Friday, January 24, 2014

Semblances of sanity returning to my life

After a fall semester so overloaded that I cannot even remember all of it (I call it the Big Blur), life this spring has mercifully slowed to a moderate trot. I am teaching fully online this semester for the university which means I do not have to descend into the maelstrom of campus life three times a week. My only face-to-face interactions with students is at the state college at Osceola, the regional campus where I am now assigned and hold university office hours each week.

The result is decidedly a more sane existence.

Of course, online courses have challenges of their own. Two of the classes I am teaching are first time being taught online. Three of the four classes have enrollments of 50 or larger.  I haven’t taught the Contemporary Humanities class in six years and the last time it was F2F. It’s been a challenge adapting that class to online format. It’s hard to know if the students are getting into the material since I only hear from them via their Discussion posts.

The Christianity class is brand new for me and somewhat new for the department, having more recently been taught as Christian thought and history.  Of course, I love the subject material even as I find myself wishing we could be talking to each other in person about these various points.

Three weeks into the term, I’m already a bit behind on grading because I’m spending a lot of time developing these new courses. Fortunately, the two Humanistic traditions classes could simply be rolled over from previous semesters online and after about a full day and a half worth of labor in resetting links on my Schedule, dates for quizzes and discussions, they’re set for the rest of the semester.

In the meantime, the distance – both physical and emotional -  I have gained this semester from the often toxic culture of a state university slowly squeezing the life out of its liberal arts is proving essential to my ongoing employment there (with retirement and health care my primary motivations for remaining these days) not to mention my own mental health. The detox process has been slow but steady. Landing the regional campus job was one of the best pieces of good fortune I’ve had in a long while.

Semblances of Sanity

In previous entries here I have laid out my lamentations over life in the pressure cooker of main campus with little relief in sight. I began this post on a Sunday morning, having just returned from the 8 AM Holy Eucharist (Rite I, no less!), a word which literally means thanksgiving, mindful of the many ameliorative changes that have come to my life over the past month for which I decidedly am grateful. I wish to be intentional about my gratitude for these changes. I see them as semblances of sanity slowly returning to my life.

Among them….
  •  I finally found the time last week to match up all the loose socks which had been sitting on the top of my dresser inviting cats to scatter them all over the bedroom. They’d been there since I took them out of the dryer the first of December just as end of term and exams demanded my every waking moment.

  •  I sat up until midnight (!) last Thursday watching late night TV and going through a couple of years’ worth of magazines, recycling those I no longer wanted, stacking those I decided to keep into wicker bins beside the couch. It’s amazing! I can actually stay up that late now that I don’t have to be at the bus stop by 9:30. To my surprise, there was actually a beautiful hardwood floor under all those magazines! 

  •   I have finally gotten all the baby agaves planted in the trays I bought for them when the Mother of all Agaves finally gave up the ghost on its bloom spike and fell into the street around Thanksgiving. Some of them had actually rotted in the bottom of the tray by the time I got to them but most of them survived to be planted, awaiting transplant into someone’s yard once they’re a bit bigger. (Anyone interested in a variegated agave?) 

  •  Last Friday I sorted through the entire month of December and first two weeks of January’s mail, recycling the vast majority of it and giving thanks that no overdue bills were among its contents. The mail basket suddenly looks very lonely. 

  • I am beginning to get through all the email that accumulated over the last couple of months of the fall term which I simply had no time to even look at. Apparently I missed a few important emails during the Big Blur but overall, most ended up being deleted. 

  •   I find myself actually sleeping at least eight hours every night. Every night! I was not even aware that was even possible. The dark circles under bloodshot eyes are slowly disappearing. 
  • I have actually been able to walk the 1.75 mile path around Lake Underhill down the street from my home almost daily. It allows me to stretch out my gimpy left knee and to get some sunshine back in my pallid face. I've forgotten how wonderful it is to spend 45 minutes with the birds, the otters, the trees, the clouds skittering across the sky and the sun glittering off the lake surface. It's enough to make this Franciscan heart sing. 

These may seem like little, even insignificant things. And, in themselves, they probably are. But when taken as a whole, they point toward a much healthier state than the one  I have inhabited the past couple of years. I think I’m beginning to actually work to live, not vice-versa. And  I am hopeful these are semblances of the return of a life whose sanity has been most notable for its impaired state if not its elusiveness for far too long

A possible task…

I had all of my four online classes up and running by the midnight deadline for the new term. Two of them are now completely set and the other two have a syllabus, schedule and the first five weeks of assignments up. It’s a nice feeling of accomplishment after last semester’s shot from the cannon beginning and a whole term of constantly being under the gun, a week ahead of the students if lucky, until nearly Thanksgiving.

