Lessons

I never had any desire to be a teacher.

This is a taboo statement to make, especially in my line of work. It plays into the cultural narrative of college professors who don't give a damn about their students, only their research. Who are sucking at the dwindling teat of public funding to carry out projects that no one outside the ivory tower gives a shit about, and contributing to the decline of higher education among our nation's youth. Worse, I had one of those increasingly rare, coveted tenure-track positions that eventually led to tenure, while thousands of struggling adjunct faculty with qualifications equal to or greater than mine, and with a real passion for teaching, are patchworking together a meager living of underpaid overwork with no benefits.

When people ask what I do, and I tell them, their first question is often, "What do you teach?" I feel my eyelids twitch, but I respond politely. I know that most people have no understanding of how academia works (at least, at a research university), and the conversation would not go in any productive direction if I explained that what I consider to be my "real" job is something else entirely. Also because, in reality, said "real" job gets precious little time and attention these days, because the vast majority of my energies end up going toward teaching. You know, that thing I never had any desire to do.

Sometimes, if the circumstances seem appropriate, I will explain that I would never have left my past life behind and put myself through the neurosis factory of grad school for a PhD just to teach. I have friends and colleagues--some from that same neurosis factory--who would say the exact opposite, but this is my reality. Research is my jam. Teaching is the price of admission.

Teaching is supposed to be more than a job, though. It's supposed to be a vocation, a calling. A humanitarian service. After all, no one goes into teaching (especially at a public institution) to get rich. So it must be for the love of it, right? Our compensation is spiritual, not material. This line of reasoning makes my blood boil; I can't even imagine how it must feel to K-12 teachers who almost universally have it even worse. None of us is allowed to complain, though, because that would be shallow. Evidence that we are not worthy of this higher plane that requires selflesss sacrifice. The reality of rent and car payments and the years of student loans that got us to this place is brushed under the rug as petty concerns, unseemly to address.

Despite all of that, I've actually discovered that I do love a lot of things about teaching. It can be creative and performative, it keeps me structured, can lead to some really fascinating discussions. And many times, students delight me with their thoughts, their discoveries, their realness. I have become friends with some of my former students, and value those friendships immensely.

I am more limited in the range of topics I can teach at my workplace compared to many academics, for structural reasons, but I've still managed to have some influence on the curriculum by advocating for courses or topics that I felt needed to be included to do our students justice. This has... not always worked in my favor, shall we say. But I don't regret going to the mat for things I believed in. I want our students to get the best possible education we can give them within the constraints everyone is working under.

Having a lively class discussion that brings up a lot of different perspectives, the kind where you can see students making new connections between ideas and gaining a new understanding of a topic... that's the kind of experience that can leave you riding a high for the rest of a day.

When a student comes to my office to go over an assignment, ask future study or career advice, work through difficult spots in a thesis, and at the end says, "I feel so much better now!"... it warms my cold little researcher's heart.

Having students tell me, awe in their voice, after a successful presentation or assignment or test, "I never thought I could do that," makes me radiate with pride in their accomplishment. (Sometimes there are hugs, if it feels appropriate. I like to think I'm pretty good at judging when it's appropriate.)

I tear up at graduation, watching some of my students walk across the stage. The ones who are the first in their family to attend college; the ones who worked their asses off because they really wanted to make the most of their education; the ones who didn't put in as much effort as they knew they could but didn't pretend otherwise or complain when their grades weren't stellar; the ones who always asked interesting, insightful questions; the ones who were too shy to speak up in a big class but who always wrote thoughtful assignments.

I hate grading. I hate that some students can't be arsed to show up for class or hand in assignments or read the syllabus or follow instructions and blame me for their poor performance. I hate that I have 300 students and a single beleaguered TA for ten hours a week. I hate that the only assessment of my "teaching effectiveness" comes from student evaluations, which are online and non-mandatory, so that I mostly get complaints about being slow to hand work back and that my tests are hard and that the textbook is boring. I have a shelf full of thank-you notes, students who come up to me at graduation or who email me months or years later to say, "You know, I hated your class, but I use things you taught me every single day in my internship/job/grad classes/life." These are the things that keep me going as I continue to put myself in front of the classroom, raw and vulnerable in ways the students are blissfully unaware of, trying my best to convey enthusiasm and passion not just about the subject matter, but about intellectual curiosity and the excitement of discovery. Those are the things I love, and the things I think I can put to good use in this role I somewhat unwillingly find myself in.

I never had any desire to be a teacher, but for a good chunk of my professional life I am one, and I think it's an important job that I try to do as well as I can. I'll never be amazing at it, but it won't be because I've ignored it in favor of things I enjoy more, or because my students don't matter to me. A lot of those struggling adjuncts would probably do a better job at this aspect of my position, and would find even more satisfaction in it. I won't deny a certain sense of guilt, there. But one lesson I've learned in my years of teaching is that there are a lot of ways to educate, and caring about the students and the outcomes has its place in the system, even for those of us who aren't innately passionate about the process.

I'm just not allowed to say that, ever.