Sunday, September 3, 2006

On teaching (and interest, difference and social interaction)

George has posted the first Teaching Carnival of the year and, as always, there's lots of good stuff.

Teaching seems to differ quite a bit across disciplines (the posts are mostly from the humanities), institutions, and even countries (almost exclusively American). I mean, I'm pretty sure I'll never hear a student say "I Love Jesus" - and if I did I'd be so shocked that I don't know what I'd do! But more generally, I suspect that some of these folks wouldn't even consider me a colleague because I don't yet have my PhD in hand. From what I understand, Canadian graduate students teach far more than American grad students - which is both good and bad. I gain valuable teaching and learning experience, but my labour is exploited as a sessional lecturer, and American universities may consider my experience irrelevant or even inappropriate.

I'm also often told that the longer I take to finish my PhD, and the longer I continue to teach as a sessional, the harder it will be for me to find a tenure-track position and get down to some real work. This is usually followed by the (rather flippant and ineffective) advice to JUST DO IT, and I must take a deep breath before politely reminding people that it takes longer to finish a PhD when you're working practically full-time at other things JUST TO PAY THE RENT. Plus, I like teaching these classes. I got to design them; I get to redesign them. It's fun. And the students are cool. But I'm getting off-track.

The best part about Teaching Carnival is finding kindred spirits and other inspiring people I probably would have never otherwise come across:

At Is there no sin in it?, A White Bear describes how she decides what to teach:

"One of my deep interests as a scholar is the very nature of the interesting. I have searched far and wide for that which is exciting, disturbing, upsetting, profound, stimulating, and profane so that I never have to hear those fucking words: 'Teacher, I think this is boring.'"

Sweet! But what is interest?

"You can talk about what 'interests' you without mentioning a single text, author, or even period. You can write an English dissertation without mentioning language or even words. How? Because you find vague things 'interesting.' It got me thinking: How do you get interested in things? Is it different for every person? Is it something like self-recognition mixed with arousal? Is it basically like masturbating in a brand new way?


I feel like my greatest flaw as a scholar is that my 'interest' in things borders on the obsessional, and it can be intimidating for my students and friends. I never say, 'You might like this; you might not'; I end up saying something like, 'This is one of the most fascinating texts I've ever read. You'll love it.' It puts way too much pressure on the listener, and only the most blindly trusting will go along with it."

Wow. I do that all the time! Perhaps this is what a friend recently referred to as my "aggressive intensity"? I know I sometimes sound really certain about something, but I don't think people understand what's going on in my head. The certainty doesn't come from a belief that I've found the truth (and that others should too) but rather from a conviction that something is absolutely fascinating and worthwhile to think about and discuss. In other words, I'm more inclined to be certain about my questions, and quite happy to be uncertain about their answers. This may be arrogance, but I'm not sure it's the kind of arrogance that people expect from academics - or women. In any case, I'll pay more attention to the social implications of my behaviour in the future.

And, last but not least, here's a lesson that reaches far beyond the university:

NY Times: What a Professor Learned as an Undercover Freshman

"Federal studies have shown that college students today spend less time studying than previous generations, but also less time socializing. So what are they doing? Professor Small learned that many on her campus were struggling to balance academic demands with long hours in jobs off campus. She also found that the university had unintentionally fragmented the student body by offering a plethora of options on many aspects of student life. Everything from course loads to living arrangements can be tailored to suit individual tastes, but the results reduced the chances that undergraduates would mix with people unlike themselves."

Not only does this get back to my perpetual interest (or is it hobby horse?!) in sociality as encounters with difference, but it also sounds a bit like what plagues some visions of "social" technologies. When individualism, rather than collectivism, is at the core of one's definition of the social, social software revolves around things like customisation or preferred networks (a.k.a. filtering or social sorting). This is fine some of the time--depending on who's doing the sorting and to what end--but I'm quite certain that it's not good all of the time.

After all, we can't really discuss preferences because they're points of fact rather than matters of concern - and so we end up talking at each other rather than with each other. If I'm always allowed to act on my preferences, to be "entitled" to my opinion and my identity, I can successfully avoid the idea and practice of some sort of social contract. And that, I'm afraid, I cannot support.


Blogger Collin said...

The amount of teaching varies a great deal from field to field here. By the time I'd gotten my PhD (in rhetoric & composition), I'd already taught close to 25 courses as the instructor of record (i.e., not assisting or grading), and it would have been more but I finished pretty quickly. But I know that there are also fields in the humanities where newly minted PhDs may not have a single course to their name.

I can't speak for anyone other than myself, but I've always thought it better to hire people who already have experience balancing the different requirements of academic life--more than specific disciplines or shared content or sources, figuring out how to write, teach, contribute, and live all at the same time is the thing that I have in common with all of my colleagues (whether they have a particular degree or not)...


Anonymous Carrie K said...

Individually collective? It seems as if we can't have one without some form of the other. I have noticed how caught up in their own world people are nowadays, what with cellphones, iPods, etc.

I feel for those graduate students. I'm constantly labeling everything "interesting" because...well, because that's what it is. And I'm not very good at encapsulating.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your "aggressive intensity" is your most attractive (public) characteristic, Anne! Because of it your readers always learn a lot from your blog, you've always discovered something new or a new angle on something familiar. It's side-tracking, yes, I know how it feels, I'm that way myself. (But I have children, a marriage and a household too, so I'm forced to balance my time carefully.) You are already publishing and keeping body n soul together, so don't worry so much about tenure tracks and those things! Tenure track will come n then you decide if you really want it. Grad students are socialized to believe that the greatest bliss is to be on someone's tenure track. That's an illusion. Regards and keep up your good work, Leah

Anonymous jeff said...

In graduate school, I taught two courses one semester, one course the next semester, one course in summer.
This is fairly common for public universities. For private, and often the Ivy Leagues, you may not teach at all, or you may only work with a professor who has a large lecture course.

I had already developed enough teaching experience by the time I finished teaching in grad school, that I wrote a textbook.

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