Sunday, August 19, 2007

Advice Nobody Needs

I have more or less settled into Midwestern Funky Town. My cottage is now presentable to the public. The boxes that needed to be unpacked have been unpacked. The remainder are stacked in the guest room, which is currently closed on the GayProf house tour.

Of course, the cottage seems a bit empty. Though I had the perfect amount of furniture for my Boston studio, a whole house (even a relatively small one) requires a bit more. Yet, I am really resistant about buying more stuff. I fear that I will be like a goldfish and simply keep expanding until I fill my current living space. Though unlikely, I subconsciously (or perhaps consciously) want to be ready to move back to a metro studio at a moment’s notice.

In the meantime, I am slowly learning the way things work in MFT. This weekend, I ventured out to the only gay bar (Yeah, we are all surprised that there is only one). While it was nice (everything in MFT is unusual in its niceness), I came to the conclusion that I will need to explore nearby Decaying Midwestern Urban Center for a wider queer community.

Then there is always Toronto, a mere four or five hours away. All of that, though, will have to wait until I finally finish the Never Ending Research Project of Doom.

Being settled, though, brings about the specter of the coming semester. This will be the first time that I have taught in over a year and half.

I actually enjoy teaching, which is good. It is a vital part of my job. Still, if I won the lotto, all you would see is an empty podium with pile of grade sheets for the students to fill in themselves and a brochure for San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Since that hasn't happened, I have been revising my syllabi and thinking about teaching. A couple weeks ago, Tenured Radical published her tips for new teachers. Given that most of this blog is a form of plagiarism, I figured that I would do likewise. Even if you aren’t a professor, it can give you a window into the whole career.

1. Students are not going to remember 90 percent of what you tell them five years from now. Sure, there will be a couple in your classes who find the topic so engrossing that they will keep studious notes. As a professor, you will affect their lives forever and be one of the most important people who shaped their adult thinking.

If you are lucky, that is maybe one student per semester. The majority of your students are just there to earn some credit hours and do what is required of them.

Don’t feel frustrated. I know that I was the same with many of my undergraduate classes. A few professors that I had still influence the way that I think today. When I look at my undergraduate transcript, however, there are other courses listed that I have no memory of ever attending. I couldn’t tell you if the professor was a man or woman, much less any of the content (Did I really take a class entitled “Nonverbal Communication?” Huh – I wonder what that involved . . .)

If you have a big point to make with your course, repeat it over and over again. It increases your odds that something will stick in that ten percent that they will actually retain.

2. You will give students wrong information at some point in your teaching career. Maybe you will muddle the date of Queen Isabella’s arrival at Granada or forget what the U.S. Constitution said about noble titles. At some point, though, you are going to say the wrong thing. None of us are perfect. Well, okay, GayProf is perfect. So, I should say none of you people are perfect.

Hey, don’t sweat it. During the next class session, just correct yourself. Far from sacrificing your authority, students like to know that their professors are [sort of] human. Besides, a couple little errors here and there don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Why? See Number One.

3. Teaching is a political act. Be honest with yourself and your students. By political act, I don’t mean that David Horowitz is actually right and we are all trying to secretly turn our students into ultra liberals. We don’t have that power. Why? See Number One.

On the other hand, we are approaching the topic with a certain perspective and asking students to engage with us. We disrupt the status quo just by presenting new knowledge. We also have the authority to ask students to try out different ideas or concepts.

All we can do, though, is ask. It’s up to them to decide what to do with the material that we present to them.

I have known several professors who think that their goal in teaching is to “trick” students into accepting either a left or a right political position. They create elaborate schemes and pretend to take an ambiguous position on important issues as some sort of twisted Socratic method. Fuck that shit.

Students aren’t lab rats and they aren’t there to take part in professors’ mind games. Be honest and candid with your students. They are smart enough to make up their own minds. Even if they aren’t smart enough, they will still make up their minds anyway, so you might as well keep your own ethics intact.

If you are a gay professor, say so. If you are lefty, say so. If you are a feminist, say so. If you are a right-wing Nazi, say so. Does it influence or change the material that you are presenting? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Regardless, it does a world of good for everybody to be open about their perspectives. Universities are supposed to be the place for an honest exchange of ideas.

The best teaching comes in the form of conversation. It’s really hard, though, to talk with somebody who keeps lying about what they really think.

4. Learn to accept that you are going to have students that you like more than others. Don’t get me wrong. Your goal in the classroom is not to create a cult of personality around yourself with a few chosen followers. That is why you have a blog.

