Sometimes, I want to be wrong.
I suspected it would to be tough to return to the grind this fall after the glorious summer I had. Particularly, after a three-week gig teaching Shakespeare to junior high students, I wondered how I could (once again) face a first year composition class at the big university where I’m working on my doctorate.
This summer, I taught “Shakespeareance” at Davidson University for the Duke/TIP program. It’s an incredible program—though my last summer as a Tipster was 1988, I’m still in touch with friends from then. Having the opportunity to be on the teaching side of things was an exciting prospect.
And the kids! I had eighteen students in class for six hours a day, five days a week, and three hours on Saturdays. After dinner, the students returned for an hour of evening study. Over the course of the three weeks, we read Twelfth Night, 1 Henry IV, As You Like It, and Macbeth. I loved watching the students adore Falstaff, argue about Lady Macbeth, and write their own endings to Twelfth Night. To be sure, students who are going to give up three weeks of their summer to spend this many hours studying Shakespeare are going to be extraordinary kids. Still, it was astonishing to ask a question to the class and have eighteen hands shoot up.
Also new to me was feeling such a strong connection to my students. Certainly, I work on fostering a sense of community in all of my classes, but being together for such long periods of time for such concentrated study meant that we quickly became a tight group. Plus, it was nice to have things in common with my students—not just as a nerdy academic who thinks it’s fun to study Shakespeare all day, but culturally, too. These kids worship David Tennant and Ian McKellan, they thought the Frye and Laurie skit about studying Shakespeare that my TA showed was hilarious, and quite a few of them have read Terry Pratchett. They told jokes about Cthulhu and Star Trek which I found funny. It was quite a change from my regular students’ references to football and reality television (which I rarely understand).
Outside of the classroom, I enjoyed a different sense of community with the staff, with whom I shared the top floor of the dorm. The first week of classes, we practiced two hours a night learning choreography for the lip sync contest the first Saturday---the result of which was an incredible sense of community. However, it wasn’t just tripping over each other trying to emulate Justin Timberlake that forged these bonds. About halfway through the term, it occurred to me that, though we lived and ate together, I had yet to hear any real negativity about teaching. Oh, sure, there were complaints—twelve year olds who lack parents telling them to shower every day are at times unpleasant to be around in the summer. But I realized that everyone on the academic staff was there because they wanted to teach; there was none of the “teaching is what we have to do so we can get to our *real* work” attitude which so pervades higher education. The combination of students who want to learn and teachers who want to teach was a singular experience for me.
I began to worry what it was going to be like to return to the land of students who resent having to read and colleagues who resent classroom time. Don’t get me wrong - I am fortunate to have many classmates and faculty who value teaching. This year, in fact, our English Graduate Student Organization is organizing pedagogy groups for teachers to share common interests and concerns. Upon returning, my intention was to try to hold on to the renewed love of teaching I found this summer and use it to inspire me in the classroom this fall. However, the first time a student expressed disdain for having to take English classes, and the first time my students rolled their eyes when I had no idea who [insert famous college football player here] was, I felt the gap.
I’m certainly not the first person to ask how to maintain excitement for teaching, I know. However, I want to know if it’s possible to get anywhere near the kind of engaged community that I had this summer in a class that meets three hours a week. Or with my colleagues without resorting to jazz hands?
Monica Miller is working on a Ph.D. in English and Women's and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University, after earning an M.A. in English from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2010. Her primary research interests are Southern and Appalachian literature and feminist and gender theory; her current work is focused on the figure of the ugly woman in Southern literature. She blogs about life in graduate school at http://hegemonicbulwark.blogspot.com/ .