Teaching


Well, it sure happened faster than I thought: my school year is over. I taught my last classes at Pázmány on Tuesday.

And I still haven’t quiet recovered from the sentimental ball of goop I get at goodbyes.

One quality I sometimes worry about having as a teacher is that I like my students too much (which, of course, makes it harder to be hard on them when they do the occasional “oh-really?-the-essays-are-due-today?” kind of things). Maybe I’ve just been lucky to have really great groups everywhere I have taught in my short time thus far in this career, maybe it is part of the nature of teaching writing and literature, where emotions and personal experience tend to come out in the classwork more than, say, they might in algebra, but I have left every class I have taught so far with a feeling of sadness, like I’ve just made some wonderful new friends and now I won’t get to see them regularly anymore.

The experience is compounded at Pázmány firstly because of the distance between Hungary and home, as well as  the fact that the end of Pámány makes it all the clearer that this crazy, lovely, dream-world-like life the Fulbright year has been for me is winding down.  Yet, it also felt even more bittersweet because of how I saw some of my students grow so much — whether it was in their ability to speak more confidently in English, or the real “big success” for me — a student who is using the modern American women writers I taught this year for her thesis.

Then, those darned kids went and made me cry. In a good way. (more…)

As if my next job — teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College —  wasn’t AWESOME enough already, my dear friend, Amanda, who with her journalistic prowess at washingtonpost.com gets all the juicy D.C. area news first thing, sends me this wonderful bit which must have come across the newswires very recently:

Jill Biden to Teach at Northern Virginia Community College

! ! !

Besides the fact that I am still a little (oh, OK, a lot…) starstruck with the new administration, I am just bubbling over with joy about this one because the fact that the second lady (is that an official term? nem tudom… ) is taking this job is a huge, huge bonus for NOVA and for all community colleges.

Most people in academia know that the community college does not get enough love from the general public. It finds itself the butt of jokes in mainstream movies.  It doesn’t get the same money from many states’ governments. Even a few of of my “liberal” and “progressive” and “social activist” professors, who would balk at the merest suggestion of any race or ethnic slur, actually were disparaging when I said, no, I am not going for the Ph.D. right now because I had picked the two-year track. But you could be an excellent scholar, sniffed one, look at this paper…  you could get into a doctoral program … ”

Could, yes. (And still might — but later, when I have some more classroom experience to make it really worthwhile, and definitely in a more teaching-related genre of English, like composition and rhetoric). But why would I want to leave the classroom now, when, after two weeks into my first adjunct job teaching developmental English, I already knew that teaching at community college was the best job ever. To put things into perspective, the adjunct job paid so little I actually basically broke even after gas, and I took it on as my third job, in addition to being a full-time master’s student — and I still couldn’t wait to get there every week. Sure, I loved a lot of my grad school classes; but I loved rolling up to English 1 or English 111 classes even more.

You know how most girls talk about the happiest day of their life being their wedding day? Well, my happiest day thus far occurred when I was teaching at Lord Fairfax Community College:  a student, who had quite nearly failed out of English 1 (a.k.a developmental English, the course before freshman composition) and was ready to quit the course came in to say goodbye because he was heading off — with scholarship — to the four-year school he had dreamed of.  He was beaming; I burst into tears. You just can’t find that type of joy at every job.  (And forget the white dress and veil, for methinks said incident will always be displacing wedding day on the Great Day list … with all due respect to My Mysterious Future Husband, Wherever He May Be).

Indeed, when, after several semesters of this adjunct work, NOVA interviewed and offered me a full-time job at the Loudoun campus, I felt like Christmas, my birthday, the Steelers winning the Superbowl, the Hoyas winning the NCAA tournament and the Strand’s $1 book sidewalk sale had all come at once. In my mind, all I could think was I get to do this … AND get paid actual money for it? It was so much, I needed to lay down in the grass outside my apartment to compose myself (apologies, once again, downstairs neighbors, for freaking you out). It was too amazing, too wonderful for words.

It still is, to be honest.

So, while it is rather unlikely that Mrs. Biden would be picking my slightly-further off campus to teach at, or that her two adjunct courses would overlap with mine (so, no Amanda, I probably won’t be “picking up her Secret Service guards,”), her “star” power does wonderful things for all of us that believe in community colleges and the very important work they do.  As she said in her statement about the job:

“I am thrilled to return to the classroom to continue working with community college students, whom I greatly admire and enjoy teaching.”

