Sunday, October 11, 2009

Let it be, home is me, and you are mine

I've been a bit obsessed with this song lately. It's called "Home is Me, You are Mine," and it's by Everly, a female singer/songwriter duo that you haven't heard of and should check out. It is tangentially related to this post both in content and because I'm listening to it on repeat as I type this and think you could maybe feel the way I'm feeling right now if you did too. I'm not sure if it's an original song or not, but it's about being in love and being confused by life's twists and turns and trusting that God has a plan in all of it by paying attention to the little signs He sends, like light on the water and the laughter of children. Surface-wise, I'm pretty sure it's about this woman's husband going off to war, but that part doesn't matter as much as the overall moral. Okay, so it sounds really cheesy when I type it out like that, but it's not, I promise. Or maybe it is. If it is, I don't care.

As you know (because the only people that read this are either close friends or my husband), we've recently moved to a new town and I've started teaching at a new school. I've been struggling with why I got into this program, why I got into only this program. I've had some difficult moments with my new students, and this program is just so different from what I'm used to. I was really having a hard time figuring out why God put me here right now. I should probably say "why He put us here," as my husband has his own struggles in this new place, but I don't want to speak for him, so I'll just talk about me.

Until as recently as two years ago, I thought that I wanted to do my own research for a living, that teaching was just a means to and end that I would have to suffer through until I wrote a book, became the next Kathryn Schwarz, got tenure, and proceeded to do whatever I wanted until I retired. I'm still really excited about my personal research interests (posts most likely forthcoming about this semester's projects), but I'm getting to a place where I think teaching should be my main career focus, and settling down at a smaller school seems like the way to go. I've had several realizations that led to this decision.

My job is more than just teaching English.
When I look back on my college experience and the meaningful people in it, I remember those who took an interest in me as an individual, who challenged me to broaden my views of both myself and those around me, and who believed with me that I had something important and valuable to say. That's what I believe I'm supposed to do for my own students. Sure, they need to know how to make subjects and verbs agree, how to properly cite a source. But more than that, they need to learn how to respectfully listen to a classmate whose views differ from their own, to integrate themselves into a classroom community, to gather evidence for their own views, and to have the confidence to change those views if it turns out that that evidence isn't what they thought it was. It's my job to help turn these freshmen into respectful, compassionate critical thinkers, and I feel like I could do better at that at a school where I'm more encouraged to take an interest in students as human beings. I'm not saying that I can't do that where I am. I try to every day. Indeed, I probably have the best chance of doing that, taking into account the enormous size of most other freshman classes at my current University. In fact, one student with whom I've been discussing his problems over the past few weeks told me that he thinks I'm the only teacher he has that knows his name before saying, "Thank you for caring about me." That's why I want to teach, not so I can get my picture on a dustjacket someday (though that would be nice, eventually). I feel like there would be more emphasis on the importance of these personal relationships at a smaller school.

Personal responsibility matters. A moral code matters.
Currently, I teach at 8 a.m. I like teaching early in the morning. I feel fresh and ready at that time, and when I'm done teaching, I still have the whole day ahead of me in which to be (theoretically, at least) productive. That said, I realize that teaching at this time is ocassionally going to require me to wake up a few students. I'm okay with that. Sometimes we even do jumping jacks! I understand them being sleepy sometimes. What I absolutely will not tolerate, though, is the complete disregard for personal responsibility. On any given day, half of my fourteen-member class is tardy. Half! That is absurd. I'm told that the freshman dorms are far away, that the campus buses are slow. I remember dealing with this in my undergrad days. It wasn't fun. But still, I got up earlier. I shoved my way (politely, most days) onto a crowded, smelly bus, and I got to my classes on time, nine days out of ten. If I was more than ten minutes late, I did not go, because that disrupts class and disrupting class is rude. Last week, I had two stuents show up thirty minutes into a seventy-five minute class. I informed them to just not come if this were to happen again, and one of them rolled his eyes at me. The week before, a male student showed up without his shirt. I quickly informed him that that was innappropriate for class, and received a disinterested sigh (the kind that clearly says "Oh, GOD, you're so out of touch!") as he left to retrive his erstwhile clothing. These things should not happen. They show a terrible lack of responsibility on the part of the student. More than that, they should not be tolerated. Schools should not close their eyes to these transgressions, minor as I know they are, because that leads to eye-closing at larger transgressions. I get at least two or three crime bulletins from campus police every week, and I can't help but think that that's because these kids have no one answer to, no one telling them that what they do matters, that what they do affects people other than themselves. I want to cement myself in an environment with an understood, far-reaching code of community, responsibility, and morality.

Literature is a wonderful, beautiful thing, and it has something to give to the world.
As much as I love teaching my students to analyze advertisements and pop songs and the things they absorb every day without realizing the effect those things have on their views and ideologies, I want to also teach them the fun of meeting an unreliable narrator, or the way a well-placed caesura makes your breathing jump the tiniest bit as you read aloud. My current program forbids me to assign more than thirty pages of reading a week, and our FYC program is based on personal narrative the first semester and visual rhetoric the second. I asked in my orientation where the literature was, and was told that teaching poetry and fiction at the freshman level was old school, has gone the way of the close reading or the examination of authorial intent. I understand wanting to teach material that the students will see as relevant to their lives, but if we don't challenge them to look aoutside of themselves for meaning as well, outside of their own cultures, aren't we just cementing a culture of lazy, self-centered students who think that previous generations have nothing to say? It's for this reason that I'm becoming more and more attracted to Humanities programs that draw on the classics of literature, philosophy, and history to help students make sense of their ever-evolving worlds.

Okay, this is getting quite long, and I fear I may explode and reconstitute as Harold Bloom very soon, so I'll stop here. Thoughts, friends?


  1. It's good to see you're coming on board with us career teachers (aka turning to the dark side), V.

    I think there's something rewarding about being part of a community like Emmanuel College that I just wouldn't have experienced had I gone Research-I, and I don't think I'd trade the goods of the big boys for it. (Besides that, at a small school, being supported as a low-teaching-load scholar by a host of slave-laboring TA's ain't on your conscience.) Especially as I get ready to teach a senior capstone course on integrating the Christian faith and educated adulthood next semester, I know that we're engaging questions that, while they might not show up in refereed journals, nonetheless might well echo in these kids' family lives, in their engagement with their congregations, and in other important places.

    Harold Bloom is still an idiot whether you're teaching Marlowe plays or Eminem lyrics. That doesn't change just because engaging Others is part of your agenda alongside articulating the familiar.

  2. That course sounds wonderful, Nathan. Let me know how it goes.

    Thanks for the vote of confidence.