Category Archives: Teaching

My Short, Tragic Career as an Independent Scholar

 

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Several months ago, I had what seemed like a fantastic idea: now that I was retired from teaching English at a community college, I could engage in critical research, something I’d missed during those years when I taught five or more classes a semester. I had managed to write a couple of critical articles in the last few years of my tenure at a small, rural two-year college in Northern Michigan, but it was difficult, not only because of the heavy demands of teaching, but also because I had very limited access to scholarly resources. Indeed, it is largely due to very generous former students who had moved on to major research institutions that I was able to engage in any kind of scholarly research, a situation which may seem ironic to some readers, but which is really just closing the loop of teacher and student in a fitting and natural way.

And so last fall, on the suggestion of a former student, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and apply to  a scholarly conference on Dickens, and my proposal was chosen. In time, I wrote my paper (on Dickens and Music– specifically on two downtrodden characters who play the flute and clarinet in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, respectively) and prepared for my part in the conference.

It had been close to 25 years since I had read a paper at a conference, and so I was understandably nervous. Back then, there was no internet to search for information about conference presentations, but now I was able to do my homework, and thus I found a piece of advice that made a lot of sense: remember, the article emphasized, that a conference paper is an opportunity to test out ideas, to play with them in the presence of others, and to learn how other scholars respond to them, rather than a place to read a paper, an article, or a section of a book out loud before a bored audience. Having taught public speaking for over a decade, I could see that this made a lot of sense: scholarly articles and papers are not adapted to oral presentations, since they are composed of complex ideas buttressed by a great many references to support their assertions. To read such a work to an audience seemed to me, once I reflected on it, a ridiculous proposition, and would surely bore not only the audience, but any self-respecting speaker as well.

I wrote my paper accordingly. I kept it under the fifteen-minute limit that the moderator practically begged the panelists to adhere to in a pre-conference email. I made sure I had amusing anecdotes and witty bon mots. I concocted a clever PowerPoint presentation to go with the paper, just in case my audience got bored with the ideas I was trying out. I triple-spaced my copy of the essay, and I–the queen of eye contact, as my former speech students can attest–I practiced it just enough to become familiar with my own words, but not so much that I would become complacent with them and confuse myself by ad-libbing too freely. In short, I arrived at the conference with a bit of nervousness, but with the feeling that I had prepared myself for the ordeal, and that my paper would meet with amused interest and perhaps even some admiration.

It was not exactly a disaster, but it was certainly not a success.

To be honest, I consider it a failure.

It wasn’t that the paper was bad. In fact, I was satisfied with the way I presented it. But my audience didn’t know what to do with presentation. This might be because it was very short compared to all the other presentations (silly me, to think that academics would actually follow explicit directions!). Or it could be because it wasn’t quite as scholarly as the other papers. After all, my presentation hadn’t been published in a journal; it was, as C.S. Lewis might have called it, much more of a “supposal” than a fully-fledged argument. Perhaps as well there was something ironic in my stance, as if I somehow communicated my feeling that research in the humanities is a kind of glorified rabbit hunt that is fun while it lasts but that rarely leads to any tangible, life-changing moment of revelation.

Yet this is not to say that humanities research is useless. It isn’t. It develops and hones all sorts of wonderful talents that enrich the lives of those who engage in it and those who merely dip into it from time to time. I believe in the value of interpreting books and arguing about those interpretations; in fact, I believe that engaging in such discussions can draw human beings together as nothing else can, even at the very moments when we argue most fiercely about competing and contrasting interpretations. This is something, as Mark Slouka points out in his magnificent essay “Dehumanized,” that STEM fields cannot do, no matter how much adminstrators and government officials laud them, pandering to them with ever-increasing budgets at the expense of the humanities.

And this is, ultimately, why I left the conference depressed and disappointed. I had created, in the years since I’d left academia, an idealized image of it that was inclusive, one that recognized its own innate absurdity. In other words, sometime in the last two decades, I had recognized that research in the humanities was valuable not because it produced any particular thing, but because it produced a way of looking at the world we inhabit with a critical acuity that makes us better thinkers and ultimately better citizens. The world of research, for me, is simply a playground in which we all can exercise our critical and creative faculties. Yet the conference I attended seemed to be focused on research as object: indeed, as an object of exchange, a widget to be documented, tallied, and added to a spreadsheet that measures worth.