I actually have the luxury of feeling a bit  relaxed about these classes since I know I will not be spending six hours a week on the bus, five hours a week in office hours and another six hours a week in the classroom (and that was just for the two classes on main campus last semester). I should be able to get the rest done without being constantly on edge about what I need to get done next.

It dawned on me last week that this is actually a possible task I face this term. It’s been so long since that was the case that I almost don’t know how to respond to that.

and an old, familiar feeling

I also find myself smiling, experiencing an old, familiar feeling as I teach my only face-to-face class in the Ethics and Critical Thinking I teach for Valencia. Standing in front of my weekly night class I remember why I once actually loved teaching. Even in my poor health, struggling to recover from the flu (complete with laryngitis) the first night, it was a great evening. These folks are going to give me a run for my money. I can’t wait!

This group is a miniature United Nations in a classroom – Pakistani, Lebanese, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, Haitian and the indigenous Osceola County redneck and African-American students. What a rich diversity within which to discuss ethics! Every class I see an ocean of hands in the air, my students anxious to offer their responses to the questions I toss out in my Socratic style discussions.

It is always a challenge to make sure everyone has a chance to speak, a major change from my group quiet, frightened young women nursing students in the same class last semester. In my current class, we laugh together and wrestle with hard questions together. The students are energetic and several students stay after each class to continue talking about the topics we’d discussed.  

Indeed, I continue to be immensely grateful for my reconnection to the Osceola campus of Valencia two years ago. It’s a whole different world from the Factory. I still sometimes find myself shaking my head when employees of the college ask me what they can do to be of help. After so many years at a hypercompetitive, status conscious, zero sum games-playing Factory (whose operating mantra is essentially “F**k you, you’re on your own”), it’s sometimes a little disorienting to encounter this atmosphere of cooperation and teamwork.

Last class when my webcourse site would not come up, I quickly ran next door to the learning lab and asked the young man behind the counter if he was having the same trouble. He stopped everything he was doing, checked the computer and told me that the problem was the Google Chrome browser I was using, try switching to Firefox. Voila!  That simply would not have happened at the Factory.

It’s even more disorienting to encounter the unabashed devotion to teaching and learning that I encounter at Valencia. That begins with large classes being capped at 27, still small enough to actually teach. But don’t get me wrong. I am absolutely grateful for this blessed disorientation.

At the same time, I must confess that I miss some of my students and colleagues in the department much more than I thought I would. Several of my students have sent me notes telling me they miss seeing me and some invite me to lunch, coffee or dinner. I miss them. A lot. And while it’s nice to be missed, there is a sadness in recognizing that my days of close, mentoring relationships with prize students and interactions with valued colleagues on the main campus are probably over. Even so, it’s a nice feeling to find myself actually looking forward to my occasional trips to that campus to see old friends and check in with students, even as it costs me $5 a pop to park there.

“I like the changes…”

Last weekend Andy and I went down to visit two friends from Chicago who make a week long snow bird escape to Florida every year after Christmas. We met them in Lakeland at a restaurant where we could sit outside and enjoy the last warm weather we would have before the current prolonged cool spell. (NOTE: This is not whining! I never complain about any break from the heat we get unless it gets down to freezing and damages my jungle) One of my friends, who has been my bosom buddy since our time together in Brasil on our Fulbright trip four years ago, observed “You seem like you are in a much better place than you were last year.” Her friend added, “Yeah, last year it seemed like it was about all over for you in teaching.”

I asked Andy on the way home if that was true. He readily agreed, reeling off a list of changes in our life together starting with the fact we actually had time to get away for that day trip. “Last semester this time, you were pretty much chained to the computer when you weren’t at school. The only reason I was able to tolerate you was because I knew it was going to change. I like the changes.”

I don’t know that teaching online is the long term answer for me. I continue my ongoing process of discerning the best means of investing my remaining time and energies to hopefully make a difference in the world before I actually depart it. But for the time being, this seems to be the place I need to be. I am finally catching my breath after far too many semesters being on a dead run capped by the mother of all terms, the Big Blur,  last fall. And I am starting to enjoy my work once again after a long drought marked by survival mentality. I do not take lightly the semblances of sanity that have begun to return to my life.

For all of this, I am deeply grateful.  Deo Gratias.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies
University of Central Florida Regional Campus
Osceola Branch Valencia College, Kissimmee

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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