I put “mid-career” in scare quotes, because I sort of think it’s weird how big the “middle” of an academic’s career seems to be. I mean, you’re only junior faculty for 6 years – or, really, since you go up at the beginning of your sixth year, it feels like you’re only truly “junior” for five (or at least that’s how it felt for me). I mean, I feel like I’ll be mid-career for about 20 or 25 years, given this way of thinking about things. That’s just strange.
But anyway, I taught for the first time in 1997, and I’ve been in this tenure-track gig since 2003, and I’ve had tenure since 2009, so I guess I count as being a “mid-career” person. Now, I’ve talked a lot about the service aspects of entering this mid-career phase, but I don’t feel like I’ve talked a whole lot about the teaching part of it – other than ranting about how my teaching schedule has been jacked because of all of the service.
So I want to talk about how I’m feeling about teaching of late. Here’s the thing. This started last semester, but I really feel it now: I am energized about teaching now in a way that I haven’t been in years. And I think that this is a shift that has everything to do with being “established” in my professional life, and I think that it has to do with the way that my teaching persona has developed over that time.
[Aside: what follows is definitely going to reflect some stuff about gender and teaching. I’m not sure that male faculty experience the same sort of trajectory in their development of a teaching persona, though they might. I just don’t know. All I know is that I’m a lady professor, and my professing has definitely been influenced by the fact that I am.]
The Trajectory of Dr. Crazy’s Teaching Persona
Years 1-6, a.k.a. “I’m not a teacher but I play one on TV”: Lo, those many years ago, I first entered the classroom as a teacher when I was a lass of 22. I know, right? Why would anyone let a 22 year old teach college students? But they do. In this “phase” of my teaching I figured that the only thing to do was to fake it until I made it. And yet, I wasn’t very good at the “faking it” bits. I dressed up every day that I taught, and yet still I got mistaken for a student on the first day of class. This wasn’t all that surprising, as my version of “dressing up” was still immediately-post-college dressing up, and not actually “professional.” I wasn’t comfortable with my students calling me Professor Crazy or Ms. Crazy, so I insisted that they should call me by my first name (this was also influenced by my women’s studies background, with all of the eliminating hierarchies stuff that this engenders), and yet I had VERY strict course policies, which, of course, students didn’t take terribly seriously because of my in-person lack of formality. I spent inordinate amounts of time on class prep and grading, and yet, still, I never felt like I was doing a good job. I encountered a lot of disciplinary issues with students (from plagiarism to inappropriate comments from students to, one time, a student asking me out on a date ?!?! ), and I often wondered whether I was teaching my students anything at all. I assigned things that were totally inappropriate, thinking that I was being rigorous, but really I just had no sense of what was an appropriate amount to assign, or what was an appropriate reading level for the students that I was teaching. Do I think that I did terribly in those years while I taught in graduate school? No, I actually don’t. But any successes I had were definitely accidental. And let’s note: I had a lot of instruction about teaching compared with folks in grad school in other programs within my discipline and compared with folks in grad school in disciplines outside my own.
Years 7-11, a.k.a. “I’m a professor, dammit!”: So, I found the holy grail: a tenure-track job. A very heavy teaching-load tenure-track job, but a tenure-track job nonetheless. And I vowed that I was going to change my ways, based on my experiences teaching as a graduate student. I’d learned some tough lessons about authority in the classroom and how important it is for me to wield it judiciously, and I knew that it was important for me to establish myself from the outset as The Authority. I was dressing more appropriately, so I was rarely mistaken for a student anymore, even though, because of the nature of the university at which I teach, a fair few of my students were my age or older. I insisted – insisted– that students call me Dr. Crazy, which worked well except for that one student who insisted on calling me “sweetheart” (no lie) and some (jerky) returning students (all male) who just refused to call me anything other than my First Name, in spite of repeated corrections. My course policies were super-strict, but I found with my student population that I ended up making so many exceptions that they were mostly useless. I was better about assigning appropriate amounts of reading and writing, but the level at which I was expecting my students to perform, initially, was totally out of whack. Now, to be fair, I made a lot of adjustments during this period. I learned how to write great assignments that were exceptionally clear. I learned how to design assignments that challenged students but at which they could succeed. I learned how to design assignments that I was excited to grade. (Well, or excited to read.) I developed a ton of courses – probably too many, actually – but I learned how to design a course that “works.” I developed a reputation as a “tough” professor, “but you should take her anyway because you’ll learn more than you’ve learned in any other class.”