Perhaps its unfair of me to characterize it in this way. After all, most of the people attending the conference were, unlike me, still very much a part of an academic marketplace, one in which important decisions like tenure, admission to graduate programs, promotions, and departmental budgets are decided, at least in part, by things like conference attendance and presentations. It is unfair of me to judge them when I am no longer engaged in that particular game.

But the very fact that I am not in the game allows me to see it with some degree of clarity, and what I see is depressing. One cannot fight the dehumanization of academia, with its insistent mirroring of capitalism, by replicating that capitalism inside the ivy tower; one cannot expect the humanities to maintain any kind of serious effect on our culture when those charged with propagating the study of humanities are complicit in reducing humanities research to mere line items on a curriculum vitae or research-laden objects of exchange.

I can theorize no solution to this problem beyond inculcating a revolution of ideas within the academy in an effort to fight the now ubiquitous goal of bankrupting the study of arts and humanities, a sordid goal which now seems to characterize the age we live in. And I have no idea how to bring about such a revolution. But I do know this: I will return to my own study with the knowledge that even my small, inconsequential, and isolated critical inquiries are minute revolutions in and of themselves. As we say in English studies, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. And in the end, I feel confident that it will take far more than one awkward presentation at a conference to stop me from pursuing my own idiosyncratic path of research and inquiry into the literature I love.

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Filed under Careers, clarinet, Criticism, Education, Literary theory, Literature, Music, Reading, Retirement, Teaching, The Arts, Writing

On Becoming Professor Brulov

There’s a part in one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, Spellbound (1945), in which Ingrid Bergman, a clinical psychologist, takes Gregory Peck, a man who has amnesia and may have commited a murder, to her former psychology professor’s house to hide out from the authorities. Professor Brulov is the epitome of a German academic: eccentric, kind, and highly intelligent, he is genuinely happy to see Ingrid Bergman, who, he says, was his best assistant. It’s a wonderful part of an interesting movie, but lately it’s taken on even greater significance for me.

I first watched the movie on television as a teenager, at which time I identified with Ingrid Bergman (of course I did–the movie is all about Freudian wish fulfillment, after all). Some years ago, as a middle-aged professor, I watched it again with my students when I taught a course on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and I realized with a rather unpleasant shock that I had evolved without realizing it from the young, attractive, and inquisitive Dr. Constance Peterson into the aged, almost-but-not-quite-grumpy Profesor Brulov. (In Mel Brooks’ hilarious spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, High Anxiety [1977], Professor Brulov is transformed into Professor Lilloman, which the protagonist mistakenly pronounces as “Professor Little Old Man.”) And, while it has taken me a few years to accept this transformation, I’m now fairly comfortable with my new, much less glamorous, role as mentor to my former students.

The reason is simple. Constance Petersons are a dime a dozen. The world is filled with beautiful young people making their mark on the world. But Brulov–he’s different. In fact, he’s quite special. Think of it this way: When Peterson is in trouble, she seeks him out, and Brulov helps her without asking any difficult questions, despite the fact that he knows she’s lying to him. He trusts her even more than she trusts him, which is touching, in a way. And so one thing that this very complex movie does is set up the idea of a mentor relationship between Brulov and his former student. It’s an interesting side angle to the movie that I never really noticed before.

And, now, in my retirement, I am learning to embrace this new Brulovian stage of life. I have had very few, if any, mentors in my own career, so while I’m not too proficient at it yet, I hope to grow into the role in the years to come. The way I see it, we need more Professor Brulovs in this world; we can’t all be Ingrid Bergman or Gregory Peck, after all. I’m happy that my students remember me with something other than aversion, after all, and so becoming Professor Brulov is, at least for now, quite enough for me.

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My Short, Unhappy Life as a Politician

 

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Four years ago, I made a decision that turned out to be a mistake–a real whopper of one. I ran for state representative. It is a decision that I still regret today.

Why would I, a political innocent, so to speak, decide to run for office? The extent of my experience in the political world at that time was knocking on doors fo2009-01-07-shepardobamaposter.jpgr Barack Obama back in 2008. I knew next to nothing about the real political climate. I was naive and optimistic, and, excited by the events in Zuccotti Park (the Occupy Wall Street movement), I thought I saw real possibility to be the  change that President Obama had called for. I thought I could make a difference–that my very innocence in the realm of politics might make me more credible and hence more  attractive to voters. Of course, I can see now, at a distance of almost four years, that I was not just naive, but downright stupid. It probably isn’t the first time a candidate has been motivated by silly, misguided ideas.

