What I learned my first year teaching
April 27, 2013 § 3 Comments
I taught my last class at my small college yesterday. My contract is up in May. The visiting professor has finished her gig. In a month I hit the road for a summer of research and visiting family. At the end of the summer I hit the road again, out into the sunset to start my tenure-track job at a public university. Needless to say, the roller coaster of the 2012-2013 job market set me down on terra firma. All’s well that begins with promise.
ON the Job Search
Knowing that something was up, my students have been asking all month where I’ll be going next. I was finally able to tell them. They talked about their own plans. The recession terrifies them. Some are going to grad school, others are relieved to have landed “for now” jobs, and then there are the dreamers and adventurers, off to join the Peace Corps, to teach in the Czech Republic and Argentina, play pro basketball in Germany, or WWOOF their way around the US. I don’t envy them the insecurity of entering adulthood in this job market, in this economy. But I told them — with a rawness that may have poked through — NEVER GIVE UP. You HAVE to keep trying, keep applying, keep planning, keep dreaming, even if you change directions a dozen times. You can only control what you put out into the world. “Sorry kids, I’m being preachy, it’s the last day of classes. Indulge me.”
Things that I didn’t tell them: When I thought I wouldn’t find a job next year I called my Mom crying, as one does, and she said something very very very wise. “It will work out honey. You’ll find something that will make you happy. You are a fighter, a hard worker, you always have been.” “But Mom, not everyone gets an academic job.” “I know honey, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that something will work out and it may not look the way you expected, but it will only work out if you don’t give up. And you may have to adjust your image of what that looks like. But it will work out.” Luckily, I haven’t had to adjust my image that dramatically. I have a TT job at a public university. That was — is — my dream. But everything my Mom says still holds. You have to keep fighting and pushing and dreaming. That’s all there is.
I learned a lot from my students this year, practical things about how to structure — and not structure — courses, classes, assignments. But I also learned more abstract lessons about communicating and listening and caring and challenging them. I was so anxious, this semester, about teaching 20thC liberalism and the rise of neoconservatism to a population with a large number of very religious political conservatives. And teaching Civil War and Reconstruction in the South! Whoa Nelly! I found myself continually returning to a piece of advice I received from a colleague earlier in the year: They want to know that you care about them — as people. And everything, all the learning, flows from that.
Small liberal arts colleges — and church-affiliated SLACS especially — talk a lot about educating the “whole” person. As an agnostic Jew, I find the prospect of conversations about vocation (not professional vocation — religious vocation) deeply discomforting. But here’s another spin on educating the whole person: it is a reminder that our students are more than the sum of their views or their politics. Like many of my colleagues, I approach teaching as a somewhat evangelical exercise. I want to challenge, complicate, widen my students’ worldviews. And I am going to try. But I also must recognize that I am never going to get a Romney supporter to come around. And that isn’t the point. I like to think that my dear little conservative ducklings have had the valuable experience of being exposed to a liberal feminist from New Jersey, and learning a somewhat more complicated version of U.S. history than they will probably receive — well — most places.
As I reflect on my own college experience and my own goals for my students, I come back to my conviction that college is about opening up, rather than simply replacing. It’s not reeducation — you’re adding to the pieces and shaking it up, rather than reshaping it (though we of course ardently hope that some pretty significant reshaping occurs on our watch). Then again, given the number of students who wrote on my feedback forms or told fellow colleagues that they discovered that they had grown up learning history based on Lost Cause ideology, that my classes helped them see this — well, a little reeducation is indeed in order!
But zooming out from this to the whole person business, we are also teaching skills for navigating a complicated fractious world. Listening, analyzing, discussing, explaining, writing a cogent essay, getting up and out of the door on time, taking responsibility for yourself, showing respect to your colleagues and to your superiors — these things are harder to do when the things that we are learning challenge our core assumptions or cherished narratives. And these skills are more difficult to teach when many of the students in front of us don’t share some of our core assumptions — assumptions from which we construct our narratives. I think that the way you manage this challenge is to go back to that little piece of advice I got at the beginning of last semester. You let them know that you care about them, as people. Mutual respect and intellectual openness can only follow from that premise.
Now I am not going to lie: I have had my share of frustrating experiences this term. Oh yes I have. But when I tried to leave my assumptions and judgements and anxieties at the door and focused on opening up questions, problems, challenges, rather than simply telling them what to think — well, they responded. Some of them responded. And some of them read novels during my lecture and turned me into a towering column of barely contained rage. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.
I will miss these kids, the test subjects of my first experiments in teaching the youth.