When I first began teaching — as a master’s student, with one section of English composition capped at around 20 students — I was as optimistic and idealistic as you’d probably expect. I was going into the noblest profession, and I was going to make a difference in the lives of young people who might not otherwise learn to appreciate literature or express themselves through writing. Although I was nervous on that first day of classes — sweating in my suit and tie on an unseasonably hot late August day — I was excited nonetheless. I promised myself that I would inspire my students the way the professors at my beloved alma mater — St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York — had inspired me.
Of course, by then I knew some professors who weren’t so inspiring. I had overheard complaints about student apathy, about administrators who just didn’t get it, about being overworked and underappreciated. One senior professor tried to caution me against academe, telling me that he actually regretted how he’d spent his life. Each year, he warned, the students seemed lazier, the job of teaching them harder. And much less rewarding.
I thought, "Clearly, this is someone who needs to retire to make way for some new, more enthusiastic blood." Specifically, my blood.
It's 12 years later now; if things go according to plan, I will soon earn tenure. And I'm wondering now if the 23-year-old master’s-degree student was perhaps uncharitable toward someone who might have known some things he didn’t.
In terms of an academic lifetime, I'm still a relative newborn, yet I feel like I know a bit more about the frustration and exhaustion that might cause a college professor to wonder if he had wasted his life. I once received a paper wherein the student claimed that "John Lenin" had used his career in the Beatles as a stepping stone to seize control of Russia; last year, I read a paper that advanced the idea that "back in the day" — by which the writer meant the 1990s — people didn’t commit adultery, and homosexuality didn't exist.
The pedagogue in me gently corrects students' misconceptions. The educated person in me shakes his head and laughs at such fundamental misunderstandings. But sometimes, the part of me who has to grade the papers — the part of me who is conscious of the 14-hour workdays, the amount of effort I’m putting into this job of educating these students — wonders "Is this really what I ought to be doing with my life? Is it possible to really make a difference in these lives?"
This question gets repeated every time a student's cell phone rings in class, or every time I discover that a student's essay is actually a copy-and-paste job from Wikipedia, or every time a student who got a D on the first submission of a paper "chooses" to not improve the next draft — or even talk to me about the suggestions I’ve so helpfully written on the paper. Except each time I repeat the question in my head, I do so with more profanity.
"I had so much respect for my own professors," I tell myself. "Yet these students seem to be mocking my efforts."
It's easy to understand why those who have been doing this for their entire lives might get frustrated, isn’t it? It’s depressing, to think that the college experience now is so degraded, compared to how we remember our own college years, a time of discovery and the excitement that comes with acquiring knowledge.
My good friend — and former teacher — Bob Cowser Jr. has written in one of his personal essays that memory is "a dream we dream about the way things were, no more true and no less fantastical than other kinds of dreams." Certainly, as I continue to teach young adults and begin to creep toward middle age, I’ve noticed that my own memory has sort of cleaned up my past, often to the detriment of the students who inhabit my present.
The student who had "so much respect" for his own professors, in fact, consistently fell asleep in his first English class — a survey of British literature that met at the ungodly hour (for an 18-year-old) of 8 in the morning. He once handed in a research paper without a works cited page because, you know, he had better things to do than edit his own paper before handing it in. He even showed up for a late-afternoon psychology lab after spending the early afternoon working on a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best and proceeded to giggle like an imbecile every time the untenured, undoubtedly overworked instructor said the phrase "sexual arousal." The topic for the day was — you guessed it — sex, which meant that the juvenile snickering went on longer than even Beavis and Butthead would have found tolerable.
Yet if you had told me then that my behavior demonstrated disrespect for my professors, I would have been shocked. And saddened, too. Because I wasn’t exaggerating before — I had such profound respect for my professors. When I looked at these people — Tom Berger and Natalia Singer in English, Liam Hunt in history, Ron Ortiz-Flores in sociology, Andrea Nouryeh in speech and theater, and countless others — I knew with all of the conviction I had at 18 that these were the smartest people I’d ever met. I suspected that I could ask any of them anything and be assured that their answers would be the correct ones. Their obvious intelligence made them seem confident, self-assured, and, ultimately, kind of intimidating to a kid from upstate New York’s leatherstocking region who still had a comic book collection and who spent his summers bagging groceries at the Shop-N-Save rather than reading Proust while backpacking through Europe.
So, though I respected their obvious intelligence and valued the insights they shared with me, my own admiration for them prevented me from asking them the questions I knew they could answer. My fear of looking foolish caused me to choose ignorance.
As a professor and as a human being, I’m very aware of how ignorant I remain to this day. And I know, now, that those professors I idolized — and idealized — must have been aware of how limited their own knowledge was, and were probably plagued by the same doubts that plague me. Part of being an educated person, of course, involves acknowledging how much we don’t know.
I'm afraid, though, that our students don’t realize this about us—that they might think that, from the lofty perch our superior knowledge has provided for us, we’re looking down at them, judging them for their ignorance. Or that we will judge them, if they expose that ignorance to us by asking the questions they suspect we know the answers to.
This is a difficult job, and it's hard to hold onto idealism even without the type of self-mythologizing sense of nostalgia that, I've noticed, so many people my age frequently tend to embrace. Students don’t say, write, or do frustrating things out of hostility (most of the time); they’re not trying to make my job and, consequently, my life more difficult. These are people who have elected to go into significant debt in order to benefit from whatever knowledge I have to offer. They are occasionally ignorant — just like me. Unlike me, they haven't yet learned that there is no shame in admitting ignorance, when one is trying to learn. But that’s O.K., really. They don’t need to ask for my insights; their presence on campus asks for them. As I prepare to enter the next phase of my academic life — moving beyond my 12-year "grad student/ assistant professor apprenticeship" — I hope that I’m able to keep this truth in mind, and thus resist fatigue and bitterness.
Of course, if one of the papers in this stack beside the computer contains the claim that Paul McCarthy took advantage of Beatlemania in order to seek public office and hunt down communists in the entertainment industry, all bets are off.
William Bradley teaches English at Chowan University, in Murfreesboro, N.C. He's less ignorant than he was a decade ago, but he still has a lot to learn.