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Is, not Ought

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29 Jan 2013
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
Tags: philosophy of teaching   |   student learning   |   self care   |   faculty well-being

To paraphrase Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, “I have a confession: I don’t much like my students.” It’s not that I don’t like them as people or that I wish them ill. It’s not that I don’t like discussing ideas, engaging texts, or pressing questions. And, there are even rare moments, when they have a genuine insight or make improvements in their abilities, that I don’t mind grading. What I mean, of course, is that students are self-absorbed, soul-killing, needy little monsters who think they are (or should be) my sole priority, that I enjoy repeating instructions (even after sweating blood crafting syllabi), that I have nothing better to do than monitor my e-mail, that I relish reading multiple drafts that fail to respond in any meaningful fashion to feedback, and that I want to be their friend, therapist, surrogate parent, and problem-solver. 

Entre nous, I have other confessions: on any given day, I don’t much like my colleagues, my administration, my various editors, my contributing authors. It’s a long list. What do I like? I like ideas. I like pursuing intellectual questions that have ethical and political weight. I like trying to craft beautiful prose. That’s why I got into this business. But what I like about this job (and, in the final analysis, I love my job—who else gets paid to read and think?) so easily and consistently gets interrupted, delayed and marginalized by its other aspects.

As much as we must resist cynicism and remember how rewarding our jobs can be, we also have to recognize that our jobs are fundamentally impossible. The lesson I am still learning from my first years of teaching? We can’t do everything we’re expected to do. We certainly can’t do it all equally well. So, we should stop trying. 

Although it’s a slow and imperfect process, recognizing the fundamental impossibility of our jobs has been liberating rather than a source of despair. If we can’t do everything we’re expected to do, then we necessarily have to choose what we will do and how we will spend our limited resources. While having tenure makes this process easier, tenure adds additional options to the menu. Much more importantly, prior to tenure, one establishes the habits and expectations for how one will spend time and focus attention. Figuring out where your passion lies and how to keep the main thing the main thing is not something that can be put off until later. (I say this to myself first.)

With respect to students, in my first years of teaching, I set patterns of answering e-mail with lightning speed, turning around meticulously annotated drafts in less than twenty-four hours, and setting meetings on students’ schedules. I not only thought this was expected of me and that it would result in improved student performance, but that I wanted to dedicate myself primarily to being a “good teacher.” Similarly, with respect to service, I established myself as the willing and responsible committee member because I have typically been very invested in the success of institutions of which I am a part. I was not sufficiently aware of how the size of this institution would forestall my ability to make change, and the ways in which competency is quickly exploited.

More recently, as I’ve realized that I have to set different priorities if I want time to pursue ideas, I’ve begun (emphasis on begun) to ask myself three questions: Is this interesting? Is it useful? Is it going to replenish or deplete my energy? These questions are not perfect; they don’t always point in the same direction; and they don’t eliminate the reality that a job is a job, which means I am often simply required to do things. But, they help. For example, commenting on student work in detail takes a great deal of time and can be quite boring, but I rarely have students contest grades or ask me to clarify expectations. Because I find one-on-one meetings and flurries of individual e-mails much more energy depleting than writing comments, I continue this practice. When designing courses, I try very hard to choose materials and topics that have some connection to my research questions—or, at the very least, are fun or easy to teach. When serving on committees, I try to find commitments that will allow me to shape policy that will make my life better (this relates both to topic and organizational level), or will reflect well on my department, or will allow me to develop intellectual—or social—relationships.

I am learning that I have to be very honest about what matters to me about this job. Should and ought talk paralyzes, and comparing myself to some fantasy of the perfect scholar-teacher is not much more helpful. I have to know which tasks among the hundreds I could perform are the ones I most (1) want and (2) need to perform. Then, with steely courage, conviction and determination, I must strive to do everything I can to spend most of my time doing those things, or the things that most directly facilitate doing them, rather than the myriad that prevent me. These are deeply personal, idiosyncratic questions. We need to be kinder to ourselves and each other as we come to our respective answers.

