Because whoever has put together Office Hours are Over and My Life as a College Professor have basically provided a public service for the rest of us. To wit, a post with the heading, “Department Meetings”:

tumblr_inline_mm1tlvt0td1qz4rgpOr, When It Is the Last Day of Classes:

tumblr_inline_mjr9lfla0p1qz4rgp_zps8bc5baf8I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so understood.

Grad school nostalgia

2 December 2012

When I was searching for a job, one of my harried advisors said, “I don’t know why you want a job. Grad school is great. And jobs are so much work. You have no idea.”

I fumed. Well, it sure would be nice to have health insurance that isn’t oriented purely to health catastrophes, and a car that isn’t on the brink of collapse, and more than $64.25 in my bank account.

Yet here I am, ten years later, thinking, “I don’t know why you grad students want jobs. Grad school is great.”

I will never, ever say that aloud to anyone, for I remember too well the financial precariousness of grad school. But shit. You have no idea.

End-of-semester blues

14 December 2010

Early in the film A Room With a View (1985), Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) sits in the parlor of her Florence pensione playing a sonata on the piano, to the delight of Rev. Beebe, an old family friend.  “Mother doesn’t like me playing Beethoven,” she explains to him when she finishes it, an inexplicable look on her face.  “She says I’m always peevish afterwards.”  I love that line; and I’m reminded of it every single time I finish a great movie or a great book because it so aptly captures that sense of dissatisfaction once you’re finished with a piece of art so magnificent and moving.  I finished Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog last night, for example, and have felt peevish ever since.  But if peevish captures that feeling so neatly, how to describe this feeling us teachers experience at the end of every semester, these end-of-semester blues that hit us every time?

My neighbor, a grammar-school teacher, calls it post-traumatic stress syndrome.  It’s hard to capture in words, but surely it’s a close relation of depression.  I’ve found myself irritable, weepy, paralyzed with ennui, and/or outright pissed off, even during those semesters when I haven’t done an onerous amount of grading or had to wrangle a difficult student.  There’s a profound sense of failure no matter how well one’s classes went.  During semesters when I knew I had to spend the winter break finishing a piece of writing, I often found it impossible to do anything besides lie on the sofa for a week feeling like a professional failure as well as a lousy teacher.  I think perhaps it comes at least in part from the enormous emotional outlay required by these long semesters — giving advice and one’s time generously to students — all of which becomes perverted by the end, as we pour over grade sheets and try to determine whether Johnny deserves a B or can be bumped up to a B+, while Katie failed so miserably on the final that we can’t possibly give her the same gift.  We spend so much time thinking about students’ needs and merits that by the end we have nothing left to give ourselves.

I’ve turned in all my grades … and now I dread the inevitable email from students complaining about them.  Bereft of Muriel Barbery, I scan the shelves looking for something to replace her as bedtime reading.  I disgruntledly rearranged my Netflix queue tonight and complained about the fact that none of the celebrated Oscar-worthy movies are in the theaters yet.

So here’s a thought:  find the email address of a teacher you remember and send her/him a note.  Explain that it may have been a while, but that class meant something to you and you’ve always remembered it.  Tell the teacher what you’re doing now.  And end your note by saying, “I know you’re busy and might not have a chance to respond, but I wanted you to know that you had a big effect on my life and thinking, and I still remember it.”

The email

11 May 2010

“Dear Professor Feminéma, Thank you so much for all your help this year, especially with my special needs for my learning disability issues. I was going to nominate you for the Teaching Award offered through the Office for Disability Services, but because of my problems with meds this semester, I missed the deadline.”

“Dear Professor Feminéma, I don’t understand the question on our take-home final exam. What does ‘insidious’ mean?”

“Dear Professor Feminéma, when is the last possible time I can turn in the paper that was due on March 31?”

In the old days, professors had wives.  Wives edited and typed manuscripts, kept households running smoothly, conducted research or fact-checked for their husbands, directed the kids away from the study, sometimes served as unacknowledged co-authors on books, and served canapés and cocktails.

What could be a better measure of changed times than when one such wife, Dorothy Jane Mills, advanced an objection to being ignored for her considerable work on the definitive history of baseball written with her late husband, Harold Seymour.  She had described her life with Seymour at length in her 2004 autobiography, A Woman’s Work, but had to explain again this year “how she had, in fact, co-written those books but received no credit,” as the New York Times reported in March:

Asked why she did not object at the time, she paused and broke into tears.

“It was too easy not to,” she said. “I was just playing my role. I was just doing everything I had done before and continuing with it. I was comfortable with that role.”

Few men have the luxury of such a wife of old anymore, yet we in the university are still rethinking the nature of academic labor and productivity.  Feminism has taught young Dorothy Jane Millses not to be content with playing those old roles, helps us imagine valuable researchers and professors being women as well as men, and changes what we consider to be important topics for research.  But if universities are slowly becoming more inclusive, it’s harder to balance scholarly productivity and also take on basic household labor.  If books of old were sometimes produced by something like 1½ people, now they’re written by individuals working 70-hr weeks who don’t have time to get the oil changed on their cars.  At the same time, universities’ publication expectations are way, way up.

