I’ve been trying to write this reflection for weeks. I’ve known the truth I want to speak to our writing studies community. Mainly, I want to shout to those in the back of the room that our online teaching and learning should damn well be improving in experience, in reputation, and in research as a result of the pandemic. I want to be brave and bold in this statement. But secondly, I want to talk about all the things I missed when CCCC20 was canceled. (Frankly, I feel like a good venting whine might be constructive.) I want to be grandiose in showing my desire for systemic academic changes to online learning, but I also want to be utterly selfish and talk about myself.
So, naturally, I keep getting stuck. I keep getting off track.
When I told my friend and fellow academic Angie that I just need to focus on my writing, she said, “I’ve been meaning to get on track for a long time, but I keep getting in my own way.” Her words sum up my own experiences. They likely sum up many of our experiences. I know I’m getting in my own way. I’m my own enemy; my mind invents my own roadblocks. I am my own resistance. I am afflicted by
f r a g i l i t y
Destructive inner monologue.
These are the factors that have affected my work. These are the reasons I have struggled to write, to concentrate, to process anything that even comes close to feeling meaningful. Angie reminded me that I’m not alone in these feelings, but here’s the thing:
In many ways, I am alone in what I do and how I do it.
My place and space within the walls of academia are unlike most. I am not quite faculty. I am not quite staff. Yet I am staff; I am faculty. I do administrative work. I teach. I create curricula. I make phone calls. I grade papers. I bill. I tutor. I am all, and I am nothing all at the same time. I have no tenure, nor do I have hope of it. My position is a 12-month staff position where I am also listed as faculty of record for approximately 500 students. As far as I know, no one else has a job like this—not at my university to be certain, but perhaps not at any university. I am solo. Secluded. Unseen by most at my university except for the students I teach and mentor.
Perhaps a quick moment of personal history would help me better situate my present and make sense of my place and the space that I occupy.
A little over two years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of Memphis and working as the Graduate Assistant Director of the university writing center, I was invited to the Vice Provost’s office to talk about a new project. In short, I was asked to join a team developing a partnership between the University of Memphis and FedEx, a partnership that would offer FedEx employees an employer-funded education that offered an alternate method of admission to the university. That alternative route to admission eventually became the Prep Academy, an online bridge program designed to help potential students gain admission by less traditional means. Essentially, the Prep Academy replaces ACT/SAT scores and high school GPAs by allowing students the space, time, and opportunity to prove that they are capable of college work.
The Prep Academy is and has always been fully online. It launched in August 2018 and is made up of curriculum from several different college courses. When students successfully complete the work with a minimum of 80% on all assignments, they have earned admission and 12 credit hours that are then posted to their transcripts. Much of what students do and learn in the Prep Academy is focused on literacy, on reading and writing at a level that will sustain them through college. They are also given ample opportunity to become familiar with the University’s learning management system as well as getting comfortable with practical issues such as formatting papers and practicing dialogue with professors. They create professional documents such as resumes and LinkedIn profiles. They write a very basic research paper. They work hard, and when they finish, they are admitted to the university.
The curriculum is rigorous enough to warrant the 12 credit hours that accompany its completion. For good or ill, to date there have been only 45 students who have completed the Prep Academy and earned their admission. Yet from those students, we have had a 97% success rate with most of our Prep Academy completers earning As and Bs in subsequent coursework.
While I started as no more than a graduate student who helped design writing curriculum and did a lot of proofreading, two years after that first fateful meeting with the Vice Provost, I am now the Coordinator of the Prep Academy. I remain part of the team who manages the FedEx partnership — a partnership with approximately 2000 FedEx employees from across the country in some form of educational experience with us. We also have a burgeoning partnership with a local health care system as well as a couple of other smaller partnerships. We have Prep Academy courses for all of these groups and, due to COVID-19 and a hiring freeze, I am the only instructor who grades quizzes, reads papers, and offers feedback, the only instructor who continually maintains curriculum and manages the daily issues that arise when technology is the vehicle for learning.
I have approximately 500 students enrolled in various sections of the Prep Academy at any given time. They are allowed to work at their own pace, so I occasionally wake up to empty dropboxes, but much more common is the experience of waking up to dozens of papers to grade or quizzes to score. This is daily. There is no slow season. There is no Fall break. There is no time off in the summer. There is no downtime. The work is nonstop. Prep Academy students are enrolled continuously. I had three new students start today, and ten new ones started two days ago. My daily to-do lists include an afternoon email to the university registrar to discuss new enrollees and, when necessary, to unenroll students who have been terminated by their employer. The ebb and flow in many ways defines the Prep Academy as it is indicative of the population we serve. Frankly, the ebb and flow of the Prep Academy deserves an entire paper of its own.
