The Elusive 'It'

I’m in my 29th year of community college work -- nearly three decades of completed service and the happy land of defined benefit retirement compose the visible diptych on my life-line horizon. For most of my career, I have taught introductory English and composition.

March 9, 2007

I’m in my 29th year of community college work -- nearly three decades of completed service and the happy land of defined benefit retirement compose the visible diptych on my life-line horizon. For most of my career, I have taught introductory English and composition.

You can type my name into Google Scholar and see some of the lighter-weight composition scholarship (presentations and small-scale articles) I’ve produced -- most since I finished my doctorate back in 1993. Since the late 90’s, I have generated a bit of interesting “regional” material, I would say, on electronic portfolios and the emergence of hypertext essays.

I have thought about writing my memoirs -- you know, reflecting on my career path, or  the changes in technology, or pedagogical evolution, or the sprawling emergence of ed leadership programs -- those topics of interest which shaped my teaching career and the community college culture I swim in. I have taught face-to-face, online, using ITV, and in hybrid situations. I would rather discuss one of my unrecognized objectives, one of my deferred ambitions.

I have worked these 29 years at the same institution -- a rural (although increasingly suburban) community college in Arizona. I have enjoyed working at this institution and attending meetings and teaching students for 58 semesters. I think often about the deans, presidents, vice presidents, directors, and other faculty members who have come and gone. To many of them, their time spent at our little institution was just another rung on the ladder of their American Dream. I take a certain amount of pride in my shop-rat tenacity -- my commitment to a life-long career at one place of employment. My college has been very good to me.

There have been times, though, in the past that I have sought employment elsewhere -- especially at universities. One of my major goals in life has been to teach undergrads at a four year college or university.

I have hungered for that academic environment, for an infrastructure that would be supportive (and demanding!) of that part of me which likes to write and think about composition pedagogy and the current changes in writing and writing instruction paradigms. I am missing that sense of informed collegiality grounded in theory-based knowledge. Of course I enjoy teaching, but I do not believe I am part of the “community of scholars.”

On the surface, I suspect my pedigree and ethos may not be recognized or perceived as suitable for the intellectual demands traditionally associated with a four year college. My community college past partly explains my inability to obtain a position at a university. Certainly, I have the wrong kind of doctorate -- an Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction -- a degree belittled even by many of my community college colleagues who hold the Ph.D. Although I have been a prolific presenter at conferences, my pub record is pretty thin and most of my work has not been juried. My age -- 53 now -- is not helpful. But the real problem, I believe, is that I don’t have “It.” I am not university material.

I think I am smart enough to teach at a four year college somewhere in America. I have an amazing proclivity for taking my teaching practices seriously. I try to be a good instructor and I am certainly student centered. I have been fairly active in local associations -- although I have never held any leadership roles. When I’ve presented at national conferences and had my ideas challenged, I’ve always been able explain the theoretical -- and practical -- foundations underpinning my ideas.

My dissertation committee was composed of some stellar folks -- national figures in their areas of expertise. I have always believed in improving myself professionally and academically. I have always sensed that true professional development comes from contributing to the knowledge base of my discipline -- not in the constant re-explanation of the community college mission.  

But there has always been something missing in my personality, in my presence, in my Weltanschauung, which has kept me in my place. When I look at my life and my habits, I think I can sense where I might have gone wrong.

I don’t exude star power. I don’t command the attention of the room. I’m not very self-promoting. The blue collar types on the Miller High Life commercials -- (flowers in a beer bottle, spit-shined janitor shoes) remind me of me. Sort of. Such a man (or woman) knows the job at hand and gets it done. Like recently wealthy industrialists in a W.D. Howells’ novel, I am not comfortable with my station. I don’t dress well. I can’t talk about wine. I can’t imagine spending good money on bizarre flavors at Starbucks. I have an uncanny ability to sniff out fraud, elitism, and artifice.

