid any attention to it until it became glaringly obvious by contrast with my current gaming circle. One of the recurring themes seems to be which of the other players can piss off NPCs faster. One did it by being calmly superior to everyone he encountered; one did it by being an absolutely uncompromising asshole determined to subject everyone to his particular brand of justice; and the third has done it by attempting to proselytize about the Unconquered Sun. And I have walked the line between silent and polite.

It reminds me of a scene in Issola, by Steven Brust, where Lady Teldra tells Vlad that he’s skilled in the arts of courtesy. “Appropriate action means to advance your own goals, without unintentional harm to anyone else.” I’m not the most polite person, and I enjoy playing smartass characters. But I have always played those characters with GMs that I know well enough to know exactly how far I can push without going too far.

So it seems that loyalty and politeness are either so central or so practiced that I can’t slough them off without severe cognitive dissonance. Which tells me something about myself. It says that those aspects of my personality are important to my self-image and I am generally unwilling to sacrifice them on the altar to entertainment.

This information is highly valuable as I work to improve myself and draw my image of myself and my actual behavior closer together. It tells me about the boundaries I have set for myself. And as I continue to play, now that I know I can find these pieces of myself in my characters, I will continue to look for them.

And I will look for these pieces in the characters of the people I play with, as well. I will watch for the traits that my friends cannot step away from, and that will begin to show me how applicable this idea is outside of my own tendencies. I expect to discuss this in future posts, though I’m unsure how much description I’ll give of people other than me, in the interest of avoiding betraying trust or being rude.

Mirror, Mirror: Becoming a Skeptic

I remember.

I remember being young – not even a teenager – and having moments of utter desolation. I love my family, but I am not like them. They are straight, white people who struggled up from being poor to being middle-class before my very eyes. They are intelligent, but practical, with little or no attachment or connection to a past. They are cut off from history beyond relatives they have known. No one creates; no one studies; no one records. No one ponders.

I was weird (the writer in the family) and lonely (the smart kid in class) and torn between the morality I learned from my parents and the morality I learned from reading (dangerous, those fantasy novels). I read The Hobbit and 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wheel of Time, but it was Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series that shaped me.

Built differently, thought differently, dreamed differently. I ached in ways I could not articulate, unable to speak in my family’s language of emotional holes I didn’t even comprehend.

There is no memory of why I began attending church regularly. At first it was just me and my grandmother, who had always gone. I sang songs. I read books. I prayed prayers. To this day, the longest-running routine I have ever established was that of nightly prayer. I couldn’t sleep unless I had confessed sins, begged forgiveness, poured out my pain, and exhorted a distant and judgmental God to take care of those I loved. My greatest comfort came from prostrating myself before my Savior.

Those words are so hard to write now. “My Savior.”

He was no comfort at all. I continued to feel empty even after I prayed. Even when I strained for the feeling of a sympathetic ear, I felt nothing.
I went up at altar calls. I raised my hands during worship songs. I knelt at youth group. I wrote poems about self-mortification, about being broken open so Jesus could fill me again. Thinking about that now makes me ill.

One night, I told my pastor that I was clinically depressed, and he prayed with me. And still there was nothing.

I was convinced the problem was with me. I was too weird. I was too sinful. I wasn’t listening carefully enough. I wasn’t humble enough. I hadn’t experienced enough suffering.

And the sense of emptiness grew.

All the fury of adolescent hormones merged with the volatility of a bipolar circus. I was wounded. Depressed. Wild. Restless. Crackling with energy. I screamed silently and wept silently, so I wouldn’t get lectured; I pounded my head so hard against my closet doors that I knocked them off my tracks and had to hide a bruise on my forehead with my hair.

What does it mean to be a secular humanist? Or a skeptic?

They are not defined by the negative, to my mind. They are so much more than what they are not.

