Wednesday, September 08, 2010

What Do My Messed-up, Overly Long Childhood and My Difficulties with Teaching Have In Common?

The fact that I have a tortured relationship with teaching is no secret; but I'm starting to allow myself to look at the parts that make this relationship tortured and the most stressful part is directly connected to some of the detritus that I'm cleaning up in analysis.

I like teaching. I don't LOVE it, but I like it. I like especially the parts in which I can read and learn more generally, and I really like the parts in the classroom, even on less than adequate days. I like the learning, and the sharing, and the act of creation that goes into preparing and presenting a lecture or lesson. I like the performance and I like the improv. I like figuring out how to make things better the next time through. The hours ain't so bad either, nor is the infinite variety of the week and the relative independence of my workday. Really, there aren't too many other jobs that I would like to do nor that fit a significant portion of my socially awkward, easily exhausted, curious, doesn't-work-well-with-others-or-respond-to-authority self.

I don't like the grading (does anyone like grading?). I also despise he endless bullshit of paperwork that mostly goes with online classes and the kind of grade 13 stuff that we are supposed to do with community college students to essentially teach them how to do school -- not just college, but school -- by granting small rewards of grades (I call them "cookies") along the way for doing the sort of stuff like reading the books, attending class, and so forth. Quite often, this second despised point contributes to the first despised point, and together they consumes way too much of my time outside of the class that I think would be put to better use in that reading and learning more generally. After all, that's why you get a specialist with a PhD to teach college. You want their expertise, and you hope that their expertise remains current. Sadly, the parts I hate tend to interfere with remaining current.

Finally, I HATE the feeling of being pecked to death that begins about the end of the 1st week of class when people start wanting into your class that is full beyond capacity and continues through the "I can't" and "it won't" and "I didn't" and "I don't" statements that have nothing to do with understanding the subject and everything to do with technological failures and student time management issues, both often being things that I can do nothing about and both often expecting me to go above and beyond the call of duty to accommodate someone else's failure.

Actually, that last part of that last sentence is not fair; but I'll get to that in a minute.

I can't really do anything about the grading because that just goes with the territory. Any grading is too much grading in my estimation, so even the elimination of the cookie grading that I probably wouldn't be doing if I didn't teach community college wouldn't alleviate that part of the equation. Grading is just a case of sucking it up and getting it done in an efficient and effective way that becomes more of a communication with the student rather than a crushing avalanche of despair that it can so easily become with over 100 students and a gabillion assignments.

The busy work also goes with the territory. I still get pissed that no one will step up or make anyone else step up to take some of the online load, where the majority of the busy work (and my sense of failure as a teacher) lies. Even one class less might help a bit and allow me to be a better teacher online; but, I will digress if I follow that train of thought. I also think that I would have less busy work if I weren't having all of this cookie grading to do, too. As it is, where I am, I have to do it; and, like the grading, it goes with the territory. I like being employed, you know.

The last part, however, the pecked apart bit, that's a whole other issue. In fact, the issue there runs through the other two parts of teaching that I hate, especially the grading.

Sometime in the last year, somewhere in analysis, I began to look at the irritation and annoyance that built up to some shockingly unreasonable levels through the semester. I partly wrote it off as being unsuited to teaching, something that is not entirely untrue, but also not entirely true. Like or love your job, you can also be unsuited for it for whatever reason. I feel drained by too much interaction with other people, even when I'm enjoying myself. So, the constant interaction of teaching, especially the part in which all of the constant individual demands from so many individuals do leave me feeling pecked to death, leave me feeling bled to death by the end of the week. Part of the problem here, however, has more to do with the levels of interaction rather than the interactions themselves. Again, over 100 students all expecting individual attention can be overwhelming to an introvert over time. Half, or even 3/4 of that number, might make this less of a problem.

Still, that's not the core of the problem. The core, I discovered, lies in my whole attitude. For every student who comes to me at the end of the semester saying "I know I only showed up for 1/2 of the classes, didn't do any of the quizzes, didn't turn in any draft of the paper, and flunked all of the tests, but I think I deserve a C because my F this semester was twice as high as my F for last semester and my life will be royally fucked if you don't give me the C and history isn't really important to me so it shouldn't be fucking up my life and you are a big ole meanie who is probably racist and hates men/women/people who wear t-shirts like this one and you don't really know anything anyway because you are a girl and have a PhD and...." -- you get the drift -- for every one of those, you have 10 or15 or maybe even 20 who suck it up, do the work, and do well. For every student for whom it's always something -- the car broke down, their computer crashed, they are moving, they can't take a make up because they don't have time in their schedule, and so on and so forth -- there are 10 or 15 or maybe even 20 or 30 who have one legitimate issue in a whole school year.

I suppose my point is that most of what irritates me and ultimately provokes the anger of an annoyance build up has nothing to do with the numbers or the nature of the incidents. These are just students being students. This is just their nature, good, bad, fucking up or doing well. My point is that I'm not responding to it with the rationality of "heck, this is just them being them." I'm responding with the feeling that their, more often than not, legitimate and class-related problems, their poor performance on their work, their overwhelming ignorance resulting from not just a school system but a whole anti-intellectual culture that seems to WANT to perpetuate ignorance even in the midst of education -- I'm responding to this as if it is a personal and malicious attack on me.

Does any of this sound familiar, parallel to things I've talked about in other posts?

Teaching has a certain care-taking role. It's a limited caretaking role -- and it HAS to be limited, at least for me -- but it still involves caretaking. Perhaps a better word here would be "guidance."

