Thinking about teaching

I submitted a job application yesterday for a job that wouldn’t actually start until next summer. Turns out certain careers at certain competitive firms have application schedules not unlike the academic job market. I only decided to apply last Wednesday, and from then until Sunday afternoon I devoted most of my time to writing a resume, cover letter, and an essay (!). In writing the cover letter, I wanted to include a couple of choice quotes from former students, so I dredged up my teaching evaluations. I don’t like looking at them, because it’s 1) hard to read criticism of yourself presented in a format as bald as a number on a 4-point scale, and 2) it leaves too many gaps from students who didn’t respond at all, or didn’t comment, or didn’t give any explanation for the ratings they gave.

The comments I did get over the course of my teaching career were about a 60/40 positive/negative split. The positive comments are, of course, very nice. But I don’t know how to reconcile them with the stark criticism of my personality. Most of it was confined to the semester in which I was a TA, rather than an instructor in my own right, and this makes sense. I didn’t really like being reliant on a professor for my lesson plans, since I’d already taught two of my own courses, and to make it worse the instructor gave us hardly any indication of what she wanted us to do during class time. I wanted to do a good job and really help students learn the material, but I had no method for doing that, and the message I took from that was that the work of a TA was superfluous, dispensable.

So I am absolutely willing to accept that I didn’t do as good of a job as I would have liked to, or as my students expected. And now, almost two years later, it is somewhat easier for me to read the critiques more objectively and not immediately come up with half a dozen defensive excuses. So when a couple of students write that I could be “cold,” and another one offers “condescending,” I admit that, while it was certainly not my intention, I very well may have come across that way. I found it hard to be a young female TA. As I see it, the issues of authority that are present for all young instructors are doubled when you are “only” a TA, and doubled again when you are not male. I was perhaps overly conscious of the fact that I was only 0-6 years older than my students, and in my zeal to convince them (and myself!) that I knew what I was doing, I probably swerved too far toward distant and unapproachable. Looking back now, I see that with a bit more confidence in myself I probably could have done a better and more consistent job of conveying my authority in friendlier, more subtle ways.

This really struck me recently as I was playing in a local university orchestra. Since it’s the summer, the regular conductor was away. So in addition to a superstar guest conductor, we also had a music PhD student as assistant conductor. Despite the nerves and awkwardness that any inexperienced (and, too often, experienced) conductor displays on the podium, she clearly had a significant background in conducting theory and practice and conveyed a solid sense of musicality. But when I tried to chat with her at my audition, or while setting up for rehearsal, she came across as unnecessarily stiff and formal. As I thought about this over the weeks we rehearsed, I saw myself in her. I realized that she already had the authority that she was trying, in all the wrong ways, to maintain. But I don’t think anything but time could have brought me to this realization. Even taping myself teaching and critiquing it with a peer mentor didn’t, at the time, reveal anything unexpected.

That aside, it’s occurred to me that there is something very gendered about the word “cold.” I don’t know that a male instructor would be described in the same way. I suppose anyone can be “condescending,” but “cold” is for when you’d expected someone to be warm. Cuddly. Nurturing. I don’t think that is an expectation placed on male teachers. It’s a bonus when they are warm, but it’s not a strike against them if they are not. I’m thinking this falls in with many other strongly-gendered linguistic differences: men are assertive; women are pushy. Admirable aggressiveness in a man is inappropriate bitchiness in a woman.

At the moment, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about teaching a class right now. But a part of me wants to go back someday and try again, to prove to myself that I do have what it takes to communicate, inspire, and lead as effectively as possible.


Sharing my testimony

I grew up in an evangelical Christian family. To say that religion was the center of our lives doesn’t quite capture how all-consuming it was. I was educated almost exclusively at private Christian schools. We went to church or church-related activities at least twice a week and we were all very deeply involved in some aspect or another of volunteering at church. Our brand of Christianity wasn’t what I would call fundamentalist, but we were a nondenominational, conservative, born-again, Bible-believing, suburban congregation that, in 20 years, grew from six families into a mega-church. The husband was the head of the household, and women were not permitted to have authority over men. Tremendous amounts of energy were expended to convince preteens and teenagers of the threat posed by premarital sex and related, “gateway” activities like making out. “Tolerance” was a bad word. Abortion and homosexuality, in that order, were the two biggest sins spawned by the spread of secular humanism in our Christian nation. True Christians were now facing ever-increasing levels of persecution from our own government, which might or might not be a sign of the beginning of the End Times.

Even though my faith was supposed to be motivated solely by my love for Jesus, what really drove me was my fear of dying and going to hell, or else finding that the rapture had happened and I’d been left behind. These are strong motivators for anyone, but maybe especially for little kids. So when I made the decision to be baptized at age 8, of course I loved Jesus, but I was also extremely relieved to know that if I died now, I wouldn’t be separated forever from Jesus and my family, left all alone in the eternally excruciating tortures of hell.

My departure from this way of life started creeping in when I was about 16. I began wondering whether I was really a Christian, and how I could know for sure that if I died I wouldn’t go to hell. This question ate away at me, since doubt was seriously NOT OK. Doubt was incompatible with belief, and belief was essential for salvation. Questioning something as fundamental as the validity of your salvation meant you were not a true Christian, which meant you were an instant Other and a disappointment to your parents and your whole community. On top of that, you were going to hell. I desperately wanted to be sure of my salvation, and I knew that if I weren’t I had only myself to blame. I begged God to help my faith and make me a true believer and give me assurance that I was going to go to heaven. I eventually opened up to a couple of friends, and talking to them did help, but it wasn’t a solution. Either I had to find the assurance I needed, or reject the faith entirely. And even though the former option wasn’t working, getting to the point where I was both willing and able to extricate myself was a miserable, years-long process. It wasn’t until my junior and senior years of college–a conservative evangelical Christian college, incidentally–that I could start facing up to it and begin to reorient my life. It all had to be done in secret, though–I felt an inexplicable sense of shame about my background when I was with non-Christian friends, and I was equally ashamed of my new, evolving identity in front of my Christian friends. I was also terrified that I would lose my scholarship and/or be kicked out of school just shy of graduation.

