Friday, March 20, 2009

My Teaching Train Wreck

As I slowly become more and more experienced as a teacher of adults, I’m trying to come to terms with reality: sometimes, as a teacher, you really just can’t win, no matter how hard you try. Yesterday, after teaching two 50-minute classes back to back, I was ready to throw in the towel and sign up for the circus.

Class number one: it’s a scientific writing class for students who are headed into the health sciences field. We’re working on how to write a summary paragraph, and I’ve given them what I think is an interesting article that talks about a particular scientist’s research on drug addiction. The article discusses how this scientist did a bunch of studies on rats and found that drug addiction is determined by environment and social factors rather than by the drugs themselves—i.e., drugs aren’t the problem; society and crappy social circumstances are. Whether you agree or not, the argument is fascinating, in my opinion, anyway. So I ask the students whether they liked the article. (Note that at this point in the semester, I’m lucky if one-third of the class shows up, which is the case on this particular day.) Most are either apathetic or didn’t like it. “I don’t care about rats,” one student says. But it’s not about rats! The article moves the discussion towards humans, and even brings our attention to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Apparently, they don’t care. Yes, these are people who want to be nurses or paramedics, yet they don’t find a discussion about drug addiction appealing. So I ask what they would prefer instead. “Can’t you bring in an article about a baby with two heads?” A baby with two heads. Basically, they want something from The National Enquirer. Christ.

On to class number two: academic editing. It’s all grammar, all the time. I didn’t design this course, and there’s little I can do to remedy the fact that the subject matter is boring (even though I personally find grammar kind of interesting). To make matters worse, a few weeks ago, we were moved from a lovely classroom with windows to a smaller, windowless room that is always overheated. Everyone is usually sweating during class, and I often have to keep the door closed because there are usually chatty students loitering outside in the hallway. But I do my best to be animated and funny. Surely, my charm will win them over, right?

Normally for this class, about one-third of the students show up, and I make a regular effort to applaud them for their perseverance. Today we are reviewing for next week’s test on pronouns, pronoun-antecedent agreement, misplaced modifiers, and dangling modifiers. They seem most concerned with the modifiers, so we do some exercises that I’ve copied from a grammar book. Uh, except that I didn’t have time to carefully look over the exercises in advance, and as we’re trying to work through them in class, I realize that they are confusing, impossible and making the students (and me) feel demoralized. After fumbling my way through the first three questions, we’re now on the fourth, and I’m trying my best to figure out how they arrived at the model answer at the back of the book. I’m standing at the front of the class, 10 sets of fatigued, bored eyes are staring at me, sweat is dripping down my back because the classroom temperature is set to inferno, and all I want is to somehow magically transport myself away from this train wreck in the making. I decide to toss these exercises out the window (metaphorically, of course, because there are no windows in this classroom), and we work on some other ones instead. But at this point, I think I’ve lost them. Eventually, the 50 minutes elapse, and we are all finally free. I head to my office where I will debate slamming my head against the wall.


Friday, February 13, 2009

So, it's been a while...

When you don't write in your blog for, like, five months, it's pretty obvious that you run the risk of losing what few readers you might have had to start with. Hello? Is anyone still there? (Voice echoing in the distance.)

Strangely, I've also had trouble trying to post on Blogger. It keeps giving me some strange html error message that I don't understand. So, it seems even my blog is mad at me for not blogging. As if I'm not stressed out enough as it is! Sheesh!

I have been stupidly busy since the beginning of September. Note to self: full-time editing job plus part-time teaching job plus volunteer literacy tutor position equals complete and utter insanity. Have absolutely learned my lesson. Will never repeat that formula again.

My life over the past five months has consisted of lots of work and little play. My at-home desk runneth over with papers that need to be filed, overdue library books that need to be returned, essays and exams written by my students, grammar manuals and style guides, and empty tea cups that never quite make it to the sink. I now know what burnout feels like and, frankly, I don’t care to relive that experience again. If overworking has made me learn anything, it’s that it makes me cranky and cantankerous. Not a combination I recommend. And I seem to have lost myself in the process. What is it that I used to do when I had free time? Who am I when I’m not constantly running through an endless list of things to do?

