I thought teaching a single class after being away for two years would ease some of my longing for the classroom.
Turns out, I was wrong. If anything, teaching a first-year experience course has intensified that longing.
In almost every conceivable way, things are going well for me in my post full-time teaching life. I have a good job doing interesting work I look forward to while collaborating with colleagues I like and respect and who give me respect in return. My most recent books are selling better than I ever could have imagined and are having the kind of impact I only dreamed of.
I sleep at least seven (and sometimes eight) uninterrupted hours a night, I no longer spend six weekends a semester entirely immersed in grading, I’m down five pounds, my income is significantly higher, and even my dogs seem to treat me with more respect.
If my time as a contingent laborer in higher education institutions gave me lemons, I’m now sipping some very satisfactory lemonade.
And yet, teaching a class seems to mostly remind me what I’m missing. Some of this is rooted in the class being both interesting and challenging, a humor writing class I haven’t taught in over a decade that has me realizing a lot has changed about the world between then and now. It’s keeping me on my toes in a very stimulating way.
But it’s just once a week, Monday evenings. I spend a chunk of my Sunday immersed in preparation, then three or four hours together on Monday, and after that, teaching takes up minor chunks of the rest of the week in moving the bureaucratic bits along, answering emails, managing the LMS and the like. It’s not the same.
When I was teaching full-time, the rhythms of the semester would – for better and worse – govern the rest of my life. From the initial flush of excitement at the start, to the week 6-10 grind, and the final 11-16 week push, the semester has an arc that I found both absorbing and comforting.
Not always comfortable, necessarily, but comforting in the knowledge that I knew that any rough patches would pass and something would be accomplished. This is the time in the semester when I’d feel like students are really up and running, acculturated to the class, ready to tackle the toughest stuff. This is happening in my single course, but it’s like I’m not allowed to enjoy it as much, since teaching is a relatively small proportion of my weekly work.
I believe this is why it is so difficult to juggle full-time teaching and research/writing responsibilities during the semester. To do either of these things well is not only time-consuming, but totalizing as well. When teaching full-time, I am carrying around the problems of teaching every moment of the day, even when I’m not actively “working.”
The same is true of writing a book. If I am going to write something long that’s going to be any good, I have to essentially be doing it all the time, even when I’m not doing it, if you know what I mean.
Teaching full-time was a virtual guarantee that I could experience the deep level of engagement that comes with total absorption. Even better, unlike writing a book it does not require countless hours working alone. For me, teaching is always an act of collaboration with my students.
The kind of deep engagement teaching full-time gave me is one of the experiences I wish for students while they’re in school, even as I think school often prevents students from experiencing that depth of engagement. #irony.
I’m a firm believer that one’s scholarship can inform one’s teaching, but that doesn’t mean we can do both of those jobs well at the same time. I think in most cases faculty are required to choose, and the structural incentives of academia mean that teaching often gets short shrift.
Working under untenable conditions, as many contingent faculty do, is obviously another problem. I had a better situation than probably 90% of contingent faculty and I can still recognize the way I was being ground down by a system that treated my labor as fungible and did not pay me a wage consistent with my work. While I miss teaching very much, I also recognize that I am happier and healthier on my current path, and what I am doing is far more sustainable long term with plenty of room for continued growth.
So while I will probably always regret that I was not able to figure out how to make a life as a full member of academia, and will continue to feel that loss, I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would reverse course.