Finite Eyes / Blog / courses / Salvage



The toll of the last year on my teaching, work, and life is evident in silence. I last wrote here in November, shortly before my school began an extended winter break. Though I had time to write here, and I had ideas about things to write, it was difficult to summon the energy to do so. I began writing a post of reflections on teaching in the soon-to-be-past term, the first term where we’d had time to plan for the remote and hybrid learning situation that the pandemic forced upon us. I wrote in that post about cognitive overload, and as I wrote about it I found myself unable to continue to write, because just writing about cognitive overload exacerbated cognitive overload. I tried to write about lessons I wanted to bring forward, to salvage from this term and this experience. But then I realized I didn’t want to salvage any of it. I didn’t want to learn from it. The pandemic was not a teachable moment. It should not be turned into our latest whizzbang edtech bro-toy.

I didn’t want to learn from this experience. I didn’t want to reflect on it, find the good spots, grow from the struggle. I just wanted to survive.

Barring catastrophe, it looks like the upcoming fall term will be more or less normal for us. I’ve gotten vaccinated. Getting the initial shot was the first moment I had felt anything like relief in a long time, a sense of possibility. With luck I will be able to travel a little bit this summer, not far, no, but farther than I have been for the last year, when I have barely gone farther than the distance from my house to campus, about seven miles.

I do not want to learn from this experience. I just want to be done with it.


(I wrote the above a week ago. I had a plan for where the post was going, but I forget now what it was.)


I want to write about the ways the pandemic provided a crisis that academic neoliberals have found too good to waste, the way the pandemic’s imperative to change the ways we do things was turned into an excuse to cut faculty, end programs administrators had long wanted to end, and consolidate power among the administrative class at the expense of shared governance, faculty autonomy, general morale, and basic decency. I want to write about this, but writing about it right now is just too dispiriting. It is hard to write about the house burning down when you’re still choking on smoke.


On Twitter, I keep complaining about academic publishing. This is not only because academic publishing is horrible (a lot of it is), but more, I suppose, because it’s a narrow topic and a clear example of terrible practices. The ways people allow themselves to be exploited because they think it will be good for their careers, their prestige, their CV, their tenure — it’s just astounding. I’m not separate from it. (I published a book with Bloomsbury Academic, fer gawd’s sake!) But because I also have experience with other types of publishing, I have never expected anything from academic publishing except a line on my CV that I can use for tenure. Every essay I’ve published with journals that took my copyright and publishing rights (for no remuneration except the “prestige” of publishing with them) did so with my full knowledge and complicity, because I needed those publications for my job search. I knew the devil’s bargain I was making. But this doesn’t mean academic publishing is a good system, and I continue to be surprised by people who have gotten beyond the point of needing to have one of these little gold stars on their CV who nonetheless comply with the bad practices of so many academic publishers. (Not all! I was pleasantly surprised to get a publishing agreement with the MLA recently that’s quite reasonable and actually seems to take the rights and labor of writers seriously. They should, in fact, publicize the reasonableness of their publishing agreements. Indeed, if you are an academic publisher reading this and thinking, “But we’re not bad like that!” then you should shout that to the rooftops. The big and terrible publishers get away with their big terribleness partly because too many people think that’s just the way it is and must be.)

This issue bothers me more for the way it shows that tenured faculty have failed the profession than for the ways it demonstrates anything else. When it comes to publishing, academia is the way it is because academics with power have agreed to it. And in this pandemic, that is one of the things that has become so clear and so galling — things are the way the are because people who could have stood up and put their prestige and careers in the way of the juggernaut did not.

The only conclusion I can come to is that a lot of prestigious academics and administrators want things to be the way they are.

5. & 6.

(deleted: ranting at clouds)


One of the reasons I haven’t written here for a while is that whatever I tried to write ended up becoming, within a few sentences, a scream against the universe. Whenever I start to write about academia, all I can do is yell out, “Why have you let things get like this, whoever you are — you with more power than me?!?”

And I’m one of the lucky ones! I won the academic lottery, got a job on the tenure track. It’s a job at a regional state school in the state with the least funding per student for higher education out of all the states. My ever-more-stressful job in the land of austerity is an example of WINNING in academia!


My students are still doing interesting, creative work, despite all the impediments, despite all the awfulness. That’s what has always made working in schools worth it, if it was worth it: students thinking in new and interesting ways, students taking control of their lives, students finding paths forward.


I can’t talk about pedagogy or teaching with people who work at wealthy private schools anymore. I nod and listen politely, but no. Sorry. There is no common language. I have a degree from one of these places, an Ivy. I worked for ten years at private high schools (including the school Jared Bleeping Kushner graduated from). They warp your entire idea of what is possible for other people, the majority of people, and I think they warp your ethics, too.

The schools I worked at for ten years would see it as a terrible failure for their students to go to the school I teach at now. As a career trajectory, I consider this a triumph.


A few months before the pandemic forced us into lockdown, I began writing an article I hoped might eventually become a book on cruelty-free teaching. My work on cruelty-free syllabi has been popular, and I haven’t had a chance to really develop the concepts in ways I would like. I had gotten a few thousand words of rough draft started when the pandemic hit. I haven’t looked back at the manuscript since. I do hope to get back to it this summer — I’m leading a workshop on the ideas for the Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network, which is good motivation to keep going with the material. There’s a real enthusiasm for it out there, and I’ve been especially pleased to see my own ideas alongside or inspiring others, such as my friend Benjamin Hagen’s valuable essay “No Children, Only Tasks: Reflections on Cruel Pedagogies”.

