Mitch James

Fiction Writer, Poet, Educator

Real Recognizes Real

           In grad school, when it came to being taught how to “run” one’s classroom, I was given the work of Paulo Freire; therefore, it was branded deep inside me that students are the heart of a classroom, that everything I do is for them, that if I give them a chance, a voice, a say, they will guide my teaching to best suite them. I learned that my students are, like me, like all of us, subject to the socio-cultural environments in which they live. They are subject to their race, class, creed, and, gender, and most importantly, they are subject to what those in their environment think about their race, class, creed, and gender. In short, I was taught to account for their lived realities as much as possible in the way that I taught.  

            The first few years I taught, I experimented with attendance policies, late work policies, and had massive portions of the class not do their work. I took these steps and more to make certain I created policies that put my students and their lives first. I made sure that I would take late work, up until the last week of class, because students have a lot of shit going on. I didn’t have an attendance policy because my students were in college, they were adults and could decide if they needed to be in class. I didn’t care if students didn’t do the work because it was hurting them and not me, right? I already took my classes, did my work. Why should I care if a student wants to pay a shit ton of money to not do work and fail a course?

            I taught this way for two years. I think I nearly beat my face in with the OED, all of it, every volume, grading mounds of shitty papers at the last minute, watching half of my class fail, questioning my very decision to get a graduate degree, to teach, to have even gone to college in the first place. I failed my students, all of them, those who needed a guide, a mentor, those who needed an educator to tell them what was expected, and those that needed someone to say, “Cut the shit. Come back and try again when you’re serious.” And that’s what I say now, in my classes, in my policies—cut the shit. If you’re jacking around in class and not taking it seriously, cut the shit. If you have boyfriend drama and it’s stopping you from taking control of your life and directing it in part with your education, cut the shit. If you need help and are not coming to my office hours to meet with me, cut the shit. If you don’t understand and don’t ask questions, cut the shit. There was no cut the shit for me in my being taught how to be a teacher. It was all accommodation; make accommodations for this student and this situation. You never know what a student is going through, I was told.

            Over the past seven years that I’ve taught, students have told me of their abortions, their spousal beatings, their dead children, brothers, mothers, their STIs, their rapes, things I’m not qualified to hear or respond to, things I never thought I’d be the one person they’d share it with, young men and women in a chair across from me, looking for a sure answer, if only there was one. There are two things I’m beginning to learn are certain when it comes to teaching in higher education. One (it’s true), you never know what your students are going through, and two, you (the teacher) still have a job to do, regardless. Most people cannot accommodate many aspects of their own lives, myself included. People get sick. They get hurt. People die. Cars break down. Basements flood. Life just happens, as it will. It doesn’t care about school or work. You fire and adjust. If this is the case for everyone’s individual lives, how can I accommodate the lives of, in my case, over one-hundred students every sixteen weeks? I believe at this point in time that I can’t.

            The first couple years of my teaching career, I found myself in a tough spot. All the scholarship taught me to put students in the center of my classroom by accommodating their lives so that they felt the educational system wanted them there. Be lenient with attendance. Students are working, going to school, and some are raising children. Take late work. Let students know you care that they succeed by creating some leeway that accounts for their lives, which is probably harder than yours. The list goes on. I did these things and more.  In those classrooms, I had students who failed because I didn’t push them. In the same room as those students were those who worked hard but got little out of their effort because so many of their peers didn’t care, and they didn’t care because I constructed a course that made it acceptable for them not to. I had students come and go as they pleased. Students did work when they wanted, meaning it was late most of the time and dropped off in a pile on the floor by my office door, every sentence rushed, the format completely fucked, my name backwards like the students and I had never spoken before, so much of what I “taught” entirely ignored. It was a total dumpster fire.

            Since, I’ve learned that you cannot accommodate individuals who do not want to help themselves. Accepting late work from students who take no pride or respect in completing something on time means you, the teacher, will be buried in late work at the end of the semester (or whenever your deadline for late work is). One might be surprised by the amount of students who don’t care unless you encourage them to. To have no attendance policy for students who don’t care enough about their education or classmates to come to class on time will come and go as they please. They will likely fail. You’ve don’t them no service. What’s more, the students who do attend have lost the ability to learn from a number of their peers, many of which would’ve actually contributed if the class structure encouraged it.