In any class, though, there is going to be a small number of students who are just a bit more engaged and a bit more interested in the topic. They will make you happy teaching, so don’t feel guilty if you find yourself a little more interested in grading their papers than the other students. These might be the couple of students where Number One does not apply (but probably not).

5. Learn to accept that you are going to have students who you just don’t like at all. Maybe they show up late all the time. Maybe they turn in their assignments having done them in crayon. Maybe you just don’t like their shoes. I don’t know. Whatever the case, there are going to be a few students who rub you the wrong way.

During those times, it’s important to take a zen approach. Like a medical doctor healing an ornery patient, so also you must remember that your goal is to educate (not befriend). Take them as they present themselves and remain professional. Strive for fairness. It’s never worth fighting with a student. Remember Number One.

6. Learn to accept that you are going to find a few students physically attractive. Oh, yeah – GayProf isn’t afraid to say it. If you are teaching at most universities, you are dealing with a population of young people between 18 and 21. Anybody who tells you that they don’t find somebody in that group attractive is a liar. Our society values youth and beauty. You are not the exception. Get over it. It doesn’t make you lecherous or evil. It makes you normal – Well, as normal as any professor really is.

Of course, it goes without saying that you never, ever act on such an observation. That would make you lecherous and evil. You will not only lose your job, but also probably give your student another reason not to trust. Besides, long after the affair is over, Number One will still apply to that student.

7. Teaching won’t get you tenure. Sorry, kiddies, teaching isn’t the name of the game at universities or even “teaching” colleges. Only one thing gets you tenure: research. The quantity and quality of that research will vary depending on your university, but they are always going to want it.

As young, idealistic professors, our temptation is to be the best professors we can be. Plus, teaching is much, much easier than research. These two things often result in us slavishly devoting all of our time to our students. It’s a struggle to realize that you can be a pretty darn good teacher and not spend all of your time focused on it.

Yeah, yeah – Tenure and Promotion committees will spend five (Maybe even ten!) minutes paying lip service to teaching. If you regularly burn your students with cigarettes, it might even cost you tenure. Nobody, though, is going to be promoted based on being a stellar teacher. Likewise, if you have a complete research package, nobody is going to be denied tenure based on a so-so teaching record. That’s just reality.

So, when senior colleagues come to talk to you about the importance of teaching (and they are probably the ones who barely got tenure based on their thin research record), be polite. Know the score, though. Teaching.Doesn’t.Get.You.Tenure. Budget your time with that knowledge.

Look at it from the perspective of the universities. Published research will last forever. They can go to a library and hold it in their little hands. More importantly, they can see the name of your university published on the byline. In contrast, what will your students remember? See Number One.

8. Teaching will always be there. No matter how fantastic we are as scholars, we are almost always going to return to the classroom. It is what pays our bills. So, I don’t understand people who don’t seek out research opportunities (or even turn down those presented to them) because they can't bare the thought of being away from the classroom for a semester.

Some people have asked, “But, GayProf, haven’t you missed your students? Don’t you need that regular engagement?” Sure, I have missed students. You know, though, I have some pretty smart friends with whom I can talk. Besides, teaching will always be there. New students will always be enrolled. Any young professor has potentially thirty years worth of classroom time. If I can take time to do research, I am taking it. I will also actively seek out opportunities, like fellowships. Why? See Number Seven.

9. Grading sucks. I remember the first class that I taught, I found the notion of grading exciting. It seemed like an adventure to really find out how each student came to terms with Chicano history. That wore off with a quickness.

The engaged students’ papers are fun to read. After you finish grading both of them, though, you are often left with a pile of poorly typed essays that were written within the past twenty-four hours. If the students’ didn’t enjoy writing them, you can bet that you aren’t going to enjoy reading them (This is also why coming up with creative assignments is really important. You and they will be happier if you ask them to engage both sides of their brain from time to time).

One of my former colleagues had a theory that our entire salaries were based exclusively on the act of grading. Pretty much everything else we would do for free.

After spending hours reading, correcting, and commenting on those papers (because you are an ethical professor, after all), you will feel kinda depressed. Reviewing Number One only makes this feeling worse.