It means being concerned – eminently, immediately concerned – with justice, especially social justice. We have only three or four score years in this world, and that only if we are especially lucky. Making this life the best it can be is the joy and responsibility we all share – for our own happiness and for that of others. All others.

It means recognizing the innate value of being sentient, the unique cognitive and social patterns we have developed as humans. It means a concern for all the rest of life as well, because to be unique is not to be alone. It means being mindful of the impacts and consequences of your own choices. It means working to alleviate suffering in small ways – sometimes in large ones. It means whole-heartedly pursuing and spreading happiness.

It means caring, deeply and profoundly, about truth – small truths and large ones. It means being fully present in this moment. Every moment.

It is being moved by the beauty of a sunset, the complexity of a car engine, the pleasure of a child’s unfettered laugh. It means reaching out to other human beings to share in the awe of a beautiful and complex world.

It is also a refusal to shy away from the ugliness of the world, it is anger at injustice and cruelty, and it is using that anger to effect change. It is an open heart and an open mind – hope and thoughtfulness and the desire to leave the world a little better than we found it, for everyone, and never just for a privileged few.

Religion messed me up. It didn’t cause my problems – biology did. But it definitely exacerbated them.

Skepticism freed me. It allowed me to seek real help, to acknowledge the role of biology in my problems, to take responsibility for what I could change, and to forgive myself for what was beyond my control. I was not weak. I was not powerless. I did not need someone or something outside myself to fix what was wrong.

And I don’t need an unknowable and unprovable power to fix what is wrong with the world. What I need is an understanding of and respect for truth and the support of honest individuals.

And that is why I am a skeptic.

Class and the American Dream

The myth of the American Dream is a tenacious thing. It’s something I see college students encouraged to analyze and deconstruct, and I think there are very good reasons behind that approach, which I may go into in another post. But what gets me about it is the contradictions. In the course I teach in prison, class comes up regularly. I’m told I ping as decidedly middle class; that, to at least one of my students, my attire and demeanor and manner of speech say “money.” I don’t dispute the attribution, but my jeans and boots come from Goodwill, my underwear and undershirt were gifts from my mother and grandmother, the overshirt was, I think, stolen from an ex-boyfriend, and the bra was the only thing I bought new (from Ross Dress-for-Less).

Part of why the American Dream myth has held such fascination for me is because I’ve seen it in action. Though I may present as middle-class, and though that attribution seems valid in light of the fact that my parents own their own home, own and rent a second house, and can afford to take vacations, my earliest memories are not middle-class.

I remember living in a tiny garden house behind some people rich enough to own a home with a garden house; I remember a tiny, crappy apartment where my mother despaired because I wasn’t interested in taking naps and there was no place for me to go outside and play; I remember living in a trailer behind my grandparents’ house. I remember bringing my parents my piggy-bank full of pennies because they were so worried about money. I remember that we ate a lot of canned soups, that my brother and I mostly ate ramen and cup noodles when we were home alone for an afternoon, that most of the meat we ate came from deer or elk that I helped butcher ever since I was old enough to hold a butterknife and be thrilled to be included, that our seafood was all either stuff my father caught or shrimp he bought and cooked special for my mom on Valentine’s Day and their anniversary. I remember the complete run-down mess that was the first house they bought, and my mom struggling at the store with sticking to budgets and that she felt kind of guilty when she bought me a stuffed horse that went clippity-clop for me on a day when I had two doctor’s appointments and a wart removed, because we didn’t buy toys when we went grocery shopping. Toys were something for birthdays and Christmas, usually, especially when I was very little.

