Archive for the 'teaching' Category

All the Quietly Brave and Brilliant Young Women

amywink October 14th, 2017

At the end of the spring semester of 2014 that I wrote about last week (All the Kind and Thoughtful Young Men), it was a quiet young woman who waited for me at my office, with flowers and a card of thanks, who told me she appreciated how even though I had been going through my own personal troubles, I had always been there for them. She was a young woman I hadn’t been sure had enjoyed the class, though she had always attended and sat in the front row, but I was pleased and thankful she had made the time to thank me for being present, even though I could have easily not been. I was reminded again how important being a feminist teacher is for young women, even now when sexism seems a problem of the distant past, though clearly that was a mistake given the election and the blatant sexism that played out in the election coverage of Hilary Clinton. But still, even in her defeat, Hilary continues to show up and it’s the showing up that maybe most important thing for young women today. To show up and keep showing up even though larger culture continues to ask women to be small, to be quiet, to take less and to quit because it is hard and unfair. and wouldn’t it be easier if you just decided that yes, women were less and didn’t deserve equality?

But Hilary Clinton is a better person in her failure than some people are in victory and it is being a better, stronger person that shows young women the power they can gain from steadily working toward the ownership of their lives. Watching someone do a difficult thing, to survive an unfair system, and stand up after unfair outcome, teaches us to do the difficult thing we want to do, even if it might not work out. Even if we might go down in defeat, we can still try and we can get up afterward and keep working toward what we want as human beings. It is not watching someone who sails through life easily with no care in the world that creates the inner drive and self-determination to become whatever a young woman wants to be, despite what patriarchal culture keeps whispering to her under its paternalistic breath. Japtha’s daughter may have been sacrificed for her father’s victory in battle, but it’s the Hebrew women who celebrate her life every year and no doubt reminded her father of his continued failure and defeat.

As a feminist teacher, I have encountered so many young women who have been told, either overtly or covertly, to be less than they are, to find a small life, to define themselves only by a very narrow measure, and I have listened to so many young women tell me the dangerous moments of their lives, how they were starving, or injured, or assaulted, for just trying to be. In all of my classes, from first year writing, to advanced composition, from sophomore literature surveys, to advanced literary specialties like women’s autobiography, it has been my job as feminist teacher to show these young women the counter-narrative to patriarchal male-washing of literature and history. Here are the stories of women who may have been forgotten but nevertheless existed, here are the alliances formed to create networks between women across class and race, and within class and race, to subvert the dominant narrative of patriarchy, that women have no value aside from what they can give the patriarchy, that women have to compete with each other for the spoils allowed to them, that women must become One Kind of Woman to succeed in the world that only allows one definition. But an unfair system does not have to be right, and unfair system recognized as unfair and arbitrary and thus defeated by constantly hacking away at the pillars that culture rests precariously upon. If a system is unfair, the problem is not personal, but systemic, and the solution is in the personal stories we tell as counter-narrative to the patriarchy so desperately wants young women to believe.

Every narrative that says women deserve food, that women may live to the contrary, that women are allowed, and do not have to choose between being strong, or brilliant, or beautiful, or bold, or independent and must instead choose the smaller thing our culture allows instead of all the great things they might also become. Every narrative I have taught is a story that tells them they get to write their own lives and not just be characters in someone else’s. Of course, the danger is that a feminist teacher must be a kind of Wonder Woman, doing everything and anything perfectly, but I have found that’s not what women students actually want. They don’t want another One Kind of Allowable Woman. They’d prefer to see an authentic person who is living her life, so they in turn can be authentic and live their own.

In the summer of 1999, I moved from Texas to the small town of Emporia, Kansas, where a friend had helped me get a job after being fired from the university where I was asked to teach women’s autobiography and summarily punished for doing so. I was also encouraged to fight the dismissal by many eager to martyr me for their cause and simultaneously discouraged from speaking about it by those who feared I’d never find a position if I got labeled as a “troublemaker”.

Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t.