10. Remember to enjoy teaching. Sure, this list sounds a bit cynical. In truth, though, teaching is a great deal of fun. You have the opportunity to talk with a whole group of people about the thing that you have devoted your professional life doing. For those three hours each week, you get to encourage students to think about their world in new ways. You also get to learn from their perspectives. Some of your students will even be smarter than you (Smartness, to my mind, is not measured by the amount of knowledge one has (You will always know more (I hope)). Instead, smartness is measured by one’s ability to think creatively. Let me tell you, I have had some students who were a whole hell of a lot smarter than me.

Personally, I think of teaching as being as close to hosting a late-night talk show as I will ever get. Enjoy the opportunities – Seek out the challenges – Don’t neglect your research. Teaching.Doesn't.Get.You.Tenure. (It was worth repeating).

Remember, though, don’t take yourself too seriously in the classroom. In the end, it’s all about Number One.


Marlan said...

Ah, I have heard of that one gay bar in MFT, and also heard it's a mixed crowd. Yes, you'll probably venture to the decaying urban center nearby, but don't forget about those out west. Chicago also is fairly close--you shoulda been there last weekend for Market Days.

As a fellow teacher, I agree with your treatise. On number six, though, for better or worse, my students are ages 18-50, so although there are fewer "pretty" ones, there are a few datable ones. Still, I completely agree with your hands off approach; it can only lead to disaster.

I'm a little reluctant, to out myself to my students. It isn't usually an issue in grammar or communication classes I usually teach. Some have found out/known, though, and it has not become anything other than another "factoid" about this teacher. On the other hand, I have been hit on by two of my women students, so maybe I should rethink this.

vuboq said...

Retaining 10% after 5 years seems a little high to me. I can barely remember what I did yesterday.

And, as a former high school teacher, I can attest that grading does indeed suck.

The few times I have been to Decaying Midwestern Urban Center, I have really like it :-) Go see the Diego Rivera Murals (if you haven't already).

Chad said...

I'll never teach if I can help it. My main anxiety, though, is that all the bad habits I inflicted on my professors (yes, I was definitely the classic underachiever during my undergraduate years) would come back to haunt me during grading.

Jaclyn said...

Thanks for #10. I adjunct (my real job is staff, plus grad school) and the worse year for my teaching was when I let myself forget to enjoy it. I was grumpy all year, and I was a bad teacher. I don't think you can teach when you're grumpy: people tune out the mean person in the front. (Of course see #1 for whether you can teach when you're happy!)

B. said...

I know this is off-topic, but ... Dr. Strange - Yummy.

Roger Green said...

I think I'll share these with my wife, who is a teacher. She might agree with all of them, and for the age range she teaches, not all of them will apply, but still interesting.

In other words, I'll get her to read YOUR blog before I get her to read MINE.

Cooper said...

I'm glad MWFT cottage is becoming home. Nice is, well, very nice... and much better than not nice.

Over the coming months, it would be interesting to read about how your MWFT students compare with the ones in Texas.

tornwordo said...

Three hours per week?! Fuck me man. I do twenty. No essay grading though, thank god.

Earl Cootie said...

So there is an end to the Never Ending Research Project of Doom? Or are you saying that you'll never get to Toronto?

It's these types of posts, GayProf, that remind me that you are an authority figure. And so my desire is tempered with distrust and fear. Probably a good thing.

Alan said...

Sounds like your experiences settling into your MFT have been easier than my experiences settling into mine. I swear, some days this apartment drives me crazy.

Alan said...

Alas, the gay scene in Decaying Urban Center is pretty hit-or-miss. Mostly miss. Almost entirely miss, actually.

It used to surprise me that MFT only had one gay bar, but it's so common to see large groups of teh gays in pretty much any bar in town .... we've integrated, I suppose.

BTW, my rule about unpacking is that any box that remains unpacked a year after you move should be simply discarded. Great way to get rid of crap.

Steven said...

Interesting post and how it can easily translate to the non-teaching community. Your second-to-the-last sentence of your post regarding not taking yourself too seriously is what many friends have been telling me. Hard to do though.

GayProf said...

Marlan: I am not sure the gay bar in MFT is nice enough to be known across the land. Or are there just that few in the whole state?

VUBOQ: I have only been to Decaying Midwestern Urban Center twice, once for a conference and another time for a baseball game. Both times were while I was still in grad school. I am eager to embrace DMUC. I want it to surprise the world with a sudden rebirth (which is unlikely given current state and federal policies, but I always have hope).

Chad: There are many careers where teaching isn't required. Karma, though, will always get you in the end.

