.journal 2006.11.30

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.org.6: Turning a new page

Now listening to: Matsui Keiko, Cherry Blossom
Now reading: Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Now playing: Final Fantasy XII (Playstation 2)

Six years ago when I started the .org, even though I had ended my Website design company and all of the various online endeavours associated with it (most notably those involving professional wrestling), I was still hoping to eke out a career in Website design. Even though this meant working for my father for relatively little wages at the time, I was hoping that I could eventually move on to other places and positions where I could make enough money to get my own place and be independent.

A little over six months later, I lost my biggest client. Sandwiched between the disappearance of my two best friends and the fire at the house, it was pretty clear to me that the universe was sending me a message. Well, that and the fact that life in the hotel we stayed at while the house was being built was incredibly boring and I thought I would go out of my mind there. Honestly, I think I went back to college out of boredom more than anything, but nevertheless I entered a new phase of my life.

In just a couple of weeks, Goddess be willing, that phase is going to end, at least for now. While I hope to still be working in academia, and I’m not ruling out the possibility of returning to a student’s life later — more on that to come — my days of classes and writing papers for professors and all of that is coming to a close. Needless to say, these past few weeks have been a period of deep introspection for me, and I’m struggling to come to terms with what all this means to me.

I suppose the closest thing I have to compare this to is a few years ago when I was finishing up my undergraduate career. With my perfect GPA, near-perfect GREs, extracurriculars, and all of that nonsense, I thought that I was destined to take my pick of all the creative writing MFA programmes I was applying to. While I wasn’t going to be transferring out of student life then, chances were that wherever I went — I had my heart set on Syracuse at the time — I would have to move, leaving the house I’d lived in all my life (or at least version 2.0 of the house), and my family. Six rejections and one “we’ll take you but we can’t give you any money” later, I found myself undoing all of the goodbyes I said at the University of Toledo.

UT’s graduate programme in English is in Literature, and although I hadn’t taken that many literature courses in my undergraduate career, I thought I was ready for graduate courses on that level. Honestly, though, my graduate academic career hasn’t gone as smoothly as I would have liked. Especially when talking with the other graduate students in literature at UT, I felt like I had a deficiency in the theoretical background I needed to be able to discuss literature on the same level as they did. Making up that deficiency while still keeping up with all my classes and the demands of my assistantship often proved to be overwhelming, and I can’t say that I didn’t have my moments where I thought about quitting and seeing what else I could do with my life.

Things got especially bad for me last fall, in large part due to this one course I was taking. I don’t want to get into the details, but the course made me relive a very painful experience I had throughout high school, and the only way I managed to get through the course was to go so deeply inside of myself during class time that I honestly don’t know how I managed to pass the course at all. If I hadn’t had something to balance the pain of that course out with, I probably would have up and quit UT.

That something was teaching. My first year of graduate school I was a research assistant, but I switched over to being a teaching assistant in the fall of last year. Unlike most of the other graduate assistants in the English Department, I’d had a full year of graduate courses in my belt before I started teaching, including classes in teaching English. I have to say, though, that an English professor I had in my undergraduate career wound up teaching me far more about being a good English teacher than anything I learned in grad school. This professor led me to learn about a very non-mainstream branch of teaching theory called critical pedagogy, which not only made my class with her one of the most effective and enjoyable classes I’ve ever had, but also put the teaching bug up my butt.

Once I had the opportunity to teach, there was no getting that bug out. I made my fair share of mistakes when I started teaching, and at first, as is my wont to do, I really got down on myself whenever I made any little slip-up. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that teaching itself is a learning process, and that if I wasn’t willing to keep learning as I taught, then I wasn’t going to be a good teacher. (I think that explains about 80% of the bad teachers I’ve had in my life.) Although I’m incredibly patient with other people, I’ve never been that patient with myself, and teaching made me learn that patience.

I wouldn’t try to speak for the experiences my students had in my classes, but my feeling from being around my students is that I created composition classes that were, if not enjoyable, at least as painless as a class could be. Looking at my students’ work throughout the semester, I could see how they were learning not only to write well, but to critically analyze the world around them and become more aware of the forces at work in their lives. Knowing that I made that difference in at least some of my students’ lives is incredibly gratifying to me, and that feeling, more than anything else in my life, boosts my self-esteem and makes me feel like I’m worth something.

The normal path for me now would be to apply to Ph.D. programmes in rhetoric and composition, but that’s not going to happen, at least for now. For one thing, I’m kind of burnt out on taking classes now, and I think I need some time away from that aspect of school to recharge my batteries.

