Monday, September 1, 2008

Parking Tickets & All That Jazz: The First Week of Classes

"I cannot but wish I were better qualified." --John Adams to Abigail Adams after hearing that he was elected President

Teaching is like jazz: if you can't improvise, you're in the wrong line of work. I've just completed my first week of classes of my 7th semester of teaching (if you include my TA work). And no matter how much I prepare, no matter how much experience I have, classes always have a way of ambushing and tying me down with dozens of unaccounted for logistical issues.

For example, on the first day of classes I arrived on campus and cannot find a parking spot. I drove around for an hour trying to find somewhere to put my car while I discussed 6 pages of syllabi to students old enough to be able to read it for themselves. Since this was my first semester since being hired as an adjunct that I did not have an 8:00 class, I'd forgotten how hectic campus became early in the semester during mid-morning.

Impatient and a little nervous about being late, I made my own parking spot behind the Industrial Studies building. I knew I'd get a ticket b/c I saw a car parked earlier that morning in the same spot with a ticket in its windshield. So while I lifting the handle on the parking brake, I mentally subtracted $10 from my checking account...

...Between the 6 classes at my 2 colleges, this group of students promises to be my best so far. Of course, college is like NFL football: everyone's good up until week 3. So we'll see if this lasts, but based on my previous experiences, my students seem much more receptive and motivated as a whole than in previous years.

That said, Eng 1020, research and argumentative writing, still provides a tincture of confusion for me. I can never find a way to comfortably approach that class. I always stumble through it like a parent trying to walk through a toy-cluttered living room in the middle of the night. This past spring semester was better, but even then, the first 2 essays I had them write on (advertisements & film) seemed more like 1010 work. So I'm borrowing assignments from my friend Bob who seems to specialize in 1020 classes. Hopefully, by copying him, I can find a way to file away some of the rough spots.

Yet by borrowing from him, I'm running into a few slight inconveniences that I didn't really anticipate. How do I tailor his writing assignment to my day-to-day assignments? And how many trees must I personally kill in order to print and run off the essays he has his students read and write about? Though I have other classes and other small problems, my two 1020 courses at my community college are what make me occasionally question my competence as a professor. But I think as long as I stay flexible--like a saxophonist changing his riff to suit the mood of the crowd--I should be okay.

...So after my last class on Monday, I walked out to my car and the first thing I did was think about what I could do with an extra $10 in my bank account. No ticket was on the car. Perhaps this semester will be more fun than I thought.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Predicting the Future

“In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. The first is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along.”
--Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Last week, I finished constructing my syllabi for the fall semester. I put these things together for my writing classes knowing they’re going to change. Technically, the syllabus doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change; it’s the schedule that accompanies them that does. However, predicting what I’m going to do or how the class is going to unfold has yet to get easier. Sure, splattering dates & assignments on several sheets of paper gets easier, but spacing out due dates and anticipating the necessary mid-semester work remains tricky.

Even though an experienced teacher can reasonably anticipate the ability level of their students, writing classes run so fluidly that when you put together a syllabus, you really only assemble a semester outline. You’re not really dictating the daily course of the class. To some degree, this is true with any class, but I feel I can much more accurately chart a literature section.

When you put together a syllabus, you really are predicting the future, and in some ways you’re controlling it. I decide what papers students get to write, what assignments they get to read, and what tests they take. Though I feel neither Napoleonic nor prescient, I enjoy my roll as syllabus-maker. Putting them together allows me to get into school mode. The only real problem I have is that I know I’ll have to change them. Of course, a sense of freedom comes with knowing I can change them. Since the course material that makes up the class subject matter is not fixed, I don’t feel chained to a specific curriculum like I would if I taught high school. Even the developmental classes provide a surprising amount of freedom.

One of many good things about being a professor is that in a world that is so beyond our control, you do have a modicum of power over what you want to spend your semester thinking about, talking about, and reading about. With breakthroughs in every field of study, even the past is in flux. Knowing this provides a small measure of comfort when you sit down and think about how you can, in your small sliver of the universe, predict your future.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Why Am I Complaining Again?

“The heart knoweth his own bitterness; and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy.”
--Proverbs 14:10

So last week I got the call that I wouldn’t be teaching any summer classes. Not enough students signed up, making this the second summer in a row that this happened. Now, I’m not mad; I just now know that I have to get a real job. I’ve resigned myself to the fact. Ya know, summer work isn’t something they sell you on when they talk about being a teacher. In fact, no one really talks about it, but I don’t know too many of us who aren’t engaged in some form of it. Either you’re teaching summer classes, doing administrative work, or employed by someone else (I’m choosing to omit those lucky bastards who receive grants to travel, sleep in ‘til noon, and then produce scholarship that they could’ve written while working part-time at a local fast-food restaurant). Are there any teachers who spend their summers golfing? The word of the day is “bitterness.”

With that in mind, I’m looking forward to hiking up to a temp agency, and getting a job that involves putting together and packaging cell phones for $12.13/hour as well as taking orders from someone who skipped college and went to work right after high school. Amertume.

Honestly, I don’t mind doing something unrelated to teaching. I spent the past 2 semesters teaching a total of 12 classes as well as tutoring in a writing lab. The two semesters before that I spent my days teaching and my nights researching and writing my masters thesis. A break should do me good. Getting away from classes, students, and grading should make me happy for a while, but I don’t wanna be happy. I wanna be teaching. I especially would’ve liked to try out some new ideas for writing assignments without the frenetic pace created by 5 other classes.

Now, the good part about not being in teaching is that my range of experience will be broadened, which I’ll be able to bring to the classroom in the form of stories and examples. Also, a job in any field outside of education lends credibility in the students’ eyes. When I recount a story from when I used to work at a Dell factory or a DK Publishing warehouse, I’m no longer some pampered intellectual, but I’m one of them, a hardworking everyman who actually lived a life before getting sucked into the soul-numbing vortex of a career that involves never—ever—getting promoted out of school. Hmmm…Come to think of it, why I am complaining again?