But my dear friend bravely stepped up and called someone she knew and got me a job and I was able to shake off the dust of that unwelcoming place and

I can’t actually say the job was better, but the people were kinder and the Flint Hills so enormous and the tall grass prairie so vast, that I was able to rest some my experience and remember what I loved about teaching. It was a small college and I had many repeating students in the two years I taught there. I was able to teach a class in Women’s Diaries and take my entire class to the Kansas Museum of History where we toured the frontier exhibit and tried to lift the iron cooking pots of the pioneers–It was clear to one of my students that she’d probably just have died on the way to Oregon because she couldn’t even move the pot. I was really glad to have had that vibrant teaching experience with my small group of young women students. One of those young women, also named Amy, had been in many of my classes, quiet and tentative, but so thoughtful in her writing. She struggled with the image she had been taught, that smart girls were not the pretty girls, that cheerleaders were not the smart girls, that women were allowed only the one thing that identified their being and the choice had better be a wise one because you never knew what might happen to a smart girl, but pretty girls were rarely alone. I remember her face when I discussed how definitions of femininity restrict the choices young women have been able to make in history and I could see the light dawning and the choices spreading out before her in a way she’d never thought about before. I still think of that student, and many others and I am always glad to have stood before them and been present and authentic in my life for them.

I left that position in May of 2001 but I kept in touch with some of the students from my advanced writing class and my women’s diaries class through email. I was not really surprised to see an email from Amy because she had often spoken with me about her life and I had watched her become brave and brilliant in her time at college. What surprised me was what she asked of me. She wrote to say that she was about to get married but that both she and her fiance were having doubts about marrying, but everyone around them kept telling them they were just having cold feet and it would be okay as soon as the wedding was over. And she wanted to ask my advice, she wanted to ask for help. I think she was asking for help to say no. Why else reach out to a teacher no longer in your life and ask about such an important decision? Perhaps, because I had been authentic. I was an unrepentant but happy-go-lucky feminist, a smart woman who lived on her own, and was perfectly happy and capable of doing it.

I wrote her back carefully, explaining that it certainly sounded like she and her fiance were carefully considering their choices and it was important to understand that if both parties were concerned, then the choice was up to them, not everyone around them who might hope otherwise. I wrote that it was up to the both of them to decide but it was important to remember that it was a lot easier to get out of a wedding than it was to get out of a marriage. And I sent my email off wondering if I’d said the right thing.

Several weeks later, she sent a happy reply, explaining they had decided to cancel the wedding, she had gotten a teaching job in a small town in Western Kansas, and was heading there herself with her new Rottweiler puppy, and she thanked me profusely for everything.

I was happy I’d answered wisely, and very grateful to have been that brave young woman’s teacher.

All The Kind and Thoughtful Young Men

amywink October 6th, 2017

When I went to graduate school in 1987, I had only an inkling of the hazardous world I was entering and I had less of an idea how my unrepentant feminism might make that a very different kind of adventure than I expected. But off I went unaware of how strongly held perceptions of feminism might affect how people perceived me and how I might be threatening to an idea that creates the order of someone’s world (I was young). I just wanted to study women writers and in doing that, value women equally. When I asked one of my undergraduate professors about women’s studies, I did not completely understand, though I felt it, the demeaning tone of his response “Isn’t that passé?” Later, after I had earned my PhD and had my first position, a large male colleague came around my desk to stand over me and ask “why don’t you like men?” It was basically the same question I had been asked as an undergraduate. My answer to the first incident was internal “so what if it is?” My answer to the 2nd was verbal and disarming, “I like men just fine. They just get all the attention.” By that time, I had learned some navigational skills. I had learned to use the weight of my enemies against them, to turn their expectation of the f-word against them, like the card I used to have that offered “happy-go-lucky feminist” as definition of oxymoron. I learned those skills bastion of patriarchy that is (was) Texas A&M University. That I had to learn those skills is a problem for another essay and neither did those skills prevent me from being fired.

But unrepentant feminism does not mean man-hating, no matter what the cultural perception is regarding the f-word is and as a feminist teacher, I did not have the luxury (or even the desire) to select students based on their agreement with me. As a feminist teacher, I became interested in the research regarding gender bias in the classroom. We think that gender bias only applies to girls but it applies equally to boys. Add in any element of race or class to those biases and what ultimately happens is that students are divided from each other and alienated from learning. As a teacher of everyone, I had to understand what alienated students from learning, what prevented learning. It is not particularly difficult to be a feminist teacher for women–though one does falling into the sexist trap that women must give to everything to their students, as if their students were their children (a variant of women must to give up everything for their children). But when you are standing there as their only female college professor (even as a grad student), everything you do is role modeling even if you don’t really want to be a role-model. That’s just how being public works. People watch. They see what they want to see.

