My first week of TT teaching is down the hatch. Up next: death
Just kidding, hopefully many things will happen between now and death, although of course one never knows, and also of course many of those things could be terrible and probably will be. But that’s okay. I have already delivered a monologue to one of my classes about how corporations are tracking every single thing they do, like, say, or shop for on the internet. My students were horrified. Then I said “I am still happy to be alive but it’s true that it’s hard.” Pretty sure I am a great teacher and they are excited about my class.
So, I teach and have meetings constantly, all day, Tues-Wed-Thurs, and then I am totally off Mon/Fri, which is for me a great schedule and I love whoever set it up for me. I like to max it out and then take enormous relaxing breaks. I will tell you about my first week.
Things begin with a grad seminar at 8 in the goddamn morning. I don’t know how to teach a grad seminar so I just talk and ask them questions. I have literally no idea if this is what they want or need from me. I am wondering if it is too awkward to have them do anonymous evaluations in a couple of weeks so I can change my plans if they want more in-class exercises or something. One thing about me is that I loathe in-class exercises, breaking into small groups, gimmicky uses of technology in the classroom (like having your kids “work on a blog post in small groups” during class time, or projecting their fucking tweets during a lecture). I like to do what is called “teaching naked,” which is a funny phrase but also it is comforting to know that my style of teaching does adhere to a school of thought that is established. Teaching naked just means you talk and listen. Seems pretty fucking simple to me! Even within that model, I am wrestling constantly with all the tech in the classroom, because these of course are music classes and that means playing music. It is a nightmare. At my previous fancy tiny school, every classroom just had a big old computer plugged into ethernet, permanently in the room, everything already all hooked up to speakers/projector/whatever. It was a fairly basic set-up and I did not have that many problems with it. Here at this enormous public institution, it is a weird double problem where on the one hand, everything is janky as hell and there’s one IT guy who’s supposed to help 1500 professors all across this sprawling campus whenever they are panicking because they can’t get their PowerPoint to show up; but on the other hand, the administration is fully entrenched in the neoliberal ideology of NEW THING IS ALWAYS GOOD, so they are constantly updating and upgrading things in a way that is often totally counterintuitive and actually makes it harder to teach your class. For example, the model where there’s just a computer sitting in a cabinet in the classroom, which you can use for your audio/visual needs, means that yes, that computer becomes outdated as time marches on. However, it still works for what you need it for, which is simply showing PowerPoint slides and maybe some YouTube videos. A 5 year old computer can handle that fine! But if you embrace the CONSTANTLY GET NEW THING model, you shoot yourself in the foot–you obviously can’t put brand-new desktop computers in every classroom in a huge university every year, so what do you do instead? You use this rhetoric of “personal choice” and “freedom” to take all the computers OUT of the classroom, and put the financial burden and daily hassle onto each individual professor. Who needs these junky old computers?! Professors should all get to bring in WHATEVER DEVICE THEY WANT! Liberty! But what this actually looks like in practice is that there are these enormous janky broke-ass tech cabinets in the classroom that IT has sort of laboriously jerry-rigged to be able to have different kinds of things plugged into them according to each professor’s “individual needs” or whatever. So there are SO many different cords, and buttons, and hookups, and furthermore each tech cabinet is slightly different depending on which building or classroom you’re in, so sometimes you have to plug the audio cord in here and other times there; on some cabinets you have to turn the whole system on before anything will work, while others are on all the time, etc.
Added to this is the fact that apparently they can not get their shit together regarding wifi. We recently all had to make this epic switch to a new (PRIVATELY OWNED) wifi company or whatever it is. So the school is paying some company to manage our wifi. It’s being pitched as great because with this wifi you can go to any college campus and your wifi will work! To which my response is “eh.” But okay, whatever. I’ll switch, sure. Then on the first day of school, of course the wifi crashed and no one could use it. So, because there’s no old computers plugged into ethernet in the classrooms like there should be, I had to run my audio examples off my PHONE. It was deeply awkward.
Anyway. So my first day of school, I taught my nice grad students, then had hours of meetings, then taught my undergrad gen-ed class. I always feel deflated and depressed after the first day of class, so I had prepared myself for that, and indeed that is how I did feel. The technical difficulties, added to the culture shock of this new land/new type of student, added to my normal first-day-blues, meant that I just came home and sort of lay on the couch and then went to bed and lay awake all night thinking of everything I should have done differently, both that day and just in my life generally.