Simply having women professors, gay profs, and professors of color matters — it helps alter students’ perceptions of the world around them.  Numerous studies show that students often arrive at university with a set of received ideas about the world — and unconsidered sexism and racism are top among them.  Having to read books by experts who aren’t just straight white guys helps, too.  They don’t have to be the best teachers, nor do they have to be talking about issues relevant to their race/gender identity.  Their bodies alone familiarize young people with a wider world than, say, the race/gender visual of the U.S. Presidents.

I want my students to learn from their college experience to ask, why are there only 2 (white) female columnists for the New York Times, and why are there only 2 black men, while the remaining 7 are white guys?  Why don’t I see a single major black, Asian, or Latina woman anchor on TV news?  Why isn’t Sarah Haskins a major cultural force along the lines of Jon Stewart?  And I want those questions to emerge from a daily college experience of diversity amongst their classmates as well as professors.

We aren’t just teaching straight white guys in our classes.  Having professors who look like them makes a difference to the vast majority of students who are women and people of color — an even larger majority now that women make up about 57% of undergraduates on U. S. college campuses.  Those of us who’ve counseled students in need of pregnancy advice, whose parents were just deported, or whose relatives still believe higher education is a waste for girls can attest that these problems arise all the time, and that these students don’t seem to turn first for advice from their 60-yr-old white male profs.

In addition, let’s remember that university administrations are slowest of all to change; change there requires mind-numbingly slow turnover.  They still deny tenure to individuals because, say, they’re not convinced of the value of a queer view of women’s fiction or that a woman might be smart enough to be a full professor in mathematics.  Those same views are held by some of our male colleagues who still seem to embrace the gendered order of laundry detergent commercials.

But as much as gender and racial diversity matters, feminism matters too.  Feminism offers ways to articulate opposition to bad administrative or promotion decisions — moments when we can model for our undergrads and grad students a clearheaded feminist voice.  The resistance to change, together with some men’s discomfort with women peers, means that we have to fight for basic gender equity as much today as twenty years ago (as witnessed by continually demoralizing reports on gender in academia that emerge every year).  I know we’re tired from all the labor we undertake, but to be silent on these matters is to be indistinguishable from the nice little wife.  Colleges are a good place to stop internalizing that stereotype of the ugly and dour feminist, for if sexism still pops up in the university, students can be damn sure they’ll see it in the workplace in a couple of years.

“This class is really different than I’d expected,” he’s saying to me during office hours.  He’s adjusting his baseball hat.

Great, I think.  Here we go.  He took a class on Sex and Gender in Contemporary Latin America and it’s, what, got too many women, gays, and Latinos in it?  Was it my joke about frat guys?  Was it that long conversation about “Y tu mamá también” last week?   “Is it the subject matter or the requirements?” I ask.

“Yeah, the subject matter.  I didn’t know it was going to be a class so much associated with Women’s Studies.”  He’s weighing the pros and cons of letting this matter drop, but he’s telling me this for a reason.

What is my responsibility here?  My policy has always been to hear them out, show myself to be an approachable professor — the approachability doesn’t seem to jibe with some students’ notions of an openly feminist professor, thereby getting under their skin.  But I find myself getting angry at the idea that a white male student feels no compunction in complaining that a Women’s Studies-related course makes him feel uncomfortable.  It should make you feel uncomfortable.  My job here is done, I imagine telling him.  Why don’t I tell him that?

“The thing about Women’s Studies classes is, well, it’s like that Courtney in our class,” he says, making one more stab at it.  “I mean, she seems like a nice girl, but she’s just all about women’s issues.”

He drops it at this point and focuses on making a play for a good grade, and even ponies up a little offering of “I really like your lectures.”  He’s not going to be a jerkoff, and neither am I — we’re locked in the dance of niceness.  When he leaves, I sit back, feel disappointed with myself on a variety of levels, and wonder what my responsibilities are.

I can talk a good talk about feminist pedagogy, but it’s a hard thing to make work in a classroom of 60 people.  So I mix some democratic conversation and self-directed learning with simply showing myself to be a feminist — modeling for them how I think through a knotty problem.  If I’m talking about films that simply highlight male prerogative, I talk through various kinds of responses and try to reason out a range of feminist responses to it.  It’s fun and hard and what I dreamt about doing as a grad student.  I see myself as speaking to them, against them, faster than they are, anticipating some of their ideas and offering more of them.  I am, frankly, surprised to find how much I like lecturing.

But in truth I don’t know what’s happening in that room.  Look at that photo of a typical lecture hall — they’re heavily institutionalized, dreary spaces, soporific.  I’ve got one of everyone in that room, from this frat boy to the 40-year-old bipolar lesbian who’s told me her life story about growing up Mormon.  Some of them just feel uncomfortable with all the women, gays, and Latinos on the syllabus.

So I never gave my student validation for his passive-aggressive comment, but I also didn’t challenge it, and I’m disappointed with myself — and it’s a disappointment that mixes with all the other senses of failure in teaching.  But last night I had a series of dreams in which, alternately:

  1. he told me he’d come out of the closet because of my class
  2. he was arrested for rape
  3. he started coming to office hours all the time to chat
  4. he openly challenged me in lecture

So there’s that.  My dream life has worked out a series of scenarios for him that only continue to wrestle with my disappointments and responsibilities.