Advice

I Hate Myself When I'm Teaching

Brian Taylor

October 25, 2009

Question (from "Geneva"): I'm in my second year as a tenure-track assistant professor this fall, and I'm already a worn-out worrywart.

I worry too much while I'm teaching about how the class is going. And if it hasn't gone as well as I'd hoped, I feel ill afterward. Following a day or two of undue moping, I do come up with improvements. (For problems with student participation and attention, I'm now starting group discussions.) But even as I'm trying to be positive and proactive, worrying about student reactions is seriously affecting my health and well-being.

I'm sure it doesn't help that I'm shy and quiet, like so many academics, and putting myself "out there" is an extra strain. I loved the summer respite this year. What can I do about this, besides junking my academic career?

Answer: Many sages, though not Ms. Mentor, will claim that life is suffering and quiet desperation. Instead, she will point out that your students will always be less attentive and respectful than you were at their age. Socrates' contemporaries certainly weren't the first to think, "Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way? What's the matter with 'phebes today?"

Socrates learned to pace himself, to teach to his strengths, and to force his students to do a lot of the heavy lifting and public thinking. They were the ones who risked total humiliation and annihilation in front of their peers. He wouldn't be called nurturant or sensitive—but until the hemlock, he did survive.

Newish teachers, even if they've had significant graduate-school experience, are always exhausted. "I got through" is their mantra, and most get sick (flu, even pneumonia) by Thanksgiving. There's too much to do, too many people to meet, too many germs to share, too many mysterious meetings. (It takes awhile to decode a department meeting and figure out what it's really about.) But the most tiring aspect is the part that's supposed to be the most exhilarating: the teaching.

Teaching has the qualities guaranteed to make a job stressful: high responsibility and low control. Mix that kind of job with driven perfectionism of most successful new academics, and … Ms. Mentor sympathizes.

It may help to think about Professor Curmudgeon, a literature teacher Ms. Mentor once knew, who deplored the "lowered standards" and "rampant illiteracy" of everyone. "The best, most Platonic moment in teaching comes from naming the course," he would mutter. Next was the creation of the syllabus. (This was before syllabi had to be the draconian legal documents that they are now, with pages of rules, assessment "objectives," and warnings against plagiarism, sleeping, or other crimes against humanity).

Professor Curmudgeon's syllabi were gemlike reading lists, polished collections of the best that had been thought and written. His best students were said to swoon at the intellectual riches offered. "But then the others come in," he would complain. "After that, it's all downhill. If you're lucky, it's not the pit of hell."

Professor Curmudgeon might be said to have had a bad attitude, but he recognized that the students determine whether a course "works" (however that might be determined). Beginning teachers often feel that they are responsible for everything that happens everyday in the classroom when, in fact, much of it is beyond their control. Bad weather can ruin a class dynamic.

So can a student who interrupts class with, "Why do you make us read such a boring textbook?" or "Why do we have to do these problems if they're not even going to be on the test?" Worse yet are the grade combatants: "I deserve an A because I worked really hard on this. I even read most of the assignment."

Those students drain your motivation to teach, to learn, to live. They give you chest pains. They worry you sick if you're an adjunct, dependent on student favor and evaluations to keep your job. They make you question why you ever wanted to be a professor, unless …

You can train yourself to say, "So what?"

Your field matters to you, or you wouldn't have studied it for at least a decade. But disgruntled students—most often teenagers—will learn what they wish. You cannot be their helicopter parent.

"Pauline," for instance, worried herself into sickness over her students "Linda" and "Lewis." They were a couple, and then they weren't. When they were quarreling, Lewis's homework suffered; Linda, it seemed, had "helped" him a great deal. Both fussed about numbers of points on their exams, but never about intellectual points made in lectures. They would ambush and harangue Pauline during office hours.

And then they stopped coming to class. Pauline wondered and worried. After a few days, she sent them e-mail messages, and got no answers. A little after that, she phoned one of them. No answer. She considered stopping by their apartment, a few blocks from hers, to see if they were lying dead, asphyxiated by gas or eaten by pet hamsters. Luckily she mentioned her fears to a seasoned mentor who said, "Really, it's none of your business. The only thing you should worry about is their intellectual growth—which, to be quite frank, seems to have totally stalled."

Linda and Lewis never returned, the happy majority of the class shaped up, and the last day was a love fest—partly because Pauline, more relaxed, had learned to shrug. She stopped tallying up what she'd failed to cover, stopped fretting about students she'd failed to motivate, and celebrated and learned from what gave her intellectual pleasure.

Ms. Mentor, in short, urges you not to be overinvested in reaching all of your students. But if you can't stop taking every complaint personally, and seeing every failure as yours, then teaching may not be for you. The conditions are no longer bucolic, if they ever were. Tenure-track jobs become rarer and rarer, and you may have to leave loved ones to live and work wherever someone will hire you.

Ms. Mentor suggests that you befriend, or refriend, nonacademics. Think about career alternatives for someone smart and dedicated whose thinking may be underappreciated by a callow bourgeois society.

Or you may get lucky and encounter that star pupil who'll record your wisdom for the ages and keep your name before the public for 2,500 years. That's a good Platonic ideal.

 


Question: For my first Thanksgiving alone in a new place, I seem to have two alternatives: (a) Volunteering at a soup kitchen, inviting international students to make a potluck dinner, and cooking a feast for myself and my cat, or (b) Wallowing in loneliness, self-loathing, and despair. Will Ms. Mentor help me decide?

 

 

Answer: No.


Sage Readers: As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes queries, gossip, and rants, including additions to her collection of academic legends. She invites reader comments on holiday deportment for academic souls. (Do you hide? Is Halloween your favorite?) Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally. Confidentiality is guaranteed, and identifying details are disguised. Your story may not be all that unique.

 

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. She is the author of the recently published "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.