Saturday, April 21, 2012


I've been adjunct teaching at the undergraduate and masters level for about a year now, so I thought I'd reflect a little on what I've learned and my own personal pedagogy (teaching style) at this point.

First, in this day and age, one has to be fairly careful about what one puts out there online when one is a teacher! It's a little weird to write publicly about teaching, because who knows which of my students will find my blog at some point--or if they're my "friends" on Facebook, then they will see that I post. (If I taught underage kids I probably wouldn't accept them as Facebook "friends," but since I'm teaching adults, some of whom are my friends in "real" life and not just online, it ends up that some of my students are also my Facebook "friends.") I sometimes post things about sitting around on Friday nights grading papers, or I post my lecture topics, but I'm definitely careful to make sure what I say online is responsible and respectful.

I feel like at this point I need to go read everything Parker Palmer has ever written! (He's a Quaker who writes about teaching.) I've read a couple of his books, but I need to re-read them, and read everything else. I really appreciate what he has to say about creating classroom space that is egalitarian rather than too teacher-focused. This is something I want to do better. I find it difficult to make sure this happens, but at the same time to make sure students feel they are getting their money's worth, or that they are learning the information they want/need to know. Part of this is the academic system we currently use. It is information-focused and teacher-centered, so that is basically what students expect. They expect that if they are taking a class, the teacher will be the "expert" (at least compared to them) and will impart knowledge, which they will soak up. Parker Palmer talks about a pedagogical setting where all participants are both students AND teachers.

I try to do this in that I have students give a presentation at some point during the class. Therefore, they are the expert-for-the-day at least once during the semester, and they get used to listening to one another and valuing one another's input. This doesn't go as far as what Palmer suggests, however, because the model is still the same: someone is standing at the front and imparts information that they learned from books and experts. But at the same time, it helps students to feel confident in something so that everyone has a chance to contribute something important to the discussion at some point. There are many students, it seems, who don't feel comfortable speaking up in class, but if given the microphone (so to speak) they will talk for a long time!

I also try to incorporate quite a bit of discussion and to make sure that people feel comfortable asking questions. My best-laid plans don't always work out, however, and often the class time is all used up by lecture and other details and there isn't enough time for discussion. I try to set aside specific days for discussion only.

Grading is one thing that I've found is not my favorite thing. I know this goes for most teachers! I am learning to assign things that I enjoy grading, but with undergrad general ed classes, it seems like it's necessary to assign things that will encourage students to process the information and to learn it in-depth, and that this learning doesn't really happen unless you force them to do it. Students complain about how much work they have to do, but the prof has to do the same work x40! It's definitely a challenge to keep up with all the grading and to give them helpful, constructive feedback.

One thing I really try to do is to require an active element outside of class. I taught a class on spirituality and social justice, and required that each student do some sort of social justice volunteer work or action of some kind. For Bible survey for undergrads, I asked them to do a research project that incorporated a paper, a presentation and a creative or active element. It was amazing to see the creativity so many of the students used! Some wrote poetry or music, some made movies, some served in their church, one person memorized a passage of scripture in sign language, some students incorporated what they learned into their sport, some made art projects, some had conversations, one created a dream journal and another started a spiritual journal, and many other things. It was wonderful to hear how they connected with God and connected with their biblical topic in new ways through their creative or active portion.

Overall, I've learned that I really enjoy teaching! I actually love it. I really do like the grading, too, except for that since I'm kind of just teaching on the side at the moment, I don't have time to do it. But I like to read what they have to say and to find out whether or not they're learning the things I'm intending them to learn. I assign journals for the general ed classes, and although they take quite a bit of time on my part, they're some of my favorite things to grade because I can see their worldview growing right before my eyes. They open up to new concepts and new ideas, and so many of them are incredibly receptive to this new information and to the spiritual growth that the new information encourages. I love to see how God is working in their lives through their interaction with the texts and other materials we're learning about as a class.

My only hesitation with teaching is that I feel like I can so easily get sucked in to the academic world being my whole world. I talk about social justice and the equality of all people, but I just sit around in my suburban ivory tower. I don't really have time to do anything else! I think pretty much one could spend all of one's free time on one class and still not do it perfectly, because there's always more preparation or a more creative way or a little bit more attention to grading or any number of other things to be done--not to mention one's own research and writing for publication. So I'm not convinced that this career path is entirely healthy for me. By no means is it easy, but it's safe (in some ways)--I'm comfortable with academia and with the kinds of questions it raises. There are areas where it is not exactly safe--what happens when I disagree theologically with the institution I'm representing? Is it possible for me as a woman in academia to be myself and to still have a viable career? I'm not a big fan of dealing with politics in terms of "playing a game" to get ahead in a career, so I'm not altogether certain that I'll be able to get very far beyond adjuncting. But these are not the kinds of "safety" questions I would have to deal with if I chose a career path that was more social justice-oriented.

