02
Aug 17

Transitions are Hard

Transitions are hard, y’all. And my job is full of them.

Transitions are Hard

Original photo by Sam X

Sure, I do the same thing every semester, but the way the school year works is weird. There’s so much build up to the fall semester where you get everything set and then power through, and then you push through to Christmas. You get a month off, and start it up again. I taught for the first time this summer, and it was like a third round of the same cycle.

Transitions are Hard Click To Tweet

I feel like I’ve reached a point in my job where I’m not only capable, but so many things are running on autopilot now. I’m able to anticipate what kind of questions my students will have, and head ’em off at the pass, so to speak.

(Teaching is mostly a battle, and getting college kids to write a well-reasoned, CONCISE paper is lot like executing a ancient Greek-style phalanx. You gotta have the metaphorical armed men and the spears to basically prod students into doing the assignment correctly. All’s fair in love and war. And education.)

But even so, the school year has a lot of wear and tear. And the schedule is brutal.

With the starts and stops of the normal academic calendar, I feel like this one scene in Beavis and Butthead Do America where they’re escaping the trunk of a moving car. They’re able to pry the trunk open, but Beavis is scared to jump out because “that road is moving pretty fast.” Butthead says it’s okay, and that Beavis should just run really fast when he hits the ground.

I’ve cued up the movie here for you if you’re one of those productive humans who doesn’t often find themselves quoting Beavis and Butthead and using it at a metaphor for life.

(Side note: Not that I mind you coming around, but like, if you AREN’T the type of person to use Beavis and Butthead as a metaphor for life, what the hell are you even doing here?)

Beavis and Butthead: A Metaphor for Life Click To Tweet

The reason I bring all this up is twofold. Firstly, if you’ve never seen Beavis and Butthead Do America, you absolutely must. It’s a cinematic triumph. And secondly, I’m bringing this up because I FEEL LIKE I KEEP HAVING TO RUN REALLY HARD BECAUSE THE ROAD IS MOVING REALLY FAST WHEN I JUMP.

As I was saying, transitions are hard.

So, each semester, I change schedules. I go from grading EVERY PAPER EVER WRITTEN IN ALL THE HISTORY OF ACADEMIA (or so it feels) to posting grades and having so much free time. Because I need a break, I’ll take some time to just chill and slowly let my brain melt and dribble out of my ears while I watch Netflix. And before I know it, I haven’t used my time off for any of the productive things I intended to use it for, and I’ve already jumped into the cycle of powering through a new semester.

If I could power through the transition, this wouldn’t be a problem. But transitions are hard and I’m trying to avoid burnout. And because transitions are hard, I feel the need to make a small confession.

I’ve been misrepresenting myself a little lately. Sure, life is going well enough, and I’m happy, whatever that actually means. I’ve been keeping in contact with friends, and I’ve had some very good hangouts the past few months.

And I’ve been reading, slowly but surely. Some books move faster than others, and some books make me pause and think about my life, and sometimes that’s too much. But I’m reading still, which is something I have to do lest I go insane.

But here’s where I have to make a confession.

I haven’t been writing.

I have zero writing routine to speak of.

(Please don’t send me a link to one of those think pieces about how if you don’t write each day you should just get out of the game now. I AIN’T HERE FOR IT.)

Summer would be the ideal time to bash out a project — to outline a novel, or create new character ideas, or to formulate research questions for that Ph.D. I’m always threatening to get.

But here I am.

And so, if you thought I was hella good at productivity, know that I’m not. If my life were a car, it would be a primer-colored POS with a dents and dings and loud-as-hell muffler. Parts are held on with duct tape and zip ties, and no one is really sure what happened to the back bumper — that’s how long it’s been missing.

And what’s worse is that I’m in the trunk of said car as it barrels down the highway. I’ve just pried it open and I’ve got to jump. And I should be good at it by now because I’ve been jumping for the past two years.

But no.

Transitions are hard. And that road is moving really fast.

So I haven’t leveled up to writing daily.

Yet.

