Running away from the Academy

a draft

As part of the second phase of my Undisciplined book project, I’m writing about the haunting question, Am I a Teacher? Reviewing my draft so far, I’m struck by these lines:

…teaching became unbearable as I realized that it was bad for me. It was negatively affecting my health, putting too much strain on my relationships, and crushing my creative spirit.

Sara Puotinen

Towards the end of teaching, around the spring of 2011, I was struggling physically and emotionally. Almost six years of living in an unhealthy environment where I was made to feel less worthy and encouraged to think too much and too critically, and to prioritize, above everything else, my academic work, had weakened me physically and emotionally. I managed to teach for one more semester, but even though I really enjoyed my last two classes, I was so drained by being at the University of Minnesota, that when I finished that December, I never returned. I had arranged to be a visiting scholar in the department, but I could not force myself to go back on campus. It was too painful. The first time I recall actually returning was several years later with my family. After riding on the new green line train that went straight to the U of Minnesota, we decided to walk around the campus. It was very hard for me to do. I was surprised by how much it felt similar to the waves of grief for my dead mother that would overwhelm me on her birthday, mother’s day, or the day that she died. 

I ran away from the academy. Sometimes I wonder if that was the most responsible or smartest thing to do. I’m not sure. What I do know is that it felt necessary. I could not make myself return. I had to run away.

In the years since leaving the academy, the act of running has taken on a different meaning. I started running in June of 2011, the summer before my final semester of teaching. Slowly I trained enough to run in a 5k race. Then I kept training. I’ve been running for almost six years now.

I was reminded of this second meaning of running last night when my husband found an old Instagram photo of me, hamming it up right before a 5k race (my second 5k ever) in July of 2012. I look happy and goofy and strong. Would this picture have been possible if I hadn’t ran away from the academy in 2011?

Hamming it up… @undisciplined at #torchlight5k.

A photo posted by Scott Anderson (@room34) on

Evidence of Teaching Excellence

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that another name for a teaching portfolio is “Evidence of Teaching Excellence.” This morning I had an idea for how to “play” with this title.

Not Evidence of Teaching Excellence but…

Evidence of Teaching…
  • Resistance
  • Trouble
  • Uncertainty
  • Burn-out
  • Discomfort/Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Worth/Merit/Respect
  • Generosity
  • Creativity
  • Care
  • Persistence
  • Vulnerability

I might work to streamline this list a bit. These are things that I taught to students, but also that I experienced (in good, bad, and dangerous ways) while teaching. For example, evidence of teaching resistance involves how I taught resistance to unjust/problematic theories, ideologies, practices in the classroom, but also how I was resistant to ways of teaching (I disliked writing on the board, giving lectures, or doing a lot of physical activities) and to claiming the role of all-knowing (or even lots-of-knowing) Expert. And it involves how I experienced resistance from students to what and how I was teaching. I imagine my “evidence of teaching resistance” to be a reflection of some of my strengths as a teacher, but also of my weaknesses.

What is your Default Image?

I’m reading Leanne Shapton’s Swimming StudiesIt’s great. There’s a lot I’d like to write about how inspiring and enjoyable it is to read, but I’ll save that for once I’ve finished the entire book. For now, I’ll just post about Shapton’s brief discussion of default images:

My grandfather was a bomber pilot in the Second World War. Though he lived into his late eighties, he’s frozen in my mind as the young man in a photo, wearing a flight suit and goggles, grinning next to a B-25 Mitchell. The image that comes to mind when I think of my mother is a snapshot of her, taken around 1983, sitting on her bed dressed in work clothes: silk shirt, trousers, long necklace, smiling. If I think of my dad, he’s in our dining room, clapping and singing along to “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers. The default image I have of myself is a photo: me, ten, standing next to the ladder at Gawthra Park pool in a blue bathing suit, knees clenched, trying to catch my breath.

Shapton, 5-6.

What’s your default image? Here’s one of mine:


A photo of me, taken by my dad (I think?) when I’m 8 at Clyde Campbell Elementary School near Hickory, North Carolina. I’d just taken a photo with my co-ed soccer team.  I love my pose, with my belly straining, just a little, against my pale blue team shirt. I look so strong and confident and spirited.

Guidelines that aren’t Rules

Last week, while searching for “creative syllabus” examples, I found Tona Hangen’s syllabus for U.S. History from 2011. Today I finally read through it. and was intrigued by her advice on how to take the course:Tona Hangen's Syllabus screenshot

Admittedly, when I first glanced over the syllabus, I skimmed past this section because the wading/snorkeling/scuba diving metaphor seemed cheesy. But, after reading through her descriptions of the different levels of deepness, I like the comparison. I especially like how she links the different levels of deepness with questions–what, how and why–and offers a guide, not a strict or too-specific set of rules on how to take the class. And I like how she invites her students to reflect on why they are taking the course. She writes:

Think about why someone has decided that learning this material might be essential to your college experience, and what that means for you personally.

Tona Hangen

She invites her students to “enter with me and go as deep as you dare.” I wonder, how does she evaluate these different levels of deepness? Can you get an A if you only wade? I always disliked grading students. I can imagine students freaking out about how deep they needed to go in order to get an A. 

I don’t want to borrow her model here, but it is inspiring me to think through what my model is. I’m thinking about my ideas of ruminating like a cow and reading like an owl eats:

But here I would ask for your patience since it turns out that critique is a practice that requires a certain amount of patience in the same way that reading, according to Nietzsche, required that we act a bit more like cows than humans and learn the art of slow rumination (307).

Judith Butler

Eat like an owl: take in everything and trust your innards to digest what’s useful and discard what’s not.

Peter Elbow

Final note: I found the syllabus for Hangen’s most recent version of this class. Her three levels of deepness aren’t on it. Why not? Did they fail to work? Did they not fit with Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) or the guidelines for her department?