The next day was the first day of this huge interdisciplinary arts appreciation course I’m in charge of (I have a staff of EIGHT PEOPLE), so we had all-day meetings and finalizing documents and printing out thousands of handouts that will immediately get thrown in the trash or barfed on at a frat party. The class has over 200 students enrolled. It’s in the big auditorium. I was given the option of lapel microphone with belt unit or hand-held microphone. I was wearing a dress, so I chose hand-held. I have truly never taught while holding a microphone, but I have certainly performed with a microphone a lot, so I thought I’d be comfortable with it. And you know what? I was! Actually it felt good and familiar, even though it kept cutting out (cool nonstop tech issues).
The room filled up and just kept filling up. I kept thinking every seat was full but then more kids would come in. The room holds 230 and there wasn’t a single empty seat. I stood up on the stage and they all stared at me until 6 p.m. when without fanfare I just started class. I had LITERALLY NO IDEA WHAT WOULD HAPPEN. My plan involved getting them to talk a lot, and I did not know if this would happen at all. How can you treat 230 students like you’re in a small discussion seminar? I think I mostly expected to bomb horribly, but I did have this small hope that they would actually talk, because I remembered TAing as a grad student for our FIVE HUNDRED PERSON Beethoven class, and the professor totally got them talking, and that was in an auditorium that was twice as big. So I was like, to hell with it, I’m gonna give it a shot. And then, what happened? They talked SO MUCH! Not only did they talk constantly (I kept having to move on even though like 12 other hands were raised), but everything they said was smart and interesting. It was a real highlight of my career thus far–having lived for months with so much dread about this class, only to end up having an actual blast teaching it. I was inspired and delighted. They listened to what I said, and did what I told them–they weren’t just wildly talking; they were using the skills I was trying to teach them. I showed them some crazy shit and they handled it. I could’ve kept going for another hour. They said so many smart things about Rite of Spring I wanted to cry.
After that I go immediately to my breakaway section of that class, which is down in the very bowels of the building in what is BY FAR the most depressing classroom I’ve ever seen. It’s all gray and black and everything is deeply dingy and gouged, and there are no windows, and no air, and it’s silent as the grave. It’s a classroom that is like, if you saw blurry photos of like a Soviet-era elementary school in Siberia, this is what it would look like. It is sincerely a place that just to be in it is sort of hard on your soul. Everyone in the department gets this wide-eyed look of dread when you tell them this classroom number. Plus, it was 7:30 at night and everyone including me was exhausted. So I just said all of that. I said, this room is horrible, this time is horrible, we all want to go home, but instead we have to talk for an hour about art. I asked them if any of them had ever seen a piece of art that made them angry. A kid brought up “Fountain,” of all things, which, I could not have asked for a better example. So we talked for an hour about Fountain. It was really fun.
I drove home at 9:00 in the humid night, blasting Jagged Little Pill and singing along. I arrived home to an old man who had cooked me a lasagna and had waited to eat it with me. He also saved me a beer, which felt very deserved.
But things get even crazier, for I have not even told you that during Wednesday afternoon–while frantically preparing for the giant art class, and managing my staff, and trying to figure out how to do my lecture, etc.–I volunteered to cover a class for another professor who had to go home for a family situation abruptly. This class was at 9:30 the following morning, which meant I had maybe one hour to prep for it, considering everything else that was going on, and having to teach until so late at night that night. Okay, that seems okay. What is the class supposed to be on? Oh not much, just MEDIEVAL MODAL THEORY, perhaps the one subject in all the grand panoply of music historical subjects that I am most singularly least prepared to teach. Like “medieval modal theory” is my go-to example when telling a joke about a nightmare class you might get assigned to teach at a job interview. So I said sure, no problem. I ran to the library to get the textbook, which left me 45 minutes. I read the chapter, understood very little of it (I have tried to teach myself this stuff maybe 100 times. To be fair, I learn a little bit each time; maybe when I am 70 I will get it), and slammed together a PowerPoint that I felt would sort of help me ride the fine line between teaching at least some of what the professor needed me to teach while also allowing me to do what I’m actually good at, which is ramble on about a bunch of loosely-related topics I think are interesting. Okay great. Then I had to put it all away and not think about it again until I literally walked into the classroom to teach it, because there was not a single moment to spare.