And I remember my dad trying to go back to school to become an engineer and giving up because he couldn’t work 40+ hours a week and wrap his head around theoretical math after years away from a classroom. And I remember my mom going to work after my little brother was in school, and how I wasn’t supposed to tell people we delivered phone books every year for Christmas money. And I remember how, when my mom went back to school (while still working) and managed to finish the community college program to be a pharmacy tech, my dad was so proud he cried, totally unashamed. And I remember how proud we all were when, after more than twenty years at the same company, they played with job requirements and titles so he could have a position he was eminently qualified for in every practical way, except that he lacked an engineering degree. And I remember how nervous and unsure he was about that position, and how he worked sixty and seventy hour weeks trying to prove that they hadn’t made a mistake promoting him, and I remember standing in the garage with him when I visited from college, giving him advice on public speaking so he could give presentations without wanting to throw up.

The American Dream is a myth. But it’s one that speaks to what I’ve seen my parents accomplish. And so, when I talk to students whose families were locked in a cycle of poverty they couldn’t break, and I hear about what they’ve been through and that struggle and the resentment of, not just the rich, but also the middle class, I feel it. Myths become myths because they’re powerful, because they speak to our desires and our fears.

I know what it’s like to fear homelessness in an immediate way, to wonder what will happen next, to fear the news that you can’t stay where you are. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had friends and family that I could fall back on, and I am eternally grateful. But I also recognize that I’ve been very lucky, and because I know that, and how tenuous that luck can be, I can feel empathy for people who haven’t been so fortunate. Why are there mentally ill people on the streets? Why can’t they avail themselves of the social safety net? Because they don’t qualify; because their bodies are illegible to our systems of control; because they don’t know how to use the available services; because using the available services means judgment and dismissal and rejection and being told over and over again in ways both subtle and overt, that they don’t matter. Because various forms of anxiety and fear and paranoia and terror and confusion hold them back.

So yes, I present as middle-class. But I know how shaky that is. I know how thin that line is, and I know that people who aren’t middle-class are no less human, no less hard-working, no less deserving than those who are. There are middle-class people who are middle class almost entirely because of accidents of birth and good fortune. There are impoverished or working-class people who are impoverished or working class because that’s where they started, and because climbing up the socio-economic ladder is extraordinarily difficult in the US.

I don’t really explicitly identify as a socialist or as a Marxist. But I think class struggle is very real in the US today, despite our efforts to hide and dismiss and discourage it, and I think class is and will be absolutely essential to any sort of social, economic, cultural revolution. Because when all the material conditions of our lives are removed, at the end, we are all human. When we have nothing else, we have that. And seeing that may be the first step in doing something about the problems that keep us where we are, that make the American Dream only a myth for most people.

The Red Couch: Review of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy, Part 1

[Edited to add: Spoiler alert towards the end of this post. No complaining.]

I want to state at the outset that I’m neither a lover nor an avid consumer of zombie media. What zombie films I’ve watched have been either to humor friends of mine or as part of a general fondness for the horror genre which can, on occasion, involve zombies. Feed was the first zombie novel I’ve tried reading.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I have to admit that I really rather enjoyed the Newsflesh trilogy. I know, I was surprised, too. Part of my indifference to the zombie subgenre arises from a plot standpoint – zombies just aren’t very compelling antagonists. They’re mindless. They’re homogeneous. They lack motivation, plans, goals, personalities – in short, zombies fail because they are, quite simply, too stupid to be interesting. In effect, zombies are essentially an ambulatory disease, a background condition to render the world more dangerous and tenuous as our protagonists stumble about trying not to die.

Attempts to move past this (the first of two major issues I have with the zombie genre) have cast zombies as the result of sinister governments or corporations, a form of biological warfare taken to the extreme. The Resident Evil franchise falls into this category – at this point, zombies are just window dressing for a plot about the evils of corporate greed, overzealous nationalism, or any of a number of other standard tropes. They represent either a deliberate weapon, or the result of human folly on a massive scale. Again, they are no more than props.

My second difficulty with the zombie genre is the presumed fragility of civilization. Zombie films are, for the most part, stories about the collapse of human order used to demonstrate a variety of morality tales, the details of which aren’t particularly necessary for this review. As such, they’re a form of apocalypse literature, and show us how our dependence on law and order, our belief in civilization, are always one step away from disintegration. Which can be interesting, if handled very carefully, but until recently rested on very tenuous logic – civilization is normal, zombies appear, civilization collapses, humans are reduced to hardscrabble existence.

