This year was a real mixed bag. I am feeling astounded at all that has happened to me, while in so many ways I also felt like I just spent a year stuck unmoving in a shoebox. I can’t believe that I actually got a job and am now finished with my first year, by all accounts the worst year in anyone’s life. Does this mean next year will be better? Wouldn’t that be amazing if so??
I experienced a really cool moment of narrative closure yesterday which I then intentionally compounded. If you will recall, after my very first day of school this year, I taught the huge class I was so nervous about, and it ended up being really fun and rewarding, and I felt exhilarated and triumphant, like “verily I will be the first Assistant Prof in history who does not cry every day of their first year, because I am so great,” and I drove home in the humid evening listening to Jagged Little Pill.
After that, things took a downward turn for weeks which became months. I questioned my vocation and all the skills and gifts I had previously thoughtlessly assumed I naturally had. I was not communicating well with my students, which had always come easily to me before. Having to share an office made me feel humiliated and unappreciated; made it hard to have office hours; and it also made it very difficult to get work done. My workload itself skyrocketed and became something I felt actual panic about. Once I got put on committees it got harder, in terms of time but also in terms of having even more opportunities to embarrass myself and to have to work hard to pretend I understood what was going on when I didn’t. I went to one meeting not realizing my fly was down: the perfect image to sum up my first year in a full time gig. Supervising a staff of 8 people was difficult, and was not something I had been trained in any way to do. My staff is amazing, and they are overworked to a degree that is unethical, and I don’t know what to do about it and I don’t know if I should sacrifice pedagogical considerations for ethical labor considerations, or how to do that even. I had to deal with multiple plagiarism cases, which has never happened to me before and which made me feel even worse than I expected it would. Moving from an adjunct to a full time position also meant suddenly having to truly navigate through and negotiate with the soul-crushing degrees of bureaucratic administrative techno-utopian neoliberal nonsense that governs most universities these days and that seems explicitly designed to make the job of teaching as difficult as possible. There were four blizzards in a row and no one could leave their house and the wind howled and at night I lay awake in bed thinking about late capitalism, education as a consumer product, my multiple and glaring failures as an educator and a colleague and, lets face it, a human being, my tenure clock (the ticking of which is deafeningly loud in the dead of night, like some 1950s movie montage of a sweating man with a guilty conscience having nightmares in some grim hotel room), the thousands of miles separating me from literally anyone who gives a single shit about whether I live or die. I talked about all this constantly, to the detriment of many conversations and blog entries. I started getting cold sores again. My night sweats got worse. I felt I had made a huge mistake that I didn’t know how to fix or recover from and could hardly even identify. Was it this job in particular? The whole career track itself? Education as a concept? Is there anything else I would be good at that would pay enough to support me? I couldn’t think of anything. I felt trapped and confused. My parents worried about me and called and emailed me constantly about it which made me feel worse. My husband and I went weeks without talking about anything but academic bureaucracy and/or police shootings. I wondered if this was a midlife crisis or menopause or, like, what is even happening, I’ve never been this big of a fuck up in my life and that is saying something–I once racked up $1,500 in unpaid parking tickets and one time I suddenly fell down while walking and tore so much skin off my body that I still have scars. This year was worse. I have NEVER felt like such a bumbling idiot. I wanted to apologize to everyone around me and sometimes I did, which was not endearing and did not help anything.
But some things started settling down. Some things seemed to improve. My students started talking. Even the girl who texted constantly through every class would often make cogent points in discussion and I realized she was somehow listening and engaged even though thinking about the texting made me want to cry every night in my bed of pain. After a shaky start I sort of am figuring out some of the issues I’m supposed to be solving on one of the committees I’m on. I learned a lot about my department. I did a midterm evaluation in one of my classes that suddenly revealed my class was my students’ favorite class, which actually shocked me and made me rethink how I was reading body language and understanding cultural differences. I came to a place of mild acceptance with my shared office, and am taking the long view. I started noticing all the things that made me incredibly lucky–this place we moved to is a great place; there are tons of things here that my husband likes, which is good since he moved here only because of me; financially I am being about as well treated as a junior faculty member in the Humanities could be, which is nice; I have a supportive chair, which is huge; I like the people in my department and it’s really exciting to get to hear so much good music all the time; I started presenting at conferences again; I actually finished my book, for better or for worse, which taught me that I really can write even within the throes of a full-time position; my old man and I started playing the Glad Game sometimes; his students turned in the best papers he’s ever seen and he was elated and stopped complaining ceaselessly while I drove us home in weirdly brutal rush hour traffic; I started sort of making a couple friends; I started being very decisive and bold in making changes to this weird class I have been told I should make whatever changes I want to; the snow melted; the daffodils busted out; my snoopy found a baseball that made him happier than I have ever seen him not counting the time I gave him an egg; I started reading novels again; I finally read my fall evals and they were really good and again I was shocked; I started thinking maybe I can be a good teacher here, maybe not all my skills are bullshit, maybe I am not just an utter failure, or at least not yet.
This semester my undergrads have been so utterly delightful, from the get-go. Last semester I had a shaky start but we came to a cool place by the end, but this semester it was just like BANG. Yesterday, our last day together, I was very frank with them. I said this has been a hard year and that coming to talk with them every week has been a real ray of light. I asked them to give me serious feedback about this class and what they told me truly surprised me. What they got out of the class was exactly what I dreamed they would but expected they wouldn’t. They were so thoughtful and tapped in to what the point of the class was. I had built up such a grouchy, defensive, protective shell of cynicism that it had not occurred to me that some of my students were actually appreciating what was happening, and were noticing the ways their brains were changing. A lot of them specifically said they had learned to enjoy jazz, which was not even one of my learning objectives but I’ll take it. I feel like I spent two thirds of a year with a slow sinking feeling, worrying that this job I’ve always felt was my calling was actually not going to be rewarding for me anymore, and I can’t even really express how shattering it’s been to confront that idea. I became so drawn and haggard and I think this is what the cold sores have been about. But then I tapped in–or else got blessed with a spectacular group of kids, randomly (or maybe both)–and it started coming back, my emo earnest Mr. Rogers feelings about undergraduate education (my grad students have, to date, always been great).
After that class I felt so good. I felt as light as air. I felt easy in a way I haven’t in a year. And again, it was nighttime, and it was humid, and I drove home listening to Jagged Little Pill.
It’s not perfect, and a lot of my students ARE ALWAYS going to be bored little dorks who I will never be able to make give a shit about Italian futurism or whatever. And I still have a shared office. And I am still thousands of miles away from all the people I love. And my book is not published and my tenure clock is still ticking. And next semester might be a disaster. But I am feeling like my vocation MIGHT not have actually deserted me. I am just having to adjust and hone different tools than the ones I used to use. And aspects of this career are emotionally draining and will always be, but it’s starting to feel a bit more normal, like it’s going to just be emotionally draining in the way that pretty much any job is, or just being alive is. I am remembering the phenomenal luck of even getting a job at all, much less a solid one in a non-toxic department in a place I enjoy living, like this job. My husband and I are laughing again. The dog still has his baseball. And Jagged Little Pill absolutely 100% continues to hold up.