Agreed. When I see what my C.C. students deal with in their regular life, the fact that they all try so hard to make it through and to class is enough of a kick every morning to make sure I’m doing my job at 110% all the time. I have always learned every bit as much from them as they have from me. Biden has also made previous statements about how she finds community college teaching to be so vital to the country’s success as a whole (ditto, Professor Biden. After all, with 50% of all college students in the U.S. being community college students, we have to give the two-year system much respect). Additionally, Professor Biden holds two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. degree as well, further demolishing the myth bandied about on many a Chronicle of Higher Education forum or frantic M.L.A. conference that the people who teach at a community college are somehow lesser than four-year instructors. One need only look at the bios of the English professors at my campus of NOVA to see that: these people are dynamos, times ten.

I once joked that the community college is like the Hufflepuff of higher education — if my memory serves me correctly, somewhere in the Harry Potter series, there was a song with a line like “Said Hufflepuff I’ll take the lot. And teach them just the same”. Well, that is what we do: we take people where they are, and we get them where they need to be. That’s not just a job that’s “as good” as a four-year school — in my opinion, it’s better. Those of us who have taught at a community college know this. I just think it’s fabulous that now we have a big-name pubic figure who knows the same.

I’ve just returned from that most gloriously geeky of events, an academic conference — or, more specifically, the Hungarian Society for the Study of English (HUSSE) Conference, with my fabulous colleagues from Pázmány Péter University.

Listening attentively

Listening attentively

As an two-time English major and current English professor, I am a professional nerd. Maybe as I get older and spend more time in academia, I’ll start to hold similar opinions to those grumbly teachers who send in letters complaining about how awful conferences are to The Chronicle of Higher Education — but I think not. I love conferences: you get to learn a little bit about all kinds of different topics in your field, without any of the pressure of, say, taking a class. You get to actually do something with one of those treatises of academic-ese you wrote in graduate school by sharing it. And, if you’re in the humanities, you usually get some free wine. All in all, what could be better?

Zsolt and Kinga make academia fun!

Zsolt and Kinga make academia fun!

But while I’ve enjoyed every conference I have participated in so far, my Pázmány colleagues completely blew me away at this one.  I have always known that they are very intelligent people — and they have shown themselves to be the kindest, most helpful and friendly hosts any visiting teacher could imagine — but this is the first time I got to hear their serious work in action. And it was quite nearly overwhelming, it was so impressive.  Two of my colleagues, Veronika and Kinga, delivered fascinating papers on Shakespeare adaptations that were excellent: Kinga’s looked at a BBC popularized version of Much Ado About Nothing, while Veronika’s focused on an adaptation of Hamlet staged in the Nyugati pályaudvar, which is the Western Railway station here in Budapest. (Although, since I know about how much work Veronika does in the average week — like getting this awesome book published — her ability to deliver a paper both as smart and enjoyable as hers only furthers my sneaking suspicion that she has built herself a clone).  Another colleague, Boldizsar, not only offered really interesting ideas about the connection between Chatterton and Walpole, but did it all without reading from a paper at all — he just stood there and talked, weaving gorgeous sentences extemporaneously.  I should probably also point out that I loved all these presentations, even though they are all on Dead White Guys — and, as anyone who knew me in graduate school or  has seen my syllabi knows, DWGs are far from my favorites … indeed, my M.A. years were usually spent trying to convince some professor to see that my ideas on pop-culture-y stuff like, say, Britney Spears’s image on tabloid magazines, were

The Pazmany Crew

The Pazmany Crew

worthy of academic papers (thanks for that one, Professor Tinkcom.)

And those are just a few of my brilliant colleagues. Needless to say, after listening to all of that, I was more nervous than I had ever been at a conference when I had to stand in front of them and deliver my own paper on abolitionist children’s literature. (It turned out O.K., too —  but I’m still considering it a work-in-progress).

But, more important than adding another line to my C.V., this conference reminded me how much I love being in academia. For all of the negative things frustrated academics can (often rightfully) complain about — the increasing laziness of students, the lack of attention and funding given to humanities departments, the less-than-gigantic salaries, etc. — I feel so lucky and happy to have stumbled into this career after a few years of post-college wandering. Having a career that truly lets you be creative and keep learning all the time outweighs any of the drawbacks.  Although the “Georgetown default” plan (i.e. lawyer or investment banker) might get more esteem from the general public, I’ll leave that whirlwind of Blackberries, billable hours,  and three-piece suits to my old classmates. I’ll just stay right here — happily — in the world of essay rubrics, dry-erase boards and sitting around and talking about books.