Being a feminist teacher for young men is different but to value women equally means also means to value men equally, to value students equally. It means removing the hierarchy of gendered worth. It means changing the classroom so that men learn what women are required to learn and that women learn what men are encouraged to learn. The horrifying truth that challenged me to be a better feminist teacher for men was that male students are far more likely to be told they are stupid, to be criticized for thoughtfulness, even though male students generally receive many more perks in the classroom than girls (and girls are also often told they are stupid). Add Black to that description, or brown, or poor and the weight of decreased expectation is difficult to bear. The definitions of masculinity are rigid and the boundaries dangerous to cross. But, in the words of Maya Angelou, the reward is great.

But I have now been in the classroom 30 years and I have seen the changes and the reward has been great and I was richly rewarded for my work during one of my most difficult semesters, the spring of 2014, when my father’s Parkinson’s disease was progressing and poorly treated chronic infections took their toll on his ability to function. In January 2014, my father entered the hospital with an infection that mimicked severe dementia and my mother, brother and I struggled hard to get the correct care for him. Then my mother became very ill as well. When I started my classes that semester, I could not help by be honest with my students. I told them all “If you think “Wow, Dr. Wink seems tired and distracted” it is because Dr. Wink is tired and distracted” and I told them all about my current state of giving care to my extremely ill father and something beautiful began to be born.

That semester, I seemed to have an unusual number of young men in my classes, many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and entering school on the new GI Bill as they began to make the next steps toward their next life. I have learned to appreciate veterans in my class for deep and shallow reasons. Veterans of military service understand how to follow instructions and I never have to explain things 400 times or even twice. One young man, a former Marine who stayed after class many times to talk to me said aghast “HOW DO YOU remain calm when they keep asking questions you JUST ANSWERED?!? I liked him very much. The deep reason: they have made an enormous sacrifice, risked everything, and are coming back to start again with a complete understanding of the value of their lives and their community. It is an amazing thing to have in the classroom.

That semester there were also a number of other young men who made themselves endearing, perhaps because I was caring for my father, and they respected that effort and kept checking on me in kind and thoughtful ways. I remember all of their names. I talked to all of them about their research, their children and often ended up talking to them about the next steps in their lives. The former Marine who I mentioned above stayed after class to ask me about what he should do with his life, what career might be good for him. We had several discussions about who he was, what kind of life he hoped to have and I told him I thought he’d enjoy being a Physical Therapist, which is what he eventually decided to pursue. Another Marine asked about entering the Police Academy but in our discussions, I learned he really wanted to pursue a career in music management (even though I though he had the perfect name for a detective). I suggested he follow that because at least no one would be shooting at him. Another veteran was working on his welding program and struggling to learn with a brain injury. Another wrote the longest essay I have ever received as he thoroughly and exhaustively investigate the correct personal firearm to purchase. Another with extensive tattoos came in with fruit to share with the class and offered a cheerful presence humorous presence every day.

While I struggled with my personal life, these young men and the young women who were in my classes that semester made teaching so fulfilling. I could leave behind the stresses as I entered the classroom and worked with each one of them. It is a rare and wonderful thing when work relieves unrelenting stress of caregiving and in those classes filled with kind and thoughtful young men, I felt incredible hope for the future even as I felt incredible dread for what I was facing so close to home. Disaster after disaster at home was met with kindness after kindness at school.

Except for the one young man who struggled with how to be an adult, how to be a man, how to understand kindness and responsibility as masculinity and who sat in the back of the classroom with a giant chip on his shoulder. This young man slacked. He bucked against the classes’ requirements (which are easy). He whined and was often absent. In fact, he accrued 8 absences that semester and in a normal semester, I’d have dropped him but I was tired and distracted and I allowed him to stay. I even offered him, and everyone, a considerable extra credit assignment to make up for any missed classes. It involved watching the LBJ School of Public Affairs video coverage on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and explaining the importance of the Act on their personal lives (I myself was able earn my PhD at Texas A&M because of the work of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Baines Johnson and the accidental inclusion of women in the reach of the law). It would have been interesting and a good lesson for him but he was irritated, angry, and belligerent and holding on fiercely to a grudge. That is what made him make a terrible mistake.