            Growing up, my parents taught me, more indirectly than directly, that life is full of problems, and when they arise you take care of them in a very direct, immediate, and honest way. When my biological mom died, I was dropped in the lap of my father’s girlfriend at the time, the woman who already had two children of her own, the woman who would become my mother. Nobody asked if she was ready or willing to raise another child, one she hardly knew. She just did it. Life happened, and she took care of it. When my parents needed more money, my dad took a job in another town, moved the entire family. When he lost a job, he took on two others. When there was a welding position, welding being something he had never done, except for one class in high school, my father bought a welder at Sears and practiced in the garage until he got the welding job. There was no time for excuses. That is the kind of person I am at heart. I don’t make many excuses in my own life, but in those first couple of years of teaching, I tried to build a class that was all about excuses, all about why students shouldn’t have to complete tasks on time, show up on time, why they shouldn’t have to care, why they were wronged by the education system. After a few years of feeling uncertain as a teacher and really sucking at it, after a couple of years of feeling like my students walked all over me, I asked myself, “Would you every behave this way or allow others to behave this way to you if they weren’t students? Would you ever respect a teacher like yourself?” My answer to all of the above was no.

            So I stopped.      

            I am not the best teacher or even an amazing teacher. I think of the few amazing educators I’ve had in all of my years of schooling, and I pale in comparison to them. I strive every day to get on their level and may never. I do know, though, that so much about my classroom has changed, not just what I teach but how I teach, and it has made a huge difference. Granted, I don’t deal with extreme acting out in class. I’ve watched YouTube videos of students hitting students in classes, students hitting teachers, teachers hitting students. I do not work in that kind of environment, and for those who do, I’m not sure how one controls that sort of force. I imagine there are blogs out there somewhere on just that. I have to moderate the expected issues in a college classroom: cell phones, nodding off in class, a smart ass remark from time to time (my mom raised a witty fucker, though, so class repartee often ends before I’m getting warmed up!). Regardless, I am a better teacher than I was the first years I started teaching. I hope all teachers can say that. Even if they can, though, all of us make our own unique changes. The changes I made to my classroom was to abandon nearly everything I learned about accommodation; or, better yet, I learned there are many ways to accommodate students in a classroom, and they were not all accounted for in my education on how to teach.

            The most important rule that applies to me that I never learned about teaching is to be yourself. That rule certainly applies to life, but we separate life from formal education so often, and the longer I teach the more I’m uncertain why. If you’re the warm, caring, motherly type, be that in the classroom. It’ll probably work better for you than being the hard ass you’ve never been your entire life and only try to be a few hours a day a few days a week. As a teacher I admire (Tobin Terry) told me, not even a year ago, when it comes to teaching, real recognizes real. After a few years of being a teacher I was disappointed in (sorry students who probably don’t even remember my name), I became myself in the classroom. I became real. It didn’t matter if I was handling things the way bell hooks (she elects not to capitalize her name) or Paulo Freire handles them. Sure, they are among the best educators of the past century, I believe, and I’ve learned so much from them. But I’m not them. I’m me, and I need to be true to that and teach to that.

            I grew up in a fairly strict household. I hold myself to a strict lifestyle. Since I live my life that way, it’s how I best run my classes. When it comes to polices, I’m strict. The lack of an authority figure in a classroom can accommodate failure faster than anything, and a classroom of failure accommodates nobody. I am the boss when it comes to managing my classroom. I’ve learned to take immense pride in that. My policies, those are protocols for classroom management. I run my class. It’s my responsibility. However, I accommodate my students and their lives by sharing the knowledge, and by that I mean I do not just share information with them. We co-construct it. I teach them. They teach me. They teach each other. Learning in a classroom, unlike studying alone, should regularly be a group endeavor. Learning in a space with so many others should as often as possible be organic and involve everyone.

             I accommodate my students in other ways too. I’m passionate. I make time for them. I share with them my life, that I worked fifty-hour weeks while I went to school full time, that I started at a community college, that I couldn’t get into a four year college or university because my grades were so bad, that I scored a fifteen on the ACT, that I took the GRE twice and scored poorly, that I got rejected by over fifty schools when I applied to MA and Ph.D. programs. I let them know how fallible I am. Real recognizes real. Now, when I look at a student who has a full-time job and goes to school full time, and I say, “I understand, but you have to make a choice. Do you want this degree bad enough? If you do, trust me, you’ll find way,” I am accommodating that student because s/he knows I’ve been there and have come out the other end. When I tell students to cut the shit and get it done, they know I have a right to say it because I have cut a lot of shit in my day, and it’s working. Students see it. They believe it.  

            When you teach, be yourself first and foremost. Then, acknowledge the incredible responsibility and privilege you have by teaching in the first place and manage that fucking classroom like a boss, whatever that means to you. There are reigns to share with your students so that they have a full investment in the course, but I feel those of classroom management aren’t it. Instead, share the learning process, the knowledge. Those are the reigns you share with the students.

