If you could feel a question mark, this would be it: good teaching days

January 27, 2011 § 5 Comments

Today I had an incredible day. Class was amazing. My students were engaged, alert, talkative. I went in and explained my agenda (as I always do), and then said to them, “So, I was reading your blogs and I noticed a common theme…so I wanted to turn today’s class over to you.” And boy did they deliver.

Days like today leave me feeling like a confused Sim. Instead of a giant green diamond hovering dangerously over my fragile cranium, I’m shaded by a massive gray blunt question mark. Although the sharp diamond, if dislodged, would crack my skull and finish me in mere seconds, the edgeless question mark would cause severe trauma if it came crashing down. At the least, I would suffer a concussion. At the worst, I would be left to live with the recollection that I was beaten down by my own confusion…and that it still exists.

Here’s the trouble, friends: I don’t want to be a college professor. I know this to be true. I don’t like writing, I don’t like the idea of publishing or perishing, I don’t like the political nonsense that is guaranteed in any department. Although I’m competitive, my competitiveness seems to begin and end with myself–I mean, I compete only against my own accomplishments. If I made a low grade on the first paper, I would compete with myself to improve upon my grade for the second paper. I couldn’t care any less about the grades of my classmates. Class standings meant nothing to me in high school–I can’t even remember what my class rank was when I graduated. I know it was high enough to allow me to graduate with honors, but I only cared about that because in a class of over 600, it gave me the opportunity to graduate before the average students with last names that started with an A. I was a W. This was significant mostly for my family’s sake–nothing’s worse than alphabetized graduation when you’re waiting on a W to graduate. In college, I didn’t compete with my peers, not really. I didn’t care how they did on an exam. If someone performed better than I did on an exam, I buddied up with them to help me study for the following exam. I wasn’t trying to reduce their score. In graduate school, I cared even less about my fellow classmates’ grades. (Well, and to be fair, in English graduate programs, grades mean very little. As long as you are performing above a C, then you’re fine.) The only time I showed any flare of competitiveness to a classmate was when she attempted to poach my topic for a seminar paper. She actually invited me to reconsider the topic and graciously offered me “to tell [her] if [I] didn’t think [I] could do the topic justice.” Bah. That paper was one of my favorites I’ve ever written, and it also ended up going to a conference presentation.

Other than that, though, I am not motivated by competition among my peers. I can see this as a potential drawback in the academic world. Oh sure, your college professors probably (for the most part) exhibit a standard of professional collegiality at the undergraduate level that would leave you with the impression that the department is one big happy, respectful family. That’s their job. Of course, when you get to graduate school…that’s when the claws come out. As a graduate student, I did not expect this sort of shift in the rosy presentation of academic life. There were really no warnings to speak of. Sure, everyone sort of dissed on this one creepy journalism teacher, but he was a creepy journalism teacher. (No, I’m serious. I didn’t like going to his office alone and would often ask one of my male friends to accompany me and wait out in the hall if I had to go to a meeting with him.) He was a creepo. But I just figured that the other professors generally disliked him because he was just a creepo. Maybe there was more below the surface. When there was a shift in the department head position at my undergrad, it didn’t feel like the coup d’etat that it felt like when my department in graduate school did.

With that impression of the gritty underbelly of academia fresh in your minds, you must be asking yourselves, “Well, if that’s really what it’s like and you’re so committed against it, then where’s the confusion?”

Thanks for asking. It’s brought me back around to my point.

Today was an amazing class. We discussed cross-dressing, social standards, sex(uality) and identity, gender. These are among the buzz words used in my dissertation, so of course I was flying high. My whiteboard looked like a frenzied mess. Something akin to an English version of Russel Crowe’s windows in A Beautiful Mind. My insides were trembling with excitement. I was at my peak! Here I was, an expert in this specific field, making my expertise matter! For God’s sake, I was finally doing IT!

“So…what’s the confusion?”

Yeah. Well, I want to feel THAT all the time. But I know I won’t because that’s not real life. Today is the last day of our eighteenth century texts (and, really, socially speaking the eighteenth century shares so much in common with the seventeenth century). Next week, we move quickly on to the nineteenth century. And I will no longer be an expert. Sure, I may have another fully-engaged, attentive, alert, and excited class session. I expect to. But I won’t be The Expert that I’ve truly enjoyed being these past two weeks.

How is it that I can enjoy THAT so very very much and despise the other so very very much? I’ve said to many friends and colleagues over these past few months that my ideal job would be one in which I could teach the cool things I learn about cool books but in which I would not have to grade or evaluate my students’ performance, or compete against colleagues, or be forced to publish my research.

I fear that that job does not exist. And this leaves me confused.

Anyone hiring a seventeenth-century expert to come and talk about the cool things about that period? Anyone?

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§ 5 Responses to If you could feel a question mark, this would be it: good teaching days

  • Robert says:

    Not to play the role of Debbie Downer (is Dewey Downer the male conjugation of that cliche?), but I think you were really answering your own question in your final, concluding paragraph: you experienced all the great stuff without the other shoe dropping. Wait until you get your first set of papers and see how much your undergrads (probably) butcher the talk y’all had on identity formation through sexual expression. THEN I’m sure the disheartening, nauseating frustration with the work will come overwhelmingly flooding back.

    That said–and me being the silver-lining-glass-half-full-guy that I am–cherish today. Hold onto it as a great teaching memory. Just because you’ll get frustrated again with your work does not diminish the exhilaration that you felt today in class. To trot out a cliche: nobody goes into teaching for the money. We don’t teach for the benefits. Hell, I doubt any professor really teaches because of the material. We teach for THAT sublime feeling you just had today. We teach because we want to be listened to…which sounds pretty Ayn Rand-ian when put so bluntly. But I don’t think it is that bleak.

    We aren’t a group of narcissistic, elitist imagineers. Instead we are the ones who have the balls (or lady-balls, as the case may be) to challenge students with ideas that they may or may not have ever grappled with before. That is the exhilaration of teaching; it is making the invisible green diamonds above our students’ heads light up with activity that gives us our kicks.

    And who’s to say that those kicks can’t be found in other places outside of talking about de Sade’s sexual proclivities.

  • Tori Nelson says:

    Wow! Perfect title, and I could not relate to this quote more if I had given birth to it: “At the worst, I would be left to live with the recollection that I was beaten down by my own confusion…and that it still exists.”
    I know that place you are talking about, where if something can stay the same it might work, but if it changes it will surely fall apart. Unfortunately I haven’t figured out the remedy. I just do the next right thing, that ONE next step that makes you happy and a little closer to feeling fulfilled.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Thanks, Tori. 🙂 I’m glad that the post spoke to you! I think you’re right…the only way to deal with this confusing place is to take it a step at a time and make the next right thing. I love that approach. I’m going to work harder to keep that in mind! 🙂

  • Gosh, the universe is such a weird place. As soon as you think you’ve given something up, it suddendly comes back to you in all its glory.
    Personally, though, I think it’s the the politics that are the worse. The thing is that academia might be one of the few places in the world where one can still do fun, cool stuff and get paid for it. Further down the road, it’s one job that will allow you to create classes that would be fun to teach. But can you tolerate getting to the point that you have that freedom?

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Yeah, I think that’s the biggest question. Honestly, I’ve tolerated it for six years and I’m fed up now. I don’t think I have another 40-50 years in me! But at least I’m getting support from the right people to take some time to think about this. My mom made a great point when I told them last weekend. She said, “You can always go back to teaching. It will always be there, and you will always have your Ph.D.” Good point, Mom, lol. It’s something I forget really easily–making a decision today does not mean that I can’t change my mind later on down the line, right? 🙂

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