Over the past few months, I’ve eaten a lot of take-out, fallen off of the yoga wagon, and lived in a messy (and often dirty) apartment, with dishes piled high on the kitchen counter.

But now I'm trying to turn over a new leaf. You can expect more Mr. Lady blog posts coming soon. I promise.

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

What would bell hooks do?

In what feels like a Christmas miracle in August, I have been offered a college English class to teach this fall. Although only finding this out about 3 weeks ago and being faced with a course that in some ways is a little daunting, I’m feeling remarkably sane and calm about it all. Maybe I’m completely deluded, but I actually believe that I’m good at teaching.

And yet, there is always that little bit of lingering doubt. I’ve never taught at a community college before. I’ve been a university T.A., I’ve taught ESL classes at private schools in Montreal, and I’m currently a volunteer literacy tutor, but actually being responsible for a real college class that people need to pass in order to move forward with their career goals—I really need to not make a big mess of this.

I think the real worry is attached to my pedagogical approach. A few days ago, I was looking over bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, which I’d read a couple of years ago, and I realized that this is it. It’s time to put all that theory into practice. It’s time to walk the walk. And I am so scared. I have to admit that most of my own experiences as a student can best be described as traditional. Despite my damnedest efforts to resist the sometimes suffocating strictures of academia, in the end, I studied a heck of a lot of the English literary canon and sat through countless classes where the professor, voice of authority, talked while the rest of us listened and madly jotted down nuggets of wisdom. In my fourth year as an undergraduate, I had one professor who really shook things up by forcing us to actively participate in our education. And while it made some of us feel uneasy at times because we were being dragged out of the comfortable little nooks we’d carved out for ourselves in every other classroom we’d ever sat in, it sure did work. I learned a ton in that class and I really enjoyed the work I did.

I wonder too whether all of this traditional authoritarianism in the classroom is rooted in the teacher’s fear of losing control of what’s going on, as though allowing your learners to play an active role in how things happen and to speak up about what they really think and feel is going to ultimately lead to pandemonium. And then I suppose there is also the novice professor’s fear of having to dejectedly confront the seasoned professors’ I-told-you-so faces, as though one should never have even considered going against the grain.

But even though entering the terrain of transformative pedagogy is a little bit frightening, I do actually believe that it’s what will work best for me and for my learners. I do think that I need to allow my learners to see me as a person, to share my personal narratives just as I expect them to share theirs, and to let them really work at learning rather than just sitting and trying to absorb through osmosis.

I guess we’ll see on Tuesday how I feel after I’ve met these 27 fresh faces. I know I have a lot to learn about this whole teaching business, but I figure that if I don’t ever take the risk and do things that are scary but potentially and incredibly transformative, then I’ll just never know. And so, as best I can, I’m going to find out.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

“Which way to the waffle cart?” or how I ate my way through Portland, Oregon

If you’re planning on visiting Portland, Oregon, you’d be wise to follow this handy piece of advice: make sure to arrive on an empty stomach. This is a city chock full of gastronomic delights. I’m not sure that my friends and I intended for it to go this way, but our trip ended up being centered on edible indulgences of every kind. While we weren’t eating (i.e., during the time that our bodies demanded time for digestion), we distracted ourselves with shopping and meandering about. Portland has lovely little neighbourhoods and adorable residential streets. I felt at home there almost immediately.

Even though I only visited Portland for 3½ days, I’ve now developed a special fondness for this west coast metropolis. It is the city where you will find a plethora of Barack Obama signs on people’s lawns, where Powell’s Books offers more reading material than the heart can ever desire, and where tattooed bodies seem to be the norm. Portland is home to Bitch Magazine, and, according to my friend M.C., is also the most vegan-friendly city in the grand old U.S. of A. If I could, I’d pick up and move there in a heartbeat.

My first meal in Portland was at The Farm Café where I dined on a blue cheese, sweet corn and cherry tomato risotto--possibly the best risotto I’ve ever had. So far, so good.