The real question is this, however: why did I, a person with a more than adequate supply of humility, decide to run in the first place? What made me think I could make any kind of a difference? I’ve been considering that question for the last three years. Looking back, I see there was a perfect storm of situations that made me believe that it was not only my right, but my duty to run for office. First of all, as a community college professor, I was teaching writing and public speaking to a population of largely underprivileged students. I realized that not only could I gain valuable experience as a teacher if I ran, but that I could also serve as an example to my students. After all, at the end of every semester, I would offer both my writing and my speech students this parting advice: “Now you know how to raise your voices. Go out and do it. Make trouble for other people. Be good citizens.” Running for office was a chance for me to practice what I preached, and it would help make me a better teacher.

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Primary Night Tally

(Side Note: This much was true. I did learn a lot from campaigning, which I tried to incorporate into the tiny textbook I wrote for my speech students. I used what skills I had in writing and in public speaking several times a day, and I found that teaching those practical skills was both meaningful and necessary. I do think I became a better teacher by running for office.)

Second, my position as a community college professor in a very rural area allowed me to see that the people whom recent legislation hurt were my students. I felt obliged to help them as much as I could. Third, as union president, I was also able to see the willful ignorance and arrogance of those in office. Fourth, my husband is a whiz at numbers and finance, and I knew he would make a fine campaign manager, and that by sharing the experience with me, we could be partners in a greater good. Fifth, I knew many people in my town, and they all told me they thought my candidacy was a good idea.

All of these things added up to a feeling of excited inevitability, which then turned into a sense of obligation to run. The only way I can describe the result of this transformation is to compare it to a statement found not once, but three times in Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart: “There are things you have to do even if they are dangerous, otherwise you aren’t a human being but just a bit of filth.” This may be overstating the case a bit, but at the time, I really felt that if I didn’t run, I would be shirking an important responsibility, and that I would be avoiding an unsavory but necessary duty.

The result of all this will not be a surprise. I lost–and by a hefty margin. I don’t mind losing the election; it was probably the best thing that could happen to me personally. But I lost more than the election, and that’s what really bothers me. Somewhere along the way, I lost my my faith in a political system that unabashedly favors those with large campaign coffers. I lost my desire to talk to and get to know people, which had been so useful in the classroom, and which I am only now regaining. I lost a good deal of self confidence, too, because I saw the limit of my own ability. Most tragic of all, I lost what had started me on my journey in the first place: hope.

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Even a wonderful group of supporters can’t guarantee a victory.

For three years, I have tried not to talk about my abortive foray into politics. To be honest, I look upon it as if it were a stupid stunt I pulled while on a bender, as if I woke up one morning to remember that pulling off my clothes and jumping into the fountain was not a dream, but a horrible reality. And, like a hungover college student on Monday morning, I now regard my actions while under the influence with a sense of bemused shame:  I’m impressed with the enormity of my mistake, because I should have known better than to have exposed myself.

But I am healing from my experience, and perhaps the best evidence of this is my willingness to analyze my feelings about running for office. I offer up this post as a testament to a person’s ability to recover, if not to learn, from unpleasant experiences.

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A collector’s item

 

 

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The End of Something

My career as a full-time teacher is drawing to a close, and I’m having some trouble getting used to the idea.

Several weeks ago, I decided to take advantage of an early retirement program at my college, so I will be leaving at the end of this semester. Of course, I’m really excited about the prospect of having free time to read whatever I want, in whatever order I want to read it; to focus on my writing, music and knitting; and, most of all, to do a bit of traveling. Teaching, as I told one of my colleagues, was getting in the way of my own learning, and so I’m grateful to be able to step back from a career that, despite its frustrations, has been a central and valued part of my life. I have learned more about teaching in the dozen or so years I’ve spent at this small community college in rural Northern Michigan than I ever thought possible, which is part of the reason I have mixed feelings about leaving.

