On a Not Being an Academic

Paradigm Shift

I have taught in higher education for 14 years at both universities and community colleges.  I have been cloistered in that proverbial ivory tower, surrounded by true scholars and academics.

I have felt like an imposter for many of those years.

Not because I’m not qualified.  Not because I can’t teach with the best of them.  Not because I lack intellect or ambition.

I feel like an imposter because I don’t see the world the way academics and scholars do.  I don’t function the way academics and scholars do.  Yes, I value intellect and reasoning.  Yes, I believe in education’s power to transform and improve lives.  Yes, yes, yes.

But here’s what I don’t value and believe in: Over-intellectualizing and over-academizing subjects to the point all of the life has been beaten out of them.  All of the subjects and disciplines in a college or university fuel a part of humanity’s achievements and advancements.  Each and every one of them has passion and insight involved in them.  Yet I’ve come to see and realize that many of my fellow teachers simply don’t know how to teach the subjects in ways that show the subject’s heartbeat or pulse.  Through too many activities and busy-work assignments and assessments, they actually end up stripping the joy and life and beauty out of a subject.

Of course, students should expect assignments and activities and assessments.   Absolutely.  I’m not talking about watering down the work or the subject matter, but what I am talking is giving students the chance to work with and see how interesting and vital the subject they’re studying really is, regardless of the level of the class.  And that comes directly from the teacher and is solely in the teacher’s hands.

When I have students tell me they love my class (which are developmental reading classes, mind you) because of how I teach what I teach, and that they feel like they’ve really learned something valuable about the world and themselves, I know what’s unsaid, or what will be said soon after the praise: They don’t get that in their other classes.

So that’s what I mean (mostly) when I say with pride that I am not an academic.  I am a human being who happens to teach in higher education, and who strongly believes in teaching students how to be better human beings themselves through what I have them read and do for class.  My goal is to make what I do as alive and vital for my students as it is for me.  That depends solely on how I teach.  That is solely in my hands.

I can’t intellectualize or academize that away.  I’m a humanist, not an academic.

On Knowing Names

everybody_knows_your_name

A student came by my office hours yesterday to talk.  She said she was feeling lonely and overwhelmed, and the only class that made her feel welcome and like she belonged was mine.  I asked why she thought that was, and she said simply, “Because you know my name and you ask about my life.”

In all honesty, it’s not the first time I’ve heard that.  Maybe it’s because of the subject I teach.  I do get to know students a bit (even a lot) more personally than a teacher of chemistry, say, or economics.  And I make it a big point to tie what students learn in the classroom to their own lives.  I model that by telling students and showing them how concepts relate to my life.  I’m not just educating a brain; I’m educating a flesh-and-blood human being.

A big part of that connection has to come from me.  I need to know their names.  I need to know something about them.  I need to read their words and hear their connections, tenuous as they might be.  I need to show them that I care about them, that I care about what I do as a teacher, so that hopefully they will care more about themselves and what they do as students.

Not every teacher would agree with my methods.  Some would say they have too much material to lecture about to get to know students personally on any level.  They might say they don’t have time or interest or patience.  They might say getting to know students more as people could open up the floodgates of exceptions and rule bending.  Maybe.  But I manage that by holding firm to policies and keeping a professional relationship with students.

What my student said has lingered since yesterday.  I wonder how many others are walking around feeling overwhelmed and lonely, not reaching out to someone who can help them.  I’m glad she felt comfortable and safe enough to seek me out.  It made me feel useful and only reinforced why I do what I do.

Everyone wants to be seen as a human being and feel like they belong.  A great first step is knowing — and using — someone’s name.

On Appreciating the Differences

Vive La Difference

I can’t help but notice some key differences between the students I teach at the university and the students I taught at a community college.

By saying this, I am not in any way disparaging my former community college students.  Having done the bulk of my teaching in that kind of setting has led me to appreciate that student in many ways.  In fact, I was a community college student myself.  I do not see my former students as any less intelligent or motivated or capable than the ones I now teach.  And I didn’t leave the community college because of the students; I left because of the administrative shenanigans and other personally unacceptable political aspects at that institution.  I always believed in my students and enjoyed interacting with them, and loved the growth I saw in them.

Having said what this post isn’t about, let me move on to what it is about: The ways in which I’ve had to adapt my teaching and my expectations to the kinds of students I now see in my classrooms.

One of the key differences I see is due to the reality of the university: The vast majority of my students live on campus and being a student is their full-time occupation.  This means I’ve seen greater attendance, a higher amount of work being completed, and chapters actually being read.  I see students being prepared for class on all levels, and if they’re not prepared, they’ll be honest with me.  However, those unprepared students are few and far between.  I don’t have to backtrack to fill in gaps or catch anyone up before we discuss the concepts and homework; we can dive right in and have in-depth conversations.

