Fall Break

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Late this summer, just as the time rolled around to stat ordering books for fall classes, I decided to give up my classes and take a 28-month administration job. I loved teaching, but I was tired. In fact, I was flat-out exhausted. I have never taught so much, and had so little to show for it. I had good will, sure, and a phone ringing off the hook with requests. Can you cover a comp class? Can you teach business writing? Legal writing? Sex in America? What about literature and film?

I like to tell people I can teach anything, and it’s true. I really can. I can teach ANYTHING. But I was exhausted from teaching. This past year I taught 12 courses at two different schools in three different departments on the quarter-system, in semesters, and in 6 or 8 week summer sessions, and I was just. Tired. Out. I know lots of contingent faculty teach much more than this at many more schools at any given time, so I understand that 12 classes is not at all remarkable. All my teaching was done within 10 miles of home–also fortunate. I was paid $4500 for each course–again, good money for a Humanities adjunct, since I’ve taught semester-long courses that only paid $1800 before.

Still, it was a scramble, and I was over it. I always felt like something was left undone. I always felt guilty about taking too long to grade papers. I often felt bad when students asked what else I was teaching, and I couldn’t give them much more to take. Bad for me. Bad for them. Disgusted that with a Ph.D., a law degree, and a huge love of teaching and course design, I couldn’t even get a full-time non-tenure track job somewhere. And I was ready for a job. I’m not young. I’ve been teaching since 1984. 1984, people. That is not a typo. Also, my, ahem, job instability means I have no retirement, and I feel I need some, even if–as a lot of people are now saying–nobody really gets to retire anymore.

So I quit my classes. I found other teachers for them. I didn’t order books. I took a job. A friend offered my a short-term job, and I took it.

Now I have a desk. I have an office. I see two other people most days. I drive a long way to work. I drive  a long way home. I make more money.

But I miss teaching.

You don’t miss teaching, my spouse says to me from under the pile of freshman papers in our kitchen. You miss your independence and flexibility. The papers rustle. I can just make out her voice.

She is right. A huge benefit of adjuncting is feeling like an independent contractor. I love that feeling. It perfectly fits with my hatred and mistrust of authority. Independent contractors are given nothing, so they owe nothing. Nobody owns them. What they give they give out of the goodness of their hearts. And we do give, don’t we? And we feel so sanctified by our suffering. And we like our freedom. And we get to be rebels. Holy rebels.

But I do miss teaching for itself. Teaching is the one job I have ever had that feels like unalienated labor to me. It is an natural extension of my nurturing slightly bossy oldest child bookworm self. I have done it so long, it is a part of me. It is an expression of my beliefs, my politics, my aesthetics. Sometimes I catch myself coming up with course ideas, and I realize that despite the lack of recognition, patents, royalties, job security, and legacy that is the part-timer’s lot, teaching is deeply creative, often political, and surprisingly engaging, even in its most basic or repetitive forms. My NTT spouse bemoans the limited range of courses she is allowed to teach, but still comes home some nights with a sparkle in her eye from the great class discussion she has just had for a hour or more–discussions about immigration, social justice, higher purpose, education. On any given night, cooking dinner is for me usually punctuated by her stories of particularly successful moments of her day, most of which have to do with teaching her classes.

We all need a challenge, and sometimes the scariest challenges are the ones that make us proudest. Teaching is always a challenge. It can be a really, really scary challenge. It can mean facing down a room full of people who initially fear you, or contemptuously dismiss you, or resent having to take a class with you. It can mean finding the faces that are interested and excited. It can mean setting afire the uncertain and bored ones. It often means gaining respect, accompanied, hopefully, by the sense of doing something useful, something for the greater good, something that might help people with their lives. It can mean facing down your own sense of unworthiness, or irrelevance. In a world that treats its teachers so badly, being a good teacher can be a huge triumph, making one feel useful, valuable, helpful, inspirational. Like housework, teaching starts over and over at its very beginning, in a messy room. Like art, teaching culminates in something beautiful and shared that sets everyone’s minds whirling.

I listen to her teaching stories, and I try not to be wistful. My brain isn’t wrung out. I don’t feel exploited–in fact, I feel pretty valued right now. I don’t have grading to do tonight. I don’t even have to answer emails if I don’t want to.

I guess I don’t miss those things at all. But I do miss teaching. And when this job ends, if it doesn’t get extended, I hope there will be some progress in unionizing adjuncts, and I hope there might be some fun classes I can teach (there are always the other kind), and I hope I get to try again, if only for a few years, to have those moments where I ride home on the train burning with triumph because the discussion I was worried about in the class I created at the school I wasn’t sure I fit into went really, really, really well.

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