Transitions are hard. And that road is moving really fast. Click To Tweet

And with that, I turn to you, readers. How do you keep up habits in the face of big transitions? How do you keep your schedule going when your work schedule changes about every 3 months? Have you ever jumped out of the trunk of a moving car?


11
Jul 17

Writing for an Audience: One Simple Writing Trick That Will Save You Every Time

In all my grading rubrics, there’s a specific percentage of assignment points allotted to the audience. Basically, I want to see how well my students have addressed the concerns their audience has. Because writing for an audience is all about making sure you’ve addressed what your audience needs.

Writing for an Audience

Because if you haven’t addressed the concerns of your audience, why are you writing in the first place?

When you write, think about what your audience wants. Click To Tweet

Have they answered all the questions the reader will ask about the topic? Have they made it clear to the reader what it is they’re trying to say? Are they addressing the reader in the appropriate manner?

These things are hella important when you’re writing for an audience, regardless of who that audience happens to be. And, in my humble opinion, will save you oodles of trouble in the future.

When I write on this blog, I write casually, to be sure. But that’s the proper tone for this place. When I write for work, it’s definitely more formal. And when I write fiction, I adopt whatever tone is necessary for the story I’m trying to tell.

It’s kind of like how you change the tone of your writing when you email your boss vs. when you text your bestie.

But that’s the thing. We’re always writing for an audience.

We're always writing for an audience. Click To Tweet

(Except maybe in journals. But I’m also a megalomaniac, and assume that 100 years from now, historians and scholars will go through my journals — at least the ones I haven’t thrown away — and appraise what I’ve written.)

So, this begs the question. How can you put this into play? How can you ensure your audience is getting what they need from what it is you’re writing?

I’ve got your back, homes.

Writing for an Audience-email

When you write an email, ask yourself what you want to recipient to take away from it.

Are you scheduling an appointment or meeting, or trying to get Bob from accounting to finally respond to your request for funds? Either way, think about how you can make sure your audience gets that from your emails. Because people tend to be inundated with emails:

  • Use bullet points for main ideas, tasks, and action items.
  • Keep it simple. Cutesy detail and jokes gets really annoying when you’re on a deadline.
  • Highlight when you want to emphasize a point.

Writing for an Audience-reports

When you write a report for work, whether it’s a travel/expense/quarterly report, anticipate questions.

In each section of the report, go paragraph by paragraph and ask yourself what questions you anticipate the reader having about what you’ve said.

  • Have you included all the necessary details?
  • Are all requirements of the report being met?
  • Based on past experience, what sort of questions will the audience have regarding your report?
  • If you can’t elaborate on something, is it clear to your reader that you’re working with the only information you have at the time?

Writing for an Audience-directions

When you’re writing directions or a process, think about how your audience will use these directions.

It’s easy to think about a process that you’ve engaged in multiple times, but can you succinctly and concisely explain it to a total noob?

  • Follow each step of your directions TO THE LETTER to see if you’re getting from point A to point B the way you’re supposed to. If you need to, edit to add extra information you may have left out initially.
  • Ask if the information is vital. Cut anything that isn’t 100% relevant to what you’re writing to avoid confusing your audience.
  • Fine an impartial person to test your directions. If they can follow them without any extra information from you, then you’re good to go.

You can pretty much apply any of these strategies to any writing you have to do daily. Take some time to focus on what your audience needs, and that will get you 98% of the way there.

And always, keep in mind that this isn’t Mrs. Palmer’s sixth hour English class. Don’t worry about what Mrs. Palmer would want you to do with your writing. She taught you English writing, which is FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT than the sort of writing you do in the professional/real world. You don’t EVER have to adhere to any rules that she set for you. In fact, I would argue that a lot of English teachers lied to you as you were growing up, and you’re wasting time doing what they said to do.

(They didn’t do this out of spite or for malicious reason. They were just underpaid and trying to wrangle kids to do an assignment when said kids would’ve rather been neckin’ behind the gym. Also, let’s be real. Kids take the DUMBEST things away from lectures, and hold onto them like nuggets of gold, when in fact it’s generally throwaway lines from teachers who just want you to start the assignment at least one day before it’s due.)