Ahhh, the question that is always asked of those of us who chose to major in English.

Understandable, indeed. After all, there has never really been a great market in being able to interpret color symbolism in The Great Gatsby or pontificating on post-colonial theory. And, as impressed as I am that my M.A. in English now allows me to say things like “Well, you’re viewing that through a Derridian lens, when really, a Althusserian approach might be more appropriate…” and use “other” as a verb convincingly, the rest of the world has never seemed all that jazzed about paying me loads of money for that. No, it seems capitalism is much more interested in things like “consulting” (whatever that means, bedsides that you have to wear a suit to work. Shudder).

But as I stare down stacks of college entrance essays and job applications — some from friends and some from students — I want to remind all the naysayers (and starry-eyed English majors everywhere) that beyond the intellectual and aesthetic  pleasures of English, there is a whole lot of practical value in knowing how to communicate, think critically and argue convincingly in writing oneself  well . Every year, around the time applications are due, my so-called “soft” option major suddenly become in great demand. (Just like how all the people who poked fun at my dropping the business major freshman year suddenly appeared with resumes and cover letters for editing senior spring… all full of high praise of the English major then)

Over the past 6 days, in addition to the 23 essays I read and offered pages of commentary on for class, I have also read/helped/tutored people to complete:

  • one full application to Harvard Business school
  • 11 different TOEFL practice essays
  • 7 undergraduate application essays
  • 2 C.V.s  for undergraduate admission
  • 4 G.R.E General Test writing section essays
  • 2 essays for a a Ph.D. in astronomy/physics (and I didn’t even know what half the words in that one meant…)
  • one letter of recommendation and one CV. for a post-doc fellowship in Medicine
  • and 2 essays for a Ph.D. qualifying exam (which actually didn’t need much editing, but instead just needed a thumbs up to assuage the fears of from stunningly brilliant yet always-academically-insecure friend)

So it isn’t exactly saving lives … but at least I can help make the world safer from the comma splice or vague adjective or awkward, wordy sentence … and thus help, in some way, people get what they want…one essay at a time.

I’m facing a nice, fat stack of essays for grading and commenting on this weekend. But what is the bigger lesson (to use the positive term here) is the number of essays that came in late … or not at all.

First, in keeping with my spirit of open-mindedness and keeping positive, the good news: the essays that did come in on time look great. My heart is warmed, for instance, to see how many of my Contemporary American Women Writers students chose to write about The Bluest Eye, despite the fact that this tale, in classic Morrisonian style, is dark, difficult and complex (and I’m just as excited to see how one student attempted the same with Beloved … a doozy of a book, to say the least).

But the semester’s end certainly provided some learning opportunities — both in terms of cultural difference and in my own teaching style. I was nagyon frustrated, to say the least, when half of one class showed up without their final essays. I know Hungarian students do not have a culture of essay writing, and thus the 7-page term paper (pretty short, by my American 4-year college measure… my term papers were usually more in the 10-15 page range, and tended to close in on 20 pages as I advanced) seems long.  They do the lecture-oral exam format more, as I have mentioned; the very practice of original thought and research at the heart of U.S. academic writing is not as emphasized here. But keep in mind that I am supposed to be here to offer a different way of learning … and that I had assigned this in October. I had reminded (and re-reminded) about deadlines. I had helped students find secondary sources. I offered significant feedback on outlines. Basically, I assumed I had done all I could do to make the process as easy as possible, while still doing what I should be doing as the visiting Fulbright professor: giving the students a chance to learn in the American style, which includes writing.

But many students still came with no paper.  Several offered this excuse: “Well, we have at least 10 classes, so I had a lot of essays to write.” True. But (A) of all, you had ample time and (B) of all, WHY IN THE WORLD DID YOU THINK IT WAS FINE TO NOT DO MY ESSAY, THEN?

After first storming about the lounge and complaining to Veronika (and asking Zsoli, our student worker, to please spread rumors that I was very frightening, so as to avoid this issue next term) … and then sweating it out a Bikram yoga class, I can see this as more of a learning experience, and, that while it is still frustrating, it is not all bad. Firstly, (more…)

…or the power of Toni Morrison.

The last time I posted about teaching, I had been very worried about how I was going to approach The Bluest Eye.  Because it’s subject matter is so difficult. Because it is hard to “get” Morrison without a good base in American race relations. Because my students here are more conservative with regards to feminism than I am used to. Because…well,a  lot of reasons. It is a great book. But it is not an easy one.

