A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: Pedagogical Ambivalence, part 1

Jobs are, by definition, things that nobody wants to do.  They are things that people pay you money to do to rather than the thing you actually want to do, which, because you want to do it, no one needs to pay you for.  If a qualified individual wanted to do your job, you wouldn’t be getting paid to do it; the person who wanted to do it would be doing it for free.  Even people who have their dream jobs wouldn’t put the same time and effort into those jobs if they weren’t getting paid for them.

I just finished teaching a class for my university’s summer semester, a survey of early English literature ranging from the beginnings of the literary tradition in Anglo-Saxon and Latin (Beowulf, The Venerable Bede, elegies) to the end of the Renaissance (marked by the publication of Paradise Lost, at least for the purposes of this class).  As happens every time I get to teach a class on literature, it was one of the better teaching experiences I’ve ever had, and, as happens every time I get to teach a class on literature, I start wondering whether I should be doing this teaching thing at all.

I never envisioned myself in a classroom for the rest of my life.  Other people (by which I generally mean my mom) would suggest that I might make a good professor, but it was never something I seriously considered or pursued.  The classroom was a necessary evil, a gantlet I had to run through to get out into adulthood, a state that to this day remains an elusive and nebulous concept associated with greater personal responsibility but also a true sense of purpose.  The more I think about it, the more it makes me feel like one of the knights who was not quite virtuous enough to find the Holy Grail.  I was going through school to do something, and I didn’t know what, but I was sure it would be amazing.  After this long, it had better be.

My point is, I was never exactly suited to a classroom.  I tended to improvise my way through classes as much as possible, relying on my memory rather than my notes, putting assignments together the night before rather than methodically working through them every day.  Part of this is related to my general lack of organization and responsibility, something that has plagued every aspect of my life.  But beyond that, I saw school as an obstacle rather than an opportunity, something that got in the way of videogames and sports and hours of sitting in my room, pointlessly wasting time: all superior to school.  But I was in the honors program at my high school, and couldn’t help but notice that many of my friends seemed to like this stuff for its own sake.  I heard about a calculus camp that our school seemed to be putting on, and if I even let the instructor hand me the flyer, I’m pretty sure I threw it away before leaving the classroom.  Summer camp for calculus?  Wasn’t that when we were supposed to NOT have to do math?  A year later, I discovered that all my friends went to it and had a great time (most of them weren’t really friends at that point, just people I talked to in class).  Many of my friends had teachers for parents and were really gung-ho about the value of education, something I tended to roll my eyes at (even though, if I had thought about it even a little bit, I probably would have agreed with in principle.  But I was a teenager; rolling my eyes was my best skill/a societal responsibility).  I mean, sure, school got us a future and stuff, but who would want to do it any longer than necessary?

Now all those friends are working in labs or offices, and I’m still stuck in the classroom.  I’m pretty sure this is cosmic punishment.

How I got there personally is a different and not particularly interesting story; suffice it to say that, without momentous outside influence, I tend to stay on the course I set.  But now I find myself in a career path that most of the people around me seem to conceive some great passion for, while I seem to be mostly marking time.  Neither of those things are entirely true, but also they are.  It’s complicated.

Really, the attitude is less of a problem than the organization, but all the education-valuing kids I remember (and all the people I’m working with now) seem to be the types born with weekly planners that they frequently consult and remember to fill in.  I probably have a whole box in my mom’s basement dedicated to planners I filled in for the first two days and then forgot about, and I definitely have 3 journals on the desk I’m currently typing this from, each one of which has the first 7 or so pages filled, and then a blank expanse of nothingness.  I didn’t mind getting low As and the occasional B, so I never really took a methodical approach to my classes.  And you can get away with that as a student, but not as a teacher.

I freely admit that this first problem I have with teaching isn’t a “teaching problem” so much as a “life problem,” but it especially applies to teaching, because you’re not just trying to keep yourself organized, you’re trying to keep 25 students organized too, and most of them have the same attitude toward school that I did.  This is good, in a way, because I know how they feel and what their attitude toward the class most likely is, but it’s also bad, because every time I get a student like that, I feel like I’m wasting my time.  Because it’s my job, class is this huge priority for me, but it’s just not for most of them, and I don’t know how to deal with it.

This has gotten longer and more rambly than I’d like, so I’m going to stick a “Part One” in front of it and try to pick it up tomorrow in a more organized fashion.  I guess then I can start explaining how I try to deal with it.

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This entry was posted on 4 July 2013 by in Life and tagged , , , , , , .
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