One morning, he sat in the back of the classroom, complaining mightily about how boring the extra credit was, how uninteresting and unimportant. Students rarely realize that I am often handing them all the rope they need to rise . . . or fall. That the choice is entirely up to them. I listened to his whining and complaining, as did the other students, and let him continue because it seemed relatively pointless as he was loudly and publicly choosing to fall despite the entire line of rope I handed him. When another student approached and asked me, breathlessly about his absences, and I began to explain the options available to him, and my complainer made what I am sure he felt was tactically satisfying but was instead a horrible strategic mistake. He began to yell loudly that I was being unfair, offering one student something I had not offered him. My Marines lowered their heads, one whispered “Dude, shut up.” because they knew what was coming, probably more than I did.

I slammed my hand to the table and fiercely, forcefully, loudly, said “You have 8 absences. You have been given every opportunity to make up those absences and all you can do is whine about how hard they are and how boring. Those are your choices. I cannot make you choose to do the work but you have to live with the consequences.” In that moment, my student had mistaken kindness for weakness and he had also refused to accept kindness because he viewed it as weakness. The repercussions of his mistake were suddenly quite clear. Kindness is anything but weakness. He was choosing to fall, publically and loudly and no one was with him. They were just watching him go. My Marines knew that the truth had been fiercely spoken, like their drill sergeants who sternly and rigorously demand accountability out of ferocious kindness: they do not want their charges dead.

Then there was silence because what can come after that? I had no idea really. I looked at the student beside me and told him to come to the office later. I released the class and they filled quietly out. I apologized to one student for the yelling but he said “no, that was entirely deserved.” After the class was cleared, the young man who regular stayed behind, looked at me amazed from his desk and said “You scared me, you should be a Marine! Oh, My God!”

Students started coming in for the next class and I heard one whisper “She yelled at someone.” The rapid grassfire of student talk spread out in front of me and the next student came in saying “I heard she yelled at someone! I bet her eyes blazed!” So much for keeping it in the classroom. I did not know what the consequences would be but I would face them. I later met the student who had been caught in the crossfire who anxiously said “That was so terrible. I am so sorry.” To which I told him that what other students did was not his responsibility and he shouldn’t feel bad about. I doubted I would ever see the complaining student again. I worried that all those young men might beat the crap out of him but I decided that was their choice too and I could do nothing about it.

But then, later that day, I received his apology, a well-written email apologizing for his behavior, clearly stating his wrong doing and asking for forgiveness. I never expected he would apologize because it is an extremely hard thing to do. Suddenly that boy was a grown man. I accepted his apology and asked him to come see me in person, to talk about what he could do about his writing. He did. We had a good conversation. He did his extra credit; He did his actual credit. He explained that he was holding a grudge against his previous professor because that professor had never explained how to write better, had given poor grades and then left the university, never responding to his requests for help (I mentally cursed that professor, even though I knew it was likely he felt had good enough reasons not to care) and told my student I was sorry that had happened to him, that it wasn’t right and I was sorry. Apologies work both ways.

I have seen all of those young men in the years since that class and I greet them warmly. I have had other kind and thoughtful young men enter my classroom too. I know it is the future arriving. I still hope that this is the future arriving, that this is the beautiful thing being born to all of us out of our hard experiences. A year later, I was driving and a van kept swerving near me, the driver waving. I did not recognize him for a little bit. He was one of my students from that semester, one I had talked with about his children who had been sick during that time–who the ER docs had helpfully frightened by describing horrible genetic diseases until the 2nd child got sick and so oh well, it as just a virus– at the stoplight, he hopped out of his truck behind me and ran to my window waving. The first thing he said was “How is your Dad?”

Uncommon Valor

amywink October 2nd, 2017


Those who wake are the students.
Those who stay awake are the teachers.

How we take turns.

Mark Nepo, “Unearthed Again”

“I teach because I love learning” is the first line of my teaching philosophy, an understanding I came to after some years of teaching writing and literature and encountering students in and out of the classroom. I have kept that statement for a long time and continually remind myself of it when I feel lost in the wilderness. Those moments of learning, the moments the light comes on, are among the most powerful experiences educators can feel, that moment of complete connection and awakening. Everyone who is an educator (in any capacity) understands it. It is a challenge to explain to others. Though I hold a PhD in English and love poetry and literature and writing, I teach because I love learning.