In some ways, I feel I’m at the top of my game as a teacher. I don’t have to take a lot of time to prepare for each class, and most classroom situations don’t really throw me. (Of course, there are a few that were pretty funny, and, once I retire, I look forward to sharing these stories, like the one about the time a speech student tried to bring a goat to class.) Grading papers, of course, is still a tremendous burden, and like most writing instructors, I greatly resent it. But it turns out that grading is not as heavy a burden for me as the human burden. By this, I mean that I try to see each of my students as an individual; everyone, I told myself as I began my teaching career, is someone’s child. I asked myself, how would I want my child treated by their professors? The answer was clear.  So I have always tried to be open, inviting, and encouraging with my students, and it’s made for some great moments as a teacher. But it’s also made it possible for me to see the real pain in my students’ lives. From the student who schleps her infant to class, no matter subzero temperatures, to the student whose grip on religion is ironclad because he’s found no other outlet or support, to the student who suffers from a laundry list of health problems as a result of serving in Afghanistan–each of these students has a claim on me, because I have always felt it’s more important to be a human being first and a professor second.

It’s a noble idea, but now, as I move towards my last days of teaching (at least full-time), I can see its flaws. In essence, teaching as a human being is like “hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat,” in the famous words of George Eliot in Middlemarch (Chapter 20), whose narrator predicts that those who can attend to such emotional minutiae are likely to “die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” I am not in danger of dying from being exposed to that roar, but I am pained by my work these days. I’m stricken by the sadness of seeing the eccentric student who has no friends, sitting alone in the cafeteria; I’m depressed by the difficulties facing young mothers and fathers as they try to gain an education to make life better for their children; and I’m overwhelmed by the challenges, and, yes, the tragedies, that lie behind the eyes of many of my students who stare up at me as I try to dish out some wisdom to help them in their journey through life.

It’s a tough job, and I’ve given it what I could over the years. One consolation I’ve always had, however, is that if I do a poor job one semester, I could always improve the next time around. This semester is different, though. There is no next time. Does that mean I’ll finally get it right and teach well this term? The answer has become clear over the past few weeks. This semester will be like all the other semesters I’ve had: some successes in the classroom, but many more failures. I’m satisfied that I’ve made the right decision, though. It’s time for someone else to step up and try their hand at this job. I’m ready to take my ball and go home, even if that means that I leave a career I love.

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The Best of All Possible Worlds

As I sit at my desk, waiting for papers to trickle in, I take a few minutes to contemplate the teaching life. Don’t worry–this won’t be a political post decrying the impossible demands placed on teachers in the United States, the lack of professional respect for them, or the very real difficulties involved in creating a career in teaching, although all of those topics do bear talking about. Today, rather than craft a careful argument about the demise of education and its consequences for our culture, I’m just going to indulge in some personal reflections on the teaching life, offered by a community college professor who is still in the trenches, hands dirtied with run-on sentences and flawed thesis statements, fingers wearied by clutching a rapidly fading red pen.

It’s at this point that I look back on the semester and consider all the work my students have done, reflect on all the goals I had for them and myself, consider where we are and how we’ve gotten here, and think: “What an awful job I’ve done! How miserably I’ve failed them!” The truth is, I always feel rotten, simply miserable, at the end of the semester. No matter how many students tell me what a good semester they’ve had, I always think about the fact that I could have helped them more: engaged them in more discussion, made more comments on their papers, asked more about their personal lives, and generally been more of a mensch and less of a schlemiel.

This is not a cry for sympathy, however, or a self-deprecating appeal for someone to contradict me. I’ve been teaching pretty much all of my adult life, and I’m not young anymore. I’m used to this feeling, and, like many other feelings I have that are not particularly productive, I acknowledge this one and pass it by, much as a man in the 1950s would tip his hat at a passing acquaintance on the street and continue walking down the block. Part of this refusal to give in to the feeling of desperate failure as a teacher comes from simple familiarity with it. I expect many, probably most, teachers feel this way. Part of it may come from simple inertia; but part of it comes from the knowledge that my students will have to survive many mediocre teachers throughout their academic career, and if I’ve been one of them this semester, it’s part of the experience that they will need to have in order to succeed as students. Like a refrain from Candide, I can say, “It’s all for the best. They need to learn to teach themselves, and if I’ve failed them this semester, perhaps they’ll learn how to do this all the more quickly.”

So, today, as the semester draws to a close, here’s to all the teachers, professors, GSAs, teaching assistants, and instructors who have done the best they could with what they had and emerged relatively unscathed from yet another semester. After all, the best thing about being a teacher is that, unlike the students we teach, we always get a chance next semester to do it right.

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