Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Reminiscing: the Radical Was Once A Visiting Professor

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..."


Lesboprof said...

This piece should be published somewhere, TR. It offers some great insights for all kinds of instructors, especially grad students just learning to teach. There is nothing like standing up the first time to prepare lectures. And that crowd at Business College sounds a lot like the students I teach in our off-campus night program. And I just love them.

An aside: I doubt that current grad students can relate to the Kaypro, although I remember computers that had to be booted by disk. We have come a long way, baby!

Aside #2: Since I am not really a drinker, I have found that endless processing with the gf of class/work/news/relationship drama/dog health concerns/insert other topic here helps me deal with the night-teaching adrenaline, until the gf begs off and goes to sleep. Then I just watch bad TV. ;-)

adjunct whore said...

i agree with lesboprof: this is some great stuff. first of all, let me say how inspiring it is to hear the meager origins of TR--it helps those of us in similiar situations to see that other futures may be ahead of us. i still think of "floppy" disks and the computer you describe i remember, you made me laugh.

and mostly, it is always nice to read academics extending themselves to those who feel like the doormat, who are not sure if/when/or how it will happen for them, and especially to hear the early learning curve of someone they admire. so thanks.

Sisyphus said...

A beautiful story, TR. I await your memoirs.

And I remember helping my sister-in-law notch floppy disks (so you could turn them over in a double-sided disk reader) to help her with her student teaching year.

Do you still have and use any of those lectures? Do you write everything out for lectures now?

ks said...

Thanks, TR, for remembering that a post on how Visitors and Adjuncts might better make use of their time in departments of which they do not feel a part is still wanted...

What you gave was great fun to read, as well as inspiring, but I'm still hoping for more sage advice on how to doff the invisibility cloak.

timna said...

My brother had a Kaypro.
Night teaching adrenaline -- no one is up at our house for me to talk to. Too tired to read. Wine sounds like a good idea.

Paris said...

My endurance test is three discussion sections in a row. Would love to cut the adrenaline with booze, but since it's all over by 11am, maybe not a sustainable strategy.

GayProf said...

I am impressed with your portable computer of yesteryear.

Cort Harrington said...

As a follow up to this inspiring piece you should write a review of Until Proven Innocent. It would give you an opportunity to comment on Duke’s visiting professor Kim Curtis as well as the other 87 professors who signed an ad that was totally misunderstood.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Cort,

I try not to draw myself to the attention of the people with balls and sticks: my encounters have been too unpleasant. I am sure it is a wonderful book, though, and that many people will buy it.

Are you Cort Harrington, the divorce lawyer of Helena, Montana?