A Teaching Career (Part II)

Without irony or apology, I can say that I have liked university teaching over the years because it left time to do other things. This of course plays into the “cushy job” clichés about professors–at least under the old, pre-adjunctification of the profession. I would have led a much less happy life had I stayed in journalism or gone found a job that required be to be on the scene nine to five, five days a week. I suspect I would have become a bartender or waiter. In any case, even working as an adjunct in Bellingham, then in San Diego (where I drove all over the county in my VW Beetle to put together a “career” of teaching gigs at San Diego State & a couple of community colleges). Some days I logged more than a hundred miles in a succession of little Bugs, and then finally a camper van.

I saw an ad for adjunct positions at San Diego State while I was still living in Bellingham & applied for it because I knew I could crash at my aunt’s house for a month before my first paycheck came in. San Diego was, after all, my hometown. My mother had lived and worked there as a young woman.  The position I was hired for also paid a bit better and offered somewhat more work, so I drove the entire length of the West Coast of the US in four days, landing in Chula Vista a few days before the semester was to begin. I loved the big bullpen where all the adjuncts had their desks. No illusions about the class system here.1 But there was a lively intellectual atmosphere–along with a lot of bitching–in the bullpen & I became quite close to ca couple of my colleagues, though those friendships, sadly, did not persist a few years later when I moved east to take a job at an obscure place called Clarkson University, which, in those days, was really a glorified tech school.

My Iowa MFA turned out to be considered an important credential, both within the department at State & among the English Department heads at Palomar CC & a couple of other places. I soon had a very full slate of teaching jobs spread across the county–but I still seemed to have a lot of time to write poems. (I tended to grade papers in big marathon sessions filled with angst & swearing & coffee, leaving long afternoons for rereading Wordsworth & Whitman & Berryman & Bishop only a few blocks from the booming Pacific Ocean. (In which I almost drowned one fine afternoon, but that’s another story: Avoid riptides.) So, despite the anxieties of freeway driving in an underpowered vehicle, the first few years in San Diego were miracle years during which I began to write my first fully adult poems.

And about time, too, since I was in my mid-thirties by this point. (Did I mention I had taken a rather leisurely–even by the standards of the times–ten years to accomplish my BA in Seattle at the UW, from 1969 to 1979? That was something of an extended boyhood!) I was almost thirty by the time I finished up at Iowa & moved back West, having lost my first wife M. during the first semester of grad school–a not uncommon phenomenon, I was to learn. In Bellingham, just before leaving for San Diego, I had begun going out with one of my students (the rules were different then) & she soon joined me in San Diego. That was my wife Carole & we are still together more than three decades later.

Well, that paragraph is a bit of a temporal & spatial mess. To return to something like a narrative, I can pick up with Ocean Beach, perhaps the last real counter-culture neighborhood in San Diego. Leaving my aunt’s guest room after a month, I found a couple of rooms to rent in a beach shack in Ocean Beach. I was still grindingly poor, but Carole joined me & we began to live like the latter-day hippies I suppose we were, shopping at the coop & breakfasting in a couple of fine diners, with occasional Mexican dinners out if the occasion (like a paycheck) warranted it. I was writing the poems that would fill out my first two books, the letterpress chapbook The Light of Common Day and my first full-length book, Customs. I was deeply fortunate that Kim Merker’s Windhover Press did the chapbook–it remains the most beautiful presentation of my work to this day. And the Univ. of Georgia Press also did a fine job of helping me edit (Thanks, Stanley Plumly!) a slightly too-long manuscript into something like a unified whole.

I had been publishing in journals, but these two books convinced the English Department at State that they should give me a (still not tenure track) full-time position. Additionally, the started assigning me upper division Literature creative writing classes to teach. If the job had had any potential of shifting to the tenure track, I’d probably be writing this from the West Coast rather than the East. You would have thought that my picking up my first of two NEA Creative Writing Fellowships would have tipped the scales in my favor, but it did not. Carole & I spent nearly five months in Europe spending the NEA money & soon after returning I was offered the job at Clarkson. It was not an easy decision to make. Neither of us had ever lived anywhere but the West Coast & Carole was now in grad school (in History) at UCLA.

We agreed that we’d move our digs East but that she would continue at UCLA until we figured out what was going on. We were bi-coastal fir two years, until Carole received her MA & decided not to pursue the PhD. I think it was her legitimate decision–she didn’t want to teach–but I still feel bad about her not finishing the doctorate, which she could have done with ease.

Thus began my Clarkson teaching career, which would run twenty-seven years, until a couple of weeks ago. I’m not going to try to produce a narrative of all those years, but will shift gears in the next part of this account & write more about teaching itself, in the classroom, rather than my particular experience of it as a job. [To be continued . . . ]

 

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  1. It was probably stronger at State than it would have been at University of California branches–the full-time faculty at State knew they were in the faculty underclass when compared to the faculty at U-Cal, so they enforced their local privileges pretty strictly.

Autumn

Our bedroom window looks out over the river, though this time of year the leaves of the maple trees mostly screen our view of the water. This morning I woke around six-thirty and looked out at the trees bathed in soft morning light. The leaves are turning orange now, though there is still quite a bit of green, especially by the water. I could hear Canada geese making a racket over by the island — really a sandbar with some low bushes on it — near the bridge that carries the highway over the river a half mile down stream from us. It is fall. Tonight we built the first fire of the season in the woodstove.