Later that night, at around midnight, we’d just come out of a Jesus and Mary Chain show and needed a sinful late-night snack. Looks like it might be time to check out Voodoo Doughnuts, whose slogan is “The magic is in the hole.” This place puts conventional doughnut shops to shame, and vegans will be happy to hear that they have a variety of vegan doughnuts available! I don’t usually eat doughnuts, but seeing as this place is a Portland institution, I indulged and ordered two. (Let’s call it doughnut research, folks.) The first was a chocolate doughnut with pink marshmallow icing and a blob of creamy peanut butter on top. Delicious. The second, and by far the better of the two, was a chocolate-covered doughnut topped with crushed Oreos and drizzled with peanut butter. I was in doughnut heaven. Definitely the bestest doughnut I’ve ever had in my entire life, hands down, no contest. And, best of all, if you’re planning on getting married, you can have your wedding ceremony at Voodoo Doughnuts. I think during a post-double-doughnut, sugar-induced stupor, even I could be convinced to get hitched at the Voodoo Doughnut digs.

Over the next few days, we continued to eat. Stuffing your face is made especially easy in Portland by the presence of tempting street food. The city is dotted with various carts that offer sundry edibles for your dining pleasure. Turn a corner and you may be greeted by a milkshake cart, a Belgian fries and poutine cart, or a waffle cart. The waffle cart, our breakfast stop on Day 3, was unforgettable. I ordered the s’more waffle, which is filled with Nutella and marshmallow fluff. This particular waffle is sure to put you in a sugar coma, so for those who are looking for something a little less sweet, I’d recommend the cheese and sausage option or perhaps peanut butter and jam.

If you’re a beer aficionado, you must visit the Lucky Labrador Brew Pub. It’s not a fancy or particularly impressive place, but this microbrewery offers a six-beer sampler, perfect for those curious or indecisive types. And dogs are welcome, too (although they may have trouble getting served). If you want to combine beer-drinking with movie-watching, most of Portland’s second-run cinemas have beer and pizza on the menu. Best idea ever.

Continuing with the theme of beverages (but this time those of the non-alcoholic variety), I highly recommend the thyme-infused iced tea at the Ace Hotel. Then you can sit in the air conditioned comfort of their chic lobby and watch random hipsters and other stylish folk mill around, which is exactly what I did. Ah, my crush on Portland will continue on.

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Is George Michael Polish?

There really is nothing like waking up at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning to the sound of George Michael’s greatest hits blasting out of the Polish Catholic seniors’ home across the street from where you live. You’d think that living across from a bunch of senior citizens would translate into a whole lot of quiet. But don’t be fooled. When it comes to cranking their tunes, those seniors are worse than a group of attitude-filled teenagers with something to prove! I’ve lived in my abode for a year now and, during the summer months, have been frequently serenaded by various musical selections that emanate from the building across from me. It seems that every time there’s a street festival, street sale, or when the seniors’ home has a garage sale, they like to play music. And they play it loud, folks. Loud enough that even when I jack up the volume on my stereo, it still doesn’t fully drown out what’s going on outside. Music on their frequently-played list includes polka, old favourites like Que Sera Sera, Polish folk songs, and George Michael.

Now, the polka and the oldies I can understand. But what’s up with the George Michael? His is the only contemporary music they ever play. My neighbour friend and I briefly contemplated this morning whether George Michael is Polish. So, I decided to do a little Internet research to find out. Nope. According to Wikipedia, Mr. Wake Me Up Before You Go Go is actually of Greek descent. Thus, the mystery remains unsolved.

And, as for the problem of having to listen to unbearably loud and generally unpalatable music on the occasional summertime Saturday, I’m considering going over and lending my silver-haired friends something a little better. Wouldn’t it be great to hear Aretha Franklin or James Brown belting it out as you walk past your neighbourhood retirement home? Then again, I suppose exposure to a little bit of Careless Whisper every now and again isn’t all that bad. Well, maybe. I’m thinking of investing in a good pair of earplugs just in case.

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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ah, perfection

I’m not so sure how to feel about Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, in each episode, Blumenthal, a world-renowned chef, tries to perfect one popular dish. Things he’s tried in the past include the perfect burger, the perfect baked Alaska, the perfect chicken tikka masala, and the perfect trifle. Blumenthal’s restaurant, The Fat Duck, has been voted one of the top 2 in the world, and he is undoubtedly a culinary genius. From what I’ve seen him do, I am impressed (and, trust me, I have high standards).