I learned one thing in my whole life about caretaking and guidance: it ain't worth it. Actually, I learned that about any social interaction, but this is the one at hand. With something like two or three notable exceptions, which grew less frequent as I learned to trust less and less and therefore gravitated towards the untrustworthy more and more (you know, because at least they were open about their untrustworthiness, for the most part), no one in a caretaking role in my life was particularly good at it. In fact, they either saw that caretaking role as an irritation or annoyance with my existence as the one who needed the guidance a major inconvenience, or they completely exploited the role to the point of abject malice. I'm trying to understand one that I talked about earlier in the summer, but that's for another time.

I've also learned that, when caretaking was required of me, the reward was abuse. Abusive parents, abusive boyfriends, abusive advisers.

Holy crap: as I wrote that, I realized that parents and advisers really shouldn't have been reacquiring me to take care of them. At least, not in the way that they were requiring that care and guidance from me. Their requirements were outside of the bounds of the reciprocity that fosters respect between superior and subordinate roles in those relationships.

My analysis matters professionally because, in figuring how I wasn't cared for or guided a key points in my life, I also figure out how I'm totally failing in that regard in my own profession and job. I'm failing in that regard as a person. I want to guide and teach and care for these students' education, but I don't know how to do so, and I don't know how without feeling this resentment that all of the work, all of the energy, all of the care that goes into that role will only receive punishment -- even in the face of evidence to the opposite.

In analysis, I've been identifying the laws by which my life operates unconsciously. Not the things that, if asked, I'd give a somewhat different answer. For instance, if someone asked, "what is love?" I would of course answer, "Love is respect and admiration and kindness." That's the ideal, what I want to believe, and what I know is the expected answer. The actual law of operation (until recently, as I have gushed about like a 16 year old) was "love is exploitation and abuse with a sense of obligation."

Here, if the question is, "what is teaching?" my law is pretty much the same as that of love. My law for most social interactions is the same that of love; and that isn't fair to the person on the other end of the equation, be they a boyfriend or a friend or a colleague or a student. That is also not the law that I want to live under. I want to change the law. I want a revolution!

Sometimes I feel like a whiny idiot when I go over the childhood stuff, like I should be over it; but it's not so easy to do things like stop hating yourself or live by more rational rules of operation. You might as well tell a devoutly religious person to stop believing in their deity, that's how deeply these rules of operation go; and those deities know that I would just get over it if I could. It would be a lot cheaper and require a lot less effort. My brother, who suffered worse than I did growing up, doesn't see why all of this stuff matters (and then he finds other drug on which to obsess).

This is why it matters. I may not have children on whom I'm perpetuating some seriously fucked up ideas about the world, but I do have students. Lots of them. I don't want to unconsciously abuse them by resenting them just being them, as was done to me over and over and over. If nothing else, it's not an effective or efficient way to go about the job.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

It does cut both ways. I mean, yes, respecting students is good, but "history isn't really important to me so it shouldn't be fucking up my life and you are a big ole meanie who is probably racist and hates men/women/people who wear t-shirts like this one and you don't really know anything anyway because you are a girl and have a PhD and...." is disrespectful to you and resenting that attitude seems reasonable enough to me. I'm happy to teach the ones who make an effort, but damn, I'm tired of dealing with f@ck-ups.

Clio Bluestocking said...

So, true. That, of course, is a composite characterization, but one part of it is the subject of another post about a red flag or two that I see waving in my women's studies class. (Why, oh why, do people who have a clear contempt for women take a class about women? Are they genuinely curious, or do they have their own political agenda in the same way that they assume that the professor does?)

Yeah, the disrespectful ones can go on their merry little effed up way. My problem is the way I catch myself reacting to the rest of them, especially when I project the eff-up behavior on to them.

Susan said...

This is really helpful in lots of ways -- thinking about how the varied demands of teaching draw on different talents, and some we like better than others; and also how teaching mirrors other relationships that are supposed to be based on respect.

Just to go off in a different direction, I wonder the students who treat us with contempt (and I'm lucky not to have too many of them) are ones who have been treated with contempt. (I don't think that's quite right, but I've got a cold, must finish tomorrow's lecture, and I'm tired, so I can't do any better.)

dykewife said...

like you, i'm an introvert. dealing with people, whether for work or pleasure, depletes my reserves and i need isolation and seclusion to recharge myself. the less pleasant the interactions, the longer i need to recoup my sense of wellbeing (not that it's much of a sense at the best of times). i call it "being peopled out".

i don't have that much now being in the work i am, but when i was working as an office admin/receptionist/lackey to the boss i was continually peopled out and in need of constant isolation after work to regain some semblance of relaxation. we always knew it was a particularly bad day when even bran and boy were considered "people" in those terms.

i don't envy you your work. well, i envy you the teaching part, but th rest i'm glad i'm not in your stead.

profacero said...

Good post but remember: it's not all you. Freshmen can be real bloodsuckers! On purpose!

Digger said...

It's hard not to take it personally, because all their energy is directed at you, while yours is divided among all of them. But we're just a focal point for their shit; remember, if you're getting that song and dance from a student in your class, their other instructors are also getting it. The ones that put in the effort? Those are the ones worth your energy.

I told a student once that I wasn't his mom. He seemed surprised...

Val said...

Ha. I joke around all the time about how I love animals, but despise the human race! More than a kernel of truth there actually...


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