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Beyond the Frontier: Love Letter and Academic Eulogy

Sometimes you meet people, and you don't know how or why, but you know they will be a part of your life through thick and thin, illness and moving vans, academia and beyond. This is the friendship I have with Jill Dahlman.

In 2014, maybe before, we had an idea for a book. Truth be told, it was mostly Jill's idea. She's the brains behind our academic publishing adventures. But we had this idea, pitched it to a publisher, put out the call for papers, and collected a series of essays from like-minded scholars. And now this, the third volume. While I did not help edit, I did contribute the Foreword, and I'd like to share it here.

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Beyond the Frontier: Innovations in First-Year Composition

Volume III


“Really?” she asks.

“Truly,” I answer.

The student peers at me through a computer screen, her forehead wrinkled with disbelief. We are at the end of her first grading conference, having scored a well-crafted essay that she will use for the Common App when she applies to college in a week or so. We reviewed the grading criteria together, read through and discussed her writing, and then graded the paper together with a rubric. She’s still frowning, a small but noticeable look like she’s working out something in her head. I allow her a minute, not wanting to rush what seems to be a heavy concern.

“It’s just--” she begins.

I smile patiently, holding the projected image of her from a home and computer miles away, across a network of wifi, cable, and fiberoptics. It’s a marvel, really, that we can connect in this way. Google Meets has been a godsend during the pandemic. Zoom. WebEx. A cell phone when needed. In this way, modern technology allows us to bridge the gap, be it a measure of miles or the need for social distancing during a global pandemic. As they say in theater: the show must go on, and so must education. We find new ways to reach out to students, new ways to approach material, new best practices to share with our coworkers.

Innovation and adaptation. These are qualities I admire about the teaching profession and those who answer the call to educate. Simply put, we are problem solvers, but it’s more than that. Teachers teach, but teachers also collect and analyze data, reflect on alternative modes of delivery, and modify praxis to best meet student needs. We inspect, tweak, and adapt, thinking not only outside the box when it comes to educational models but around and sometimes through them. This is our charge if we intend to effectively reach and teach our students in today’s ever-changing landscape of learning.

“It’s just,” my student says again. “I’ve never thought of myself as a writer… and I never thought I’d ever get higher than a C on a paper. You just gave me an A.”

“No,” I correct. “You earned that A.” It’s an important distinction, I tell her. “You earned it by writing and rewriting and rewriting some more. You wrestled words for a rough draft and participated in peer review. And you stayed up late some nights, didn’t you?”

She nods, then laughs. “Well, thank you anyway.”

“Thank you,” I say. “What you have to say is important, and I appreciate you sharing your writing with me today.”

She smiles, waves, and then the screen goes black.

I’m glad there was a bit of extra time between my grading appointments because interactions like these are important. They are touchstones for a teacher’s heart. The way we deliver instruction and interact with our students--online, via email, and during virtual meetups--might change, but the relationships we build are the same.

Now more than ever, teachers must look Beyond the Frontier of traditional teaching. We must read, investigate, and collaborate. We must re-think our classrooms and re-envision what a learning community might be. Classrooms are now as varied as pedagogical models and approaches. We meet face-to-face, fully online, and a hybrid of the two wherein students are sometimes on campus and other times at home. We have flipped classrooms and blended learning; work-based and service-learning; asynchronous, “work at your own pace,” and synchronous, “meet as a class in person or online.” Our challenge is to rise, to meet students where they are and move from there, even or especially when they doubt themselves or their abilities. In many ways, this makes us odd fellows, metaphoric cheerleaders for students who question their voices, and what those voices have to say.

