Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Oh, Fall Break, I Will Miss You So (and Some Random Musings about Being a Professor)

Well, it has not been a productive fall break, but it has been a rejuvenating one. I've spent a lot of time sleeping, lounging about, wondering why Anthony Bourdain isn't somebody I actually know in life, slightly more lounging, thinking about work, putting off the work until another day, and then maybe I'd go back to sleep. Now, this is not the most glamorous way to spend a fall break, but I think that I really needed the time to veg.

Of course,what this means now that it's the final day of the fall break is that the time for lying about in a slatternly fashion has come and gone, and I've got a lot of work to do. Mostly, that work involves grading. What's annoying to me is that pretty much all of the grading that I have is not grading that I want to do.

I know what you're thinking: isn't that true of all grading? Well, not generally for me. The problem is that the batches of assignments that I've got before me are ones that I assign because they're good foundational assignments for students - and I do believe in making sure that students have some grades at midterm to judge progress by - but they aren't particularly interesting assignments to me personally to grade. For example, I always assign one of two short papers in the survey before midterm, because they need one paper early, so that they can get a sense of my expectations and grading style and so that they're digging in to the texts of the first part of the semester. The problem is, the first half of the survey is decidedly not in my wheelhouse of favorite literature to teach or about which to read. So I've got this batch of papers that I believe in students writing but that I have no desire to evaluate. And, with this course, there's no way around that. It's good pedagogy to have the assignment, in spite of my personal preferences.

That's just one example, but the problem with my fall teaching schedule (as opposed to my spring teaching schedule) is that this is true across three of the four classes, which stinks. Now, I'll say this: it's a much milder version of the problem than I used to have when I was teaching two sections of comp per semester. What I've got to do, though, is to remember that things do improve dramatically as the semester moves forward, so this, too, shall pass. But see, this is an example of the way that as much as I love teaching, teaching is a job and it's not just about "doing what I love" or something. There are things that I've got to do as a teacher that I decidedly don't love, even if I enjoy teaching generally. I think that's often one of the things that doesn't get discussed much in the profession, which is weird since I think it's a given in other professions that while one might "enjoy" his/her job, one is going to not-enjoy certain parts of it.

I suppose I wish we talked a bit more about the nuts and bolts of this in real ways rather than being distracted by complaining about how students suck or about what counts as proper "professorial" or student behavior. I think sometimes when we get bogged down in those side issues that it sets up a false binary between "good professors who love everything about the job and thus the things that upset them are the fault of other people" and "bad professors/students who have the audacity not to love every single aspect of higher education." If those are the only options, then I think that the only option it leaves for people on either side is bitterness. The "good" professors are bitter because everything would just be perfect if other people (students, colleagues, administrators, taxpayers) had the exact same passions, loves, and values that they do, which of course are pure and true and altruistic. The "bad" professors are bitter because everything would be just perfect if the whole world would recognize that this is "just a job" like any other shitty job, which of course is what it "really" is.

I think that I used to fall into the second bitter camp, but the more I do this job, the more I think that this second bitter option is just as lame as the first. When I'm honest, I don't think this is "just a job" like any other shitty job, and to claim that it is has nothing to do with "reality." But I also don't think that if there are things that I don't like about the job, or if I feel like I need a break from talking about the job that it makes me "unprofessorial" or sends the wrong message. I think, I hope, that there's some middle option that does away with all of that freaking bitterness.

Perhaps I'm getting soft the longer that I'm in this profession, but being bitter takes a hell of a lot of energy, and I don't have that energy if I'm going to teach four classes a semester, have a research agenda, and do all of the service that I'm required to do. I don't mean that statement as a self-congratulatory one - "I am really focused on the work that I have to do and so I am better than the bitter folks" - no, I think I'm just tired. I don't find bitter screeds funny or liberating or entertaining anymore. I find them depressing and exhausting and distracting.

I don't know. I suppose as I think about what it means to me to be a professor, now that I've had a moment to think about it since having turned in the tenure binder, I realize that I've become a lot more confident in that identity. I don't feel like I'm proving myself anymore, like I'm jumping through hoops. I don't feel like there's some ideal of professor-ness that I'm bound to protect or to project in order to claim that identity. I feel like that because I'm a professor, that means that I'm professorial. (This is not unlike the realization I had about a year into my PhD program, where I decided, "You know what? They let me in and I haven't flunked out, so I have as much right to be here as anybody else.")

