Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Road to a Teaching Job

I went to a high-powered graduate program in English, one that has made the news many times, particularly during my grad school years. And I knew what we were there for: to get high-powered research jobs, teaching as few courses as possible and producing as much writing as possible. And for quiet little me, back in 1987, that seemed ideal.

Then someone put me in front of a classroom.

My students find it very hard to believe that I was once the quiet student in the class. I tell them that so they know I empathize with their concerns about speaking in front of the class. But man oh man, being given the role as teacher changed me.

In a way, I didn't want to go back to research. We all always complained about how teaching took time away from our classes, but really, I didn't feel it did. Rather, I resented the time that classes took away from my teaching.

Most people thought I loved writing, would love a writing career, but the fact is that writing exhausts me. I fall asleep while writing (not blog entries, but academic writing :). It is hard work for me. But I love knowing things, and I love explaining things to people. I love being the one people come to with questions, and I love being able to answer them.

I struggled for years with the expectation that success for me was a high-powered research job. And it didn't help that I was surrounded by people who felt that way, too. In my Big City Administrative Job, I was told that my administrative background (I ran the tutoring program) and part-time teaching status ruled me out of any jobs in the English department.
They just didn't take me seriously, I was told. At the one-year position I took, hoping to get hired full-time, I was surrounded by others who assumed that I too wanted that magical job at a "serious" institution with prestige.

But then I learned something else about myself. My father used to tell me I needed to teach "better" students, but at Small Liberal Arts college, I learned that I can't stand teaching people like me! I prefer to teach students with weaker skills. Maybe that speaks to my need for power or something. Who knows.

I finally allowed myself to aim "lower." I rejected job postings from schools with better reputations and sought out the smaller colleges, the community colleges. And finally my current job came through, with a little help from some insider mojo. Recently, my chair told me that I was hired (even though she prefers to hire from within her part-time pool or from the area--I lived 3 hours away and had to move when I was hired) precisely because of my tutoring experience. And indeed, this experience has served me well as I have been spearheading a developmental writing initiative. I enjoy doing this kind of work. I like teaching writing skills to the weakest of students, feeling proud when they improve. I hate teaching English majors. I love that I can teach all the African American literature I want, and it means something because I'm teaching it to students in a general education course, not someone voluntarily taking an African American literature course. I'm preaching to the unconverted!

Why all this reflection? Our university is updating its web site and we've been asked for faculty bios. I looked at the list of places I had taught before my current job and had an attack of "How did I get here?" Well, however it happened, I am glad.

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