The Other Side of the Fence

As I cleaned my office in preparation for the start of the semester, a small yellow slip of paper somehow rose to the surface: a parking permit request form from Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington, where I spent my first and last quarters as an adjunct. The paper bears my old zip code and the license number of a 1991 Civic hatch that most likely no longer runs.I will leave for another blog entry the story of how I came to leave the Civic in one Washington when I flew off to the other one, but finding an artifact of my adjunct days seemed especially fortuitous this week.

It has been sort of a big week for me. About ten days ago, a wonderful teacher and colleague announced that he would be resigning to follow his wife to the Pacific Northwest. He was the coordinator for our transfer composition and literature courses, which involved mentoring and overseeing nearly thirty adjunct faculty members, conducting assessments of our learning outcomes, reviewing course descriptions and requirements, and working with department chairs and coordinators on our college’s other two campuses.

Those duties have now fallen to me. Nearly ten years have passed since the first day I strode to the front of a classroom, saw a row of faces aimed in my direction, and thought, “Wow, they’re looking at me like they think I’m a real teacher. I guess I’d better teach.”

Similarly, when I went to yesterday’s beginning-of-the-semester adjunct orientation meetings, my part-time colleagues looked at me like I was a real coordinator. Just as I discovered by acting like a real teacher that I could become one, I somehow found myself – despite self-doubt, nerves, hesitation to advise faculty who had been teaching far longer than I have, ambivalence about thinking of myself in a leadership role – unexpectedly transformed from the neophyte who asked all the questions into a professional tasked with answering them.

I realized something amazing this week: To my surprise, I can do the job.

I fielded questions. I commented on syllabi and assignments, offered sample handouts my colleague had left on a disk, suggested approaches that had worked for me, and reassured newcomers. I even said “No” a few times, and nobody seemed to hate me afterwards. I navigated personalities, facilitated discussions, and led a workshop. People treated me like someone who knew what she was doing. It was a little weird.

If I can do the job, though, it’s because of what I have stolen from or have been given by others. When I advocated for stipends for part time faculty who facilitate workshops or serve on committees, I thought of a colleague at Green River Community College who assigned adjuncts to leadership positions for short-term assessment projects and refused to let us work without pay, and I remembered the department chairs at South Seattle Community College who picketed on behalf of adjuncts while I scurried to the parking lot to drive to my next teaching gig.

When a part-timer asked me for help applying for full time positions, I thought of the former department chair who fired interview questions at me, critiqued my responses, and gave me tips on my teaching demo; the coordinator who advised me to learn to teach developmental English and initiate visible projects; and the brilliant tenured instructor who took at least two hours out of her winter break to scrutinize my CV and cover letter. The job search advice I give is their advice.

I think of my fellow “freeway flyers” in our various part-time faculty offices who took hours out of their breakneck schedules to talk through assignments, advise me on classroom management, and let me plunder their best ideas. I think about my first dean, whose response to most of my teaching questions was, “Well, what have you thought about doing?” and an electronics instructor who was my unofficial mentor through the bruising first years of learning to teach. I think of my current department chair, who has tirelessly answered my questions, gracefully negotiated department and college politics, and encouraged me to grow as a professional.

And I thought of the kind words of a colleague who was then a stranger, a compliment that sustained me when I was ready to give up my full-time job search. At the time, I had no idea that a year after I signed that part-time permit request, I would be living on the opposite coast and starting my first semester as a full time faculty member.

This morning, having survived my first week as coordinator, I pinned the slip of paper on my bulletin board to remind me of the generosity of many, many others. I have no way to thank them – except, perhaps, to do my job as they would do it.


The Persistence of Teaching Nightmares

I have never once come to the first day of class without a syllabus, but at the start of every single semester I have nightmares that I show up with materials for the wrong class, that I forget to show up to teach one of my classes for an entire semester, that the campus changes shape so that I can’t find my classroom, and on and on and on.

Salvador Dali, "The Persistence of Memory"

March 2 of this year marks the tenth anniversary of the day I taught my first class. My current college is on the semester system, but before that, I taught four quarters a year. That’s a lot of nightmares. But, as in the adage that you can’t be a good horseback rider until you get thrown 99 times, I stopped counting long before I hit the magic number.

