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An All-American National Sport November 21, 2009

Posted by monty in teaching.
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It’s sort of funny to realize the thing you thought were good at is probably something you’re not cut out for, after all.  Not ha-ha funny, but morbidly funny, like noticing the corpse at a wake has on too much makeup.  Such has been my weekend at the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference in Philadelphia.  As is my goal for this blog, I don’t want this to be all about mopey ol’ me … but it is.

Figuring out what you’re meant to do with your life – or, if you’re not into language that evokes fate and destiny, figuring out what career will bring you both satisfaction and stimulating challenge until you’re ready to retire – is no easy task, to be sure.  Satisfaction is certainly important.  You want to do something for which you feel passion, and which meets some compulsion in your character – to help others, to problem solve, to work with technology, whatever.  And I enjoy teaching.  I do.  When it’s going well it’s uniquely satisfying, and it makes me feel like I’m maybe doing a little something to help people better their lives.

At the same time, however, I think the question of challenge is just as, if not more, crucial.  Feeling challenged means you don’t become complacent – you don’t have it all figured out, so you’re constantly working, striving, reaching, to become better equipped to do what you do.  The key, though, is that you occasionally have to feel capable of meeting and exceeding the challenges established by your job.  For me, the moments where I feel like things are going well are invariably accidental.  If something works, it’s not by design.  It’s like the monkey in the room that finally writes Hamlet. It had to happen sometime.  That’s the way I feel about my teaching.  The law of averages says I’ll do something right sometime, so when something goes right, it’s due to happenstance and not to any innate ability I possess.  More to the point, there hasn’t been a moment in the last four months when I haven’t felt like a bumbling incompetent.  My office should be treated like a zoo exhibit.  Curiosity-seekers can file slowly past and throw peanuts at the bald little homunculus busy revising an article that will surely go unpublished, or working on a lesson plan that will be met with stony silence by his students.  I’m not sure how I made it this far thinking I was actually good at this teaching gig.  I’ll be waiting for the results of my first set of student evaluations with the same kind of anticipation I imagine I’d feel waiting for the results of biopsy.

And then, oh yes, the NCTE conference where the following things happened: 1) I ran into one of my former professors, who, when I said hello, stared at me like I was some odd species of insect shipped in from an Amazonian rainforest, and then asked if I knew where he could get a bite to eat; 2) At my presentation this afternoon, I could count the number of attendees on exactly zero fingers; picture a donut hole – that’s the number of people in attendance for the session I spent hours preparing; 3) at a dinner thing this evening, I got blown off by a few people I was looking forward to seeing – and who had expressly encouraged me to attend – and ended up sitting at a table with total strangers; and 4) someone I worked with for a couple years in California didn’t even remember my name.  When you’re already feeling clueless and useless, the final insult doesn’t have to be a major slight – sometimes it’s just the tiniest nudge of a table leg that sends the whole mess toppling on its side.  For me, this weekend was that nudge.

So, not even one semester into my professorial career, and I’m left with the feeling that I wasted the last three years earning a Ph.D.  I’m not talented enough to teach at this level; my writing isn’t strong enough to meet the publication requirements I’ll inevitably have to meet; and, in the end, I’m not memorable enough (and neither is my work) to make much of a difference to people one way or the other.

Maybe the morning will bring a fresh, optimistic perspective, but it’s a bleak night in Philly.

*****

Current listening:

Beth Orton – Daybreaker

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Comments»

1. Fred Mowery - November 21, 2009

Old sport, you’re just getting started. As for your “colleagues”, this is a small subset of all those you’ll ever work with – and I says “Fuck’em.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching my wife’s career in the academic world, is that its amazingly and sadly competitive and petty. So fuck’em. The best profs are the ones who don’t care about anything except what they are teachers, and that’s more important than anything.

Fuck’em. Don’t bother with conferences. You’ll publish something, and it will be out of left field, because that is what is needed. Who cares what they all think?

I think you’re a hell of a creative force. Laugh them off, keep your head down and keep working. And come visit. Seriously.

2. Katie Reed - November 21, 2009

I want to hug you, and I really don’t like hugging people. I’m sorry you’re having a rough time, man. I hope things start looking up.

3. thoreauly77 - November 22, 2009

feeling like echoing mowry…

but i will say, simply, fuck that (experience). and by “that” i mean feeling sorry for yourself. i understand the feeling, sure, and do it as well, and you will feel the same way tomorrow as i have had: hungover. its an academic hangover and it is normal.

rob, you are in another place now. the dissertation was the warm-up. now you deal with the bullshit, all its outs and ins. your dissertation was tits and bell shaped asses; just lovely and lovingly sculpted all around. so if your warm-up was the best things gawd created, its just fine. one semester in means only as much as you allow it to.

whether you like it or not, academia, and that you chose it, is one cold motherfucker….. until the kudos arrive, and they WILL. let that never encourage you to be a part of what you just experienced.

what you have done for people like myself will never be forgotten. ever.

*lets raise a glass for the soldiers, and for the generals. you are both, and fuck any naysaying ninnies.

ian charles fay

4. rcm - November 22, 2009

Thanks, everyone. More to come on this topic, probably.


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