One of the perks about being a professor is feeling as though you’re starting a new job every year. (Sorry, another blog about work! September is less than a month away and I need to get excited about teaching … again.) I get butterflies each time. I walk into class just before or after Labor Day, thinking: what will this year’s group be like? Will they be dynamic? Belligerent? Apathetic? What new challenges await me? Etc. etc. There are some things that are recurrent, of course. Students who feel herculean at the beginning of term is just one heartwarming example. Remember what it was like: new utilities, new books, and new environment. What is positively endearing are those students who approach me the first week of class biting off way more than they can chew. “Sir” (yes, the dreaded address! I don’t mind it much, to be honest); “Sir, kindly recommend some other readings. I find your list quite limited and I want to get a head start on things!” Similar requests, if you can believe it, even reach me during the summer months via email. I have to chuckle as I imagine how these eager requests turn into desperate pleas by midterm. “Sir, please … please! I need an extension!” I won’t discuss how bad things sometimes get by the end of term. Item 1: Impress Prof. Fail! Too cute!
As I was saying, I feel as if my job is new every academic year. But don’t let your imaginations run away with you. It’s not all a charming air of vigor and vitality. A ritual of mine, to give you a picture, is to cue Guns N’ Roses on my smartphone on the first day of class as I walk past my university’s gates: “Welcome to the jungle / It gets worse here everyday / Ya learn ta live like an animal / In the jungle where we play”. Ok, slight exaggeration, but you get my meaning. It can be a zoo. Especially “invigorating” is the persistent stream of advising appointments that necessarily bombard me, along with other—yes, yes! … necessary—suffocating administrative duties. University is a business after all. Most of my friends, envious of my summer “holiday”, feel I’m getting my just desserts, but let’s take the high road and forgive their ignorance. The cacophony of overlapping concerns, professors’, administrators’, and students’ alike (despite the looming stupor of frosh), is quite overwhelming. Item 2: Gain reader’s sympathy. Fail. Doh!
No, but seriously, it’s new each time. I walk past them every day, to the podium or instructor’s chair, some notes in hand. They, the notes, are incomplete, not to mention paltry. They express a past experience, if one is so lucky to have taught the course before. And yet the vivacity that the notes hope to embody was improvised even then in their extemporaneous delivery. And how! Let’s not forget the group dynamic, the audience addressed. It’s as elusive as my experience and for that reason unpredictable. I’m sensing glimmers of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle! If there’s to be any chance of “success” in this context, it is necessary to be as alert as the spotted hyena whose kill entices the scavenging lion.
And yet, and yet I say, I wouldn’t pass up the experience for the world. I take it so seriously that I have to tell my students to prepare to have their lives changed. Intense, I know. It’s my way of telling them: I’ll keep up my end of the bargain, if you keep up yours. They doubtless find it a little over the top but, as I also tell them: I don’t want to be wasting my time anymore than they want to be wasting theirs. We embark on a journey together to learn not only about things “out there”, a history of others, their ideas and lives, but more importantly about ourselves. We observe, yes, but not from a precipice of superiority. We are the history we observe and life is too short, too precious, to realize our agency at the end of it. Learn now that you’re implicated in the things you learn and your existence will be the richer for it. I leave a changed man at the end of courses (I tell them that too!), including those I’ve taught for years. I recognize that as an achievement, which has kept me interested and non-suicidal. I sincerely hope the same for them. Item #3: Enjoying the perks. To be continued.