…she doesn’t need to cancel class. Why should she cancel class in order to attend a conference or to give a talk?
If she does cancel her classes when she is unable to attend, then she probably believes that students cannot learn without her, cannot benefit from engaging with one another out of her presence. Or she has a research assignment or the like coincide with her absence, which seems like a valid reason for canceling class–but is it? Why give up one precious opportunity for the group to come together to puzzle out something, and to continue to build the bonds of reciprocal apprenticeships?
If she does cancel class, then she must be making herself mighty indispensible.
If she does cancel class, then her students potentially lose a precious opportunity to explore the course together, richly, without her (whether she likes it or not) dominant perspective and voice and persona.
So, with these thoughts in mind, I did not cancel class when I went out to NITLE’s Conference on Teaching Writing in the Digital Age (I will, btw, post the text version of my talk within the next week–after one more talk). Instead, I worked with my senior tutors to design a class they felt comfortable leading, and that provided opportunities for learning in that moment of the course as we moved from fiction to poetry.
I’ve written before about how bringing seniors who have taken intro courses with me back into those courses a couple of years later, as tutors, to mentor the younger writers, and to have their own intro work showcased in the syllabus as models, examples of the kind of writing we will practice, is one of the best things about my teaching. The seniors act as go-betweens, as translators in a way, as they understand the method to my madness, and they understand the freefall of the students who are thrown into a classroom that values failure, that insists on risk, and aims to travel deeply into the world of reading and writing. They lead the Wednesday evening workshops during which they dream up inventive writing exercises and help model effective workshopping practices (I teach two days a week in a comfortable, computer-free lounge, and then hold a two-hour evening workshop once a week during which we look at things online and/or students workshop their writing in small groups).
And so, I’m delighted to say that from all reports, workshop Wednesday evening and class on Thursday went very well. The students were engaged, lively, interested and probably pleased to have me out of the room for a moment. Does this mean that I think I should absent myself from class more often? Probably not. I don’t think any member of the learning community should be absent unless absolutely necessary. The shared language thins and the collaborative experience cracks if the members come and go too much during a 12-week course. We need to commit to this shared course, to our reciprocal apprenticeships if we are to reap the benefits from the 21 minds, imaginations, lives we represent. But having the person who, until we change our educational system altogether, holds the power of course design and evaluation abssent herself once during the semester, is a healthy thing indeed.