Striving for Excellence in a Finite Job?

I’m so betwixt and between this week. Two days ago I just wanted to flee, yesterday I wanted a do-over for all the major life decisions I’ve made in the past year and a half, and today I’m making concrete plans about courses and research for the next year and talking to colleagues, at least, as though I’m laying groundwork for a long and profitable career here. The latter is a necessary act, but it’s disconcerting, especially because I’m particularly prone to having forced enthusiasm turn into actual enthusiasm. This course does sound like a lot of fun to teach! I’ll be so interested to see where this major institutional change leads us (us?) in five years! Let me tell you about the research trip I need to take for my book!

Then, of course, I step away and realize how unlikely it is that I will be part of this “us” in five years, or that I will ever write that book; this whole exercise in knowing mentally that the job is short-term while everyone else assumes it’s not is really rather taxing.

I will, however, teach that class next year, along with several others. And I find that as my first year of full-time professoring draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about myself as a classroom teacher. How did I do, and how much effort do I want to put in to do better, considering that I may not be doing it that much longer?

Probably my expectations are unrealistically high, especially since I (thought I) knew exactly what kind of professor I was going to be. During my undergraduate years, there were Professors A, B, and C (whom I am not going to try to gender-neutralize, since in at least one case, it matters). Professor A was my favorite–and I wasn’t alone in that. He was one of those amazingly charismatic professors, brilliant and electrifying in the classroom. He was the kind of professor who inspired phys ed majors to take a Shakespeare elective and inspired English majors to do ridiculous amounts of supplemental reading so we could talk to him about it (and he did that, too: hung out in his office talking to students about poetics). He had this knack for finding the fledgling grain of an idea in students’ in-class comments and then reshaping it into exactly what you were trying to say but couldn’t–all while making you feel like you were brilliant. And he also wasn’t trying too hard to be particularly entertaining, with jokes and pop culture references and personality quirks. Rather, he deeply loved the written word and had a way of getting students to love it, too.

Professor B was less electrifying in the classroom and did less for me in terms of helping me love my subject matter, but she was a deeply important mentor to me in many ways. She was a she, first of all, which was no small thing in a small Christian college, and she was also an ardent feminist and an ambitious academic. She was keenly aware that students like me didn’t have a lot of role models like her, and, of course, the ambitious, left-wing, female students flocked to her. The difference her presence made for me was a big part of why I decided to take a job at a Christian college: maybe I could be that person for some students like me.

Then there was Professor C, who was my worst nightmare. Not that he wasn’t a good professor and a lovely person: he was (and I assume still is). But he was “only” good, and it was clear he was trying hard to do better. He did all the right things in the classroom: a variety of pedagogical techniques to engage students, appeal to different styles of learners, and foster the exchange of ideas. He clearly really knew his material and cared about his students. Yet it never came together, and I took three different classes from him, so I don’t think it was just a fluke. He tried, but something didn’t quite work. He wasn’t a terrible professor, and he wasn’t a great one. If I were assigning grades for classroom teaching, he’d be a solid B.

Even back in undergrad, Professor C worried me. After I got my PhD and became a professor (already a clear goal for me at that point), I was obviously going to be a combination of Prof. A’s charisma and Prof. B’s role modeling. But…what if I wasn’t? What if, like Prof. C, I tried and tried and tried, and it just didn’t quite work. I didn’t think there was any chance I’d be bad, but what if I was merely good?

I was not a particularly stellar teacher while in grad school. I was merely good, but I attributed a lot of that to the conditions of a large, public university: lecture-style teaching to scores of students, most of whom were disengaged. In a SLAC, particularly in a Christian setting, where I could be an edgy and inspirational version of Professor B, it would be different. Students would be engaged, we’d all know each other’s names, and I’d find that group of ambitious young English majors–the ones who bristled against the strictures of the evangelical world and wanted to read cool books and fight against the Man–who thought I was great.

I’m sure you’ll all be shocked to learn that it hasn’t quite worked out that way. 🙂

I imagine I’m still a bit too close to the whole thing to have a very accurate view of my successes and failures, but in general, I think I was merely good. I tried hard, and I learned a lot, but I don’t think I wowed anyone. Some of my problems were first-year growing pains that will improve as I get more practice (though it was interesting to me that Profs. A, B, and C, back when I had them, were all quite early in their careers, and both A and B were new to the institution my freshman and sophomore years, respectively). Some of it is my own introversion and my belief that the personal is private failing to jive well with the talk-about-Jesus-all-the-time culture of an evangelical school. (That, incidentally, was my most common complaint on the first semester student evaluations: she doesn’t talk about Jesus enough, to which I really can have no response, because seriously, students?) And I had a really painful run-in with students objecting to the content of a book on my syllabus early in the fall (don’t you know that Jesus doesn’t want us to read anything with violence, swearing, or sexuality?!?!?), which made me rather gunshy about advertising my not-so-evangelical beliefs thereafter. (What you forget, when you strive to be the countercultural role model, is that 99% of the people you hear from are complaining, and if the 1% is even out there, they may not identify themselves.)