Sure, my version of this might not look the same as other versions of professorial identity, but who cares? I didn't pursue this profession because I held becoming some ideal of fixed professorial identity as a goal. I pursued it because I love the things that the job lets me do. I never expected that by virtue of becoming a professor I'd command more respect or esteem than if I chose another career path, nor did I have illusions, past the first year of graduate school, that being a professor meant leading a "life of the mind" that wasn't subject to real-life concerns and the complications caused by human interaction. And I didn't think that I'd stop being myself when I got into this whole thing. I didn't think that all of my old interests or attitudes would fall by the wayside the moment that I was hooded. Nor did I think that I would never again develop a new interest outside of those approved by the academy.

Sure, the process of entering this profession and working in it has changed me, in some ways good and in some ways less good. But I'm still me. And me? I'm not naturally a bitter person. And when I am bitter, it's usually in a fairly joky fashion, probably better described by the word "wry" than "bitter." I'm naturally a pretty positive and happy person. I'm a person who thinks about silly, non-academic things; I'm a person who procrastinates; I'm a person who values things that are fun - and not necessarily intellectual or sophisticated fun. I'm much more likely to laugh than to chuckle knowingly or to smirk.

And the longer that I do this job, the more important that I think that it is that I value those things about myself and nurture them. Because here's the thing: I'm a person first and a professor second. Being a professor is what I do but it's not the person that I am. And I come to think more and more that being a whole person makes me a better professor. I'm certainly much less of a jerk to my students (for I do think that I used to be a jerk under the guise of asserting authority), and I'm much more confident about showing more parts of myself and being more open about my personal reactions and attitudes than I used to be.

I thought about this after a discussion in the class with Notoriously Difficult Novel (which we've finished! hurray!). I said, in an offhand way, that I do believe it's a novel that all English majors should read/study/have the opportunity to write about. One of my students asked, in a slightly challenging way but also in a truly questioning way, why. First I let some students field the question, but then I concluded by broadening the question. Because I think what was at the heart of the question was really, "why bother reading/studying/writing about literature?"

Now, when I started teaching full time, I don't think that I would have broadened the discussion, or that I even would have offered an answer of my own. Or if I had, I would have offered up an answer that was basically a lit review: Here is why Mathew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, and Roland Barthes say that we should read literature. But I didn't do that (or I didn't do only that). Instead, I gave my "real" answer to that question - my personal answer to that question. I told them why I'm invested in literary studies as a discipline, and why I think it matters. I won't recount it here because that's not really the point of this post. I also won't recount it because, having a reputation in my department of being a hard-ass who doesn't have warm and fuzzy feelings about literature, I swore all of my students to secrecy after I pontificated, and told them that if they ever revealed my warm and fuzzy true nature to anyone that I would surely deny it. We all laughed, and then class was done.

The point is, I think that it's good that the identity that I perform as a professor is no longer so dependent on hiding or evading or excising certain parts of how I really feel about my discipline and the work that I do, in the service of being "professorial." I think that it's good that I'm not so concerned with issues of authority that my identity in the classroom bears little to no resemblance to my identity in the world. It's not that I'm more "real" now, but I am a hell of a lot more open. And I think that part of the process of becoming more open for me has been finding my way as an academic who blogs. This may not be an "academic blog" - if what we mean by that term is a blog that excises the personal or the silly or the frivolous or the non-intellectual - but I am an academic who writes a blog. And doing so has helped me to learn how to broaden my academic persona in the classroom, to stop feeling immense bitterness about my job particularly and about the profession generally, and to feel more comfortable with the many different roles I play, in the job and out of it. And, perhaps most important, it gives me an excuse to blather on rather than getting down to the work of grading. The value of this cannot be discounted.

But the last day of Fall Break is a sad day indeed. A sad, sad day.


Bardiac said...

Ooo, the new blog roll is very handy!

We don't get a fall break until Thanksgiving because the state has mandated that we can't start until after Memorial Day (tourism!), have to get a specific number of teaching days in, AND we need to end before Christmas (because we're a Christian state, even though we can't be legally). It sucks, so even if your break wasn't great, I'm still consumed with jealousy!

gwinne said...

I appreciate this post. And, more generally, the work of your blog as it *is* a site that explores, among other things, the personal life of an academic (cats included!).

Belle said...

Tenure affected me in much the same way. I love turning questions around so that the students answer them; if pushed, I'll give them my own response but only after the students have their say. Sometimes, when their peers hear those reasons they become more reflective about their own ideas and beliefs. For me? That's a rush, watching minds at work.

But then, I am a geek.