On Wednesday I begin my first official year on the tenure track at Field College. I'm in a bit of an odd situation in that last year retroactively counts as tenure-track-itude; I was, of course, VAPping here at Field, and have received a year's credit towards tenure as a result. I'm glad: I had one article come out and another one get accepted last year; I presented at a conference; I served on a search committee. (Truth be told, I think that I've already fulfilled the publication requirement for tenure; all I need to do now is go to the occasional conference to demonstrate "continued engagement in my discipline." I hope to do a wee bit more than that in the coming years, however.)
But nonetheless this is my first year as an official tenure-track Assistant Professor--my first year advising, serving on committees, fulfilling other administrative roles. I am, for example, directing the honors program. Which is weird, given my novice status, but one thing about tiny little colleges is that you can climb through the ranks awfully quickly: everyone is over-worked and happy to hand off such duties. I'll probably regret it at some point, but right now I'm excited about this particular position, as it'll give me the chance to work with some of the brightest students at the college.
My point is, though, that heading into this year feels really different from last year. Last year I was kind of a mess, I think. I was in a long-distance relationship which, while wonderful, also caused a lot of stress (the exhausting weekend trips, the uncertainty about ever being together, the feeling that everything hinged on how I did on the market); I had never before taught a course that I had designed; I hadn't the foggiest clue about what composition classes were supposed to be like; and almost everyone I met here seemed a little crazy. The entire college seemed crazy. There were a couple of reasons I felt this way: 1) I had never really been behind the scenes at a school, so I didn't know how they worked (the assessment jargon, e.g., really threw me, as did the obsessive concern with enrollment numbers and recruiting), and 2) I come from a pretty elite background--fancy private SLAC for undergrad; ivy grad school--which I'd never really thought of as elite/elitist, and I sort of assumed that all colleges and universities ran (or should run) the way that mine did. That is, that they should only accept the very best students; academics absolutely come before athletics (I still think this is true, OK); and--most importantly--all students are motivated primarily by the pure desire for Knowledge.
Yep, I've lost (most of) those illusions.
In a workshop last week, one senior art professor said something that I found really compelling. He pointed out that when he first got to Field, he had been accustomed to teaching and interacting with art students who wanted to be artists, and were therefore striving for a high level of achievement within their fields. Here, however, he discovered that most students were interested in service professions--teaching, primarily--and gradually had to adapt his teaching methods and course aims to match those students' interests--and that this had ultimately been very satisfying.
I think that I still feel that my students ought to be motivated to study literature because literature is Art--it's Culture--its study is valuable for its own sake, and because it makes us more developed human beings. I believe that that's true, of course: my inner life is infinitely richer because of my knowledge of literature, being a skilled critical reader helps me to cast a more critical eye over my world; and the wealth of ideas and experiences that it's given me glimpses of has enabled me to think very differently about my own life and how I choose to live it. I would still like to communicate that to my students. But many of them do not come from backgrounds like mine, where you never really worry about getting a job--of course you'll work, everyone works, but jobs are available and you'll get one and it's really matter of pulling yourself up out of the slough of just getting jobs and into the realm of the Meaningful. Most of my students aren't of that mindset. No, most of them aren't terribly poor (this is a private SLAC, after all, even if it's a pretty cheap private SLAC--only half of what mine cost 14 years ago!). But they want solidly middle-class jobs of the kind that a college education can give you: many of them want to be teachers or have some sort of "business" career (I assume that the business students have some concrete ideas of what they want to be; I have no idea what "business" actually means, so the scare quotes there are indicative only of my own ignorance).
I'm still trying to absorb what this difference means, and what exactly I can contribute to this student population. What I want is to galvanize these students--to shake them up, get them out of thinking about The Job and open the larger world up to them; many of them, for example, have hardly even left this state, and seem to have very little sense of alternative ways of living in the world than those to which they're accustomed. I might be able to do this, in a limited way. My best teaching persona--the one that came out in my most successful courses last year--is lively, self-deprecatingly geeky, wildly (almost goofily) enthusiastic and supportive, and even gets some laughs, and in those classes I had comments on my evaluations like, "I learned that literature is awesome!" and "Who knew I would like [subject of this course] so much?" So I retain my idealism, a bit. But I'm trying to get myself interested in learning from my students, too. It would be good for me, I think, to come to appreciate where they're coming from, as well, and to see the value in what they want to do.
It might help shake me out of my de facto elitism, at any rate.