Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Academic Thoughts III: The Classroom

I was putting the finishing touches on the syllabus for my fall course today--an introduction class on digital media that starts in (blinks in a way that's meant to show catatonic terror) less than two weeks. And that process means I'm about as ready as I'll ever be to start the next post in my Academic Thoughts series. We've talked about the blog, we've talked about the conference, and now it's time to talk about teaching classes.

Now, the interesting thing about classes in terms of the CV is that it can help you get a job--but it's more likely to get you a non-tenure track position than a tenure-track one. The sad truth is that while prospective employers may look a little askance at a candidate who's never known the podium side of the classroom, extensive teaching experience is a nice frill in comparison to other factors: a track record of grants and scholarships, a web of connections, and, as I'll discuss in the next post, a history of being published in the right places. That all sounds very jaded, but honestly, the biggest factor is simply being in the right place at the right time: that you're looking for a job at the exact moment a professor is scheduled to retire and they're looking for a 17th century Bacon scholar. (Or something. My 17th century knowledge is vague.) So if you'd prefer, the process isn't so much a series of Machiavellian manipulations as it is the random strings of pure chance.

No, that doesn't make me feel better either.

Research grants, especially on the humanities side of things, aren't really growing very quickly, so the need for the tenure-tracked positions goes slow. But the number of students attending university is still on the rise, which means the demand for sessional lecturers is increasing, or at least increasing at a faster rate. Pushed to excess, this difference becomes a complete imbalance. The sessionals are overworked with little chance of ever transitioning into tenure-track, as they don't have time for original research. The tenure-track are become increasingly isolated and bureaucratically driven. And the students suffer as well, because of the extra barrier placed between them and the top level research they want to be a part of. (Assuming they want to be a part of it, of course, and are there for more than rubber-stamp certification. The commodification and commercialization of the college degree is a related, but different, issue.)

And it's a shame, because teaching can be a lot of fun.

I was talking to a professor recently, and he mentioned that he makes a point of teaching our first year course on basic academic writing at least once every couple of years. Now, this class is arguably one of the most thankless tasks you can be assigned in our department, teaching-wise. Most of the students are from other disciplines, and are just there for their aforementioned rubber-stamped English credit. Worse, the course is counted for the equivalent of an ESL language test, so you get a number of ESL students who are here because they failed the normal test. So basically, you have a room overflowing of uninterested, bored students who in some cases can barely grasp what you are talking about. But even considering all that, I could understand why the professor did it. Teaching a class, even that class, is like being the conductor for a mass orchestra. For that rare moment when everything's in sync, when you can tell that the room is genuinely interested in what's going on and in participating, there's a feeling of communal thought that goes beyond the mundane everyday into something transcendental.

Plus, it's a huge ego boost to speak in front of a captive audience twice a week.

It works better for courses that the instructor is genuinely interested in, but the classroom is a great place to try out ideas. It exposes the ideas to new people outside the closed academic circle, and offers a perpetually renewing source of perspective. (In fact, that's the advantage it has over the conference, which tends to be full of people who think the same way. Or occasionally, think almost the same way, with a slight difference that's just enough to turn a convivial conversation into a screaming match.) Both of parents were teachers, and they'll both tell you the same thing: teaching is an incredibly draining, but incredibly rewarding experience.

That's a best case scenario, of course. In reality, you get students who don't bother to show up, students who think they know better than you, students that derail class discussions and leave you rolling your eyes. There's essays to be marked, grades to be assigned, and rosters to fill. We've come a long way since the days of the Socratic method (for example, we admit that women are people now; not all change is bad), and the bureaucratic side of the classroom isn't any better than that side of academia at large. But my point is, teaching is a valuable learning tool, for the instructor as well as the students. It's also a skill, and those that choose to develop it and hone it deserve nothing, in my opinion, but the highest level of respect.

Too bad it doesn't count more for the CV. It should, but it doesn't.

Later Days.

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