I study words by trade. I believe in the power of communication and am fascinated by the beauty that grows out of language as it tries, and often lovingly fails, to capture the complexities of human experience. Considering this, I struggle to think of any words we are asking to do more than the two at the beginning of this post, these times. They are vexing, seeming to lurk on the edges of each conversation, looking for a prime opportunity to enter as they carry the weight of all we are collectively going through. When I sat down to write this, I wanted to avoid them but found out that they wouldn’t let me—unwanted guests determined to overstay their welcome.
Higher Education, like everything else, is experiencing a great deal of challenges because of these times. I don’t need to convince anyone of the urgency of these challenges, but they aren’t necessarily new issues for educators. Innovation in online and remote learning has been shaping our educational models well before a pandemic opened the door for these times to take up permanent residence in our imaginations. For many of us who work in education though, addressing these challenges feels like survival mode—how do we keep going on, providing the same services—the same quality education—we provided before?
I was thinking about this the other day, when meeting with a student to discuss her paper for a psychology class. As we were closing out the session, she thanked me for my feedback and laughed saying, “my mom recommended you.” A look at her last name connected a previously unconnected dot and caused a bright flash of warm memory. Her mom was one of my regulars when I first started at USG. I most vividly remember her red spiral notebook, and the time we spent parsing through her ideas in the clustered but vibrant space inhabited by Student and Academic Services. There is something visceral about working with handwritten text. Someone is sharing their own words with you, carved into the page. It wasn’t always as easy as working with a freshly printed Word doc, but it somehow felt more real—growing up on farms in Tennessee it reminded me of getting my hands covered in soil.
I have to admit, I had a moment where I really missed that red spiral notebook and the sensation of sitting close by someone, deciphering their handwriting.
But that quickly passed. As different as this meeting was, the core of the work was the same. My hands might not have been covered in soil, but the seeds of ideas were still being planted. While I didn’t have handwriting to parse over, all of the words appeared on a virtual whiteboard and our ability to play with the language itself was enhanced by this in real time. And, just like my meetings with her mom years ago, I find myself today looking forward to my new sessions with this student each week, approaching the challenge of each new assignment, each new idea, each new part of the journey towards a dream.
At every level, teachers are resourceful. This is my life story, as my own mother and both of my sisters made their careers in the school system back home in Tennessee. When I think of my mother, I can’t help of thinking of similar spiral notebooks and the long nights I remember her working at our kitchen table. I think of myself then—a wild, clingy, energetic child. I have seen a few like that over the past few weeks, popping up in ZOOM backgrounds, insisting on saying hello while climbing over furniture and demanding snacks. For the moms, this interruption can sometimes be frustrating. For me, it is a welcome spark of joy and a reminder of why our work is important.
These times are certainly altering lives in very real and impactful ways. Higher Education must change and adapt to continue to thrive, even after this pandemic ends. If the lessons we learn about online learning don’t stick, we are as doomed as spiral notebooks in an increasingly virtual world. The core of the work we do though—the empathy, the human connection, the generational change education can create—remains a constant. The mechanism through which we meet might be different, but the power of language and the beauty of our stories, our persistence and our triumphs, will endure.
If you find yourself pursuing a degree at USG, look me up. I look forward to being a part of your story—no matter what meaning we ascribe to those two pesky words.
About the Author, Adam Binkley:
Adam was born in Springfield, Tennessee, where he lived until pursuing an undergraduate degree in English at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. Following his time at UTC, he came to Maryland to complete an MFA in Poetry at the University at Maryland, College Park. At the Macklin Center for Academic Success at USG, Adam provides individual writing consultation and academic coaching, coordinates and develops workshops and peer support programs, and generally strives to help students meet their academic goals on their journey towards degree completion.