What Our Work Is
Laurence Musgrove describes the complicated and ultimately rewarding nature of teaching.
Given the work before us, I will go into my first class today and try to meet my students as simply and directly as possible. Some of this work comes from the past, some from the state, and some from what we in my department have agreed to do. Some of this work will come from what we carry with us, some from what we find blocking the way between us, and some from what we see up ahead. We variously work ourselves into the work of the other.
Education is labor-intensive and expensive because it falls upon the tangled mess of human relationships struggling to find the work that works best. We just can’t know the work before we work it. We hate the work we can’t make work, and we love the work we can. It takes time, and it takes money. And for some, more than others. Work, like love, is what we find when we find ourselves in what others have done.
The best teacher I ever had loved me for my work and I loved her for hers. With a blue pen, I put words on college-ruled pages in a three-ringed notebook. Those words helped me find what I loved about the world. About books. About school. About small towns. About rivers. About music. About words on pages. She met me simply in the classroom and surprised me by what she loved. I knew I could talk to her and she would help me find myself in what others had done.
I know you had a different teacher, but it’s still true.
Let me put it another way. We are always reaching back into what has already been made. We do this with all of our body. It is very hard and very easy. We do it when we want to. And we do it when we aren’t aware we’re doing it. We are always standing together splashing each other in joy and sorrow with what we have made.
But there are also some of us who are pressing our noses against the window of what’s to come. I’d like to see more of us breathing into that glass. I’d like college to be more like that kind of pressing and breathing and working. Let us make work at college a place where we are both in and at and outside that window. What’s out there? Who?
I know money is power and circulates in ways most of us don’t see. You probably have more than I do. Or I have more than you. We certainly have more than they do way over there. Still, we don’t have more than those who have decided what gets taught. Soon they tell us – as they always tell us — that we’ll need to do more with less because they’ll be putting more of their money elsewhere while putting more of their power upon us. After all, it’s their money. And it’s their power. How do they do this? I try not to cry about it.
And by not crying about it, I mean, I try not to cry about the tangled mess of education and power and money and work and how each of us finds our way in the world. It may be that we need better direction or better technology or better learning outcomes or better threats. It’s hard to know really.
But each day, we still show up at the knowledge factory. We know what our work is.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of the department of English and modern languages at Angelo State University, in Texas, where he teaches courses in composition, literature, creative writing, and English education.
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