However, having watched several episodes of In Search of Perfection, I’m starting to wonder whether dear old Heston isn’t just trying to make the rest of us poor sods look bad. Okay, I’m sure this isn’t the case. (He seems like much too much of a sweetheart to be malicious, and I have to admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for him because he reminds me a bit of my brother, who is also a chef). But the perfectionist in me is actually slightly resistant to this whole notion of perfecting a particular recipe. I’ve been spending years trying to distance myself from my consuming compulsion for perfection. And now Blumenthal’s telling me he’s devised a recipe for the perfect risotto? How can I resist at least finding out how it’s done?

The real problem, though, lies in the feasibility of Blumenthal’s projects. At the beginning of each episode, he states that he wants to create recipes that people can reproduce at home. Uh, yeah, I don’t think so. His recipes are so complicated and time-consuming that I honestly can’t see even the most adventurous of gourmets trying their hand at them. I mean, with the baked Alaska, you need to have dry ice. Who has dry ice? Really.

You have to, of course, be impressed by Blumenthal’s research. He will scour the globe in search of the best ingredients and techniques. It’s actually really heartening to see someone try so hard to make something so good. I feel like (in North America, at least) we’re all in such a rush to get things done quickly and to do more, more, more, that hardly anyone sees the value in doing things well. In the end, this is the redeeming aspect of the show. That Blumenthal cares enough to aim for quality is really a mark of his integrity. So maybe his search for perfection ain’t so bad after all.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sex in the kitchen

As per usual, I’ve been watching a lot of the Food Network lately. And do you know what I’ve come to realize? My lack of ample cleavage is holding me back from becoming a first-rate cook. While I used to be able to count on Nigella Lawson as the only gourmet who sexed it up in the kitchen, these days, more and more culinary TV personalities are upping the sexual ante, and, frankly, it’s making me feel a little inadequate.

It seems that everywhere I turn someone is wearing a tight shirt, showing off their biceps, or making eyes at the camera while whipping cream into stiff peaks. More often than not, Giada de Laurentiis has a breast buffet ready to be served, while Rob Rainford, host of License to Grill, was recently referred to by one of my friends as “the barbecue porn guy,” I assume because of his near-orgasmic enthusiasm for all things grilled.

When compared with these folks, I’m as unsexy as overcooked, cold noodles. My kitschy aprons make me look more like a 1950s housewife than a 21st century sex bomb. And when you cook like I do—trying not to get food in my hair as I wipe the sweat from my brow—the heat in the kitchen really is only coming from the stove.

But outside of my own personal inadequacies, I have to say that my kitchen isn’t quite making the cut either. This is what happens when you spent most of your 20s as a student and now don’t have much disposable income to dole out on fancy kitchen accoutrements. It doesn’t help matters that I currently live in an ancient building with appliances that are clearly sub-par. I also never know what room temperature is going to be in my kitchen because my radiators have a mind of their own. So I’d have to say that anywhere between 15°C and 27°C is the norm. To add to this, my freezer barely freezes, my cupboards are mounted up so high that only giants can reach them, counter space is practically non-existent, and once I went to use my silicone pastry brush and found that it had been chewed up by mice. Talk about throwing a wrench into your plans. Outside of these little obstacles, there is always a space issue to overcome. In fact, I wouldn’t doubt that my kitchen is probably smaller than Michael Smith’s home pantry. How on earth am I ever supposed to compete with that?

My growing sense of inferiority only intensifies when I remind myself that everyone but me has all the fanciest, sexiest gadgets available: expensive mixers with dough hooks, coeur à la crème dishes, mandolines, ice cream machines, deep fryers, martini glasses, and Jamie Oliver’s patented Flavour Shaker. Oh, Jamie, darling, I love you, but I am not going out to buy one of your shaker contraptions, and that’s that.

Coming up against all of these impediments and being faced with chefs who have the best of everything, my zeal for cooking is sometimes slightly diminished. And yet I persevere, I suppose because, in the end, I love eating and feeding people too much to give it up just yet. So I cook, and I bake, and sometimes fabulous edibles transpire. And I guess on those days when I feel like my sex appeal is waning, the best I can do is pucker my lips, undo a few shirt buttons, and hope to god that I’m sexy enough to make a decent dinner.

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