The question, then, is whether I strive to address much of this. Even with the basic good pedagogy stuff, do I really want to spend a lot of time revamping this and striving to improve that if it’s only going to be another year? How much difference would it make? How hard do we keep trying when we know it’s not going to be a long-term gig?

As for the “fit” stuff, I’m really having a hard time letting go of the idea that I want to be Prof. B–but at what cost? How many arguments with students about whether it’s possible to be a Christian and a feminist am I willing to put up with for the sake of that possible student or two who really needs to hear that? Part of me wants to say that I might as well engage, be honest, and be myself, because after all, what have I got to lose? And part of me wants to put my head down and just wait it out, because being the odd woman out is exhausting.

At the end of the day, I still can’t quite stand the idea of not being a fabulous professor. But how much does that really matter? I don’t love it like I thought I would, and I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing all the things that would make me happy in life on the altar of fabulous professoring. On the flip side, I don’t want to use career-changing as a excuse to slack off. And regardless of the level of effort involved, how does one remain mentally engaged in a job one plans to leave?

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4 responses to “Striving for Excellence in a Finite Job?

  1. This is a really good question and one I found myself negotiating this past academic year. Oddly, I found my slight detachment from my teaching to be a good thing. I’m not saying that I didn’t spend a lot of time lesson planning, or meeting with students, or grading…but I just felt a little less pressure to do things “perfectly” all the time. It was sad too, thinking of teaching as a “job” and less of a “calling.” Yet, ultimately, I think the freedom to “underperform” loosened me up–made me more spontaneous, more energetic in the classroom, and more inclined to savor the time with my students (instead of worrying how things didn’t go according to my script/worrying I wasn’t making enough of a life-changing _Dead Poets Society_-style impact on them [and vice versa]). I have also noticed that this semester I’ve had waaaay more students approach me with kind words about the class and queries about what I would be teaching next year. The irony, of course, is nothing, but it was still lovely to hear their interest.

    As for how to disengage from scholarship while convincing people you’re actively working on things…this isn’t something I’ve had to do. I pretty much went cold turkey this academic year, took flack, and didn’t care. Good luck sorting that one out 🙂

    • I like the logic of that: the freedom to underperform makes it better. Probably not a bad way of looking at things even when not planning to leave. I think in my case, too, that the freedom to be myself and to be more honest about where I disagree with many of the other people on campus would be good not only for my peace of mind, but also for my teaching.

      As for research, I probably need to make an absolute decision about whether this year is my last, or whether I might be able to make it two more (there are some financial advantages to doing two more years–nothing deal-breaky, but if I could do it without being miserable, there would be some perks there, for sure). If I decide that next year is really it, no matter what, then I think your strategy–go cold turkey, and who cares what anyone says–is the way to go. Otherwise, though, I’ve probably got to at least send off an article or two next year to keep up appearances.

  2. Caitlin

    I’m with Currer. Don’t revamp extensively, and I predict you’ll improve more than if you did. The last semester of teaching (when I knew I was leaving) was my best, largely because it somehow freed me up mentally to meet my students where they were, rather than where I thought they should be (in terms of their politics as well as their academic preparation!). And consequently, I feel I shifted their worldviews more than during those other semesters when I was trying so dang hard!
    Along those same lines, it might be an interesting thought experiment to take those student evals seriously. What would it be like to let your students talk about Jesus all the time? I can see two pluses, from your P.O.V. First, discussions can be great when the class is constantly triangulating back to a basic text from each week’s readings. Secondly, I don’t know what gospels your students are reading, but I find it hard to construe a Jesus who isn’t a lefty… maybe you’d make some progress this way!

    • My experience thus far is that as soon as these students get a whiff of Christianity in a text, they want to read it devotionally, and when it’s not there (and they’re oddly obsessed with whether authors were professed Christians), they tend to be rather judgmental. As a result, I’ve tended to try to turn their attention elsewhere, promoting the idea that you can think about all kinds of ideas at a Christian college, including stuff that’s completely irrelevant to religion. But hitting it head-on might be worth thinking about. It would certainly take me out of my own comfort zone a lot (while possibly leaving the students more solidly in theirs), but that doesn’t make it worth dismissing, necessarily.

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