 

 

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Being kind and telling the truth are difficult no matter the age and maturity. To be kind to ourselves and tell the truth about ourselves is a never ending challenge.
    I think this article is both truthful and kind about yourself and others. Bravo!

  2. Thanks, Susan! Have you found any strategies particularly helpful as you’ve tried to identify and sort your priorities?

  3. It’s a fact of academic life that people who pursue it are divided between those who mostly want to teach, and those who mostly want to do research. (I’ve yet to meet anyone who mostly wanted to sit on committees.) It’s a wee bit sad that (introverted) people who mostly want to do research often end up in (extroverted) teaching-heavy positions, but I think you’re right on about accepting who you are and setting priorities and strategies accordingly.

  4. Like you, Kate, I’ve never met anyone who entered life in the academy in order to sit on committees, but I do know a few people who’ve discovered their love for institution building, or a talent for making policy or revising curricula, or even just a passion for being a good administrator for the sake of their colleagues. Not that you were suggesting otherwise, but it seems important to support those decisions, and not act suspiciously or dismissively. We certainly want committed and talented people occupying important service positions.

    As to the introvert/extrovert issue, one of the most helpful concepts I’ve encountered for thinking about my professional life was introduced to me a few years ago: role extrovert. The role extrovert is a person who is an introvert at heart (i.e., finds her or his energy renewed by spending time alone or with very small groups of people s/he knows well), but who can “perform” in an extroverted way when assigned a very specific role. In class, I tend to be dynamic, energetic, out-going, etc., so neither colleagues nor students believe me when I talk about being introverted and pretending spending time alone with my books. Understanding better the split myself has allowed me not to dread certain situations either.

    Have you found any strategies useful in switching among the various hats we’re expected to wear?

  5. Kent,
    A bit cathartic to feel the inner YES! about liking (or not) one’s students. What a relief to admit my own dislike and frustration on most days! I’ve spun my wheels a LOT in these years feeling guilty that I do not invest more time and energy in my students’ lives than I have, particularly as a couple colleagues in my hallway derive intense personal energy and satisfaction in doing so. I’m sure this varies from institution to institution, but at least in my setting, I feel a huge pull in gender-expectations here too: the women faculty are to nurture the neediest, the male faculty are to further their research. Being obstreperous myself, I’ve adamantly protected my research time, perhaps erring on the “absent too much” side of things. I do most of my conceptual work at home, for instance, and minimize campus time as much as possible. You name all this so very well–identify what will feed your energies and DO THAT. Ultimately, it makes you healthier, aids your contribution to the whole, and makes the institution healthier too.

  6. Thanks, Grace. I’m curious if you have any strategies that you’ve relied on that have helped you sort your priorities?

    And, Lisa, the word “guilt” in your comment really popped out to me. Guilt is hardly ever a helpful emotion and almost never is it an energizing one, but I think that we feel a great deal of it when we do the comparison shuffle. And the “colleague down the hall” trap is very broad and wide. I have a colleague like the ones you describe (of course, the gender dynamics are reversed); I have other colleagues who tell intense stories about their level of involvement–both as mentors and emotional supports–to their students. At the same time, I have colleagues who are quite surprised at the amount of committee work I did pre-tenure. While I’ve certainly scaled back, I also helped revise my department’s curriculum, establish a number of interesting programs and events, etc. The lesson I’m really trying to learn is to cancel the comparative evaluation–just as I should follow my own bliss, I have to let others follow theirs. There just is no single model for doing this job successfully or making genuine contributions.

  7. Hi Kent,
    So you know, I’m printing and framing your three questions:
    1) Is this interesting?
    2) Is it useful?
    3) Is it going to replenish or deplete my energy?
    Then, I will hang them in my office, in direct eye-sight height, and make sure to glance on them before making any future commitments.
    Now should I footnote you or put the source on the title of the slide? 😉
    Thank you so much.
    Tony.