Your English teachers lied to you. Stop following their writing advice. Click To Tweet

So what about you? What fool-proof writing trick do you use to make sure your audience gets what you’re saying?


09
Mar 17

Create Space to Breathe: 4 Tips to Help You Fight Overwhelm

When the things that need to be done start to pile up, I know I need to create space to breathe.

We’re smack dab in the middle of grading season. Or, more accurately, procrastinating grading season. (Every day I manage to tell my students they shouldn’t procrastinate with a straight face. I have no business doing that.)

Create Space to Breathe: 4 Tips

Normal adult activities like cleaning and grocery shopping have fallen by the wayside because I feel like I don’t have time to do it. And while I may not have time to do it all when I need to get 116 papers off my plate, I know I have time.

I firmly believe that busy is a choice. But I also know that there are times when you have more to do than others. And grading season is definitely that time for me.

In the past, I’ve wasted time feeling like I needed to be cooped up and cordoned off — away from the world and working diligently to get things done. But the problem with staying inside all day and looking at a computer screen is that it very much makes Marisa a dull girl. And if I’m being honest, it makes me hate my job and my students, which isn’t really productive at all.

So, this year I’m taking a more strategic approach and making an effort to create space to breathe. I feel like I have to this semester, especially since I’m teaching 5 classes this time around. I’m also at an age where I can’t be productive when I cut corners. So, fast food isn’t an option since it doesn’t really fuel my body anymore, so much as shut down the whole production while I lay down and attempt to digest. And there are no more all-nighters for me. In fact, I’m in bed at the same time every single night.

I know some of my coworkers can stay up late to get things done and still teach the next day. Or they can fuel up with nothing but coffee and donuts. But that ain’t me.

So here’s what I’m doing to create space to breathe during this busy time.

001: Going for walks.
Through a wellness initiative at my university, full-time faculty and staff received a free Fitbit. And while it’s not he first step tracker I’ve owned (I used to be a Garmin Vivo Fit user) it has definitely made me way more competitive when it comes to getting my steps in. Not only do I see my friends and all their steps within the Fitbit app, but I also see everyone on the university’s fitness portal. Because of this, I know how much more other people are doing, and I want to do more.

Now, there are only so many hours in a day, so it’s not like there is plenty of time for me to walk all over the place. Instead, I’m using my lunch breaks during the work day and walking around campus. Thanks to global warming, it’s been so unseasonably warm, and that has definitely made it a lot easier for me to traipse around campus during the day.

Not only is the walk good for me, but it enables me to take a moment away from the computer. I truly get to use that time to decompress from grading, lectures, and emails. It’s perhaps the most relaxing thing I do all day.

002: Eating my lunch outside.
I’ve got a bad habit of holing up in my office and eating lunch in front of my computer. I know this isn’t good, but it’s so hard to make myself go elsewhere. Plus, it’s not like I want to be the irrelevant old professor who rolls up in the cafeteria and tries to strike up a conversation with students in hopes that they let me sit with them.

I’m a 100% introvert, so I need time in my day when I’m not interacting with people. That’s usually why I eat my lunch in my office with the door closed. But the other day, I walked to my favorite spot on campus after I purchased a sandwich. I was delighted to find that no one was sitting on my bench, and very few people were passing by.

Naturally, I parked right there and enjoyed my pastrami on naan sandwich with an over-sweetened iced green tea. The best part? I could hear a choir rehearsing in Carpenter Hall.

003: One-on-one talks with good people.
I’m very fortunate in that I’m surrounded by a lot of deep thinkers. We can discuss a lot of things, and I never feel like I’m stuck in very surface-level conversations, which I HATE. It may seem counterintuitive, but when I’m stressed out, it’s nice to talk through some difficult concepts. If we stuck to just the small talk, I think that would stress me out more.