So it wasn’t until a few years ago, safely away from the Christian culture that had always surrounded and smothered me, that I could really start to accept all the ramifications of my transition. I’m still not all the way there, and I think I will always carry my past with me in a big way. I never bring it up with friends; I actually don’t think any of them have any idea. It’s not something I can discuss lightly, at least not with people who haven’t experienced it for themselves. My parents are still fervent believers and we have never actually discussed my lack of faith. We’ve never been very close, but I still care very deeply what they think of me. And to believe that your own child is going to die and go to hell can’t be an easy thing to accept. I think they were happy to live with a generous amount of denial, but that became more difficult when I made the decision a year and a half ago to move in with my significant other. That has been my most open act of religious rejection to date, a nonverbal coming out of the closet and identifying as an unbeliever. We haven’t really talked about that either; after my mom wrote an email to try and dissuade me from living in sin, the topic never came up again, and it seems like they’ve slipped back into their comfortable pattern of denying reality.

This past year, with the help of an excellent therapist, I’ve been making some connections between my background and my current situation as a future post-academic. Though she’s not the only one to have made this connection, Sierra’s recent post likening grad school to a cult is tragically funny. It follows, then, that leaving grad school or academia is like leaving a religious cult[ure]. Of course, for someone who has actually experienced leaving a religion, grad school isn’t nearly as psychologically damaging, objectively speaking. Yet the similarities between the two cultures may mean that that person  is more susceptible, or sensitive, to the dangers. So I’ve started wondering whether my background is hurting me more than it’s helping me. Maybe I don’t have to be so scared to “come out” to my adviser as someone who’s not going to go on the academic job market. Maybe I’m just projecting my past negative experiences on a situation that’s really very different. Maybe I need to step back and realize that this isn’t the life-or-death experience that, at the time, leaving my religion was, and maybe I would be happier and freer now if I weren’t so scared of rejection.

What I didn’t know could fill a blog

When I started grad school five years ago, just back from a year of teaching English in Europe, I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t even visited my university before accepting the offer. I’d never been to the city where it’s located. I chose it because it’s in a major metropolitan area and  has an excellent reputation. And it offered me more money than any of the other schools that accepted me. I didn’t know anything about my department except what was on the website. I had no idea what I wanted to research, or even that I had to pick something more specific than my field of study. All I knew to expect were classes and, eventually, a dissertation. I had talked to the grad chair on the phone a couple of times, but since I didn’t know anything about what I was or wasn’t supposed to discuss, the conversations were pretty short.

My school automatically gave us five-year funding packages, but the summer before I started I found out that no one in my department actually finishes that fast. Six years was the absolute minimum, and taking seven or eight was perfectly respectable. We could just make up the difference with outside funding, or, as a last resort, teaching. This was billed as a strength of the department: outside funding looks great on a CV, so it’s actually for your own good that the department’s [unusually onerous] requirements all but guarantee your need for funding beyond the fifth year. I was told that everyone figures something out and I shouldn’t worry about it. So I didn’t.

Sometime early in my first semester I picked up on the fact that the reason I was there was to become a professor. And just in case any other career track started to appeal to me, I was warned never to tell any faculty member, since they would be less likely to help me finish my degree. At the time I wrote my application essays, I’d thought that I wanted to be the director of a study-abroad program, living in a charming European city and guiding college students in their life-changing intercultural experiences. (Lucky for me that I’d come up with that idea, since it accidentally satisfied the admissions committee.) But another year abroad had cured me of any desire to become a permanent expat, so I was back to not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. Now I found out that I had unwittingly already selected my career path. So I went along with it, thinking that it didn’t sound like such a bad gig, and this was what I was supposed to be doing anyway, so I might as well take the path of least resistance.

Fast-forward two years to one day when I’m sitting in class, learning the grammatical intricacies of one of the dead languages essential to my research. It suddenly occurred to me that I would never achieve enough fluency in it to be able to teach its cases and tenses to my own grad students. Not because I wouldn’t be capable of it, but because I wasn’t willing to devote that much time to it. In the days and weeks that followed, I was gradually able to admit to myself, with an unexpected sense of relief, that I am not cut out to be a professor. The things I like about academia aren’t nearly enough to outweigh the things I don’t like.

So now I’m back in a place similar to where  I was when I started grad school: I have no idea what to expect next. But I have grown up a lot, and learned some things along the way, and I hope to be able to share them here and maybe enter into a conversation with others asking the same questions and finding their own answers.

Quick introduction

I’ve been avidly following the international community (and I use the word conscientiously) of post-academic bloggers for the past few months and am finally jumping in to join the conversation. I’m a PhD candidate in the humanities, enrolled at an East Coast university (in the US) but living on the West Coast while I write my dissertation. (More on that to follow.) I’ve decided that this will be my last year in academia, since I’m 1) not cut out for the life of a professor and 2) unlikely to ever have the opportunity anyway. I hope that my reflections, critiques, questions, and maybe even complaints will be useful to those in a similar place. My goal is to post once per week. But this one has to be short because I’ve spent too long tweaking the details of this site and need to get back to work now. Back soon!