Students often come to my college classroom afraid, as if some kind of measurement is about to be taking and they will be found wanting. I so often hear “I am not good at this. I am bad at writing. I am bad at literature.” When I ask them why they think that the answer is often a story of an encounter with some wicked witch of the text in their past experience. In other words, someone told them they were. More often than not, they remember exactly what happened, who said it, and how they learned they were not worthy or capable of learning. Sometimes it is horrifying, the brilliant African-American boy told he would never amount to anything so he should not even try (to his credit, he was in college anyway) or the young mother returning to college thinking that she is stupid because she is dyslexic. Often, as in these cases, I am apologizing for my people and gathering up the shattered pieces to tell my students how to start to learn something new. I now begin my classes by telling students they are in class to learn what I have to teach, that if they do not know how to do yet we what we are learning that they need to remember that they are just learning to do it and it is okay to not now how to do it. Why would they take a class if they already knew how to do what the class was about? They nod. . . . and still come to tell me they are not good at writing and I repeat, “You are just learning to do this. Let yourself learn to do this.”

One summer, I taught a 12-week American literature course in the evenings, my literary area of expertise (1865 to the present). Before the class started, I was already receiving emails from one student, a Hispanic veteran returning to school after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, worrying about his ability to complete the work. He’d not done well in English. He was worried about the readings. Worried about his abilities to understand literature and worried I would not allow his service dog in class, the dog that allowed him to reenter the classroom and stay with us. I knew I had some work to do in the weeks ahead but I assured him he would be all right, he was just learning how to do this, and I loved dogs (this is an understatement) and knew his dog would be perfectly fine in class (she was).

Of course, he was not the only student who came to me in a flurry of anxiety. One effervescent young woman appeared the first day fluttering with nervousness about her ability to understand the work, to read in English and to write about it too. English was not her first language and she was not sure she was smart enough (even though she spoke 2 other languages as well) but she had read about me online (no, I do not look at Rate My Professor) and wanted to take my class and be in my class and she hoped she would be okay. I asked her to breathe. I told her she would be all right and she was learning how to do this.

And of course, they were both fine. Both smarter than they thought, both insightful and engaged in class. Occasionally, in the silence after I asked a question, the service dog would shake her collar as if to answer and make us all laugh. By mid semester, both students were doing spectacularly well on their work and after we discussed A Streetcar Named Desire, the veteran returned from his weekend in New Orleans pleased to show me the photos of all the places he had see and tell me how happy it had made him to understand what those places meant in Tennessee Williams’ play. It is the kind of moment English teachers live for–the light came on and he took it with him into the world and came back to tell me about it.

Our last reading was Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn (2001), a wonderfully innovative book about a literary culture misreading signs and slowly losing letters from the alphabet in homage to a fundamentalist misinterpretation of the letters falling off the founder’s statue, a dedication to the originator of the pangram: “The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over the Lazy Dog.” An astounding work of precision, Dunn writes his epistolary novel while deleting the individual letters of the alphabet as they all fall from the monument and the characters descend into a cultural conflict that is both humorous and horrifying. It is a book for the soul of an English Major about the important of language and communication. It is also about what happens in a culture that is divided by arbitrary and rigid interpretations and how people create community or destroy it. It is a light book that turns quite dark before it happily resolves.

My class, of course, loved it, and we talked about cultural issues and American character, how a key component of American character is resistance to oppression and the value of independent thinking. We talked about what it means to lose even a single letter from words, that the loss of “D” ultimately means you lose the past tense and therefore, the entire past. Of course, we also discussed what we might all do when faced with a dangerous choice as our fearless heroine Ella Minnow Pea, the last of the rebels, works to find the perfect pangram in Project 32 and save her precious island that has lost so much as the people turned against each other. And suddenly, there is what can only be described as a moment of illuminating grace as my effervescent student began to share her story.

She was Iraqi. She had helped the Americans when they arrived, translating. It was very dangerous and she had feared for her life. Other friends had been killed. But it was important work and she knew it was important and dangerous. Then she had received a bullet in the mail, a bullet marked with her entire family’s name. She had to flee. Her whole family had to flee. The American soldiers helped her escape. She can never go home. Her family can never go home.

I have never wanted to put my arms around a student as badly as I did at that moment.

There in that classroom, she had told us her story of her life being saved.

There in that classroom was a young man who very well may have saved her life.

There in that classroom, the wideness of world pulled close to the two lives sitting there that day. Here is the thing that matters, here is what we mean to each other.

Sometimes what I am teaching is not English, but humanity. Not how to write a paper or read a book, but how to be a human being in this beautifully difficult world.

Into the stunned silence of the classroom, I said “We are so glad you are here.”