Over the course of this past week, I’ve talked about writing pedagogy, race relations and the biases we carry, whether or not a Ph.D. is actually worth it, and why we buy into the systems and institutions that we do. I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I live for these kinds of discussions. And by taking time to have them, I feel better through the day because I’ve interacted with a human on a meaningful level, and haven’t stared a screen all day.

004: Turning my brain off by 8 PM.
I’ve found that the best way to be productive and get through a really busy time is to clearly delineate how I will use my time. By that, I mean I need to set aside time for work and time for shutting down and relaxing.

I mentioned that I’m in bed by the same time every night, But I also have to start relaxing and winding down at the same time so that I can get to sleep more easily. At around 8 PM ever night, I put away all my school stuff. I may write or blog or journal, but mostly I’ve been too fried to do that. Instead, Chris and I cuddle up on the couch with Rosie, and we’ve been watching Twin Peaks (I totally hate this series — sorry nostalgia fans) or Desus and Mero (bar none the best late night show on the air).

Oh, and yeah. I’ve had a big ol’ glass of red wine each night.

 

So there you have it. That’s how I like to create space to breathe when I feel overwhelmed. What do you do when you’ve got a lot to do? How do you create space to breathe?


08
Feb 17

American Public Education Made Me Who I Am

I went to public schools growing up, and because of this, American public education functionally made me who I am.

American public education made me who I am.

Sure, there were things my parents did that shaped my education. My mother, an avid reader, always kept books around and took us to the library whenever we wanted. My dad would read to us when he got home from work, which I consider to be one of my most important memories. My brother and I had toys, but all of them required an immense amount of imagination. There was never a moment in my early childhood when my brain wasn’t in use.

So when I got to school, I was ready. I remember feeling very inadequate on the first day of kindergarten when I didn’t know the difference between left and right, but overall, I was pretty much ready for anything. (Except the rich, blonde girls that plagued me for the entirety of my student career. No one is ever ready for them, though.)

American public education made me who I am. Click To Tweet

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about American Public Education and what it’s meant to me. Or, I guess I should say, what it’s given me.

001: A Path.
When I was eight, I decided I was going to become a writer. I had just finished Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8. And for the first time, I felt that I had seen a real-life family being portrayed. In the early 1990s, there was a lot of garbage sitcoms that showed perfect families with stay-at-home moms, gigantic houses, and literally no one ever talked about money. But in the first chapter of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, it’s made clear that money is tight in the Quimby house. Later on, Ramona’s parents get in a fight. I decided then that I wanted to be a writer, and proceeded to buy several blank journals at the dollar store the next time I went to the mall.

I was in Ms. Galloway’s second grade class when I read that book. I checked out a copy of it at the school library before finally buying a copy at the school book fair. To this day, when I think of Ramona Quimby, I can smell the cherry Mr. Sketch markers I used daily in that class.

002: Perspective.
I’m constantly thankful that I was never homeschooled or sent to some elite private school for rich kids. Why? American public education gave me perspective. Because I was never cloistered away or kept from a broad cross section of my peers, I was always aware of expectations and benchmarks. My ego was never artificially inflated because I never got to the big fish in a small pond. I never got to pay my way into anything. I never got to assume my best was good enough because there were always students better than me.

I'm constantly thankful that I was never homeschooled or sent to some elite private school. Click To Tweet

Because of this, I learned quickly what my strengths were, and what I needed to work on. I can remember as early as first grade being told I was a good reader. And I can remember my junior year of high school when I worked my ass off and finally rose to the top of my Algebra II class. Without that perspective, I wouldn’t have known what to work on, or what I was good at.

003: Next-Level Emotional Intelligence.
I consider myself a communicator extraordinaire. Not only am I great at reading body language and the emotions of others, I have been known to charm my way into promotions, or coveted spots. How? Well, because I went to public school, and you absolutely have to learn that on the fly if you want to survive. And luckily for me, I had teachers who were fantastic at not only teaching the academic lessons, but who also pushed socialization.

