Tag Archives: teaching

“So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”

This fantastic article truly has its finger on the pulse of the American University.  I feel like I can do little more than froth in ecstatic agreement!  Nevertheless I will try to formulate some kind of response.  I’ll start here:

Throughout much of the 20th century, with the growth of the humanistic ideal in American colleges, students might have encountered the big questions in the classrooms of professors possessed of a strong sense of pedagogic mission. Teachers like that still exist in this country, but the increasingly dire exigencies of academic professionalization have made them all but extinct at elite universities. Professors at top research institutions are valued exclusively for the quality of their scholarly work; time spent on teaching is time lost.

Yes, it’s true.  Time spent on teaching is viewed as time lost, and that’s a shame.  The emphasis is on producing criticism by the ream, which pushes passionate teachers straight out of the academic rat race.  This pains me, because I believe that teaching is the main social function of a humanities professor. I wanted to be a professor to teach college kids to grow up not to be suckers for the advertising industry, but having to spout bullshit to put myself in a position where I could tell kids how not to listen to bullshit ultimately imploded the endeavor.  I always doubted by ability to see myself through the end of a PhD; there was always part of me waiting for academia to shit me back out.  I hung on because I felt I had to; ultimately I let go for the luckiest reason imaginable: I no longer had to.  I’ve been handed the opportunity to write what I always wanted.

I will miss teaching literature at the university.  I might still get a lectureship or an adjunct position one day, perhaps–but in a market saturated with PhDs who can’t get tenure-track positions, I’m not sure that I can.  It is a little giggle-worthy that I am not qualified to teach literature just because I write the stuff.  I’d have to be writing about the stuff.  In my chats with people about my decision to drop out, I’ve heard the opinion that it’s a shame academia doesn’t make room for artists.  It shouldn’t have to: it hardly has room for itself.  It is hemorrhaging qualified PhDs who cannot find a cell within its shrinking honeycomb.

Besides, there already is a place for artists in the academy; most English departments hire a few novelists and poets to teach creative writing classes.  Once my novel comes out, I could conceivably wiggle my way into one of these positions.  Yet the prospect of teaching people to write stories does not fill me with the same sense of urgency as teaching people to read them.  These stakes feel lower, plus making art feels less teachable to me than interpretive and critical thinking skills.

Another aspect of Deresiewicz’s article that resonated with me was his analysis of conformity at top-flight institutions, that to get into one of these places you have to be exceedingly compliant with The Machine and that once you come out the other side you have been equipped to be a fine little machinist indeed.  Having been at both a big-name private school and a mid-list state university, I am sometimes asked if the kids at Stanford are really that much smarter than the kids at UC Davis.  No, they are not; they are not gifted with some ineffable wisdom that cannot be accessed by the Great Unwashed Masses.  They are earnest strivers, usually from privileged backgrounds, who are especially good at doing exactly what they are told, that is all.  That has both its advantages and its drawbacks.  The main advantage being that they are well-tuned devices who know exactly how to channel their considerable gifts into getting the most positive feedback from society at large.  The main drawback being that they are well-tuned devices who know exactly how to channel their considerable gifts into getting the most positive feedback from society at large.  But Deresiewicz says it much better.

A door Jedi

I taught Sartre’s No Exit today.  It went well; it’s a pretty serviceable text: content-rich yet easy to unpack, and fits neatly inside one two-hour session.  Existentialist fiction is too messagey to blow me away as art (I’ll never well up in ecstatic admiration at the glittering diamond-like structure of The Plague, for instance) but it’s a good way to start the quarter, get the students thinking–but not too hard at first.

The students are not yet laughing at my quips, but they will warm up eventually.  It always seems to take them a few sessions to get used to my sense of humor, partly because I don’t give them laugh cues.  I don’t laugh at my own jokes because doing so decreases their entertainment value by a good 80%, consequently the students are not sure at first if I mean to be funny.  They risk a few cautious titters.  I learn to read what they are likely to react to (you’d be surprised how much it differs by group).  Slowly we warm up to each other.  Even after we are comfortable together, their mirth is mostly subdued, which makes the rare instances when I get a genuine burst of hard laughter from the entire room all the more satisfying.  It’s great when it happens, it bonds the room together.  Not to mention it makes me feel powerful.

(And how often in one’s daily life does one feel powerful?  Sometimes I like to gesture at automatic doors to open a half-second before they do so, it makes me feel like a Jedi.  Although it is tremendously disheartening when the door is out of order.)

Without glass

Hello.  My name is Elena.  I have a novel coming out Spring of next year.  I teach intro literature at the University of California.  I will now begin open letters to the world.

This blog is under my real name, and will be indexed by search engines.  How alarming!  I thought of the prospect of being found by students and nearly scrapped the whole idea.  But why not try this out, after all?  It is doubtful that I will suffer from some kind of online Tourette’s and post naked pictures of myself or some such.  This openness is a bit daunting though.  It will take some getting used to.  I’ll view it as practice public speaking for when the book comes out.  By that fateful date, maybe this small forum will have given me some degree of comfort with exposure.

It’s true that, as a teacher, I do a fair amount of public speaking.  Speaking as an author is not the same though.  As an instructor I am not so much a person as a channel for the text.  Certainly, the interpretations I present are tinged with me, but I am not the point.  I’m a means to an end, a guide meant to help my students reach their own understanding of the book at hand.  I am the Virgil to their Dante.

When I speak as an author I am not granted the safety of the outside text.  There is no medium with which I can blend, that I can disappear into so that it is comfortably impossible for my audience to tell the difference between the thing they are looking at—the text—and the thing they are looking through—me.  Oh shit, I’m becoming the primary source!  I am no longer Virgil; I am Hell.  No longer the guide but the landscape.

If there were a paper bag within arm’s reach I would be breathing into it right now.

When I was in college, I worked for tuition money as a bank teller.  I had posts in several different branches of the same bank.  Only one featured bulletproof glass.  I noticed when I finished a day at that place that I was immensely less tired than after a day at an unshielded teller window.  It was so different, so much less draining to speak to the customers through two inches of plexiglass.  I couldn’t smell them; they couldn’t touch me.  It was so much tidier and less dangerous.  It was also necessarily a lot less interesting, less human.

Onwards then, without glass.