My parents think I’m a college professor. They are so proud. But I know that I am not a real college professor and probably never will be.
I used to love teaching. On a good day, one of those when my students have done the reading and they are on fire with witty comments, laughing at my dumb jokes, asking smart questions, I still do. As I was preparing my (5-page, not that bad, thanks) syllabus for yet another first-year writing course this year, however, I felt something within had shifted. From my very first year teaching high school in the fall of 1995 until about a year ago, I looked forward to the first day like any good perpetual-student-person. The fresh notebooks! The sharp pencils! The new calendar! Not this year. I prepped as I always do, for a brand-spanking-new course, no less, but the thrill just was not there. I found myself binge-reading quit-lit, and envying people who have found themselves not writing syllabi for the first time in many years.
This could certainly be a case of mid-life burnout, right? I’m 42 (choke, sputter, gasp), and have been teaching for about 17 years. As a result, I have started to notice that, I’m aging and the students are always the same. Sometimes that inescapable fact inspires me. The fresh faces! The sharp wits! They keep me young. But. That same set of faces, year after year, can also give one a feeling of futility. Why am I spending time rolling the boulder of composition uphill behind a passel of future engineers and business majors who deeply and fervently hope that boulder just crushes me and rolls away, leaving them to pursue easier and more “relevant” things? Despite that very common writerly frustration though, I know in my heart that it’s not them. It’s me.
In many ways, my job is a better one than most people of my age and educational history get to have in this time of adjunctification and Corporate U. It’s a full-time university gig with a 4/4 load and health benefits. The salary is not good–I made more teaching public school. But the hours are flexible, and I can get a little course relief by working in the Writing Center and/or taking on administrative work. I’ve done both. In fact, I find more and more that I am looking for ways to teach less, and this surprises me. I can’t decide whether to give up the administrative work and teach more–really throw myself into it like the old days–or to think about giving it up entirely.
As long as I’m here, teaching in either of my specialty fields is not allowed, and as my (year-to-year) contract stipulates, “Research is neither expected nor rewarded.” That PhD I earned on the side while working here benefits me not at all. And in fact, I have learned, passing through the doctoral meat-grinder, that all the teaching I’ve done is not valuable–that it marks me as inferior in some way. I came to the PhD as an older student with a teaching career behind me, foolishly thinking that this experience mattered. No one in my family works in academia, and despite spending a fair number of years there myself, I just did not know I was supposed to be ashamed of my teaching career. I’ve always been proud of it. Perhaps that pride is what I really need to regain. And maybe, after another year’s distance from my dissertation defense, I will find a way to be proud again. In many ways, teaching suits me. Shame, not so much. So maybe its not the teaching that’s the problem, it’s the externally-dictated shame in loving it.
So I have to be creative in the way I create my perpetual first-year writing course to keep the thing enjoyable for myself so that I can engage my students’ curiosity, challenge them, maybe even get them to like writing. I am also trying to engage my own love of writing once more, in part by writing here. If anyone out there has found a way to fall in love with the job again, I would love to hear about that experience.
Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the job I have–I want to do it right and better, whether I am in the “real” English department or not.
My parents think I’m a college professor. I would like to believe that about myself.