Which is kind of an interesting morality tale if what you want is to show people either how necessary civilization is (or we devolve into cannibals and wanton destruction) or if you want to demonstrate how people are better off without the sort of modern civilization and governance that we’ve come to take for granted, but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Modern resources and infrastructure are a lot more adaptable than these doomsday prophets seem to think. Widespread animation of the dead would certainly disrupt the way we live now. It would almost definitely require a restructuring of custom and paradigm to deal with a new problem. But civilization is unlikely to simply disappear entirely, so zombie films largely felt like parody to me.

Enter Newsflesh. Set about two and a half decades after the initial Rising, zombies are established to be neither the result of nefarious plotting nor the unfortunate side effect of nefarious experimentation. Instead, human efforts to improve medical technology by harnessing viruses that will defeat both cancer and the common cold interact in an unexpected way to produce a hybrid virus capable of seizing control of a mammalian nervous system and animating it for a period after death. At first, it seems like a tragic accident, one that has resulted in a restructuring of social norms – children raised after the Rising grew up in tightly secured and controlled environments. Leaving the home is always dangerous, and large gatherings of humans are rare, because if one individual suddenly dies (asthmatic attack, brain aneurysm, heart attack, &c.), everyone in the vicinity is at risk. Onset of full infection is extremely, almost cartoonishly, rapid; it happens within a matter of minutes or hours, depending on a variety of host conditions.

What makes this so pernicious, so ubiquitous, is that the hybrid virus causing zombiedom is pretty much all mammals carry. It renders humans largely immune to the common cold and to cancers of all kinds, crosses the placental barrier so that all infants are born with the virus, and resists all attempts to clean it out. So far, we have a tragic story of human ingenuity gone wrong in an unforeseeable way.

We also have the story from the perspective, initially, of Georgia Mason, an online journalist. A blogger. Her heroes include Edward R. Murrow and Hunter S. Thompson, and her obsession with “The Truth” reminds me of a much more straight-laced Spider Jerusalem, though that might just be because she’s flanked by a tech genius fiction writer and her brother, an adventurous news blogger in the tradition of Steve Irwin. Like Jerusalem, she and her compatriots follow along on the campaign trail of a Presidential hopeful; like Jerusalem, they begin to encounter a dangerous conspiracy that eventually infects Georgia with the amplified hybrid virus. We lose her train of narration near the end of the first book when her beloved brother, fellow blogger Shaun, shoots her before she loses her faculties entirely…though not before she writes a final, impassioned plea to the world to “Rise Up.”

The scenes where the bloggers encounter espionage, danger, and officious government assholes dovetail nicely with the inclusion of excerpts from their respective blogs and the description of their frantic efforts to “tell the truth” through quick-return journalism, all of which calls to mind the scene where Spider Jerusalem reports on the Angels 8 riots, perched on a rooftop with his laptop on his knees, surrounded by exotic dancers. The scene where Georgia interviews Republican competitor Tate and describes his cold, empty stare calls to mind Jerusalem’s opinion of the Smiler. All of which sets us up for a grand finale where the intrepid bloggers topple Tate and his conspiracy.

But we discover that the conspiracy goes much farther than Tate, and we begin to see a lot more possibilities for drawing parallels as the situation unfolds in Deadline.

Through Bars: Lesson Plans

I am a procrastinator. If there was a “Procrastinators Anonymous,” I would probably feel pressured to attend meetings. (And then I would flip tables and leave in a huff, because “I am powerless against my addiction” is just about the worst possible lesson to teach people trying to recover their lives. I’ll probably write a whole post about that at some point.) I have developed some techniques to remain productive with school work despite my proclivities, but ultimately it never seemed like all that big of a deal – I always managed to turn in homework on time, even if it might not have been the absolute best quality work that I could have produced.