And this didn’t end at elementary school. I can remember these lessons occurring as late as high school. Teachers didn’t hesitate to call down students and explain to them why they needed to phrase questions differently in order to achieve what they wanted, or why their body language was incorrect for their statement. At the time, it was incredibly stressful. But I am so thankful for it now, and I consider myself to be a master communicator because of it.

004: A Career.
True story: My high school freshman Spanish teacher asked me if I planned to go college. I straight up said no. I couldn’t see a need for it, and at the age of 14, I totally had everything figured out. Well, she didn’t let that comment rest, and four years later, I went to college. But I cannot stress how much the American public education system played a roll in my enrollment in college.

Without AP classes, teachers who cared way more than they had to for what they were paid, and the perspective to know that I would excel in the college environment, I wouldn’t have gone. This may not seem like that big of a revelation, but it is. Since first enrolling in college, I’ve earned a bacherlor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and now I literally teach college sophomores. ALL BECAUSE OF THE AMERICAN PUBLIC EDUCATION SYSTEM.

Let me rephrase that.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the American public education system.

I’m not saying I loved every single day of school, because nobody ever does, and I’d gladly erase fourth grade all together. But I am saying that American public education has made me who I am.

I also need to state outright that my experience in the American public education system was nearly ideal. I had the great fortune to grow up in one of the best districts in the state where the textbooks were never more than three years old. I debated about whether or not I should write this, just because it feels like bragging. When it comes to schools, I won the metaphorical lottery, and I know that many people can’t say that they got as lucky as I did.

But I also know this. The American public education system is flawed. And it may need an overhaul. But what it doesn’t need is a person who has never been a part of it at the helm. Betsy DeVos’s advocacy of school choice and school vouchers, I fear, will spell the end of the system that made me, a system I was hoping would make my children too.

Betsy DeVos is the end of the system that made me. Click To Tweet

I’m not ready for the American public education system to implode, nor am I ready to think about the consequences this will hold for me as a college educator.

What was I saying about nobody really being ready for the rich, blonde girls?


06
Dec 16

The 10 Best Ambient Mixer Atmospheres for Getting Work Done

If you haven’t experienced Ambient Mixer atmospheres yet, you’re in for a treat. You’re also about to get a lot more productive.

The 10 best Ambient Mixer Atmospheres for Getting Work Done

I wish I were the type of person who could just put my headphones on, blast music, and get work done. Unfortunately, I’m not. I’m a rather persnickety person, in fact. It’s hard for me to write or grade papers if the music I’m listening to has any lyrics. I pick up on the voices and find myself focusing on those instead of the work at hand.

While I don’t have a problem with instrumental music, sometimes it’s not the vibe I’m going for. Enter Ambient Mixer. It’s a site that let’s you choose an “atmosphere” to listen to. Ambient Mixer atmospheres are anything from fictional locations to everyday places to completely unreal soundscapes. But the best thing about Ambient Mixer atmospheres is there’s one for functionally any mood you’re in or want to capture. And the kicker? You can amplify or diminish any particular element of the atmosphere by cranking them up or turning them down. Basically, you can customize these atmospheres to your liking.

Here are the 10 best @ambientmixer atmospheres for getting work done! Click To Tweet

So, in the spirit of getting things done and setting yourself up for success in 2017 (the countdown to 2017 is upon us, after all), here are the 10 best Ambient Mixer atmospheres for getting work done.

001: Stormy Front Porch

I love the sound of rain when I’m working, especially when I’m writing. And I love the idea of having a big, covered porch that I can sit on with my laptop while I finish up a short story. This atmosphere is great if you’re trying to douse loud sounds, like music playing in another room, or if someone is talking right outside your office.

002: Hogwarts Library

Real talk: I went to library school, and I’m still pissed that Madame Pince hasn’t retired from Hogwarts because that’s the library job of my dreams. The best part of this Ambient Mixer atmosphere is the scritch-scritch-scritching of the quills on parchment. I recommend this atmosphere if you’re in a quiet space, but need a little sound so your allergy-induced tinnitus doesn’t become unbearable. (What? That’s just me. Oh. Listen to this anyway.)