At school I have been reading tenure files and writing tenure letters, teaching, meeting with two groups of independent study students, teaching my classes. I have alsovolunteered for a couple of departmental committees, though I am trying to be a little less involved in such work than I have been in the past and am not serving on any university-wide committees. Amazingly, with a couple of retirements this year, I will be among the most senior members of my department. I’m enjoying my teaching this term, though yesterday my poetry students sat on their hands and looked down at their books, giving every evidence of not having read the assigned work. They’ll be getting a quiz on Monday. Same as it ever was.

Later: Why give them a quiz? It is what it is. Why impose my authority that way? Doesn’t it ruin the poetry? Well, I say in reply to myself, they can’t get the poetry — the real juice of it that I love and believe they might love — if they don’t read the poems.

Decline

This site, which used to be funny, has become a leper colony of bitterness & bad writing. And anyone who would put up a link to a David Horowitz book on the site (without balancing it with this text or this one) simply does not have the best interests of the teaching profession in mind. I used to write things for RYS from time to time, not now. Somehow, the people whose joy in teaching motivated their anger at idiocy in academe have been filtered out, leaving at RYS only people so devoid of feeling they defend rape jokes. Or make rape jokes.

Later: Apparently, the “joke” has been removed from the site.

End of Term Blues

Just finished grading my last set of papers & now I’m on sabbatical until next September. The papers brought me up short, I must admit. They were from a freshman class and we had finished the semester reading Margret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a very smart & entertaining book, I think. My students seemed to like it too, but their papers were, with only a few exceptions, dismal. I have to take some of the blame for this, though, because I should have gone over the basics of evolution with them before turning them loose on a novel about the hazards of genetic engineering for fun & pleasure. Many of them went wrong by assuming that evolution is teleological, i.e., that it leads inevitably to us. Others fouled up by assuming the meaning of “natural” to be self-evident. But the most breathtaking move — which showed up several times — was importing an entire metaphysics unexamined into an argument with a single sentence: We were put on earth for a reason. By whom & for what was never mentioned. What my students were really saying, I think, is something like “the world makes sense” — a rejection of nihilism. That rejection might have been a good start, but I didn’t get the chance to move them along since this was the final essay in the semester.

Actually, I’m dissatisfied with the way I have structured the course. I like the content I’ve worked up since we rennovated the curriculum three years ago — the authentic individual in a social context, the problems of establishing justice — but the wriing element isn’t really working. I’ve always just assigned four 3-5 page essays with opportunity for infinite revisions, but most of the essays turned in are essentially rough drafts. So when I go back to this class next year I’m going to make some changes.

  1. I’ll reduce the nmber of major texts and supplement them with critical essays. I’ve been using Graff’s little handbook They Say / I Say & when I can get them to adopt its methods, my students are better writers. (I’m also looking at a similar book, Rewriting, by Joseph Harris, but it seems aimed more at advanced writers of academic prose.) But I have to do more in class with this “entering the conversation” trope. In fact, I have to have workshop sessions using student writing. So:
  2. I’m going to assign six two-page essays starting in week one, with one final essay of 5-6 pages that develops some idea from earlier writing. We will use these two-pagers in class to discuss the various kinds of moves you can make in writing. Basically, I’ll do what I do in my creative writing workshops.
  3. Possible book list: The Book of Job (Mitchell translation), Utopia (More), Parable of the Sower (Butler), Oryx & Crake (Atwood), along with a simple text on evolution and a pocket style guide. [Great video here of Atwood discussing her novel.]

Observation

At the end of each semester, our departmental majors present the work they have done in their required research seminar. The subjects are wide-ranging because we are an interdisciplinary department the focus is on research methodology rather than subject matter. Earlier this week I attended this semester’s presentations. I had to leave a bit early, so I did not get to see every student present, but I was struck by something I had not noticed in previous semesters: Our students tend to speak almost exclusively in their research from the discourses of power. They are unable to distinguish the normative claims embedded in supposedly descriptive language. One student, a Business double major, presented her research on the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), taking employers’ objections to provisions of the law as natural and just while dismissing provisions that allowed employees flexibility in managing medical leaves as “difficult to keep track of.” Another began her presentation of South Korean business conglomerates with a quotation from a journalist that contained the phrase “the more orderly Western mind” & though that phrase was mostly window-dressing, she took the behavior of the paternalistic, hierarchical, authoritarian business structures of the chaebols as natural, at least for Korea. It is this assumption of the naturalness of existing orders & systems that really struck me this time around. We need to do a better job teaching critical thinking in the research seminar.

RYS Turns Three

That’s Rate Your Students for those of you not in the know. Started by a frustrated college professor in response to the site that shall not be named, RYS allows academics to tell horror stories about their students, from the precious snowflake who just can’t possibly get anything less than an A to the smelly athlete who stinks up the whole classroom. It’s a non-academic site for academics. The stories and responses, posted anonymously, come from academics all over the US — kind of a national barroom where faculty meet at the end of the week. Actually, I think more students should read the site — it would provide them with the clarity of a different perspective. For faculty, well, diatribe and invective are useful psychological techniques — the purpose of RYS is to keep our heads from exploding. At least in public.