Of course what happened first was that I couldn’t get the tech working. I was supposed to tell the students about the cycle of the mass, and use psalm 91 as an example of how the same text gets worked into different melodic types depending on which section of the mass it’s being used for. I had my examples all cued up. I had my nice PowerPoint showing the cycle of the hours of the office or whatever. I had all my cool Hildegard slides and examples. If I could just get my computer to talk to the projector, surely everything would be fine.
So the first thing I did was borrow a student’s phone to call IT. Please keep in mind that these students have no idea who I am or why I am in their classroom. Such that the student at first didn’t want to loan me the phone. Then I said “I’m the professor; I won’t steal it” and then he was SUPER embarrassed. So that was a cool starting point. The IT man walked me through the entire elaborate set up of this cabinet over the phone. He kept asking me if I was sure the system was turned on. I kept saying YES, YES. (you can probably see where this is going). Finally he sighed and said “I’m gonna have to come down there.” I was like HURRY ONLY YOU CAN SAVE ME. This guy is apparently the only guy on campus who helps stupid professors like me with their dumbass tech problems. He probably walks 10 miles a day dealing with all of us. Although like I said, just having permanent computers in the classroom would alleviate a lot of the difficulties. Although not this particular one.
So waiting for him, I started talking about medieval life, and telling them anecdotes I dimly remember from grad school about 3rd century monastic traditions and St. Benedict. I told them I specialize in 19th century music and pop music and they all laughed. Like even they understand how deeply out of my element I am. I basically said “I can’t really teach you modal theory but I can tell you why medieval people did all this crazy shit, and maybe that will help you when it comes time to memorize all your hexachords or whatever.” They were like, okay.
Tech guy showed up, and IMMEDIATELY just pushed a big red button that said “ON/OFF,” and everything immediately worked. I was so embarrassed. I apologized profusely. He was nice about it. The students were snickering. Then with great fanfare I was like Okay, lets get this party started! And then my computer died.
The week had been so insane that I had forgotten to ever plug my computer in. It just died! I didn’t have my power cord, of course, because I am a jackass.
They all saw my computer die. So then I just stood there for a second. I mean, I need you to understand that this is LITERALLY THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES. I have had dreams that are exactly this plot–I’m teaching a class of strangers something I know nothing about, and everything is going wrong. I have probably had this dream 100 times, and I always wake up sweating and clutching a pillow. So I stood there being like, honestly, for a second I thought, am I dreaming. I considered just sort of running out the door and being like “class dismissed.” I considered hopefully asking the students if they thought it was possible that I could be dreaming. I truly did not know what to do. Without my computer, I had LITERALLY nothing. I had no psalm 91, I had no examples, no Hildegard, no music. I didn’t even have any of the scores, so I couldn’t even play them on the piano awkwardly, or try to get students to sing them. I had 45 minutes to fill with no ability to do a single thing on my lesson plan.
But then it was like, it was so horrible that I passed through the horror and into this sort of giddy place of joy. I was like, Jesus, whatever, what can I do? It felt fatalistic and liberating. So I just turned to them and said, “Well, now I can’t do anything I had planned, and I can’t teach you anything your professor wanted me to teach you. I think I’ll just tell you some stories about how medieval culture is still all around us, and then let you go.” And then, I just talked for 45 minutes, primarily about 90s rave music. And at the end I gave this impassioned speech about approaching gregorian chant with an eye to culture and how history is always in layers.
The funny thing is, it seemed like it sort of went okay (I knock on wood with both my fists). The students were engaged and laughing and responding to my questions, and asking good questions of their own, which, even though class was clearly a disaster, I think that means SOMETHING positive, although I’m sort of nervously awaiting the actual professor’s report and/or rage when he hears about what happened from them.
Jesus christ. Trial by fire.
so then I had more meetings, planned my other class, and taught it, and it went well. I felt a lot better. But check it out–so I’m in my last class of the day, after ALL THIS, and yet again I can’t get the tech to work. I have my TA call IT. After she calls, she noodles around with it for what feels like an hour, and then suddenly gets it to work! My genius TA! So all is well, and I am teaching happily, both of us having forgotten that the IT man is on his way. So he shows up. THE SAME MAN FROM THAT MORNING. I say “oh sorry, we fixed it.” He goes, “This is two times today, right?” I was like “Sir, I am so sorry. I don’t know what to say.” He said it was fine. I am going to buy him a present or something. That poor man.
It turned out later that my husband had walked down the hall past my classroom and overheard me talking about Adorno, which is not only something I know nothing about, but something that is the old man’s specialty. Very embarrassing.
So that happened. Then I got a free iPad.