003: Scottish Rain

What? I like rain. I stumbled onto this one by just clicking through to see what Ambient Mixer had to offer. I love the way the rain sounds in this one, but heed this warning. There’s a church bell in this one that really freaked my dog out. It’s set to ring every 10 minutes or so. Every time it would ring, Rosie would bark in the living room and then sprint back to my office to make sure I wasn’t being attacked. By a bell. So, if your dog is also a chucklehead, you may want to turn down the bell.

004: In Rivendell

I spent an absurd amount of my teen years imagining what it would be like to visit the last homely house east of the sea. I also spent a lot of years imagining that I was dating Tom Bombadil. (He’d be an amazing boyfriend, guys.) And, hell, I even spent a lot of time dressing like Frodo. This atmosphere is everything you could hope for when it comes to ethereal harping and the perfect bird sounds. Also that waterfall…swoon. I think this may be the perfect atmosphere for practicing yoga too. (I bet elves are hellagood at yoga — all handstands and impossible balance asanas.)

005: Victorian London

What, you want more rain? YOU GOT IT. While I think it would be absolutely terrible to live in the Victorian Era, I do like cobblestone streets. And, well, if I can hear the sound of horse-drawn carriages making their way over those cobblestones, I’m a happy camper. This is the perfect atmosphere to listen to while you’re reading, especially if you’re reading some Dickens.

006: Haunted Castle

Okay. So, lately, I’ve been way into ghost stories. I’ve spent way too much time in r/nosleep, and I’m kind of obsessed with creepy things. This Ambient Mixer atmosphere is exactly what it would sound like if you happened to find yourself inside a haunted castle. There’s a choir droning sound in this one that reminds me of the music in one of the first Tomb Raider games right when you’d turn a corner and be onto something. However, if you’re sensitive to squeaky sounds, you may want to fiddle with this one. I didn’t mind it, but Chris could only hear the squeak and nothing else when he was in the other room, and he found that pretty annoying.

007: Quiet Jazz Bar

If you’re the type that needs a little noise to get to work, you may enjoy this Ambient Mixer atmosphere. The tinkle of glasses and the quiet music balance really well with the general murmur of voices. I don’t think this one would be great for writing, but it’s definitely good for when you’re doing data entry, or formatting documents. And an added bonus is that when you listen to it, you can imagine yourself walking into a private eye’s office at the beginning of a noir film.

008: The Year 1612

This is another creepy one, and it’s ideal for writing scary stories. (Trust me on this one. I’ve been doing it a lot lately.) You definitely get the “misty woods at night” vibe from this one, so I don’t recommend listening to it while you’re home alone. This would also be a great one to play in the background at your next Halloween party.

009: Monastery at Night

I have a very elaborate fantasy where I go up into the mountains and live as a silent member of an artist’s colony for a year. This Monastery at Night Ambient Mixer atmosphere totally gives me that vibe. If you need to reset your brain a little and calm your anxieties, I think this is a great one. It’s something I like to use in the evenings when I’m transitioning from working on teacher stuff to writer stuff. I could also see this being a great atmosphere for shavasana, or just falling asleep.

010: Scottish Coffee House

I swear I don’t have a thing for Scotland. Well, okay. I do. But I wasn’t giving it preferential treatment or anything with this list. This is just the best coffee shop of all the Ambient Mixer atmospheres. It has rain against the window, a fireplace, and Autumn Leaves. Fair warning though: There’s a little not-so-seamless cut in the audio loop on this one, so it sounds like either a record scratch, or the sound of Slender Man coming near. (Did I mention that I’ve been reading a lot of r/nosleep?) If you aren’t a jumpy scaredy cat, this probably won’t bother you a lot. If you are a jumpy scaredy cat, you may have a heart attack each time it loops through.

Do you have a favorite Ambient Mixer atmosphere? Click To Tweet

So, what do you think? Do you have a favorite Ambient Mixer atmosphere? Any atmospheres I didn’t mention that you think need some attention? What do you listen to when you need to get work done?