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?