Auf Wiederschaun, meine Lieben, or: Requiem for Teaching

One of the few complaints I have ever gotten on a student evaluation–and, true to form, I obsess over those complaints over and over again, even years later, while the stacks of nice ones fade in my memory–is that a student really didn’t like that I would sometimes, in a moment of overwhelming endearment, refer to my class, in German, as “my babies” (it’s actually a code-switch, “meine Babys”). “I know the students were respected,” s/he explained, “but I didn’t like being called a ‘baby.'” I took that immediately to heart, and now I call them “meine Lieben,” or “my dears.”

I realize this is only slightly better, but I can’t help myself, when I walk into class and the first thing I see is their adorable young faces just staring at me, wondering what I’m going to coerce them to do. Will they have to write and perform a skit? Will they have to think more deeply and more intensely about literature than they ever have before, and will they have to do this in a foreign language, out of which I will not let them switch, no matter what? I look at their big eyes—some sweet, some tired, some defiant (you know who you are!)—and I just can’t help it: in my mind there is always some form of Oh I just want to eat their wittle faces! I wuv them all so much! My babies!

Having no children of my own, not even any pets—the terminally-relocating life of a Visiting Assistant Professor all but precludes a family—my dears, my babies, are the closest thing I have to a family or friends. I live 400 miles away from my partner, and I don’t socialize. Being an academic who neither drinks nor is in AA means I have literally nobody who wants to hang out with me; actually it is probably because I am a reclusive, misanthropic hermit that nobody wants to hang out with me; actually people often invite me to hang out with them, but I am scared to form friendships when I only live somewhere for a year or two; actually, there are so many complex reasons why I have very few friends that it’s not worth going into, and I honestly can’t believe I’m writing about it in semi-public to the twelve readers of this blog.

Entire weeks go by where my only meaningful face-to-face human contact is with my students, and so even though it would mean a tremendous amount to me to work with them if this were not the case, they mean more to me than they will ever know. They are my dears. On many lonely, isolated days in the past two years,  the only reason I have been able to get out of bed is their willingness to do literally any activity I demand in the name of learning, no matter how difficult or ridiculous—whether that be “the world’s most esoteric scavenger hunt” through Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (in the classes I teach in English!! I’m a fake doctor, not a fucking miracle worker), or a dramatic reading of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s cold war fable Die Physiker (The Physicists). I Larry-David stare at them when they won’t answer a difficult question and reformulate the question until they do (or call on people at random, and they always come through). I demand hours of pedantic homework, and they always do it. I call them “Chicken” and do the GOB Bluth KAW, ka-KAW, ka-KAW dance when only a third of them will sign up to sing Karaoke versions of Falco songs for extra credit, and it works. Sometimes, but very rarely, I bring them cookies or replace class with paper conferences, to give them a break.

One of the interesting side-effects of living sequestered for the past two years is that out of abject necessity, my students have become everything to me here (my real “everything” lives a few states over and/or on another coast, as I said before). This has meant that several of them, now that they’re not my students anymore, are more or less my friends—they come to my office hours to tell me about their lives and to ask for advice (though I tell them many times over I am a very dubious advice-giver. JUST LOOK AT MY LIFE CHOICES!). I care deeply and personally for the future of every student I have ever had, and think back with considerable anguish on the one student I could not help, three years ago, whose depression refused to let her go, despite her hard fight against it, and who took her own life in the middle of the semester.

As I prepare to transition into a wholly unknown chapter in my life, the one thing I am saddest about is the one thing that barely got a mention in the Slate article that garnered such a bananas reaction last week (FYI, shit’s back to normal now, pretty much like that never happened): the possibility that the lesson I just finished preparing, on Sven Regener’s hilarious Herr Lehmann (Berlin Blues, in English) and the “island life” of West Berlin youth during the late Cold War, might be my last.

This cannot be. I cannot let this be. I honestly don’t give a fuck whether I ever set foot on the tenure-track in my life—and I had made the choice not to give that fuck several months before the Slate article came out, obviously; I may be a little bit dim but I’m not completely dumb—but if I stop teaching college, I will be destroyed. I belong in that room with those students, drinking in their giant, apprehensive, willing eyes, forcing them to put away their motherfucking phones for fifty minutes and think, and become smarter (and maybe a little better, too).

In the discussion of the abysmal academic job market, the one thing that is so often left out is the one thing we should be focusing on the most: our students. There are many professors like me (like my amazing amiga Liliana—SHOUT OUT, mi amor!) who—and I hate to admit this—would probably do it for free (and in many cases, pretty much do), simply because we love it that much. There are just as many (nobody I know, of course; I love everyone I know) who view deigning to step foot in the same room as a bunch of hungover 18-year-olds as an insulting waste of their brilliant intellect, and endeavor to spend time exclusively around sycophantic grad students. Both have their places in the academy (I mock hyperspecialized research, but it’s a proven fact that if someone doesn’t mention Gilles Deleuze at least four times every day, his spirit will come back and make us all smell like stale Galoises smoke, like, forever!).

I don’t know whether it’s because I osmosis’d my parents’ gifts (both are tremendous educators), or because I love the attention (being a professor is basically like being a better-paid stand-up comedian whose ‘audience’ can never heckle you because you get to grade them!), but teaching is what I do best, and I hope I get to do it again, and for the rest of my life. Academia I can do without; college teaching I can’t, but “luckily,” since ¾ of university instruction is contingent “human capital” now (just ask the New York Times), the two are becoming less and less mutually inclusive.

So, for now, as the Austrians say, Auf Wiederschaun, meine Lieben. Auf Wiederschaun, meine Babys. I’ll miss you all. I hope it’s not the last time.

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