This failure to write the work that people most clearly and actually want me to write has been a source of frustration and disappointment for me, but the ways the ideas have spread out and been gathered and developed by other people has been a great inspiration and balm. This is what academic research ought to be — somebody comes up with concepts and ideas, other people take off with them, building their own concepts and ideas, it all becomes a conversation and a collaboration. That’s the ideal. it’s why I’m such an advocate of open access work, because it allows all sorts of audiences to participate, and it relieves the burden of any one person to be the be-all and end-all of ideas. In some ways, the sciences are better at this sort of collaboration than the humanities are, even though the humanists are the folks who speak most loudly about the values of community.

A friend and colleague recently recommended to a bunch of us at my school the book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I got a copy, thinking it might have a few useful concepts, but Disability Studies is not really my field, and it’s one I’m wary of just dipping a toe in for fear of misrepresenting important ideas and conversations. I read the book in one day. Devoured it. It was one of those books that makes you realize you have needed it for a long time without actually knowing you needed it. I will write later about why, but I do want to note it here and to say that ideas of disability and justice are ones we all need to pay closer attention to at all times, but especially now, because so many of us are, whether we know it or not, injured and in need of care networks.

My failure to write more about cruelty and pedagogy was not because I lacked ideas or inspiration or time, but because I just didn’t have the brainspace to think about cruelty during a moment where so much happening in the world, higher education, and especially my own institution felt like one cruelty after another.



I didn’t write a lot of anything during the spring and summer of 2020, but eventually I inched my way toward expression again, and I returned to the form I have most often returned to, but had been frozen with for over a year: short fiction. (I once published a book of the stuff.) For the first time in quite a while, I was reading and writing short fiction more than anything else. The writing was slow, unprolific work, but the results pleased me — a feeling I hadn’t had in, literally, years about much of anything I had written.

Then Barry Lopez died. Lopez was the leader for a workshop I attended at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in the summer of 2000, a workshop that changed my life because it focused not on technique but on purpose. Lopez assumed we all had enough technique to write well, and what he offered us were conversations about why we wanted to write. This was exactly what I needed at the time. Only days before his death, I had rediscovered my Bread Loaf notebooks with the exercises he gave us in them. After his death, I began writing an essay about him, thinking I would send it to a place like Lit Hub or Orion, somewhere that might be interested in a short memoir of Lopez as teacher. Luckily, no publication was interested in this — I say luckily, because once I started writing, I had trouble stopping. The piece is now 18,000 words and still growing. It is not just about Lopez, but about a lot of other things as well. It has been pure pleasure to write, even as it offered tremendous challenges of form and scope.

One of the reasons I found writing about Lopez (and topics he inspired) so powerful at this time was his life’s thoughtful, serious approach to questions of meaning, interconnectedness, resistance, regeneration, and responsibility. I could not write about cruelties while living in a cruel time, but I could not stop writing about the sort of questions that invigorated Lopez’s work. When I do return (soon, I hope) to questions of cruelty and pedagogy, they will be more deeply informed by the ideas my writing on Lopez brought to me — ideas of connection informed by ecology, ideas of how and why we give attention, ideas of tenderness amidst the inevitable violence of life. Perhaps this, really, is what I have needed to wait for.


Students in my senior seminar course are turning in their term projects this week. A few of them have struggled: their ideas kept changing, or they procrastinated, or they encountered insurmountable obstacles, or their project became much bigger than they thought it would. I have given these students permission to let their project be incomplete or even incoherent. The point of the course is not to have a finished, final, polished product. That’s great when it happens, but the point of the course is learning, and process is more important to learning than final product. I tell these students to stop their project wherever it’s at and write about why it is what it is and what they would like it to be if they had more time. Students who have failed to come up with much of anything, I tell to make their failures their project. Nothing worked out. Why is that? Write about it. Create a presentation about it. What have you learned, about yourself, about education, about the world?

“What can you salvage from this?” I asked one student. “How can you celebrate the salvage?”



It’s hard to look on any of my teaching this term as something I’m proud of. We’ve just been getting by. The courses do what they need to do, but not more than that. Recognizing that my students are struggling in this pandemic world — in some ways more than they were a year ago, when this was a new adventure — I stripped the classes down to their bare minimum of work. Even though I know that was the right decision and many students are still having some trouble keeping up, I have a lifetime of indoctrination into the expectations of teaching that still makes me feel guilty for not being the grand pontificator leading students toward hard-won enlightenment through back-and-brain-breaking work. The protestant work ethic and the ethic of sadism inherent in so much of what we do is a fierce poison to clear out of the system.

The point, I keep telling myself, is learning and growth. Have my students learned and grown this term, even (especially) the ones who have struggled? Mostly, yes, I think so, the ones who stayed engaged with the work. The ones who pretty much checked out and disappeared … not at all, but at a certain point, well, you’ve got to take the small victories and let the things outside your control wash away. Especially in the midst of a global pandemic.



Looking at my students’ projects this term, I keep thinking how wonderful they are, both the students and the work: creative, thoughtful, imbued with passion, quirky. Messy, sure; incomplete and aspirational, definitely — but also clear evidence of learning. By design, I didn’t “teach” these students anything. But I did try to create a space in which they could explore and try things out and bring it all together (whatever it was) in the end. Can we even call that teaching? More like: creating space and time for learning, then getting out of the way. I can live with that.


What can you salvage?

How can you celebrate the salvage?

image: Nate Bell on Unsplash