Another key difference I see is that my students can see the bigger picture much more than I’m used to.  On the whole, my students know why they’re in school and have declared majors.  They understand the need for general education courses, even if they don’t necessarily enjoy the ones they’re currently taking.  In the past, I’ve had to explain the value of that kind of liberal-arts approach and sell it, but not anymore.  They seem to get it.  I honestly have not heard any grumbling about it, whereas before, I heard it every day.

A third key difference is that very few students are first-generation college students.  Nearly all of them have parents, siblings, or other relatives who attended college and have degrees.  They’ve seen, or heard about, the sacrifices that need to be made now in order to prosper in the future.  They know the unemployment rate for workers with college degrees is quite low compared to those who don’t.  None of that was news to them.

The last key difference I’ll address here is the diversity of the student body.  We have students from around the state and around the world at the university.  It’s not a homogenous student body, whereas before, the vast majority of my students were from the local counties served by the community college.  The student body is much less provincial.  It’s refreshing to know there is the kind of mix students will see in their professional working lives, and it will serve them well going forward.

These differences make my job much easier on some levels and much more challenging on others.  I’m learning I need to challenge students more and that they want to be challenged.  They seem to want, and respond well to, rigor and higher expectations.  I’m spending less time on managing and modifying behaviors and attitudes, and more time teaching the material in meaningful, relevant ways.

And I love that difference most of all.

On Feeling Useful

what-are-you-doing-for-others

I feel more useful as a reading teacher than I ever did as a writing teacher.  That’s not to say teaching students to write better and more effectively is useless; it’s very much the opposite.  But I always felt like I was swimming against the current in my composition classes.

Odd, considering I’m a writer, myself, but it was a hard sell every semester.  Frequently, I heard “I already know how to write,” and that’s true.  Being a college-level writer, though, was a different matter altogether.

But I digress slightly.  In my new job, I teach reading exclusively.  One class is a very basic-skills, foundation-for-college reading class, and the other three classes I teach are still reading classes, but with a study-skills and effective-student-habits focus.  I’ve taught the college-foundation reading class before at my former college, but I had much more freedom to shape my own curriculum.  I teach against the grain with reading, usually, and it’s worked before.  At the university, things are a bit more proscribed and that’s actually been a good thing.  I’m seeing where I could have served students better in the past and I’m seeing where I need to bring in some of my old pedagogy in my new situation.

It’s not hard selling students on the value of learning to read more effectively.  They clearly understand that college-level reading is important and honestly, I don’t have any students questioning the value of what I’m teaching them in that regard.  That’s a huge change for me as a teacher, truthfully, and I chalk it up to the differences between university and community college students.  (There are quite a few positive differences, I’ve noticed!)

Even in the study-skills course, I’m seeing students take what we’re doing seriously more than they aren’t.  It would be easy for them to see my that class as a blow-off course, but most of them don’t.  (There will always be a few who do!) They know I expect them to tie what they’re learning to all of their classes and so far, they’re reporting a high level of value from what I’m teaching.  They’re applying concepts and seeing connections, and that’s exciting for me.

My basic-skills reading students are telling me similar stories.  What we’re doing in my class is helping them tackle the reading for their other classes, and I can’t really ask for anything more three weeks into the semester.  They’re rising to the challenge, which is not always easy to do in a class that doesn’t count toward graduation credits.

Here’s hoping the feeling of usefulness continues!

On Knowing It Gets Better

stay_strong_it_gets_better___desktop_by_kingpin1055-d58ffmy

I opened my work email today to find a message from a student at the university where I teach who is not in one of my classes.  The Subject line read “thanx.”  I wasn’t sure if I should open it (perhaps it might have been spam), but my curiosity got the best of me.  Thanks for what?

So I clicked open the message and was taken quite by surprise.

A young gentlemen had heard about me being out and not hiding it from anyone (he also apparently knows a fellow student who attended the college where I used to teach), and he said the fact I’m so open gave him the courage to come out to some of his new friends — fellow freshmen — at the university.  He wrote about how he admired the fact I have a husband and a child, and that if I could do it, then so could he one day.

I’ve never hid the fact I’m gay in any of my workplaces, and I talk about my husband and son to my students just like anyone else would talk about their spouse or children.  It’s all part of being true to myself, of being authentic.  Honestly, I don’t care what my students might think about it one way or another.  Sure, in the past I’d get some comments on student evaluations saying I shouldn’t talk about my personal life or that I should keep my sexuality to myself.  That’s to be expected in a  relatively conservative area like this, so I always took those comments with a grain of salt.  If I caused those students to think about life outside their own boxes, great.  Often, I didn’t like what I learned about my students’s personal lives, either, but oh well.  I know what I can and cannot control, and I know what I should have an opinion about and what I shouldn’t.