I respect those who appear truly educated, who trust their own “genius,” who create rather than facilitate. I believe a good teacher doesn’t need a textbook. I perk up when I hear a linguist discuss allophonic variations -- I try to walk away from speeches about market penetration. I am interested in developing the writing skills of my students rather than liberating their political views or promoting some hidden agenda I personally relish. Control over syntax, in my estimation, is power.

I have always thought hard work and commitment to my discipline mattered more than career building. I am not really interested in the corporate emulation managerial practices that have flowered in the community college (mission statements, networking, partnering agreements). All of that appears to be distant from the day–to-day learning needs of students -- and such practices and pursuits may contribute to confusion about the purpose of community college faculty and their role in the teaching/learning process.

For my undergraduate career, I attended a wonderful junior college and then an excellent small liberal arts college -- both in Nebraska. I brought my Midwestern work ethic into these rich learning environments and prospered. Talented men and women, excellent teachers and scholars, helped me grow intellectually.  The liberating force of the humanities, of a liberal arts education, set me free and continues to guide my daily life and decision making processes. Now, dinosaur-like, I graze on a plain increasingly foreign to me -- though I participate in this civilization daily with a laptop in hand and learning outcomes posted in Blackboard. (I adapted easily to the “new” technological environment back in the mid 80’s -- I’m sure my liberal arts background helped me learn computing with minimal effort.)

My grandfather, in 1940, could determine how to calculate and construct the necessary pitch of a roof—the trusses-- using a carpenter’s square, and pencil and paper, and his mind. Now that impresses me.

I remember vividly those professors who seemed a bit eccentric -- tussled hair, mismatched clothes, suspenders, and bifocals.  What I remember about them most was their absolute command of subject matter, their wisdom, their kindness, their humanity. Their Ph.D.s came from real universities -- learned communities with tradition and rigor -- from a world that didn’t celebrate the customer service metaphor or promote delivery systems rather than actual educational quality.

They were professors who professed and contributed to the body of scholarship -- their professorships were earned, not honorific job titles. As far as I could tell, networking and consulting were seldom part of their daily lives -- certainly never part of their classroom discourse.

But I am not like them. I really am not their intellectual equal. I have dabbled in so many errant pastimes.

Nor am I like the legions of 21st century online doctoral students, eager to become deans or associate vice presidents, who seek to be credentialed rather than educated. Bright, well-intentioned people are involved in such programs, of course. But many of them, even after receiving their degrees, still think a conceptual framework is something which can be purchased at Home Depot.

My efforts at being an original thinker -- a disciple of the learned -- rather than a parrot or corporate pretender -- have kept me clothed  in a  khaki shirt with a name patch sewn over my heart. Perhaps my notion of “It” is anachronistic. Perhaps I no longer fit. Perhaps the world has passed me by. Perhaps I should have earned a real degree.

Sometimes, during crisp autumn evenings up there in Arizona’s Apache County, when I sit in a refitted metal shed I brazenly refer to as my steel cottage, I have a better understanding of “It” and where “It” went. Leafing through a tired, coffee-stained copy of A Sand County Almanac, I pause and feel pity for those who allow their careers to manage their lives, for those who feel bigger than the game we tried to play in, for those whose sense of the profession has been defined by some resort vacation or senior leadership meetings. While I am sad that I still don’t have “It,” I sleep peacefully knowing I did (and will do) just fine. And that my steel cottage is paid for.

My 29  years have been bittersweet. Neither fish nor fowl, I have worked and taught in a kind of academic limbo. I believed, almost every year, that my time in academe’s spotlight was forthcoming. My new ideas would be embraced by the academic community. Harvard or Lafayette or Stanford would be calling. That didn’t happen. But I have enjoyed my work, enjoyed working with students and colleagues over the years.

As my journey nears completion, I can smile and perhaps take comfort, and joy, in knowing my legacy is secured. Just maybe “It“ rests cozily inside me, just below my pores, preserved but never evident. And perhaps I purposefully chose to defer that dream.


Jeffrey Ross teaches at Central Arizona College.


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