I often log in on the weekend to grade for an hour or two just so that Monday mornings don’t send me into panic mode. I’ve had to remove my work email from my phone so that the ever-rising numeral on the email icon doesn’t make me uneasy. I haven’t even tried to take more than a day off since becoming the Coordinator because the thought of coming back from vacation to a mountain of work is too overwhelming. There is simply too much to do.
Ironically, my presentation at CCCC20 was to be titled “But Are you Faculty or Staff: When the Job is More than Either/Or.” I was to speak to the Graduate Standing Group about the job market and the possibility of finding a job in academia that does not follow the false dichotomy of the Tenure Track or Non-Tenure Track positions. I was going to say that there are more options than that, but now I am not sure that I could, in good conscience, make those statements. The economic effects of this pandemic will likely be seen for years to come in how universities hire and classify employees. I’m not sure if positions like mine will ever exist in other contexts. I’m not even sure if they should. I’m just not sure.
Interestingly enough, when the world began to turn so much slower in March of 2020, the Prep Academy never stopped moving. When my colleagues were figuring out how to move their courses online, I wasn’t suffering the same problems. As I’ve said, the Prep Academy has always been entirely online, so “going online” wasn’t an issue for this population. While it is true that students initially seemed to slow down in their studies in the latter part of March 2020, that lull only lasted two to three weeks and then the pace picked back up. In fact, Prep Academy students have been even more active than before. Perhaps this is because our current climate has given them a wake-up call. This is a vulnerable population. They work hourly jobs. They have nothing more than a high school diploma. They are generally from underprivileged and underrepresented populations. They have been offered an unprecedented opportunity to earn their college admission, along with a chance to get a college degree paid for by their employer and, well, maybe they just really want to take their place at the table.
In many ways, I have not had the same experiences that so many of my academic colleagues have had. Pre-COVID, I worked from home two or three days a week. Because I wasn’t teaching face-to-face classes, time spent on campus was generally filled with meetings or team projects. I preferred working from home because I was more efficient without the distractions of campus life and campus politics intruding on me. Pre-COVID, I was learning how to be a better online instructor, rethinking how to engage with students, reevaluating past assumptions. Pre-COVID, I was making short Screen-cast-o-matic videos to quickly show students how to engage with my feedback or how to understand a concept or, quite frankly, how to upload a paper to a dropbox. Pre-COVID, I was realizing that a 2-minute video explaining how to manipulate a Word document to set up for MLA formatting was a lot more effective than just providing a link to a writing center website.
Because of COVID-19, like the rest of us in academia, I’m exclusively working from home with no target date for returning to campus. I’m still making almost daily tweaks to online material. I’m constantly seeking ways to improve the delivery of course materials, and I’m constantly trying to improve my own engagement with students. Everything that I do can easily be accomplished from home. However, the emotional toll of working so far removed, and so alone, has worn me down. Pre-COVID, there were three of us who worked in the Prep Academy. In-the-midst-of-COVID, one took another job, one was a graduate student who concluded her contract in April, and the other is me. We went from a team of three to a team of one, and that single number feels very small and very lonely. Yet the act of typing out a sentence about being lonely makes me feel guilty. Fraudulent. I honestly love what I do, and I’m certainly not alone.
At the beginning of this period of self-isolation, when it was all still new, I was thankful for the unexpected gift of having my two teenage sons home together. We celebrated two COVID-teen birthdays: a nineteenth and a fifteenth. We social-distanced the hell out of life. In the beginning, I was thankful that we could enjoy a somewhat slower pace with no school activities and no rushing to and fro. I’m still thankful for this season of life and for the gift of sitting down to dinner with my family on a very regular basis. I’m thankful that we’ve broadened our cooking and baking skills. I’m thankful that we all get along. I’m extremely thankful that my husband and I both have secure jobs. And yet … with those feelings of thankfulness, I have such feelings of guilt for dear friends who have lost jobs, and for those who have difficult home lives and difficult relationships with parents or children. I lost a precious family member during the pandemic, and I have intense guilt for choosing to stay home instead of driving across two states to attend his memorial. I’m sad that I’m “stuck at home,” and I’m so incredibly guilty that this makes me sad because I have a perfectly lovely home. The emotions push and pull at each other, constantly wearing me down, which brings me right back to
f r a g i l i t y
Destructive inner monologue.
But here’s the thing. Here’s the reason I’m forcing myself to try to get this reflection on the screen—to make it come to life: When the whole world first shut down, I had this great hope that something good would come from the bad. I had this hope that while the reasons forcing everyone to go online were obviously very bad, we might eventually come out on the other side with a deeper respect for online teaching and learning … that we might actually change the minds of the academics who have historically been so vocal in their beliefs that online teaching is subpar, ineffective, undesirable. I really hoped that out of something bad might arise something really good: more effective online teaching.
