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The Other Side of the Classroom

canstockphoto0817791I was inspired by Kay’s guest post to think about my own career path. After high school I had no idea what to do with my life. In a burst of rebellion against my dad, who wanted me to go to university, I went to Bible college (yes, an odd way of rebelling). After several months I was expelled (long story). My rebellion assuaged for the moment, I tried university. I was one of those kids who loved being a student but couldn’t settle on a major. For a while I was doing a double major in psychology and music. My fellow music students amazed me: they’d study and write essays for courses during the day and practice their instruments all night. I’d arrive on campus for an early-morning class and find people strewn in the hallway, asleep with their saxophones and flutes and double basses. I quit music when I realized I didn’t have that level of dedication. Ultimately I completed a BA in psychology but wasn’t sure what to do next. I always loved writing fiction but it seemed too risky as a career choice.
A sobering year of unemployment followed the completion of my psychology degree. It was the early 90’s in Calgary, the worst possible time to look for a job because of the recession. Molly Maid wouldn’t even accept my application. I was subjected to more than my share of jokes about jobs for humanities and social science majors:
Q: What do you say to someone with a BA in humanities/social science?
A: “Can I have fries with that?”
I returned to university, this time as an English major, not for practical reasons (the jokes would continue) but because the results of career counselling confirmed what my friends back in grade school told me: I should be an English professor. I’m quite sure my grade-school friends said this just to get me to stop correcting their grammar.
I knew from my first week of English classes that I belonged there. Reading great works of literature and writing about them was thrilling. It was also a pleasant surprise to find that my professors actually wanted my own analysis of the texts. When writing essays I didn’t have to merely regurgitate lecture material or report opinions from experts in the field.
Knowing I was in my element as an English major, I decided to go on to a Master’s degree, then a PhD. But when I started the PhD, I began to doubt my career path. The academic environment I’d entered was competitive and cutthroat. I was forced to jump through mystifyingly illogical hoops. I didn’t fit the mould of what appeared to be the successful doctoral student: an arrogant snob who constantly spouted jargon instead of sensible English and who backstabbed her peers.
My difficulties with teaching added to my concerns. Although I was only a teaching assistant during grad school and didn’t have responsibility for a whole class, I was already unsure that I could handle the job. Public speaking was terrifying, though I could forget my anxiety to some extent once my lecture was underway. But I’m an extreme introvert, and to go from being a quiet student who almost never spoke in class to the person doing most of the speaking was a shock.
Furthermore, the students baffled me. While some were attentive and hard-working, others didn’t read the texts and were disrespectful, even rude. Worst of all, I started on this career path because I loved great writing, but much of my time was being spent reading poorly-written student essays. As a student one doesn’t usually see the writing of other students. To see the whole spectrum of student writing as a TA was a sobering experience.
Another surprise when I started teaching was how difficult it was to teach my favourite books, especially books I had a deep emotional connection to. Sometimes it was just a matter of not wanting to deconstruct or analyse a beautiful work of art. And I was devastated when the students didn’t love the book as much as I did. I learned the hard way that it’s better for me not to teach Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
I’m an Elizabeth Hay fan, but I often wish I had never read this passage from her novel Alone in the Classroom:

I worked as a teacher, but I had never been a good teacher. There is a special confidence, a strength of character all good teachers have. They enter a classroom and you feel their power. They aren’t (at least in the classroom) divided against themselves. They love their material. And the best of them make their students almost forget themselves in favour of the subject at hand. But I wanted to be a writer, not a teacher.

I can relate only too well to these words. Being a student was wonderful, but it didn’t prepare me to be a professor. I think Hay is too idealistic about teachers, though. I know I’m not the only instructor who is “divided against” myself in the classroom.
When I’m frustrated with my students, it helps to remember what I was like at twenty, when I was trying out different majors. I did enjoy learning, but I cared more about my social life. I liked new courses primarily because they gave me opportunities to meet new friends and romantic partners. I was often burdened by family, relationship, and money problems, and some days I merely sat through my classes in a fog of misery. My professors were mostly invisible in the way middle-aged people are to twenty year-olds. Unless, of course, they gave me marks I felt were undeserved—then they were the enemy (though I was the type to silently hate them instead of confront them). Yes, I do remember enough of what it was like to be a student to be able to empathize with mine.
Despite my struggles with teaching, there are moments when I feel lucky to have my job, moments when students listen in a hushed, reverential silence because they are starting to fall in love with great literature just like I did at their age. Moments when a student stops me after class and says, “I’ve never heard anyone explain poetic metre so well. Thank you!” Moments when the whole class works together to create an interpretation of a text that none of us could have come up with on our own.
At this point in my life I’ve found a balance as a part-time instructor and part-time writer. It’s an uneasy balance because teaching takes all my time and energy if I let it, and some days I long to be a full-time writer. But at least I’m always reading, writing, or talking about books!

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