First Day Fragments: Fall 2022

Each of the past four years I have written a post celebrating the start of the fall semester with quick hits on various topics that I’m mulling over going into the new academic year. You can find the earlier posts in the archive: 2021, 202020192018.

I spent most of this summer diligently making myself go out running several times a week. Like many of my summer goals this practice ended up being a mixed bag, and I ended up not hitting my arbitrarily-set target. Despite the aches and pains that have accompanied these runs, I have been pleased by my progress and consider this one of my best recent decisions. There is always another mile to run, just as there is always more that could be done. After a summer during which I neither got the rest I had hoped nor accomplished as much as I intended, it has been useful to just focus on the next step.

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The latest buzz about workplace culture is Quiet Quitting, aka working to contract. This is a radical concept that I have seen some of my friends who work in the UK talk about when they, *checks notes*, clock out for the weekend and take annual leave. In a general sense, this “trend” is a reminder that it often takes enormous amounts of uncompensated labor to make the current labor systems function.

This is no less true in higher education than anywhere else, and something that hits basically everyone involved. The diminishing portion of the overall faculty being tenure or tenure track means that the service burdens fall that much heavier on those who remain, while the low pay for adjuncts is sometimes justified by pretending that the hours spent working outside of the classroom don’t exist. At least in the former case there is a reasonable expectation that their job will remain semester after semester.

However, quiet quitting is especially disruptive in teaching. In some fields it means reclaiming one’s time from their employer, but in this one the consequences disproportionately affect the students. They might not exactly be customers, but they are paying for their education in some capacity, which is a difficult circle to square.

My situation is not nearly as bad as many people, and I have a department chair who is excellent about keeping most duties not in my contract off my plate. And yet, this trend of quiet quitting has been on my mind this last week of working (uncompensated) overtime to make sure that my courses were ready to go. Ultimately this is yet another reminder that the entire system needs to be reformed to make it more humane for everyone involved.

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One summer during college (summer 2007), I worked on the team that moved the college to a new learning management system. At one point we had a conversation about the functionality that allowed professors to track the time students spent on the website. As a student, I was stridently against making this function available to professors, or at least against highlighting it for them–I don’t actually recall the specific details of the discussion. My point at the time was that these tracking features were, but delicately, bullshit, and I didn’t want there to be any chance that such data would play a role in my grade when it provided, at best, a shoddy reflection of my engagement with the course.

I have modified my stance somewhat as a professor. I still strongly dislike the emphasis on time-on-task, even if I begrudgingly acknowledge that it can play a role in setting expectations. As for the LMS data, I never use it as a form of assessment but have found that I like having it as a diagnostic tool–one of several in my arsenal that can help me best help my students.

It was with this background that I read John Warner’s piece last week on the madness of productivity trackers. He excoriates these trackers as not only a bad way of assessing productivity, but also actively harmful to knowledge work that requires hours of work that can’t be tracked by these tools without rigging an artificial mechanism to keep the system occupied while you actually get the work done. As Warner puts it, ” we are more than our ability to produce according to metrics counted by an algorithm.” He also rightly points out how LMS policies in college can serve as a training ground to normalize this sort of surveillance. This makes me wonder whether the marginal benefit I gain in helping my students is worth contributing to our present dystopia.

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I found this semester to be particularly difficult to prepare for. In part my struggle was the growing pain of designing and preparing a new course that is unlike anything I have taught before while, simultaneously, having events conspire to keep me from get the amount of rest I had intended. Put simply, I was tired. But a substantial portion of my exhaustion was not so much physical as feeling emotionally drained from the fire hose of devastation that seems to be going on in the world, from historic drought to continuing pandemic, to vaccine denial bringing about the return of awful disease thought eliminated by modern technology, to the fever pitch of nasty politics, to the crisis of climate change. All systemic problems where the proposed solutions range from personal responsibility to nothing whatsoever. Not good.

In his book Radical Hope, Kevin Gannon writes about the importance of hope as a pedagogical obligation because this is not a job that one should do if they don’t have at least a glimmer of optimism about the future.

I spent most of this summer not feeling a whole lot of hope. I’m still not, in a lot of ways. But this is also not a job that one can do without hope and I often find that I can see that hope most clearly when I’m working with my students. This is very likely going to be a challenging semester, but one day into the semester and I can already start to see the glimmer of that hope rising like a phoenix from the ashes. The world might be burning, but that doesn’t mean we can just let it burn. Only by working together can we start to heal.

Learning to Run Again

This morning I woke up before my alarm. I grabbed my phone to turn that alarm off and checked a few things before getting out of bed. Then I puttered around the house, reading a novel and stretching by turns for a little more than an hour, just long enough to steep and drink a big mug of tea.

Then I laced up my running shoes and set out.

My current bout of running came on about a month and a half ago. I have never been as serious or successful a runner as my father and brothers who for a number of years now have run marathons together, but this is not my first time running. In high school, I would go for runs with my father and ran a few local 5k races. Early in graduate school I tried running again. It was during this period that I reached my longest distances, running about five miles at least once a week and topping out at about eight miles before running into a leg injury. I tried a “run the year” challenge a few years ago and contributed 173 miles to my team’s total, including a few miles when I couldn’t sleep early in the morning while on a job interview. Then injuries. I tried again after the pandemic closed the gym where I exercised. My last attempt, shortly after moving last summer (and, in retrospect, after holding my foot on the accelerator of a moving truck for many hours), ended abruptly with sharp pain in my lower calf less than a quarter mile into a run.