Jaclyn: Sometimes it's really hard to put teaching in perspective, especially if students aren't listening to the grumpy person in the front.

B.: Dr. Strange is never off topic.

ROG: Yeah, I would imagine that some of these things don't apply for teachers in public schools. There are more regulations in those settings, as well.

Cooper: Nice is also better than nothing at all.

Torn: That is three hours per class (in other words, students will see you for three hours, but you will see students for more than three hours (though, in my case, it is only six)).

Earl: I really don't have that much authority. Nobody should take me seriously, including myself.

Alan1: Sorry to hear that your transition is tough. Let me say that I think moving suuuuuucks.

Alan2: I would imagine that the singular gay bar is less of an issue if you are coupled rather than single.

Steven: I take everything too seriously, including myself.

adjunct whore said...

as usual, i agree, with everything but the being attracted to students thingy. i must admit, i find 18-22 year boys, well, boys. unattractive in almost every way. cute maybe, but nothing that gets me going. same with girls.

but i'm with you on all the rest--particularly being honest about your position (lefty, gay, etc.), enjoying it, not taking yourself too seriously, and knowing that it won't count for tenure, though it can count against you if, say, your evaluations are routinely horrific. but even so, i've known people with stellar research and deplorable teaching evals who still get tenure. the biggest myth is that "teaching" colleges care most about teaching and research doesn't count. wrong wrong wrong.

David said...

This was fascinating and delightful.

Chad said...

Karma, though, will always get you in the end.

I know. And the fact that, next to being a writer, my preferred career is editing/publishing isn't a good sign.

Rebekah said...

I'm still laughing at Torn's "Fuck me man" comment.

You know, quite a few of those could apply to any kind of teaching.

Although, those public school teachers who do research on the side? Write a book even? They leave teaching behind.

Publishing is where the money and the recognition come from.

Even though, in my humble opinion, good teaching is certainly more important in the scheme of things.


Marius said...

I'm posting this in my department's TA office. I hear ya; it really is all about the research. I'm teaching an intro to BioPsychology course this semester. To be honest, I'm not excited about it. I kind of consider teaching a waste of time--for me, that is. Well, on a positive note, I see it as a way to improve my presentation skills. God, I sound so self-centered.

Marlan said...

Although there probably fewer than 20 gay bars in this state, the one in MFT is the only one I know of that advertises/sponsors NPR.

p.s. I hate grading, too.

JD said...

I think I used to live in MFT, if it's the same you're talking about. These codewords are confusing...

Anyhoo, thanks for the reminders in this post. I am a librarian and a PTI, and I just finished teaching my first class as a professor of note. It was exhilarating, and a lot of work.

I have to seek your advice: A student of mine (now a former student, actually) wants to "friend" me on Myspace. Would it be appropriate to accept the request, or should I politely decline? I feel that I might have to watch what I say if he were hovering nearby in cyberspace.

GayProf said...

Adjunct Whore: Oh, you will find a student attractive at some point... It doesn't happen often, but there is always one or two out there for every prof.

David: Thanks! Now if only my students would leave those types of comments on my end of semester evaluations...

Chad2: Well, you are just walking into karma in that case. . .

Rebekah: The profs who are really, really productive can also leave teaching (mostly) behind. I have known super senior professors who teach one class per year (and usually that is a graduate course).

Marius: If you think of teaching as a waste of time, it probably will be. I am not sayin', I am just sayin'.

We all hate grading. shudder

JD: I guess it would depend on what you do with your myspace page. If it's something you would share with a work colleague, then sure, befriend the student. If, on the other hand, you consider it strictly part of your personal life, keep them off.

Jon said...

You could also try that other decaying, substantially-less-urban center to the south. Several gay bars there, although it's been about a decade since I visited. If nothing else, the drink prices are probably lower there than in DMUC.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I agree with Adjunct Whore - 18-21 year old boys are just NOT attractive to 38-year-old me. I'll grant you that there are students I look at and think, "when I was in college, I would have SO been in love with you," but that's as far as it goes. (I have found students of my own age attractive, but I haven't had any of those in years!)

And I want to put in one word for the value of teaching, at least in teaching colleges. At the latter, you do have to be a good teacher. Maybe not a great teacher, but you have to be good, and to spend hours with your students outside of class. AND you have to research. (It's fun, believe me.) If nothing else, you have to be a good teacher so as not to give them an excuse to boot you. But don't mind me, I'm just a little bitter these days. :-}

sexy said...