Years 12-14, a.k.a. “Teaching after Submitting the Tenure Binder! Huzzah!”: The good: I revised my course policies to be ones that I could actually follow. That was revolutionary – good for me and good for my students. The bad: I was teaching courses all over the map. In the interest of being a team player, my rotation of courses went berserk – from agreeing to teach some things online to agreeing to teach new courses outside my field or in our new graduate program or to fill in for other people, I found myself teaching few repeat preps and few courses in the field in which I was hired to teach. Example: the last time I taught a course in my dissertation field, before this semester, was in 2008, and the last time I taught a course in the field that I was hired in was in (spring) 2009. I don’t actually blame my colleagues for that, so much – I agreed to everything that happened, and sometimes encouraged it – but it was NOT good, for me, or for my students. The ugly: Seriously, I was so fucked up from “the bad” that I became a very disorganized professor, a professor who didn’t get students’ work back in a timely fashion and a professor who didn’t even know some of my students’ names. And all of that made me hate teaching. Which, for a person for whom teaching is supposed to be 50% of her job, is really motherfucking shitty. For real, I hated all of the things that were pulling me away from my teaching, but I also hated my students, who had done absolutely nothing wrong. My feelings, let’s note, had nothing to do with research. It wasn’t that I wanted to spend more time on research, or that I cared about it more. My problem is that teaching requires an investment, and because of what I was doing for my department, college, and university, in terms of service, I didn’t have anything that I needed to invest in my students. This is exactly why we need more tenure-track faculty. One result of the move toward “teaching-only” faculty is that people like me, who are supposed to be the specialists, are fucked the fuck up in terms of teaching. As Historiann would say, awesome.
Year 15 and beyond ( I hope) – I am currently teaching a course in my dissertation field. I will, next semester, teach a course in the next half of my century in which I was hired to teach. I teach service courses that I believe in, both in the major and in general education. And I’ve extricated myself from the debilitating service. The result for my students? I am into it. Teaching once again is my top priority. And yes, that makes a difference. But more than that: I know the students at my institution now. Sure, my reputation remains that I am a “tough” professor, “but you should take her anyway because you’ll learn more than you’ve learned in any other class.” But now, I’m happy when I’m kicking their asses, and I’m confident that they will like it at the end of the day, which, actually, makes them happy to have their asses kicked. I don’t worry so much now about what I wear. My campus is pretty casual, as dress codes go, and I don’t worry that if I wear jeans my students won’t respect me, even if I am a lady professor. They have heard about me: they know that I am worthy of respect. I also don’t worry so much about revealing details of my life. It turns out, any details that I’d reveal are not all that interesting. (Example: I’m a lady who knits. They respect me no less because of it, and in fact, they often want to know how to do it.) I also don’t worry so much about them knowing about my life. Because you know what? I’m a person. It’s ok that I hated – hated– Ulysses the first time that I read it, and it’s ok that I enjoy reading chick lit and mysteries in my free time. It’s ok that I’ve read the Twilight Saga, and that I’m embarrassed by that, and that still I’ve seen all the movies and that also I’ve read the books multiple times. You know what the difference is now? It’s that I’m willing to do anything, to say anything if it engages them. I’m willing to put myself out there in order to bring them into the class. I don’t give a shit now about whether they respect me or acknowledge my authority: I know that I’m the authority, and they know it, too, and that means that I can do whatever I need to do, by any means necessary, to get them to invest. That feeling? It’s exhilarating.
I love my students this semester. But seriously? I love the teacher that I am to my students this semester. And they are going to get more from me – and more from my courses – because that’s how I feel. Shit. Even if they didn’t enter my courses super-stoked, my attitude right now? That’s at least part of what makes for an amazing class. And this attitude? It’s only happened for me in 2012.
I hope this ends up being what it’s like to teach at mid-career. I’d love 20 years of this. Because it’s freaking awesome.