Yet, the students came through. Overall, they loved it. Several plan to write on Morrison for their final, and they were more talkative during the discussion session than I have seen them so far.  I wish I could take credit for this myself, but I think that belongs to Morrison — her magical prose, I believe, was what got them excited. No one writes quite like her. Disturbing, yes, but also undeniably compelling. 

Perhaps, however, it can be seen as lesson for the teacher: don’t underestimate the student.  If anything, the class proved it is better to assign the hard book that is rich and deep than to assign a “easier” text that doesn’t have all the layers.  This isn’t to say the students didn’t struggle with The Bluest Eye — how, for instance, can they understand the typology of the “assimilationist” black woman Geraldine without understanding the whole history of the “race question” in the United States? But the struggle proves useful, if the writing is compelling: it seems to create the natural drive to “figure it out”. So “hard” or “difficult”, then, is not always a bad thing.

My latest Hungarian language class revealed something very interesting about the language … and made me happier that we’ve now moved on to verbs (honestly, if you saw the …umm…”interesting” ways of conjugating, you might better understand why after two months of lessons, I am still stuck on a vocabulary that consists of various polite greetings and ways of ordering wine, beer, and coffee — the essentials, of course!):  there are but two letters separate the verb for “teach”, which is tanit and “learn” which is tanul.

I am no linguist, so I can’t use that discipline to explain the short space which separates these two functions. But I do find it very fitting that the language makes these actions so closely related. As a relatively young teacher, who often the “newest” to the classroom of all my colleagues, I often feel like I’m rushing to keep up.  Sometimes, I look at a student taking a note about something I have said or scribbling down a question I have asked and I worry a bit…“what if I was wrong? ”   Of course, I try to make my teaching discussion-based so that there are multiple voices and opinions, and I strive to never make it seem as if I am truly professing “answers” to any literary or cultural project but rather prodding inquiry. But I still find myself sometimes doubting, wondering do I really know enough to be here?  For instance, I just assigned Toni Morrison’s  novel The Bluest Eye for my Contemporary American Women Writers class, and I am a bit nervous about it. Morrison won the Nobel for a reason: in addition to her amazing lyricism of language and her incomparable ability to dissect the mythos of American society, Morrison shies away from no “ugly” part of the human experience … particularly, when that experience is lived under oppression. The Bluest Eye contains, in my opinion, the best analysis of racialized beauty standards in the U.S., as well as pointed and timeless critique on class and gender — but it also contains poverty, rape and incest. It is an important book, but it is a tough book. As such, I worry about doing the great Ms. Morrison justice. My students, more used to the “canon” of English literature than the modern American things I teach, might not be used to such subjects…and I worry they will shy away. In preparation for the discussion, I wanted to assign a scholarly article that helped illuminate some of the major themes in the book, but I couldn’t think of one on my own. I sent out a call to friends in Ph.D. programs and from graduate school, and got a few good ones back…including several I had never read. But the abstract of one of the new articles sounded perfect. I assigned it.

And then I got that bit of nagging Am I a fraud at this professor business?  feeling. Wouldn’t a “real” professor have already known that? Sure, I know I am exaggerating the ideal that every literature professor has read every article they assign multiple times, but I still feel a little like I am rushing to keep up. Perhaps it is a feeling exacerbated by the fact that I do not have a Ph.D. I don’t plan on getting one any time soon, either — give me students over a dissertation any day — but I do know those extra six years of graduate school would have given me a six-years-longer list of read works … and then, of course, the pricks of inadequacy come.

But Gabi’s Hungarian lesson on the closeness of tanit/tanul was a good reminder that just because “teach” and “learn” are so different in English, it does not mean they are necessarily such different positions. The true teacher must always learn, after all: how can you effectively teach a true discussion if you already have your mind closed to a new “answer”? Then you are not really posing questions at all, but merely leashing your students along. Indeed, my course design style, in all of my classes, has included a fair bit of selecting all those “things I meant to read” texts. Sometimes I worried that such an approach would seem haphazard; but, oftener, I felt that my learning alongside the students could be quite beneficial, as it not only enriches me as a teacher overall but also helps me better understand and aid their struggles as I grapple with new work. My learning something new about The Bluest Eye, then, might indeed be the best way to teach it to a new group.

And maybe my students, although they might not be comfortable with the material, at first, can help me bring new eyes to a novel and writer I, as the teacher, think I know so well. Tanit/Tanul: atfer all, the space between us is not so wide.

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