I am not alone, either. If you visit our department during the first week of classes, you’ll see a whole bunch of extremely competent faculty pretending that they don’t feel like teenagers trying to open their lockers on the first day of high school. Some of them have taught twice as many years as I have, and some of the coolest ones will still admit that they always feel nervous on the first day. The rest of them just look like they do.

So what if I spend the start of the semester with a vertiginous feeling that I am going to fall on my face? I think that if I ever stop feeling nervous on the first day, it will mean one of two things: one, that I am actually dead and don’t realize it (I know, I know, The Sixth Sense has warped an entire generation); or two, that I have stopped caring. Both of these options are undesirable, but I think I would prefer death to apathy. That finger-in-socket zap of stage fright means I’m still alive (which, incidentally, is more than I can say for M. Night Shayamalan’s last few movies).

On Friday night – yes, Friday night! – I had one dream after another about writing syllabi, each wave of syllabus-writing perfectly mundane and lifelike. I woke up on Saturday surprised and a little outraged that my classes were still not prepped, considering how much time I’d already spent on them. I did what I do every semester: I sat down at the computer and got to work.

The week before classes, full-time faculty have a week of nearly back-to-back meetings, workshops, retreats, and meet-and-greets, and, sometimes, last-minute class schedule changes that might necessitate writing a last-minute syllabus. Most of the meetings are necessary and valuable, but the schedule is exasperating. This semester I have some new responsibilities, so I took a look at my Professional Week calendar, narrowly avoided hyperventilating, and decided that – perhaps for the first time – to prep my classes early. Nevertheless, I fully expect the nightmares to commence on their usual schedule.

Sweet dreams, colleagues!

The Whole Dang Pie

I made pizza a few nights ago (yes, that’s it in the photo). My three year-old cats sat on the windowsill and observed with mild interest as I simmered sauce, stirred poufs of flour into water, kneaded dough, and grated cheese. Dough’s nature is to abandon itself to your hands, and the moment it yields under my fingers is one of my purest, simplest pleasures.

My cats looked at me. I looked at my cats. And then I realized: Although cooking is one of my favorite things to do and pizza is probably my favorite thing to cook, I hadn’t made it in over three years.

That just seems wrong. The process of pizza-making is the opposite of teaching, writing, thinking, and reading, which is how I spend most of my time. When I am cooking, my hands, nose, and tongue experience every sensation while my head empties and floats out of the kitchen like a helium balloon. Also, almost everyone of any age can be made happy with pizza, and I have no particular qualms about exchanging homemade pizza for affection. I am reminded of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, when Gaston the waiter explains, “The world is a beautiful place. You must go into it and love everyone. Try to make everyone happy, and bring peace and contentment everywhere you go. And so I became a waiter….”

I love teaching. In fact, I’m crazy about it. Even when I “go into it and love everyone,” I can’t make everyone happy, nor can I bring peace and contentment everywhere I go. Knowledge – when I am skilled enough to impart it – is unsettling and challenging more often than not. The slice of me that thinks, reads, plans, and grades feeds one set of mouths, and the slice that wants to serve peace and contentment topped with grilled eggplant and sundried tomatoes feeds others.

Every January and every August I tell myself that if I scrupulously manage my time and energy, I can have the whole pie. I can return papers on time and read lush, fat novels; I can be brilliant in the classroom every single day; I can fulfill the CDC’s physical activity guidelines; I can write twenty pages a week; I can sleep eight hours a night, entertain every weekend, and launch a wildly satisfying and time-consuming love affair with no impact on any of the above.

If a meeting runs late, an emergency comes up at work, a home repair becomes urgent, or a cat has to go to the vet, my January/August illusions fall apart. Usually, the disillusionment process occurs sometime during the first week of classes and accelerates until it’s time to refuel my illusions again.

I am like many other teachers in that I have a hard time making a commitment to fulfill my own needs when the needs of students are so often so much greater than my own. I can tell myself “Put your own oxygen mask on first” as often as I like, but frankly I don’t like watching other people turn blue while I take time for myself. I don’t think the habit of gasping for air makes me a better teacher, though, and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make me a better person, either.

Lately I’ve started thinking that maybe it’s not better to lavish all my attention on one slice of pizza when I could be serving up an entire sumptuous pie.

Blah, blah, blah.

First, I need my January/August syndrome to last until February.