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Reminiscing: the Radical Was Once A Visiting Professor

September 4, 2007, 10:23 pm

I haven’t forgotten that post I said I would do about what visitors should expect from the institutions that hire them. I even thought I might do that post tonight, as I was enjoying oatmeal with brown sugar and fresh bluberries, and a large glass of fresh squeezed o.j. early this morning at the student center. But not now, and this is why; today, as I was leaving the Castle, dead beat from a day of being chair, one of our visiting faculty came out of his office. He leaned over the bannister, gave me a big grin and said good night. Now wasn’t that nice? And our other visitors are terrific too — I can’t tell you how terrific, since I promised not to write about others. But aside from saving my life, they are really great, smart people, and genuinely excited to be at Zenith, which is nice to see.

So, the night before I start my survey course for the umpteenth time, I began to have memories of being a visitor myself that I thought I would share.

In the year I finished my dissertation, I taught three classes each semester at two very different places: Upstart University, in Downtown; and Business College, which was part of the Public City System in Big City. They couldn’t have been more different. At Upstart, you only taught in a seminar format, and many of the people on the faculty (of which N was one) were legendary teachers. Teaching was more or less text-based, no lecturing; there were no majors, so if you were teaching history, you had to teach what history was at the same time. I worried about prolonged silences, but they rarely occured. The students were bright and unusual: it was a little bit before massive piercings, tattoos and Goth makeup, but it was that crowd in an earlier incarnation. They were all white.

At Business College, I taught two, back-to-back sections, of the U.S. History survey, 1865 -present, each term (the present, at that time, being 1981.) It was entirely lecture format, I was expected to choose a text book and use it to deliver content that I would then lecture on as well. When I was hired, the chair of the History Department told me my class would be “diverse,” my first encounter with this euphemistic word. In retrospect, I now realize that he was really saying: “White girl, do you understand that all your students will be black and Latino, first-generation college students who work forty hours a week and carry a full college load at night?” The first evening I walked into the room and realized that I had never been the only white person in the room before, ever, anywhere. The students were bright — and unusual. And incredibly demanding. And ambitious.

At both Upstart and Business College, I had dusty little offices with other people’s discarded crap in them, where I could meet my students in office hours; mostly, I just sat there and read, or prepped class. At Upstart I knew a lot of people (another story for another day), and the teaching atmosphere was invigorating and intense; at Business College, I knew no one, and even if I had, they wouldn’t have been there. It was one of those colleges where a lot of great people got hired, young, in the sixties — they expected to move on, but the job market crashed in the seventies, so they never did. Their response to this was to come to work as little as possible. And hire people like me to teach the bread-and-butter courses.

But as I prepare to start my lecture course — and whatever else you want to say about it, the Twentieth Century U.S. survey has the distinction of being a marquee course — I have to acknowledge that everything I learned about teaching in a lecture format, I learned that year. I would work all day on my lectures (and they were beautiful lectures: printed on a dot matrix printer, they contained everything I knew from my comps and orals), and I would come in and teach that lecture twice at night, with a fifteen minute break. It was teaching boot camp. Lecture too long? You have fifteen minutes to cut it. Students seemed bored? Jesus H. Christ, think of something! They didn’t seem to get the economic issues behind the Greenback movement — ok, how to try it a different way? In fifteen minutes.

Dig this: we had no cell phones, no email, and no internet. My computer that year was called a Kaypro, it cost two grand (which is what computers still cost), and its big feature was that it was “portable”: it was like a huge, heavy metal suitcase, with a plastic handle that cut into your hand. It banged into your knee repeatedly if you carried it anywhere, like up the seven flights of steps to the top floor of the tenement walk-up where you lived. The screen was about eight inches by eight inches, and the letters were green: you formatted with all these complicated symbols, and all files — there was no hard drive to speak of, it was all RAM, and you had to boot it with a disc — went on four by four thin discs called “floppies.”

Two days a week, in the morning, after teaching at Upstart, I would walk home to the apartment N. and I were sharing by then and stop off at the lesbian bookstore, before going home to hammer out the final draft of my dissertation; two days a week, at night , after lecturing for three hours I would take the crosstown bus home, exhausted, knowing that N had picked up Chinese food and beer, and I experienced for the first time what would be a lifetime impulse: you cut the adrenaline high of teaching with a little booze and a lot of food. (This, my friend, is one way that the unwary academic becomes an alcoholic. Not this academic, but it became quite clear to me that year how easy it could be.)

I had never worked harder in my life. And I would say that although it is not the happiest I have ever been, nor was I looking further than the next job season, I was really having fun. So much fun.

So tonight, as I try to decide what to say to my thirty-fifth lecture class tomorrow afternoon, I want to say “Thank you” — to the first students I ever taught as a real professor, and to the people who hired me to do it. And to whatever Goddess plucked me out of the crowd to get this job: do the same for these visitors, so that in twenty five years they are looking back and saying “The first time I walked into my class at Zenith…”

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