However, there are other reasons. Although a Ph.D. would enable me to apply for tenure-track positions at major universities, I’m not sure it’s worth it for me. For one thing, it would take me at least six years to complete my doctorate, and the doctorate is a million times more intensive than a masters programme. I almost gave myself a coronary in the leadup to my MA exam, and the doctoral exams I’ve seen make the MA exam look like a Tickle quiz by comparison. Given the difficulties I’ve had with my graduate career, I’m not sure if I could handle the stress of a doctoral programme, and I’m damn sure not capable of handling that stress right now.

Another thing is that a Ph.D. might not really help me all that much right now. For all that people like David Horowitz and the Brainwashing 101 team complain about how tenured professors can supposedly create a tyrannical liberal rule, what they don’t talk about is how the trustees of colleges — in the case of state colleges, these are usually governmental appointees — have crammed corporate downsizing culture into colleges and universities. This is especially painful for humanities programmes like English departments, since we don’t get the big government grants and create the gee-whiz scientific gadgets or discoveries that the hard sciences do. (This is hitting UT especially hard now, thanks to how long we’ve had Republican governors and the fact that UT recently merged with the big medical university in town.) By one estimate I read, it takes three or four retirements of tenured professors in your average English department for the university to be able to hire one new tenure-track professor. In the name of saving money, English departments are being forced to hire part-time adjuncts and lecturers, who don’t need to be paid as much and don’t require things like medical insurance, to “fill in” the gaps left behind by all the old tenure-track jobs. You only need a Masters degree to get those part-time positions, so basically I’ve already got all the requirements I need for most of the positions out there. As the reduction in tenure-track positions continues over the years, being able to get one of those positions will prove incredibly difficult.

I suppose my main problem, though, is that I don’t like the way the tenure system works. To an outsider, it may look like all English professors have to do is lead classes and grade papers. However, in addition to committee work (which is voluntary only in name), professors are expected to continue working in their discipline, working up papers and presenting them at conferences, submitting them to journals, and hoping to build enough attention in the academic community to be able to get a book proposal approved by a major academic press. Even the most conservative estimates I’ve seen say that tenure-track professors have to work at least 80 hours a week to stand a good chance at getting that elusive tenured position, a process that takes a minimum of another six months.

In case you missed it, I didn’t say anything in there about what role teaching plays in getting tenure. I didn’t say anything because there isn’t that much to say. While you can’t expect to get tenure if you’re a bad teacher, the difference between being an okay teacher and being an outstanding teacher when it comes to getting tenure is minimal if not nonexistent. Pretty much the only thing that matters when it comes to getting tenure is research. I have a real problem with this because, for all that I consider research valuable (and I certainly intend to keep doing research after I graduate), when it comes down to it the students that you’re teaching are the ones who are paying your salary. They’re the ones who I think deserve the most attention, and I don’t ever want to be put in a position where I’d be forced to choose between giving my students the attention they deserve and getting so many research projects completed.

This means that I’ll likely never get that cushy job security or the corner office or the personal assistant, but I don’t want those things. I want students, and I want a classroom to meet with them in. Preferably one where I can move the desks around so we can all sit in a circle. I may not make the big bucks that tenured professors make (although English professors make significantly less than professors in, say, engineering), but as long as I can put a roof over my head, food on my plate, gas in my car, and still have enough bucks left over to feed my video gaming habit, I’ll be okay.

What this means is that, at least for now, I’m looking for jobs teaching English at community colleges, since all the universities around here have enough teaching assistants to handle their English courses. Honestly I’m looking forward to the community college environment, since I think the students I’m likely to encounter at community colleges will be well suited to my classroom practices. For now I’m going to stay local, at least until I take care of my student loans, but when the time comes that I find a good-paying job that will force me to relocate from Toledo, it will be time for me to finally leave the nest. (There’s a position up in Michigan that I’ve got my eye on right now, and hopefully I’ll be writing about that more in the coming weeks.)

I think a good amount of fear and nervousness is to be expected whenever someone faces changes as big as entering the job market and facing the likelihood of leaving the nest soon. If you know me, though, then you know that I already live with my fair share of fear and nervousness. I’m feeling better about making this transition in my life than I thought I would, but I can’t deny experiencing a fair amount of trepidation as I do things like work on my CV and statement of teaching philosophy. I’ll likely be doing a lot of deep breathing as I start sending these documents out to the colleges I’m looking at.

In this past year I’ve experienced a lot of milestones. I turned 30 in March, and those of you who follow my blog were hopefully able to read between the lines when I started talking in codes over the summer. (Believe me, that wound up being one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, and I can’t wait until I can start talking about it.) What I have coming up here, though, is perhaps the biggest milestone of all. There are no guarantees of success, and even though I’ve got a backup plan in case the teaching thing doesn’t work out (I’m looking for content-related jobs on the major job Websites like editing and writing columns), I really, really, really hope I can get a job teaching, and some time soon move out of the house and live on my own. I’m scared, but I’ve got to learn how to handle that fear, and harness it into something good.

Everyone take care and be well. I’ll see you around.

— Sean

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