Sunday, April 4, 2010

Post-Conference Decompression Needed

I attended a regional academic conference on Friday and had planned to attend Saturday, but one full day left me completely exhausted.

I presented on autism and writing courses, in particular how we might better accommodate the needs of students with ASDs in our classrooms. I presented during the last hour of day, from 4 to 5 p.m., which is never a good time to present. That's especially true of a holiday weekend when people leave early.

My presentation left me with the sense that at least some in the audience thought I didn't understand autism. I concluded this when they offered stories about their experiences. Unfortunately, anecdotes are not data and personal experiences are not the same as statistics on course attrition.

Hopefully, everyone understands that data on any group are generalizations -- and generalizations never apply to individuals. When someone suggested I didn't know much about her particular student with Asperger's Syndrome, I tried to explain that the data collected were not people, but medians and means of a group. I was frustrated, definitely.

What do I know about gifted students with autism? How do you answer that in a 20-minute session? I certainly could have used an hour or more.

Also, my purpose was clearly not shared by many of my colleagues.

In the sessions and during lunch, politics is never far away. It makes me wonder if astronomy conferences include hours of complaints about evil politicians or if they actually discuss how to improve their field and the quality of observational data analysis. I don't control Washington D.C. or my state legislature -- I control what happens in my classroom. An academic conference, as opposed to a union event, should focus on teaching and scholarship.

Anyway, I ended the day with a horrific headache and skipped the next day. I was too tired to deal with people.

The tendency for conferences to be political gripe sessions is annoying. I don't teach politics -- I teach writing. I don't see what I teach as some sort of political crusade, and I tire of the "everything is political" absolutism of many in academia. The purists can argue all they want about every life choice being a political statement, but my goal is keep students in class through graduation. It's a basic goal. How can we better serve students with special needs? What works and what doesn't?

I teach because I enjoy writing and want other to enjoy it. If the students use those skills to obtain jobs or to write letters to congress or to simply write poems in private journals… I'm okay with it.

I'd rather learn about teaching methods than spend hours hearing about how evil some politicians are. I can't change that tomorrow or this week or this month, but I can alter and improve my teaching methods within my classroom immediately.

So, I have different expectations at a conference than many of my colleagues. I want utility, they want a group therapy session and political rally.

How can I teach students to be better peer reviewers and editors? How can I help them learn professionalism? My questions are basic and immediate.

Best to skip day two, I decided.

The clue for me were the conference session titles: "Interrogating the White Student" and "Writing Ecologically: Ecocomposition." I was a "white student" and have no idea why I should be interrogated. I'm sick and tired of assumptions that white students are "privileged" (word used in the session) over others. What about disabled white students? White students from Appalachia or New Orleans or any other impoverished setting? None of this has much to do with teaching writing skills, unless we are going to address how student vernaculars affect academic performance.

There was a session on "Black English" as a language. I'm sure chemistry and biology teachers want papers written in Black English… uhg. Let's drop the political correctness and serve our students in the here and now. Minutes wasted discussing if it is "Black" or "African-American" English. My answer? Other disciplines do not care. They want papers that can be read and published in academic journals within their fields. Our students need to write whatever you want to call "College English." There is no way a vernacular is going to be acceptable in other fields. Be realistic and teach realistic skills.

I'm sure others would love the political nature of writing conferences. I'd rather ponder how we can teach students to write the necessary documents to pass their courses and exams.

It is "autistic" to want utility from a conference?

3 comments:

  1. Sounds like a nightmare, autistic or not.

    There is one good thing about this. You know what to expect from the conference and the organizers next year.

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  2. I am hoping to be elsewhere in the country by this time next year. I'm also increasingly certain that my mind doesn't mesh with the nature of many in the humanities. While I see problems and things to improve, I also know things have improved and will continue to do so.

    If I teach writing well, my students can express their view -- whatever they are. I don't think they should be parroting my politics to get a good grade. But, the humanities seem all about the political, not the practical.

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  3. That's too bad. I love the humanities and would major in it if I could.

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