But when the work I’m doing is not for my own benefit, but for someone else’s, this tendency to put things off becomes an issue. Now that I’m teaching a class, I find myself struggling against the procrastination habit while grading and writing lesson plans, and then feeling guilty about it.

I’ve mostly been fairly good about grading; usually I return assignments with grades and feedback by the next class period. Where I have the most trouble with procrastination is actually in my lesson plans, and I think this is the result of habituated stress responses. When I’m stressed about something, I often put it off. Even when I try to do work on such a project, I struggle to get anything done. Between distractions and the occasional overwhelming sense of panic, even starting can be a nightmare. Though I’ve improved on this front in the last few years, it’s still a fight, every time.

The first thing I did to prepare for teaching this class was assemble a basic syllabus, including a course calendar. So far, the assignment due dates have stayed the same, but what I cover in lecture/discussion bears only a passing resemblance to the original calendar. For one thing, I really had no idea how to gauge time requirements for topics. I didn’t know how long it would take to lecture, or how long discussions would last. I didn’t know what exercises I would have the students do. I just listed concepts I knew would be important to cover, about three per class period, and arranged them based on their applicability to the speeches and papers I was assigning.

So what usually winds up happening is that I will start a lesson plan (an outline/list of things to talk about or exercises to do) for the coming class at the end of class, while I’m waiting for clearance to leave the building. I sometimes add to it during the week, but mostly the night before/morning of class I am updating, rearranging, and cleaning up the previous plan. If I come up with exercises during the week, I’ll jot them down.

I think some of this is lack of experience. One of the things I’m doing right now is experimenting and building a repertoire; I warned my students early on that they were sort of guinea pigs and that I was figuring things out as we went, because I think it’s only fair that they know what they’re getting into. Some of this is also that I am very comfortable, and in fact prefer, speaking extemporaneously. Give me an outline and I can roll with it. More than that, I can rock it. Extemporaneous lecture allows me to respond more organically to questions and discussion points from students.

One thing I try to do is go beyond any assigned reading. Either I will talk about concepts or tools that are from book chapters I’m not assigning, or I will take what they’ve read and walk them through application. Sometimes what I do is give more context to what they’ve read, as with the ethics chapters, when I would expand on the readings’ coverage of theories. I always try to have some discussion (often mixed small group or partners followed by full-class) in every class so that it’s not me lecturing all the time, though I joke about liking the sound of my own voice and my love of writing on the board.

Basically, I ask myself, “What do my students need to know about this topic? What would make this class enjoyable?” and then I play with methods for reaching those outcomes. As I work with my students, I develop a better understanding of what they value out of our meetings – usually practical applications. So two classes ago, we talked about syllogisms. This last class meeting, I had them write a syllogism using the thesis for their upcoming speeches as a claim – basically coming up with the major and minor premises underlying their thesis statements. Then we used the audience analysis we had talked about to discuss what types of people would probably be easier or harder to convince using those premises as a starting point, and how we could gauge that likelihood using audience analysis tools. Then we added types of proof to the mix, discussing when and why we use certain types of evidence. During the last bit of class, we started talking about using language to strengthen arguments or impacts.

Practical application of theory made the theory more accessible and more meaningful. Using their own thesis statements made it immediate and let them see results of that application. Explaining why I was covering certain things the way I was helped them understand that my focus is not just for them to present good speeches and write good papers in this class – my goal is to equip them with tools that help them make better sense of the world and communicate their ideas in a variety of contexts. So far extemporaneous lesson plans seem to be going well, though working in this fashion is sometimes stressful for me, and I feel like I could probably put together even better classes if I was better at planning. So that’s still on my to-do list.

But my students come to class excited and walk out thoughtful. And that’s a wonderful starting point.


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