I am a slow runner, particularly these days. I am also not running very far—just a little under two miles today. But this is okay. My focus right now is on form. On my gait, and trying to keep it in line with how I imagine I run barefoot since I have suffered far more injuries while running in shoes than I ever did playing ultimate barefoot, which I did into my 30s. Correlation need not be causation, but so far, so good. I am running slow and careful, and celebrating ending each run for ending uninjured rather than for reaching a particular distance or speed. Those will come, but only if I can stay healthy.

I like the idea of running more than I actually like running. Rather, I would like to like to be someone who likes running, who achieves that runner’s high, who runs an annual marathon. But I spend my runs thinking about how everything hurts and, recently, fretting about whether this footfall will be the the one when something gives out and I have to start over. I can also only compete against myself while running, and pushing myself this way is exactly what I’m trying not to do.

By contrast, I used to play basketball for hours every week. My slowness didn’t matter as much in a confined playing surface where I could change speeds and understand the space. And since I didn’t like to lose, even in a silly pick-up game, I could just lose myself in the game and not think about what hurt.

And yet, running is what I have right now, so running is what I’m doing alongside a daily yoga routine.

My return to running also prompted me to finally pull Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run off my to-read shelf. McDougall describes himself as a frequently-injured runner, so I thought it might unlock the secret to running pain-free. In a way, it might have.

The centerpiece of Born to Run is a 2006 race in Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Mountains between a motley crew of American ultramarathon runners, including Scott Jurek, one of the best in the world at the time, and some of the best Rarámuri (Tarahumara) arranged by a mysterious figure called Caballo Blanco (Micah True).

(The race went on to become an annual event, though its founder died in 2012.)

It is an incredible story. Rarámuri runners had made their appearance in ultra-marathon circles at the Leadville 100, a high-altitude ultramarathon in Colorado, in 1993 and 1994. A guide and race director named Rick Fisher rolled up to the race with a team of Rarámuri for whom he was the self-appointed team manager. The Rarámuri runners won both years, setting a new course record in the second race, before deciding that putting up with Fisher’s actions wasn’t worth their participation.

(An article from 1996 in Ultrarunning about a race in Copper Canyon in which True also participated acknowledges Fisher’s “antics,” but points suggests that they didn’t end his relationship with the tribe.)

However, this story is the hook. Born to Run is an extended argument for a minimalist running style that exploded in popularity following its publication. McDougall’s thesis is that modern running shoes, and the industry that is predicated on selling those shoes, causes us to run in ways that cause injuries. This argument is somewhat anecdotal, relying on personal experience and stories of incredible endurance from athletes before the advent of running shoes.

The Rarámuri, whose name means “The Running People,” are exhibit A. The Rarámuri are a tribe that lives in isolated villages deep in the Sierra Madre Occidentals, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The terrain makes long-distance travel a challenge, so they Rarámuri run. But they also run for ceremony and sport in a ceremonial ball-game called rarajipara where teams work to kick a ball an agreed upon distance, chasing it down after each kick. All the while, runners wear just a traditional sandal called huaraches.

My own experience with running makes me sympathetic to McDougall’s argument, and I am seriously considering getting a pair of zero-drop shoes and transitioning in this direction for my footwear. However, the more I read about running injuries, the more it seems that the answers might be more idiosyncratic. That is, there is a lot of conflicting evidence. While some studies suggest physiological advantages to barefoot running, others point out that not all barefoot runners run with the same gait. A number of studies suggest that barefoot running has shifted the types of injuries (aided perhaps by people transitioning too quickly) rather than reducing them. I think that barefoot running could be good for me, but all of this makes me think that I shouldn’t ditch the running shoes for every run just yet.

While I was reading Born to Run, a friend suggested that I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which connects my current focus on running with my ongoing obsession with writing.

In addition to being a novelist, Murakami is a marathoner and triathlete who describes how his goal is to run one marathon a year. This memoir is a collection of essays on the theme of running and training, and, unlike Born to Run, is not meant to be an argument for a particular type of training.

I think that one more condition for being a gentleman would be keeping quiet about what you do to stay healthy.

Nevertheless, I found What I Talk about When I Talk About Running to be particularly inspiring. Murakami is a more successful runner than I ever expect to be, even though I’m only three years older now than he was when he started running. And yet, I found something admirable about his approach. Running, like writing, is just something Murakami does, and he doesn’t think about a whole lot when he is on the road. His goal in running is to run to the end of the course. That’s it. He gets frustrated when he can’t run as fast as he used to, but he is not running to beat the other people, and uses the experience to turn inward.

And you start to recognize (or be resigned to the fact) that since your faults and deficiencies are well nigh infinite, you’d best figure out your good points and learn to get by with what you have.

But it should perhaps not come as a surprise that I highlighted more passages about writing than I did about running, though Murakami makes a case that the is broad overlap in a both a running temperament and a writing one. Both activities require long periods of isolation and where success is not synonymous with “winning.” Doing them is more important than being the best at them.

I don’t think we should judge the value of our lives by how efficient they are.

A useful reminder.

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I have had a hard time writing about books recently. Before these two books, I got bogged down in Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, which I am still trying to process, and then read Ondjaki’s The Transparent City, which is a very sad story about an impoverished community in Luanda, Angola. I would like to write about these, but I’m not sure that I have anything coherent to say and June has turned much busier than I had hoped—last week I was at AP Rating in Kansas City, then I wrote a conference paper that I delivered yesterday, and now I’m staring down a book deadline and other writing obligations. By the time I have time, I might be too far removed to come back to those books. I am now reading Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, which is a novel about adjunct labor and miscarriage in a way that highlights the lack of control in both situations.