Two whole weeks!?! It’s been that long since my last post.
Well, I have been sick. And busy. Very busy at a job that I want to leave very much because of its insistent busyness, an insistent busyness that also keeps me too busy to actively search for other jobs. There is a bit more than three weeks of the semester left, but the job search window is closing fast, and I’ve not been able to complete many of the applications before deadlines. Soon I’ll be able to write and submit proposals to conferences and submit articles to journals and do all the other pointlessly alienated things academics do to raise their profile, and still be too busy the following job search cycle to take advantage of any tentative bites on those offerings.
I’ll also be preparing a non-academic resume and shopping it out to publishers and other preparers of academic and educational services in the hopes that I might be able to find a position there or somewhere like. Part of me is indeed very hopeful that I might be more successful doing that than the academic search. It’s no secret that I’m disillusioned and more than a little bitter about academic work, my inability to escape non-tenure track status, and the current state of the academy in general. I’d like to be getting a little more scratch, quite honestly, and that may be hoping for a little much at this point, but one of the unpleasant truths of academic life is that we are paid far less for the level of qualifications and the amount of work done than any other professional class.
We do it despite the poor pay because many of us, I suppose, regard it as a calling–something that we would in some part be driven to do even absent the enabling restraints of the profession. It’s a pleasant myth, and one I’m not completely averse to invoking from time to time. Really, though, I think, the attractions for one are the relative lack of supervision. Even at my somewhat less exalted level, I come up against active institutional pressures and observation very rarely. Those that cannot do are ferreted out quite early and vigorously; the rest of us do our jobs under the university’s benign assumption that we know best how to conduct our daily affairs and can be expected to toe the line with regularity and enthusiasm. Another benefit, for those more successful than I have been, in any case, is that much of your time is spent developing intellectual projects that are the closest that a knowledge worker can likely get to an authentic task, meaning a self-motivated labor on something self-made.
The third benefit, though not all find it as rewarding as I do, is the teaching, and though I would very much have liked to have had the opportunity to develop my scholarship on American poetry into a series of books, it is the teaching that I will miss the most if I leave. And it’s not the captive audience aspect of it that the cynical take would insist on. Although there are a lot of professors who I’m quite sure would be found guilty of that, it is definitely not true of the kind of work I’ve done the most of over the past decade, teaching writing. Although these are required classes that rope in at some point nearly the entire student body, there’s not much audience to the captivity, as they’re not there to listen to me speak at all. They’re there to work and learn by working. My role is more to drive, confuse, and agitate their working process until it begins to settle into patterns of complexity that represent an independent voice. And I cherish that role greatly.
Over the course of the semester, writing students do actually develop noticeably as writers, with the exception of the rare few that manage to remain in the class while only engaging minimally with the work. I think this is somewhat different than classes in which the ostensible goal is the imparting of a body of knowledge from the professor to the students. This is not a terribly good description of what happens even in the kinds of classes where one would typically expect that to happen, but even so: writing classes are relatively free from any kind of mystification about knowledge or the sacralization of its transmission. Their mission, stated and quite actual, is to develop the kind of mind capable of not so much receiving knowledge as actively creating it.
This semester I’ve been blessed with basic writing classes filled with very motivated and disciplined students, so I’m somewhat spoiled and in love. But even reluctant classes of abrasive students improve noticeably before I assign them their final grades and release them. As I’ve been reading over, and, yes, grading, the latest round of papers, I find myself very gratified at how much they’ve improved their writing since the start of the school year. It’s not personal pride so much, honestly–so much of that improvement is built into the structure of the class, and all I can take credit for is a certain competence in moving it along week after week. What I think I’m responding to is the evidence of my presence and involvement in the development of minds. And, O.K., there’s definitely pride in how well many of those minds have progressed. But what I think the gratification comes out of is a certain enjoyment in witnessing the transformation of very raw and passive intellects into more composed and independent thinkers and recognizing that as the consequence of the work that I’m doing.
In any case, even though I think the position of a full-time composition instructor is too harried and demeaning to be legitimate and fully authentic intellectual labor, and if it’s the only thing academia has to offer me I will not long remain voluntarily in the profession, it is teaching that I’ll miss if I’m forced to go. And it is the teaching of writing that I think I’ll end up missing the most, because paradoxically the lowest form of teaching in the academy is, I’ve come to think, the noblest.