I like to think of myself as a cynical idealist: somebody who’s grounded in reality but who’s always looking for hope.
But if you believe academic Twitter these days, our profession as teachers and scholars is completely and utterly fucked.
The humanities? Disrespected. Labor issues within the university? A gaping head wound that the powers that be have refused to address. The academic publishing industry is a boondoggle and, best of all, there’s almost no chance that I’ll be able to land a tenure-track job.
And that’s all true.
But I balance that, in my cynically idealistic head, with the emails I’ve received from a few of my former students in the last few days, students who have taken some of the work we did in my Literature, Medicine, and Culture class this past fall and created something more. They’re going to conferences, applying for internships, looking at scholarships, in an effort to build on conversations we had in class, that they furthered in their own writing.
I am so freaking proud of them all.
Sometimes you just have those classes where the mojo is just good, where the planets or the goddesses align and going to class is a pleasure, plain and simple. My group this fall was just such a one.
For me, what makes that even more remarkable is that there were some major potential roadblocks in place: a class much larger than what I’m used to teaching, full of students from the sciences; my belief going in that I suck at teaching literature; and, oh yes: I was preparing to take my comprehensive exams. All these things together had me nervous before the term even began.
But then a funny thing happened: together, we made it work.
The size thing? I got used to it, though it took me a lot longer to learn everyone’s names. And yes, many of the students hadn’t taken an English class since high school, but for some, at least, the chance to read fiction for a change proved a welcome respite.
Teaching lit? If the students’ evaluations are to be believed, for many, their favorite part of the class were our discussions about the novels and short stories they read. Like, hands down, no question: many of them loved some of the works that I asked them to read, and they seemed to relish the chance to talk about them with their peers. At first, some were surprised that we were discussing the texts, rather than me lecturing about their meaning or significance, their symbology or their narrative structure. Asking questions about the texts, hearing their peers’ opinions or points of confusion helped many of the students, they told me, to better understand and enjoy the texts that they read.
So apparently I don’t totally suck there.
And as for my exams? Yeah, simultaneously preparing for them and for class sucked, but my students were just awesome about it, about my high level of crazy in the week before and during my 72-hour writing marathon. I told them what was going on, what I had to do and why, and damn if they weren’t alternately horrified and incredibly supportive during those weeks. As I told them once the pain was over: I wouldn’t have passed without them, without their unexpected cheerleading and trust that I wouldn’t leave them behind.
Now one great class does not a job guarantee me, of course. It doesn’t even mean I’ll finish my freaking PhD on time and on schedule.
But here’s what it does mean:
Some of the students, as my mailbox has suggested of late, are already translating thoughts inspired by our coursework into something tangible and productive for themselves. Some of them got to read books and enjoy them for the first time in years. Some of them remembered how much they liked to write.
Some of them won’t think about this class ever again.
So for all of our discipline’s failings, all of the problems of the pre-modern university stuck in the post-modern world, here’s why I’m still here:
Possibility. Potential. Those moments in the middle of a class discussion when the students are zinging around ideas and all you have to do is stand back and listen to them be smart. That pause you take in a lecture, or in an answer to someone’s question, when you can feel that the whole room is there with you, that you’re all in this together.
When the students never cease to surprise you. When they ask better questions that the ones you had prepared. When they take an essay prompt in a different direction than you’d intended and end up writing something smart and incisive.
When they say thank you and you want to tell them: it’s all you, guys. I’m just the conductor; you all were the ones finding the notes and making the music your own.
For my money, there’s no better place to explore the possible than the classroom. Whether the class is great or whether your lesson plan is a bomb, the potential for something awesome and unexpected is always there, just waiting for you all to stumble upon it.
So for now, today, I’m holding on to idealism. What’s going on outside of my classroom, what puts the students there, what puts me in the room with them—most of that is so far outside of my control that I can’t even see it.
For now, I’m safe from perils of the job market for just a little bit longer. And I’m gonna enjoy it while I can.