Back to the Classroom

Brian Taylor

March 15, 2010

All of the other full professors on my hallway are headed to an administrators' meeting, as evidenced by their commiserating repartee. Decisions will be made there. Insider jokes will be shared. A dean and maybe even a provost will attend, upping the possibility that real action will be taken. I know, because I used to attend such meetings on a weekly basis.

But today I'm taking a different kind of meeting, with just a student and me. It starts with sighs, eye rolls, and a text message covertly checked. It continues with our heads bent over a disorganized pastiche of nonstandard sentences set in one enormous paragraph.

Stepping down: The cons. After 10 years at the helm of a graduate program, I've stepped down from administration and returned to the classroom. At my university, the "down" part is real. Since we're a small, liberal-arts institutions with a teaching load of four courses each semester, few of us on the faculty reach the scholarly heights. Instead, the path to power here is an administrative one, and stepping off of it feels like a decline in status.

"Are you OK about this?" was a common question when news of my leaving the director's post started to circulate. "Was it by choice?" My answers were "Very OK" and "Yes." But now, well into my second year back in the classroom, I've realized that both the pangs and the joys are stronger than I had expected.

First the pangs: I feel left out of the inner circle. I miss helping to guide the university. My opinion is no longer as sought-after, and, like the cheerleader who quits the squad and loses her place at the cafeteria table, my feelings are a little hurt. I hadn't realized how much of people's interest in my ideas had to do with my position rather than with my innate charm and intelligence.

On a deeper level, I see decisions being made in "my" program that differ from those I would have made, and that's hard. Even though my replacement is a dear friend and talented administrator who solicits and listens to other people's views on program issues, I am no longer the one making the final call on policies and procedures. Part of the reason I stepped down was my own shortage of fresh ideas, my sense that the program needed the kind of change that can come only from new leadership. Now I have to let that happen, but I find it's a continuing challenge to relinquish control.

Those pangs are mitigated, though, by a new sense of kinship with graduate students and faculty members. For the first time this year, I dropped by the graduate students' wine social, sat down, and had a drink and a lighthearted conversation. It was fun to chat with them when no one needed me to sign a drop/add form or resolve a conflict. The same relaxed feeling held strong at the faculty social, where I was able to participate in raucous attempts to open wine bottles without corkscrews—and without worrying about liability issues. It's good to be one of the gang again.

A different kind of busy. But it's not as if I have all the time in the world now for socializing. I'm busy in a completely different way than I was as an administrator. I'm rushing to prepare for my courses, grading stacks of papers, and advising students. It's far different from the hours I used to spend in my office going over budgets or in meetings haggling about policies.

I do take papers home to grade, and many evenings find me reading course materials. The difference is that I leave my worries on the campus. There is little to no risk of someone's calling to tell me that a computer system on which 70 graduate students depend has just crashed—and expecting me to solve the problem. If a student has a personality clash with another professor, I can sympathize and tell the student about the proper channels to file a complaint. But I am not the channel. I feel a thousand times lighter and more free.

Low-status courses. Part of the reason my work life feels so different now is that I've shifted from teaching the highest-status courses in the university to the lowest. I recognize that describing any course as low-status is not politically correct; nonetheless, it's an attitude from my past with which, I suspect, many academics of a certain age can identify.

As a graduate-program director, I still taught a few courses, but only for graduate students and upper-division undergraduate majors. When I was coming up through graduate school, that was the type of teaching to which we all aspired.

Now, through a combination of personal interest and institutional need, I'm voluntarily teaching core courses for nonmajors. Our director of composition was surprised when I asked to teach "Basic Comp," the course for those who aren't yet ready for our standard first-year composition course. When I heard that some of our education majors were struggling with the classic American-literature sequence, I designed a general-education course in children's literature that is more suited to their interests and needs. I headed in this new direction just feeling my way, experimenting with how I could put my longtime interest in literacy and at-risk children to use.

Things have fallen into place even better than I expected. For one thing, I've climbed as high on the professional ladder as I'm able to go. It makes more sense for my junior colleagues to teach the upper-division specialty courses so that they can further their research agendas and move toward promotion and tenure. Sometimes, too, students in entry-level courses are needier; they do better with teachers who are on the campus a lot than with adjuncts who may lack office space and meeting time, or with assistant professors who are frantically working toward publishing enough to earn tenure.

I find, too, that I have a different type of relationship with undergraduates than I did as a younger, hungrier scholar. At 50, I'm at least as old as their parents. No more am I someone with whom to compete or struggle for power. And that equation works both ways. I'm less threatened by a male student whistling for my help as you might whistle for a dog; an act that would have struck my younger self as a sexist putdown now seems like a social lapse more related to his youth and inexperience than to me as a person. I can gently correct his manners the way his mother would, and we can both end the encounter with a laugh.

More and different people. As an administrator, I worked with other professors and administrators. As an instructor of graduate creative writers and upper-division English majors, I was teaching students who also loved words and writing, students who aspired to be what I was, a published author employed in a bookish field.

Believe me, I am no longer preaching to the choir. My general-education students don't aspire to be writers, and few of them love words. "I never liked reading" is a confession I hear almost as often as "I'm terrible at writing."

In one sense, that's a huge hurdle for me to overcome as a teacher. But I feel a missionary zeal about these students. If I can convert some future elementary-school teachers into lovers of children's books, I've made a difference not only in their lives, but also in the lives of their young students.

A new specialty. As I've begun working with these students, my interests have broadened. Creative writing continues to take up the main part of my writing time, and it's been greatly fed by the variety of people and situations I encounter working with gen-ed students. But I've also been reading more extensively in developmental-education journals to attempt to understand my basic-composition students. I've gotten involved with the College Reading & Learning Association and taken a course in postsecondary developmental reading.

I'm excited about my new, cross-disciplinary specialty in developmental reading and writing, and humbled by the breadth of knowledge I need to absorb. It takes time to move into a new area, and because I'm senior, I have the freedom to read a lot, to start small with a conference paper, to be a beginner again.

And with this excitement has come a desire to try more new things. For the first time, I'm teaching a course entirely online and learning how to manage a wiki.

All of it together—a new specialty, more contact with younger, different types of people, a new sense of mission—has renewed in me the sort of excitement I felt when I was starting graduate school. It's not exactly what I expected when I was aspiring to a high-status, ever-upward-moving academic career, but it's an excellent place to be.

Lee Tobin McClain is a professor of English at Seton Hill University.