“You are the future,” I often tell students. But I stop short at the cliched, moralizing lecture. They’re expecting that, the serious talk about hard work and responsibility they’ve been listening to for years. They’re expecting the teacher’s version of “When I was young, I had to walk miles and miles to school. Uphill. Both ways.” I don’t want to talk at my students, I want to talk with them. What an opportunity we have to have real conversations, to ask questions, and try to build something better. What drives me is the desire to know and understand, and to do this, I think we need to ask more questions, and then listen for the answers. When we listen, mindfully, we open a dialogue and encourage communication. We spark interest because students sense that we really do care. In this supportive, educational environment, students test-drive ideas and learn not to be afraid. We spark interest and curiosity. We see what’s possible.

Kierkegaard wrote that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” And just like writing is recursive--each step in the process leading to more steps--so is living. The important bit is to keep moving, to keep reaching forward--beyond what we know, beyond what we imagine. Beyond.

It feels strange, this pinch of time that expands and contracts between keystrokes and a stationary, blinking cursor. My next student dings in, a melodious chirp that alerts me that someone new has entered the Google Meet.

“Am I too early?” he asks.

“Not at all. You’re just on time.”

“I’m glad we did this essay,” he tells me. “Gave me practice for all the apps I have to write pretty soon.”

We make small talk as I pull up his essay. Soon I will share my screen so we can review the rubric together. It’s helpful for students to know what’s expected of them. Oh… and having pulled up his essay, I remember reading it the first time. Single mom. First in his family to attend college. He’s a bundle of nervous energy, and I can almost see one of his knees bouncing quickly up and down as a stress response.

The student shares that he’s worried about his grade because he’s “never been a good writer” and doesn’t want his grade to tank before graduation. I read his last revision and know that it’s a decent paper. Where does this oft-expressed “I’m not a good writer” come from, I wonder? It seems a deep-seated belief for many students, and it makes me sad. As a writing instructor, I want to root it out. I want to dust off this internalized and self-downing conclusion. Writing is a practice, I tell students, a process (and product) that improves with the doing of it. No one is born a writer. Not really. This is an idea that brings hope as we approach the blank page or the white screen. We are possibilities made real through study... and practice.

“I just really want to go, you know, to college,” he says. This student is clearly a nervous talker. I reassure him with clear expectations of how the grading conference will roll out: review the rubric, read the essay aloud, provide feedback on the final draft, and then we grade it together. It will be the same process every time. “I’m just curious how it’s gonna be,” he admits.

Curious, I think, rolling the word around the inside of my head. The thought bounces around my brain like a ball in a pinball machine, and right now I’m the double-flippers to keep this student engaged. Other teachers in other disciplines are the bumpers and lights. We, teachers, work together in this way to keep our students “in the game.” Curious, indeed.

Dewey had plenty to say about curiosity. He stated that no real learning can take place without it, and I believe this applies to both sides. Teachers must reach out and beyond, just as much as students do. We should wonder what might lie beyond the frontier and get curious about it. Talk to our friends and colleagues about it. After all, this one of the sacred responsibilities of educators: as much as we teach, we also must learn.

What can you expect from Beyond the Frontier? Be you a fellow educator, someone from administration, a parent, or a student, there is something for you between the covers of this physical or electronic book. I would encourage you to read two articles and share one with your community of supporters. Consider this a think-pair-share activity, and suggest that your “curiosity buddies” share their favorites too. Believe in the beauty of this kind of community connection because it will save us. Connection starts with a mindset. It starts with patience and practice. It starts with engagement, and from there, it can take us beyond what we expected.

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I have a love-hate relationship with teaching. I love the act of teaching, the working with students, watching lightbulbs turn on for the students and being inspired by them in return. What I don't like are the long hours, the low pay, and often... the disrespect, the uncertainty, the bureaucracy. One size does not fit all when it comes to education, and that includes teachers.

I'm not sure what all this means for my future, but I can say that I'm not a half-assed kind of person: woman, writer, or teacher. I bend over backwards for students and often pretzel myself to help. I must learn how to do this more for myself.

I don't know where I'll be in a year, but I do know that I'll still be writing. "You must not come lightly to the blank page," author Stephen King tells us. I think that goes for life in general.

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