I’m wondering if I should make Jill Biden my role model. It’s too late, of course, but I’m impressed by what I’ve seen of her so far. Raising three kids, teaching, going back to school for the doctorate later in life — she was impressive as a senator’s wife and, to me, even more so as the “Second Lady.” News reports snark at her for going by “Dr. Biden” when she’s not an M.D., but where I live that’s the norm: I never went by Dr. before moving to Richmond, but the student culture here is to address professors as Dr. and I go with it (better than Mrs., anyway). And she has, after all, earned it.
I’ve been thinking about Jill Biden in the way that one thinks about distant celebrities, but she feels closer to me, more approachable. I admire her for her commitment to her students, too: she taught English in public high schools for thirteen years, and then moved on to community college teaching, which she’s done for at least fifteen years. She got her master’s while pregnant. She taught emotionally disturbed adolescents. Clearly this is someone who loves to teach; her commitment to education is, for me, her most appealing quality. I’m not sure I could do what she’s done. I used to joke that I went in to college teaching because I couldn’t be a disciplinarian, or because I wanted to work with kids who could stay in their seats for longer than an hour, but the truth is that I went into it because I loved the subject I studied: teaching, for me as for many of my cohort, came second.
And yet, like many women in academe, I now put it first. While my research is fascinating (at least to me) and has the potential to make a difference one day, I can see the results of my teaching every day. Former students stop me as I walk across campus to ask if I’ve been to see the film Coraline, based on the novel I taught them last semester. Usually too cool for “kids’ movies,” they’ve gained a new respect for them after our discussions in the fall. Others write me with news of new jobs, graduate school successes, books they’re reading, while still others simply show up to class and help make meaning out of the disparate texts we discuss. Jill Biden came into academe knowing she was a teacher, something I took many years to learn. I’m no Jill Biden, but I get why she’s doing what she does, and I’m glad to have a woman this close to power who takes education this seriously.