I still hope for that, and yet from the continuous grumbling I hear, I don’t think the good has yet begun to emerge. I want to know what my colleagues have learned from teaching online. I want to know if they learned anything. Perhaps more importantly, I want to know what our students have to say about the experience of going fully online, and I want to know how they think their professors are doing with the teaching. I want to know how everyone is doing emotionally and how those emotions have affected their work. I want to know what went wrong and how we can fix it. I want to know what went right and how we can celebrate it.
I just need to know more. I need to make sense of this time. I need.
I’m hopeful for research regarding the attitudes and conceptualizations of online learning after the pandemic, but I’m also a little ashamed to admit that the thought of pandemic-fueled academic research turns my stomach and sucks away my normal thrill at the prospect of a new project. I tried to put together a proposal for an IRB about a month ago, thinking about collecting some reflective responses on how the pandemic has affected the academic lives of my students in the Prep Academy. The folder is still on my laptop’s desktop, almost entirely empty and generally mocking me because, well,
f r a g i l i t y
Destructive inner monologue.
When we Documentarians were asked to reflect upon what we were missing when CCCC was canceled, I only knew that I was missing out on the scholarship and fellowship with dear friends from around the country. I don’t think I realized then exactly how precious the fellowship was until it was gone. I didn’t appreciate the collaboration until I was without collaborators. When I am at CCCC, I have my people. I share my passions. I learn new things. I get to be more than just Andrea-the-teacher or the Andrea-the-mom or the Andrea-the-wife. I get to be Andrea-The-Scholar. I miss that. I need that. Andrea-The-Scholar is encouraged in her academic pursuits. She is BRAVE. She doesn’t feel solo. She doesn’t feel undervalued or alone in her academic space. Andrea-The-Scholar, the one who attends and presents and participates at CCCC, is empowered. She is uplifted. She is encouraged. That’s what was lacking when I missed CCCC in 2020.
Missing CCCC meant missing a most important part of being an academic—the sense of validation and encouragement by peers. I missed contributing to our field. I missed belonging. In “Why Write…Together” (1983), Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford argued against the ideal of the writer as a lonely only, or what they deemed the “lonely scribbler.” I think the same holds true of the Writing Studies academic. We need each other. We are not autonomous. We are not meant to be solo.
And so here I am, trying to make it through a summer of COVID-19, a summer of being stuck in the house with two healthy, active, increasingly bored teenage sons. A summer of writing feedback on student papers, of dealing with the registrar on a daily basis, of helping students find housing when they email to tell me they’ve been turned out of their apartments, of finding them resources when their computers break and their phones are their only mechanisms for engaging with the online materials—a summer of improving my online teaching because better online teaching and learning is important (say it with me). I’m going to spend this summer fighting to do better and be better for my students. I’m going to push through.
I hope that in pushing through—in fighting for meaning, in the very act of writing this piece—that I will get on track and stay there. I hope that I’ll be able to push back those fearsome feelings of being alone by believing, truly believing, that this very reflection contributes to the chorus of my peers. I am not alone. I am part of a larger whole. I am the encouragement, the community, and the comradery of our academic niche. I am the research and the researcher. I am writing studies.
I am CCCC.
Dear 2020 Me:
Reading your thoughts and revisiting those emotions and struggles reminded me of the loneliness and separation we felt in 2020. Your words were honest and raw; reliving those feelings with you brought back the anxiety, the distance, and those big, fearsome feelings. And yet, I am also so very proud of us. We were brave then, and we are brave now. And so Brave One, take heart.
Former Self, let me say this: We will get through. We will emerge on the other side, and we will do it in ways that are worth CELEBRATING.
While the path was often tricky, the other side holds an incredible new position at a new university with significantly better pay, better working conditions, and a team of support you could not have even imagined in 2020. While the valley of 2020 was often deep and dark, the vista we see today is one
informed by better online teaching skills and by an understanding that offering empathy and grace for students returns in full because our students are also full of empathy and grace. Former Self, in just under a year, your perseverance will be noticed, your dedication and love of students will be recognized, and your dream job will present itself to you. When it does, be brave again and make that leap. It will be worth it.
You will be invited to build an entirely new online presence and an entirely new online graduate program at a university that both needs you and values you. The work you do during the pandemic will deliver you to this place, so even when your path is hard, know that the reward is worthwhile.
No, we never did the research we often spoke of but never found the energy to begin, and that disappointment is something we simply must let go. We are moving into new areas of research, and new writing opportunities are ahead of us. Continue to be brave, continue to be kind, continue to give yourself grace. You are not alone, and you will not be alone.
Sending much love and big feelings of hope,