Last year, I “ended” my college teaching career with a bang–a banging headache, that is, from the copious amounts of sugar I packed down at the surprise party my students threw me on my last day of class at OSU. It was an emotionally-charged day amidst an emotionally-charged time that I will never forget. In the year that followed, because my professional future was so unstable, I vowed to take every opportunity given to me, even if that meant working multiple jobs.
I did, and it did–by the time Fall 2013 rolled around, I was taking on a larger client roster for my coaching practice, I was writing weekly for Slate, and I’d signed on to teach three classes back at the UMSL honors college, where I had had an overwhelmingly positive experience right out of grad school. It turned out to be quite a full docket, and on many days this past year, I found myself starting work at about 8:30 a.m. and finally shutting down for the day at 10:30 at night. As a result of my spread-out priorities–and of the grim realities of adjuncting after being full-time faculty for two years–my relationship with teaching in what turned out to be my real final year of it was far more complicated than it ever had been.
So now, as I finish submitting my last-ever (probably) set of grades to the Registrar, and my academic career ends with a whimper, I am trying to sort out what feels like a disconnected and discombobulated tangle of feelings. Here are a few of them.
Relief. I am relieved to be down to two jobs instead of three, and the amount of “spare” time I have now that I am no longer prepping for class (or doing the bare-minimum level of grading I let myself do as an adjunct) is astounding. I mean, I’m writing this right now, instead of sweating bullets for multiple deadlines at once. I’ve already filed two articles this week, and worked through changes on a third. I won’t be rolling in dough, but I can definitely survive on my freelance income alone now, which is equal parts nerve-wracking and exhilarating. But mostly, I’m just relieved to no longer be so damned frazzled all the time.
Heartbreak. I had a Slate piece yesterday where I went to the mat for the academic freedom of a truly putrid individual (you’re welcome, jerk!), and so I thought that since the article wasn’t about me or my many failures (or bluntly honest assessments of academia’s shortcomings and my complicity in said shortcomings), I’d take a gander at the comments to see if there were any gems from the Tea Party. (Yes, I hate-read comments from conservatives for fun. Every time another state legalizes marriage equality, my first stop is for some Schadenfreude at Yahoo! News).
But seriously. NEVER READ COMMENTS. EVER. One said: “This doesn’t apply to you, Rebecca, because you will never, ever, ever, ever [THREE EVERS] get tenure, because you hate teaching far too much.” Look, this is just the assholish assholery of a trolly troll, but in the past year I’ve met (and “met”) many people who agree with him. Every time I write something that’s honest about what professors actually deal with–essays, the powerpoints, the diminished learning conditions adjuncting creates, grade inflation–the response is always YOU SHOULD NEVER TEACH AGAIN BECAUSE YOU SUCK AT IT SO MUCH.
I cannot possibly express how much this hurts. Yes, I have been blunt and honest about some of the shortcomings of the academic status quo (and my participation in those shortcomings). But to say that the professoriate is better off without me, even if it’s just some asshole who’s never met me or been in my class, feels like my insides are being ripped out.
It’s quite true that in the past year, I haven’t been as dedicated to being a professor as I once was. That was out of self-preservation. Dedication to the Life of the Mind as an adjunct is simply too enabling of an exploitative system to do it in good conscience.
But even with all of that, I am still a good professor. Was. Was a good professor. Everybody has a gift. Mine was being in a classroom with students. Like so many of you who read this blog, I felt an electric current when I taught, that ran through the students and me. I was home in the classroom. I cared–deeply and passionately–about my students’ learning experience, and whether or not they learned. I was willing to meet with any student about anything (though most did not seek me out). I read draft after draft after draft of papers, so that I could “front-load” their feedback, and they could turn in their best work for a grade. Yes, sometimes I was disappointed in students and made them do yoga or Burpees when they got lethargic; sometimes I reading-quizzed them and evil-raffled them and otherwise made their lives unpleasant. But I also yelled “YESSSSSSSS! GREAT!!!!!!! WHY?” at least five times a class, and did my goddamnedest to create an environment where even the shy kids, even the kids who normally hated to read, felt valued, and present, and wanted, and a part of things.
But it doesn’t matter what I say now. Nobody will ever see me in the classroom again, and so I will have no way to prove my detractors wrong. They will just keep saying these awful things, and I will no longer have a “my students” story to shut them down. I am afraid that I will eventually start to believe, myself, that I was a terrible teacher who hated it. I am afraid that I am starting to believe it even now, because it’s been said so much, and now I don’t know what to think.
I had a student come up to me on the last day of class this year. She’d been in my class both semesters, and had encountered a few struggles, all of which she overcame with great tenacity and good sprits. She said to me: “I just want you to know that if it weren’t for the way you teach, I would have failed out of my first year of college.” I hope that she sends me a ticket to her graduation, when she crosses that stage to become a K-12 science teacher. I hope that her words–and all of the fun notes I got from students with their final papers (“Thanks for a great year!” “Wishing you the best!” “It was great being in your class!”) stay with me. I really hope they do. Because I am not going to stop being honest about the challenges educators and students face–and assholes are not going to stop telling me that I’m the problem, that I was the problem, good riddance.
I just hope you know–whoever you are, reading this–that I was a wonderful professor. I was. I don’t care if that sounds self-aggrandizing. I belonged in that classroom. I loved those students–and I expressed my love through crazily dedicated class plans and through my relentless honesty about academia in print.
I am slated to return for one class in the Spring, but am very much hoping to be too pregnant by then to do it (everybody please keep your fingers crossed for my successful sexual intercourse with my husband! SO GROSS, right? How is it that when people are “trying” it suddenly becomes TOTALLY OK to talk to complete strangers and family members about fucking? Ha).
So, in reality, I don’t know if I will ever teach again. And although I am relieved to be down to a manageable two jobs, and excited to go 100% freelance (SWEATPANTS ONLY FOREVERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!), I am still heartbroken at ending my teaching career, and even more heartbroken at the vitriolic cries of those ecstatic to see me go.