Sunday, September 20, 2009

There's Nothing Like Being Saved. Boston's Bitchy Bear Brings it For Betsy.

Let's talk about some of the bad advice and ridicule Betsy got for a second.

First: "love it or get out, as you are keeping a slot from people who will love teaching and therefore do it better than you." Bullpuckey. Having turned in my tenure dossier I am now fresh meat in the abattoir for crappy service work* that needs doing, and one of my new jobs involves directing one of our programs. As part of that job, I get to see everybody's evaluations for every single class.

Now, I'm not fool enough to believe evaluations do anybody justice. But the exercise is interesting, as I'm in a huge department of faculty and you start to see a few patterns in the data over the course of years. So people in my department who think they are teacher of the year? Eh, some get great evals, others don't. Some do well in some classes and not in others. The people like me who openly admit they're overwhelmed, alienated and (yes) bored get pretty much the same evaluations in general as the ones who, like many academics, gas on and on about how they live for the craft of teaching.

The whole "get out" advice is rather bogus anyway. Though teaching drives me nuts---I go at it with fear and trembling; I miss it when I am not doing it; and when I am doing it the students drive me to drink--teaching is a part of life as you age. Teaching is a part of parenting. It's a part of management and leadership in any context, and I say this as a former professional. It's hard to get away from the fact that as time marches forward, you gain experience and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by young people who have to run the world someday, and most of those young people need a good swift kick just as you and I have needed good swift kicks in our time (and, in my case, still do). It is the great circle of life. Now, you may not want to spend your life teaching in a classroom, but if you are not catastrophically selfish as a person, you will probably spend at least some of your time teaching in some way.

This endeavor of trying to bring youth into adulthood and adulthood into maturity is often boring. You're not bored because you are boring, as one person suggested. Maybe, but I doubt it. There's boring and then there's BORING and it's probably good to distinguish. First of all, as the comments noted, virtually every job has its tedium.

My poor dean. I can't imagine how many meetings that guy sits through every week. Why in God's name would anybody do such a thing? Well, because he thinks he's building something here. It can be a great challenge to lead bright and creative people and to puzzle out what motivates them and how to bring them along. But it involves a lot of meetings so dull I'm surprised that Amnesty International hasn't listed them right along with bamboo under fingernails.

Any parent honest with themselves and others will note that children can be boring as all hell. Yes, yes, yes they are all precious precious little pumpkins, but have you ever sat through that demented "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland 30 times? Read Goodnight, Moon** 100 times? Listened while a six year-old tells a story about the kid who smells like pee and has cooties? Played Candyland for seven hours? Watched Alvin and the Chipmunks for longer than 21 seconds?

Oh here's a good one: my niece catches me on IM just about every night and fills the chat with jeremiads about the injustices of not being able to date 20 year-olds at her ripe old age of 15. That's some boring shit happening right there. Why deal with it? We do it because we love. My niece, I hope, isn't going to be an idiot forever. She's going to grow up. Growing up is hard, and you need the attention of older people to know you are doing it right and that anybody cares that you are doing it right. I'm pretty sure my departmental mentors aren't thrilled with going to lunch in order to listen to me whinge about writer's block, but they do it because they care and they know that all this acting fascinated by youngsters' babble really does get us somewhere.

And that's why as a beginner I think you have to reserve judgment for a bit. The rewards to teaching are random and they take time to manifest. Students, like kids in general, never understand what you are doing for them while you are doing it. Wait a few years. In my limited experience, I find that students echo throughout your life. They come, and some are lovely and gratifying in the moment. Others are difficult but still gratifying. Others you wish would spontaneously combust.

And then a few years later, you will happen upon one, and they will say things like "I hated that assignment/book/class, but now that I am doing the job, I completely understand why you had us do it." This past week, my dean was abroad with a muckitetymucky group and he happened to strike up a conversation with one of the staffers. It turns out she was one of my students from my former university who told my dean that I was the best teacher she ever had.*** Stuff like that happens when you teach; it just takes time for it to happen, and when it happens, it can even touch somebody as tar-hearted and genuinely dedicated to the cause of evil as yours truly.

The other part of just beginning: people give you the dog classes. Yes, yes, yes, silverbacks, control yourselves: it's about paying your dues to some degree. But you should understand that teaching fun classes is a lot different than teaching dog classes, and if your program is smart they will give you something fun to go with your dog of a class.

My former university wasn't smart; they hired a big cluster of very gifted young scholars, distributed the dog classes and fun teaching inequitably, and those of us who got short sticks left after three years. All that talent, recruited and then gone because the senior faculty couldn't work up enough team attitude and self discipline to take one sucky class a year. Stupid. My own preference is to suck up one of the dog classes that nobody wants, turn it into a no-brainer prep as one of the commenters suggested, and then use that as an excuse not to take up any number of other shitty tasks that are being handed out. When you can be relied on to cheerfully and consistently deliver the class that is hard to cover, you build up chits you can trade later. And it's everybody's duty to pick up some departmental housekeeping, even though many of the silverbacks won't deign to teach undergrads. It's wrong of them to do so, no matter how many dues they think they have paid. As you progress, you will get more opportunities to teach some of the non-dog courses. If you don't, then I think looking around at different jobs is perfectly reasonable, but give it some time.

Good luck.

**Classic of western literature, don't get me wrong, but there are limits to appreciation.
***Don't think for one second I don't realize it could have just as easily been one of the students who hated me over the years. I got lucky. Or she was nicely brought up and lied well.