The following interview with professors Jami Blaauw-Hara of North Central Michigan College and Mark Blauuw-Hara of the University of Toronto-Mississauga was conducted via email in August of 2022. This is the fourth of four parts.
David Starkey: My wife, Sandy, and I were colleagues for many years at Santa Barbara City College. That wasn’t always great when we brought home the tensions and traumas of the job, but overall I felt having the chance to discuss everything from big-picture pedagogy to the minutiae of a writing prompt really helped me become a better English teacher. What’s been your experience of being a married couple in the same profession?
Mark Blaauw-Hara: We loved being colleagues, and one of the things I miss most at my new job is not having her around. It helps that Jami is a top-notch teacher, so if I was struggling with how to address something in my classes, I could just walk down the hall to her office and ask her how she’d do it, and that would help me a lot. Jami’s right that it’s sometimes hard to remind people that we’re not the same person, though, and that colleagues should treat us as individuals rather than asking us what the other person might think or say.
Jami Blaauw-Hara: We met at Michigan State University’s Writing Center when I was a brand new graduate student and Mark was at the very end of his undergraduate career. Thus, our relationship started out with a recognition of our interest in writing pedagogy. I even brought an article about hypertext to our first date, which I’m a little embarrassed about now! I would say that it’s mostly been a natural pleasure to work together, and I miss him in my department now. One challenge was convincing the campus community that we were separate individuals with different opinions and strengths. I was often asked if Mark was available to do something or if I knew when or where he was teaching. My response was always “You’ll have to ask him!”
DS: I’d like to end our conversation by discussing an issue that I don’t think receives the attention it should at the college level, and that’s teacher burnout. We hear a lot these days about “quiet quitting,” but I think for many of us dedicated to teaching composition students, that’s not really an option. For me, once that first set of essays comes in the job basically becomes seven days a week until after I’ve turned in my final grades. Our long vacations are a blessing, to be sure, but those weeks in the trenches reading and responding to student prose can be really draining, no matter how much we want to help our students become better writers. Any thoughts about how our colleagues deep into their careers, as well as those just beginning, can avoid becoming casualties of too much work?
JBH: I struggle with this at this stage in my career, especially when my current institution is going through some administrative changes that are challenging. When I focus on my students and the importance of human relationships, I am buoyed. Human relationships are important to me, and even though they can tire me, as an introvert, they are what ultimately bring me the most satisfaction in my job. I focus on getting to know my classes, to try to reach out and really connect to the humans who spend a semester with me. Specifically, I use grading conferences for essays where I read and grade papers in conversation with students. It has been a game-changer for me. It decreases the dreaded stack of papers to grade, and it helps me stay connected to my students as people.
MBH: I can totally relate, David, and I bet a lot of other writing faculty can as well. One thing I’d recommend is cultivating some things outside of the job. For me, one of those major things I did was really dive into the larger scholarly community. Heading off to conferences or working with colleagues at other institutions on ALP not only gave me great ideas, but it buoyed me up. It’s just good to know that other people are in similar situations, in those same trenches. Another thing I did–and I know you share this, David–is lean into other passions that have nothing to do with the classroom, which for me is music. I’ve played live music in various bands for my whole career, and whether it was being in an official band, just jamming, or even going to see live shows, that helped me interact with lots of other people who were outside of education and just kept me fresh. I’m the kind of person who needs lots of different things to be going on–I don’t do too well if I focus too hard on any one thing. (I’m jealous of people who can really dig into one area and be happy for their entire lives!)
DS: Well, it’s been an enlightening conversation. Thanks to both of you!
MBH: It’s been really fun for us as well, David. Thank you so much for asking us to be a part of this conversation! And good luck with the book!