Back to the email I received today.  I’m glad this young man reached out to me.  I’m glad he doesn’t feel so alone.  I’m glad I could help him muster up the courage to come out to a small circle of friends.  He didn’t mention his family, but I’m assuming they wouldn’t approve because of how closeted he said he was in high school.

I wrote back to thank him for his kind words and offered to meet him for coffee on campus if he ever wants to talk.  And I made sure to let him know I, too, felt very nervous and unsure about coming out to people twenty-odd years ago as an undergraduate.  Times were very different then.  In many ways, this young man has it easier than I did, what with gay marriage being legal in quite a few states and such.  Being gay is more tolerated now and there are also legal protections that never existed for me when I was his age.

I let him know that things do, indeed, get better, especially by claiming his dignity and telling people who he is and staying strong in the face of whatever may come as a result.

I hope he and I have that coffee soon.

On Speaking My Mind

SpeakYourMind

There was a time in my teaching career when I felt like I was holding back from what I really wanted to say.  Uncertainty and timidity ruled.  How would students take my honesty?  What would my colleagues say if they knew I was being direct and plain-spoken with my students?

I gagged myself out of fear of what the course evaluations would say.  I feared someone in my department voting against me for promotion or tenure because I told it like it was from my point of view.

All that silence did was frustrate me and take me further away from my true self at work.

I didn’t feel like I was connecting with my students the way I wanted to.  I felt like I was hiding away from them.  I didn’t feel I was being honest with them.

So I started experimenting.  If I thought what students were doing weren’t working for them, I’d tell them so.  If someone said something racist or sexist or homophobic in class, I’d say so.  If side chats bothered me, I’d say so.  I started enforcing my policies.  I started taking control of the environment in my classrooms. 

And you know what?  Students responded.  Behavior improved.  The class atmosphere became more productive and safe for everyone.

I also started embracing my sense of humor and my more casual phrasing (yes, even swearing sometimes).  I talked about my personal life and tied my personal experiences into the lessons I was teaching.  I became more three-dimensional.  I became more of a real person.

Over the years, that’s what students have told me they appreciate about me: my “realness.”  I’m authentic.  I’m not putting on an act for them.  I want my students to be real and authentic and three-dimensional, so I need to lead the way. 

I’ve also found that embracing my personality, rather than hiding it behind some professorial stereotype, led to more student engagement and buy in.

And it all started by speaking my mind, even if my voice shook sometimes.  I’m still speaking my mind, even in my new workplace, and the students are responding.  They’re engaging.  They’re buying in.

What they see is what they get.

On Not Being a Doormat

I'm Not a Doormat

In one of my classes last week, we talked about circumstances in which we should have a Plan B and when we should only give ourselves a Plan A.

Many students talked about choosing certain majors because their parents disapproved of what they truly wanted to do.  One student mentioned he wanted to be a chef and go to culinary school, but his parents said absolutely not.  Other students chimed in with similar stories.

It made me realize I feel fortunate to have had my Plan A — becoming a professional writer — be the only plan I pursued.  My parents and grandparents discouraged it out of concern for me being able to make a living, but in the end, English was the major I felt compelled to declare.  It was my decision to make, my education to pursue, and my financial aid paying for the journey.  None of the naysayers would be living my life for me.  While my goal of being a published author didn’t happen until I was 40, my goal of being a professional writer happened much sooner than that, just in a different way than I originally envisioned.  (See a previous post for that story.)

That conversation in class made me think of a choice I had to make when I took my new job this summer.  My former department chair asked if I would be willing to pursue a leave of absence for a year.  An advisor in Human Resources said I should consider it, too.  I can see why.  My first year at the new school is probationary and there’s no guarantee I’ll be renewed for a new contract.  Also, my former department chair would be down three full-time positions, with little indication from the administration that replacements would be sought. 

It was tempting.  Very tempting.  My husband even encouraged me to do it, and to make those parties happy, I looked into it.  As I did, I realized this: A huge reason I was leaving was because of the administration.  They acted (still do) like robotic bullies and honestly, I didn’t see my putting in for a leave of absence being successful at all. 

My gut told me to cut ties, to make a clean and definitive break.  I wanted to leave so badly I applied for and got another job.  What would have been the point of going through the job search if all I did was keep myself tied to where I wanted to flee?  It made no sense, and I chose not to apply for a leave.

I was being treated like a doormat.  We all were.  I didn’t want a Plan B that kept me held to the past.  I didn’t want to go back at all.

So I committed wholeheartedly to my Plan A: Accept the new job and move on, regardless of whether or not I receive a new contract once this probationary year is up.

I respect myself as a person and as a professional too much to do anything other than cut ties and to keep them cut.