For now, though, I'm definitely enjoying teaching and I'm hopeful that it will lead toward a career that challenges me in all the right ways, and in which I can be my best self and encourage students to be their best selves, too.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

book review: dirt & the good life

Dirt & the Good Life: Stories from Fern Creek is a wonderful book of stories and reflections that comes out next Monday, April 16, through Barclay Press. You should definitely pick up a copy, or get the Kindle version. I've been reading it this week and it is a great read! I happen to know the authors, Lisa Graham McMinn and Mark R. McMinn. They're professors at George Fox University, and I grew up with their daughters. Also, last summer I was a member of their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)--that's where you pay a lump sum for all your fruit and vegetables for the summer, and they grow them for you, locally and organically and amazing-tastingly! But even if I didn't know the McMinns, I would still find this book valuable and beautifully written.

The book is a compilation of essays and stories written by Mark and Lisa over the course of their year-long sabbatical from academic work (he in psychology and she in sociology). They spent their sabbatical year digging around in the dirt, feeding chickens, harvesting honey and reflecting on the "good life" of parenting, grandparenting and farming at Fern Creek. Each short piece is infused with a practical spirituality that does not ignore hardship, but focuses on the beauty of life and the importance of caring for the Earth. Their reflections are poignant and sometimes funny, deep and insightful, poetic and practical. Dirt and the Good Life reminded me of a cross between Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk, with the poetic sensibility of Wendell Berry (though they write in prose). I love that Lisa and Mark each contributed about half of the book. I enjoyed hearing each of their voices, and taking in their own distinct thoughts as well as learning how their ideas and hearts have melded together and challenged one another over the years.

The McMinns are Friends (Quakers), and though their stories and thoughts would be beneficial to people from many walks of life, I find them especially inspiring as Friends. I'm not sure how they find the time to write, teach, farm and create amazing traditions with their families and friends (like a fall equinox party and an annual pumpkin-carving extravaganza, as they share in the book), but they also are noticeably grounded and wise. Perhaps they have tons of extra time now that they're empty nesters--I loved hearing about how this time of life, which some couples find so difficult, has been for them a time of deepening hope and living out of their shared dreams. But back to the importance of their book for Friends: they present a beautiful picture of what it's like to live simply, ethically, responsibly and extravagantly. They relish silence and simplicity, but they also know how to enjoy the Earth's abundance, and to see God in all of these things.

I appreciate Mark's vulnerability when he shares about a book he wrote that didn't make it to the best-seller list, and how he allowed God to give him a reality check through this experience. He talks about "downward mobility," and I think this is something we as Friends try to emphasize, though we (at least I!) struggle with exactly when, how and where to do this. Like John Woolman, who refused to grow his business and instead chose to focus on God's call on his life, Mark noticed he could continue to try to follow the path that led to critical acclaim, but it might not be God's best path for him. He and Lisa chose to move together on the path of "downward mobility," to buy a small acreage and spend time in the life-giving dirt.

Another thing I like about this book is its online component. If you go visit the site for the book you'll see that you can look at a flipbook of a bunch of pictures of the places and things they're describing. Some of those pictures are present in the paper book, but in black and white. Being able to see them in color adds a lovely dimension to the experience. You can also read a sample of the book while you're there. My very talented husband, Joel, also did a promo video for them: 

Overall, I definitely recommend this book! Lisa and Mark invite you to kick back, relax into an easy friendship and ponder life with them. They share their joys and struggles, insights they've learned along the way, and the creative and deep way they view the world--especially when their hands are in the dirt. I hope you will find their stories and their lives as inspiring as have I.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

update on (sub)urban chicken farming

Last year I told you about our foray into chicken farming! We bought two cute little chicks and inherited 4 adult layers (for the in-town limit of 6 chickens). Our eldest named the two chicks "Wet" and "Blanket." Why? No one knows!

Well, our experiment went pretty well in that we still have chickens and they lay eggs for us, and it's the highlight of our youngest's day to go out and feed the "bock-bocks" and collect the "eggies." They also have a chicken coop and a nice fenced-in yard with a 5-foot fence. Of course, I look out the window and none of them are actually IN the chicken yard right now...they are scratching around our landscaping looking for tasty treats. We REALLY need to learn to clip their wings!

The sad news, however, is that out of 6 chickens that we started out with last year, we now only have 2. One night shortly after we moved Wet and Blanket outside, a raccoon came and ate the two babies and, not quite satisfied, also got one of the adults. And then there were 3. A couple months later, Joel went out to let them out of the coop and one of them was dead, presumably of natural causes. One night they weren't locked in their coop so they roosted in a more open-air part of the pen and a raccoon came and ate one of the chicken's toes, but luckily couldn't get inside to get any more of her! She survived and is still laying.

We decided that even though we'd had a run of rather bad chicken-luck, we would try again, so last week we bought 4 new baby chicks! EP named them Wet the Second, Blanket the Second, Turkey and Light. He cracks me up! He's spent hours and hours with them, showing them all his stuffed animals, "reading" books to them, and complaining when I won't let him eat snacks while holding them. K asks incessantly, "Chickees? Chickees?" We also call them "baby bock-bocks" so he understands they're chickens. Sometimes if I'm not understanding when he says "chickees" he says "beebe bock-bock?" (which is funny especially since my mom's last name is Beebe and ours is Bock!)

The poor "chickees" are probably feeling quite overly-loved.