• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Title

My 'Last' Class

I taught my last class ... for now.

April 26, 2017
 
 

I do not remember many specifics of my first college class as the instructor of record.

I know it was fall ’94, English 090 (Developmental English) at McNeese St. University, my first semester as a graduate student TA in an MFA program. I remember what I wore, the same uniform I’d sported as a paralegal at a large Chicago law firm, dress pants, sportcoat and tie. I meant to project authority through my costuming, realizing I had none based on experience or knowledge.

Pretty soon I ditched the coat – this was Southwest Louisiana, after all – and the tie followed shortly after. Many of my students were overmatched by college and I fear I was of limited help. I know I tried hard, spending more time on teaching than recommended for someone who was supposed to be there primarily to work on his own writing. I knew the work was important, even as I felt adrift in how one might go about it.

Over three years I couldn’t help but get better, and by graduation felt I could perhaps hold my own. I was at least not actively damaging students.

Tuesday, I taught my “last” college class. Those quotes are because deep down I sense that someday I will return to the classroom, but I know for now, come fall, for the first time in 16 years I will not be teaching. My last class was largely unremarkable, a pretty standard discussion meant to spur a little bit of reflective contemplation of the semester’s experiences and remind students of their remaining responsibilities before the term closes for good. I was worried what might happen if I made a fuss, so I just decided not to[1].

I feel … about like I do at the end of any semester honestly, though significantly less drained since I’ve been teaching a single, 3-hour course as opposed to what has been my standard 12-hour load for the vast majority of these 16 years. Usually in spring I feel entirely wrung out, desperate for a break. Not the case this year.

I also recognize that I did the vast majority of my grieving for the closing down of this particular phase of my life last year when I failed to secure a tenurable position at my current institution and I realized I couldn’t see a future where I would be doing the same thing over and over again with no route toward evolution or advancement. 

The past year has given me a chance to conceive a different path in a way teaching full-time never would have allowed. The difference between my spirit and energy this year and last reinforces how all-consuming teaching can be. I needed the distance to see that there is indeed another route I can take and stay invested in the work that’s important to me.

My teaching “career” was accidental.

When we moved to Urbana, Ill., so my wife could do a year-long postgraduate internship in veterinary medicine prior to her three-year residency (at Virginia Tech) I applied for two jobs: Night watchman and lecturer in the English department at the University of Illinois. Night watchman paid a smidge better, but in returning to the classroom after four years in the “real world” post grad school, older, a little more seasoned, I first recognized how interesting the problems of teaching are and that I had the capability of approaching them with intention and purpose.

At Virginia Tech where I had to teach a course that included intro to communication and public speaking in addition to writing I became even more engrossed in exploring pedagogy through experience. I’ve loved testing my own theories and beliefs, endlessly revising my approaches, asking students: Is this working?

In many ways, I’ve been fortunate, sixteen years employment teaching college on year-to-year contracts, full-time when I’ve desired it. Everywhere we’ve moved a job has been waiting for me, and each stop along the way provided enough difference to renew my spirit, at least for a time, even as I knew the positions were professional dead ends.

My biggest regret for the moment is that I’ve taught my final class just as my values have come into alignment with my disciplinary knowledge and pedagogical approaches. In short, I finally feel like I really know what I’m doing and how I should go about doing it.

This, more than anything, is what will bring me back to the classroom. I have unfinished business.

I guess that’s what’s most compelling about teaching. The business is always unfinished.

But first, I have to see what’s available to me with teaching not in the picture. It’s not a matter of absence making the heart grow fonder, because I have never been more fond of teaching, but I do need some space to forget or at least forgive higher education for its systemic faults

The accidental nature of my work in academia was both my greatest gift, and the reason why it has ultimately proven unsustainable. It has allowed me to focus on the immediate work of greatest interest, semester after semester. Having nowhere to go, no room for advancement, and no one to please has provided significant freedom and focus. I am a far better teacher and more interesting writer because of it.

It has also made me apparently unsuitable for sustainable employment inside the academy. I once thought that a paradox, but I think I know better now. Freedom as a value is far more theoretical than actual in many situations inside higher education institutions. That I have experienced, in many ways, far more freedom than someone in pursuit of tenure demonstrates this. We need not look far for many other examples of the ways institutional structures restrain, rather than enable freedom.

But the work of the academy need not be done from the inside. In fact, doing it on the outside may prove beneficial. Time will tell for me. One thing I’ve promised myself is to be far more purposeful in my work. All future accidents will come by design, rather than chance.

I’ve identified my role models. I have next year’s projects just about set, though not so set I can write about them here. (Soon, I hope.)

So, for now, farewell to teaching, I hope to see you again soon, though hopefully under different circumstances.

 

[1] I may have briefly entertained some kind of “last lecture” fantasy, but realized the last lecture is a broader, public communication, not literally something to do the last day with your current cohort of students. They neither want, nor need, to hear all I might have to say.

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