Both sides of the educational equation

I think college professors should take college classes every now and then. It gives us an insight as to what we’re doing to our students.

I’m taking an online course on Serving the Diverse Community During Disaster. It’s a great class, as all my classes in disaster mental health have been. However, these are the thoughts that keep going through my mind: 

  • This class is only five weeks long! How am I going to get all this done in such a short time?
  • I hate group projects.
  • I have 150 pages to read each week! 
This is what I put my students through (except they probably only read half as much in a week). These things are necessary for learning, and the pace is necessary for a summer class. So when I’m teaching, I have to incorporate lots of reading, group projects, and all those assignments. 

But when I’m a student, I see it from the students’ point of view, and I have to remind myself all is wise and necessary.

Summer’s End

My summer’s winding down. This might be the reason I feel so lazy right now, knowing that in less than a month I will be back to work. 

I work as an associate professor at Northwest Missouri State University. I don’t know how professors are regarded in Europe (where some of my more regular readers reside), but in the US they’re widely regarded as suspicious characters who subject their students to arcane knowledge such as how to think critically and use unbiased data to draw conclusions from. 

I have one last hurrah before I go back to work (which has the added bonus of keeping me out of beginning of semester meetings) — my annual gig at New York Hope moulaging. This also includes train travel with a sleeper car and hanging out to write in the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago’s Union Station (waiting for my connector train). 

But I have a couple weeks before then, working on classes before the semester starts and writing (I need motivation!) and resting before things get crazy.


I’m trying to write something meaningful, and I’m failing. Mostly because I’m falling asleep at my desk.

I could write down the stream of consciousness I face when I sleep, but there is a green field far away/I hope to find it some fine day* (repeat and fade) and I’d rather sing along (repeat and fade) than be inspired at the moment … zzz …

My drowsiness does not seem to understand Robert Frost’s words: ” … and miles to go before I sleep …” I know he was talking about death, morbid spirit that he was, but I’ve got a full day today and naptime doesn’t seem to understand that. I’m dressed up, I’m ready to teach, and — zzzzz …

I am falling asleep sitting up. Sitting up. It’s a good thing I can’t sleep standing up, otherwise class today could be very … different.  Zzzzz …

I’ve had two cups of coffee. By cups, I mean 12 ounces, or about 2x the amount in those styrofoam shot glasses they call a coffee cup. This means that I’ve had a total of a pint and a half of — zzzzz …

Can I sleepwalk through work? Not an option — especially since teaching has a touch of acting in it, and I must show my true enthusiasm for this topic externally, which can’t happen if I — Zzzzzz …

It’s okay, I’ll wake up as soon as I have to drive to work. It’s not good sleeping while driving — Zzzzz …

*Waterboys, “The Return of Pan”. Great song.

The Rituals of a New Year

Tomorrow is the first day of my 25th fall semester as a professor.

I could say it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t remember not going through the rituals of the beginning of the semester — writing syllabi, preparing course sites, figuring out what I need to say on the first day of the semester to keep from sounding like an idiot.
I don’t remember a fall semester where I haven’t had the nightmares born of the fear that things will not go well on the first day — the A/V equipment fails, the classroom is made up of walls and nooks such that some of the students can’t see or hear the lecture, I’m late for class, the students get frustrated and leave, I’m standing in front of the class in my underwear … dealing with the fear spawns its own ritual, that of re-preparing in the last minute so that nothing goes wrong.
What I wear to my first day of classes each year is its own ritual. It’s one of the few days I wear a suit, to remind myself that I’m not going into class naked like in my dreams. 
Twenty-five years teaching, and in some ways it’s like my first day, when I stood in front of my class in a navy blue suit. One of my students, in a thick Long Island accent, asked “Are you lost?” (It sounded to my midwestern ears as “Awwe yew Lawst?”)
“No, I’m the professor for this class,” I said.
“Ohh, I thought you were a student,” she proclaimed.

Teaching in Writing Fiction

Writers have to provide a certain amount of solid grounding in their world, whether it be realism in an “ordinary world” or explaining the rules in a world of magic. But they have to do it carefully — not enough grounding and readers shake their heads at fancy words with no meaning; too much explanation and it comes off like sitting in a lecture in a stuffy classroom.

I wrote that “sitting in a lecture in a stuffy classroom” metaphor very deliberately, because grounding a reader in the rules of the world is, in effect, teaching. Doing this grounding not only helps the reader understand the world, but teaches them something new.

I remember a Jayne Ann Krentz book I once read (yes, I have read fantasy, and some of it is quite good) where the lead male owned a winery. At one point, he strides through the winery checking up on things. That’s about the only detail Krentz provided about the winery — he could have been touring an aircraft carrier for all we knew. This really stood out to me because I used to make wine at home and had considered starting a commercial winery at one point. My character would have stopped by the lab to discuss pH levels and brix — sugar levels — of grape must going into the process and the percentage alcohol and residual sugar of a batch waiting to go into oak barrels if it was red wine or bottling if it was white. He would tour the barrel stock and take a sample from a 55-gallon barrel with a wine thief and taste how it began to mellow under the influence of the oak. With these details, the reader understands more about wine — and the male protagonist is portrayed as having a keen eye on details, an understanding that winemaking is as much a craft as a business, and a rapport with his workers. That’s the beauty of teaching — done right, it develops the rest of the story — character, plot, theme, or all three — as well as teaching the reader about something new.

I do a certain amount of teaching in my own writings — I am, after all, a professor. I write what would be called magical realism if I wrote literary fiction instead of genre fiction (e.g. romance, science fiction, fantasy, Westerns, erotica). Sometimes what I write just has to be revealed rather than explained because there is no logical explanation — for example, the mystical aspects of my writing such as seeing visions and hearing the voices of the Gods (sounds epic, but the recipients of these preternatural events are a twenty-year-old college student and a fifty-year-old architect.)

Some extraordinary things need to be explained — such as the rules around time travel:


“Ahh, the rock principle.” Ian referred to the fact that when Travellers exacted non-significant changes in a time period — not interactions with major players or major objects — an innocuous change would be made in terms of those non-essential players and objects. For example, if a Traveller picked up a rock in 1620 that an ordinary human of the time would trip over, the timeline would substitute another rock to compensate. In my case, I supplanted the red and white airplane. Significant changes would not be allowed according to the rock principle.

And sometimes I teach the most prosaic things:


Her permaculture guilds for Barn Swallows’ Dance would be bigger, more complex. Daunting, even. Two acres of six-layer guilds centered on apple trees, surrounded with hazelnut and sea holly and various cane berries, where the tree’s dappled shade would benefit them. Perennial herbs and greens such as scorzonera and chicory would be planted toward the tree’s drip line where they would get enough water.  Groundcovers like bunchberry and violets, which would block weeds, and edible vines that grew up the trees, would complete the scene.

When I pick up a book, sometimes I want it to broaden my world. Maybe it’s just me, because I teach college for a living. But if the book can explain something in a non-didactic (non-lecture-y) way, I’m all for it. I hope I’m doing a good job of it.