Being Used to the 'Best' of Your Abilities
A former student thought I'd been demoted. The notion it might be true stuck with me.
In the wake of posting last week’s column exploring the fact that this will likely be my last semester teaching a fiction writing course, I received a very nice email from a former student.
The former student asks not to be identified or extensively quoted, so I’ll mostly paraphrase, but essentially, the student expressed appreciation for our time together in a previous fiction writing course, saying that while this student has not gone on to pursue writing in a serious way post-college, the student has become a passionate reader of literature, something I predict for them upon exiting the class.
The former student is in the midst of taking a run at David Foster Wallace’s opus, Infinite Jest, calling it “confusing” and “amazing.”
The former student went on to say it was a “shame” that I wasn’t being utilized to “the best of your abilities.”
This gave me pause.
I understood what my former student meant. I started thinking hard about where the sentiment comes from, what it means to hold it, and whether or not I agree.
I taught this former student at Clemson, a place like many other R1 universities, where first-year writing is staffed almost exclusively by graduate students and contingent instructors. My student had absorbed the implicit (or maybe even explicit) values of the place, that teachers of first-year courses are less than, that your value is directly proportional to how high your course numbers climb, and even how little contact you have with undergraduates, period.
My former student was viewing my present work at a different school, one with a different ethos, through the “Clemson” lens.
In my former student’s eyes, I had been demoted and I didn’t deserve it.
I began to wonder what percentage of college faculty might feel similarly. I began to wonder if I was among them.
What does it mean to be used to “the best” of one’s abilities?
On the one hand, I’ve declared that “everyone” should teach first-year writing, and I tell my students that English 110 is the “most important” course they’ll ever take.
Under these sincerely held beliefs, there is no higher calling than teaching first-year writing.
On the other hand, inside of higher education, the teachers of freshman composition are widely viewed as fungible. Many less fortunate than me are tasked to doing it for far less than a living wage.
Can I continue to believe in my own value as the broader culture gives the side eye to the work I’m asked to do?
Inside this culture, the “best” of my abilities would include teaching upper level fiction writing, advanced literature, advanced composition, securing grants, mentoring independent studies, overseeing internships, and being faculty sponsor to a student publication, all things I did at Clemson while being paid just over $25,000 a year.
But at least I wasn’t teaching “freshman comp,” right?
Considering the two different situations, I feel considerably more bitterness about the past than the present, even as I believe I’m capable of doing “more” for my present employer.
But that’s not the job I have, the one I entered into willingly, re-signing on the same dotted line for two years now.
Would doing “more” necessarily mean I’m doing “better?”
If I ever want to end my contingency, it will entail finding a position that has me doing “more” or perhaps “different” work, though I’m not convinced that such a shift would necessarily be the best use of my abilities. As long as we work in hierarchies - and I cannot imagine a time when we will not - I don’t see a way around this dilemma.
I would like to think that there is an endowed chair in teaching first-year writing out there somewhere, but it sounds almost like an article from The Onion.
I do not lament teaching first-year writing and I refuse to feel shame over it. It’s hard to feel bad about doing work that matters and that I believe myself to be good at. To the extent I want “more” or “better” it is in fear of future burnout.
There are no sabbaticals for the contingent to recharge, and I will not risk the bitterness that crept into my final days at my previous position. I will walk away before I let those feelings eat me alive again.
And given the degree to which my former student’s message struck me, I cannot deny having absorbed some of the values of my industry, to occasionally giving in to the creeping feeling that I am indeed less than, that I am allowed to either teach upper division courses or be paid a reasonable salary, but not both.
I’m not sure this is a problem I’m ever going to solve.
The only remedy I know is the work itself, which is - blessedly, frighteningly – just a week away.
Twitter will set me straight if there is indeed an endowed chair in teaching first-year writing.
 This isn’t to say that there wasn’t excellent undergraduate teaching going on, there was. It just wasn’t necessarily an institutional priority.
 I made it clear in the context of where I work and the position I hold (visiting instructor) that this wasn’t the case.
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