            I have so much left to learn about teaching…and learning. I love that aspect of my career. But I’ve learned some important things already, grown a lot in some ways. Here’s to constant growth.


A Writer

           Four or five days a week, I get up at 3 a.m. and write until 5 a.m. I go to work, where I teach writing, read and respond to student writing, spend hours talking with students about their writing, my writing (all kinds of writing), and then go home. This does not count the dozens of emails a day I write, does not include the notes I type on my research or the research I write on the weekends, does not count the grocery receipt after grocery receipt with the first lines of poems that will never make it to the final draft, cocktail napkins with dialogue from stories unwritten. All this writing and more I do, regularly. It’s writing I have to do.

            Despite my writing regimen, I am slow to confess to others that I’m a writer. My handful of creative publications and few academic publications are not enough for me to announce to the known world that I am a writer, though I know I am. I feel this way because being a writer and being known as a writer are two different identities that I feel too many people who write conflate.

            Unestablished writers not taking themselves or the work they do seriously, simply because they are not established, is a real problem. However, people thinking that because they write they should be identified as writers is a problem too, perhaps a bigger one. I put a new alternator in my truck, but I’m not a mechanic, unclogged a drain, but I’m not a plumber, used a chain saw from the peak of my roof to clear branches away, but I’m not a tree trimmer.

            You get it.

            I’m going to make a very unpopular statement, I imagine, to many writers and, certainly, to many teachers of writing. Here goes. Just because you can write or do write doesn’t make you a writer. Just because you have written, doesn’t mean others will or should perceive you as a writer. This rule applies to me too.

            First, just because you write doesn’t make you a writer. I have students in classes, students who are forced to be in those classes, forced to write narratives and research papers. Those students, they work hard. Many write well. Yet, when they leave my class, most will never write within those genres again or ever care to. Most will forget much of what they learned and feel no loss. Did they write? You damn right they did. Did they work hard and do well? Sure. Are they writers. No.

            People who write for a composition course, or who doodle in a book here and there, or write a poem every time they’re pissed at their parents or when some guy dumps them, to say that these folks are writers is unfair to those who are, and by those who are, I mean those of us who write regularly, who sacrifice time, love, money, friendships, and camaraderie for the written word. By those who are, I mean those who must write. By this definition, I consider myself a writer; writing at 3 a.m.; writing in my mind in the shower; writing on my phone at red lights; writing on cocktail napkins and receipts; writing on ripped off corners of students’ papers. I will write. Nothing has ever stopped me. Not a fifty-hour work week while going to college full time. Not poverty. Not being ridiculed by friends or family. Not sucking at it. Not being told I’ll fail. Not having professors tell me my grammar and mechanics are too weak. Not being told to put away the thesaurus. Not hundreds of rejection letters. Nothing. I am a writer, and I know it.

            Being known as a writer, recognized as such, that is a different story.

            Being known as a writer is a privilege, an accomplishment, something earned, garnered. It’s a recognition by those you admire, recognition by the world of your skill. I might write my whole life and always be viewed as a professor, never a writer. I write all of the time and will continue to. It doesn’t seem fair that when I sit down and do my taxes, my occupation isn’t “writer” or “professor and writer.” It doesn’t seem fair that I spend so much time writing but that if I tell people I’m a writer with few publications, no novels, nothing much that they can buy, they might guffaw under their breath, think I’m living a pipe dream or that I’m in denial.

            You know what? Not everyone gets a fucking trophy.

            There might be a day when I find myself flying to another state to read my work at some university; a day when I’m interviewed about my craft; a day after I’m dead and some graduate student culls through my oeuvre. When that happens (except for when I’m dead), I will feel a sense of fulfillment and pride, a sense of accomplishment I’ve always yearned for, and I will feel it because I don’t shit myself or others by saying I’m that person now. I’m not a writer in that way, the way most would understand a writer to be. Nobody thinks of me that way, and they shouldn’t because it’s dishonest. Though I’ve not risen to being known as a writer, I can tell you from the land of can’t, the land of rejection and three a.m. mornings, that if being known as a writer is what really matters to you, you’ve probably failed already because you are relying on others to be what you want to be.

            If you want to be a writer, be it. Write. Have to write. Prove it to yourself first. If you fail yourself, you’ll fail everyone else. Write when you think you can’t. Write before the world stirs, before your child wants to feed, before your spouse needs you. Be a writer. Then maybe, just maybe, someday the world will take notice and confirm what you’ve always known to be true.

            But wait until you earn it. Don’t take away from the true accomplishment of your success by awarding it to yourself simply because you write.