MAJeff here with his espresso.
A few years ago, when I was teaching back in Minnesota, there was a group of us first-year faculty who got together every Wednesday night for beer, pool, and chat. We had to switch bars a couple times–once because some folks weren’t feeling very comfortable with the war-mongering in our usual bar when we were there during the invasion of Iraq, and another because I spent an hour getting harassed by some of the locals (it was an hour because I refused to give up public space, but threats of violence told me an hour was long enough)–but we kept at it for the year. Several of us ended up leaving town after the spring, so I don’t think it kept going. I’ve not found something like since.
One of the things conversation turned to every night was teaching. Of course, some of it was complaining about our students. But a lot of it was of the, “What do you do when…?” or “How do you…?” or even “Class rocked today!” I don’t have the citation handy, but one of us even published an article based on those weekly drinking excursions. (In the literature, it became about “peer-mentoring.”) Coming from Sociology, Biology, English, Art Education, Math, Women’s Studies, and Computer Engineering we often didn’t have topical course information we could share. But, we talked about our classroom time, students with difficulties, difficult students, and the fact that none of them had ever heard of Billie Holliday. Those Wednesday nights with colleagues were honestly some of the best experiences of my teaching career.
I was reminded of those evenings recently. A few years ago, I was asked to put together a “Nuts and Bolts of Teaching” workshop for new Teaching Fellows where I’m doing my PhD. These are grad students who’ve spent time as Teaching Assistants but are preparing to teach their own classes for the first time. I didn’t do the workshop this year (I created it and taught it the two previous years), but had to find my materials for the Professor who was taking it over. The department used to have a semester-long course on teaching, but it had fallen by the wayside. Now, there’s a one-day workshop.
I’ve taught at six schools in the past 7 years. Other than that one year–when I was an Assistant Professor who had to go through orientation, where I met all those drinking teachers–I’ve never had the kinds of opportunities to engage in that “teaching talk.” My best friend here in Boston and I used to have those conversations quite a bit. But since the Department moved me from our shared office to one in a hallway all by myself, we don’t see each other as often, and rarely get to spend that kind of time talking about our teaching.
Now, one thing going on here is simply being adjunct. As I’ve described it to my students when they asked why I wasn’t sure if I’d be back the next year, we adjuncts are nothing more than “temps.” We have the same lack of job security and, generally, non-benefit status. We’re easily exploitable labor. And, we’re evidence of how little value teaching has. Regular faculty can get time-off for research; then we temps get hired. We may not contribute much in terms of building up departments, but to managers concerned with the fiscal bottom line, we’re a bargain. Some of us are pretty good, too.
My best friend here in the city teaches with me. We used to share an office, but because of scheduling issues, I got moved to another office; I’m now the only person in an entire basement wing of the building. We don’t get to talk much about teaching, like we used to, because we just don’t see each other as often. I admit that my friend and I are somewhat exceptional in being among the best instructors in the department. (I’ve got the evals to back it up.) But, there’s often very little opportunity for adjunct people to work on improving our teaching skills. I’m starting my sixth and final year at this school. Several of the places I’ve taught, including, this one, have any number of programs put in place to assist faculty in improving their teaching. Often, adjunct aren’t even made aware of such opportunities, and even if we were, we wouldn’t be eligible for them. More of the people teaching students aren’t provided opportunities to improve their skills. We’re teaching more and more of the classes, and the primary concern often isn’t our teaching ability, but the cost of our labor.
I’m not complaining too hard here. Adjunct positions have allowed me to teach at a wide variety of schools, to gain incredible experience, and–because I love teaching–to work on my own skills (albeit on my own). It’s frustrating, though, to have very strong skills in an area that is so devalued.
Teaching is a wonderful profession.
I really, really like my students. It’s an amazing experience to every year watch a new group of young people discover new things, about themselves and the world around them. It’s a little overwhelming, sometimes, to be a part of that process. And, it’s cute as hell when you can see the “EUREKA!” moment on their faces, as are the contorted facial expressions during exams. It’s heartbreaking when they come to my office to chat about their relationship problems or being denied and apartment because of their race. It’s a bit overwhelming to realize the role we often play in this young people’s lives.
The classroom is my happy place. And that seems to come through to my students. I’m still amazed when I run into them on the train or at a conference or when I receive an email out of the blue. It’s incredible to hear how I’ve touched people, even those who just sat in the back of the room being quiet.
So, here’s to teachers and to teaching. Here’s to the people that moved the folks reading this. Here’s to my HS science teacher, who was actually able to interest me; here’s to my undergrad Voice Instructor, who let me break down crying when I was struggling with coming out of the closet; here’s to my MA and PhD advisors, who taught me about being actively engaged scholars; and here’s to the folks I TA’d for in my PhD program, who taught me it’s ok to be me when teaching. Here’s to the folks toiling away, doing good work, inspiring and instructing.
Here’s to teachers. Who are the teachers for you, and how did they inspire you?