06 September 2007

Casa de los babys

The start of a new school year, and the reports are pouring in. The cyclical nature of academic life is one of its most reassuring qualities, the endless flowing in and out of semesters, courses, students, in and out of our lives. Is this why we become academicians, sophisticated technocrats, wizards and witches of knowledge? For the calming hum of the seasons, the repetitive rituals reminding our reptilian brains of a perfect embryonic state, close to our mother’s heart, the pulsing rhythms relaxing our muscles, lulling us to some sort of delightful somnambulant state? Or maybe we just like our summers off.

In any event, my return to Cold City has had a remarkably different quality this year. I’m not sure why, although perhaps it has to do with La Vick’s impending move to Cold City to shack up full-time with Love Buckets (I have one thing to say— U-Haul), or perchance it is a feeling of expansion in my social life, or maybe it is the beginning of my fellowship year at Prestigious Little College (PLC), with all the fresh possibilities it holds. I feel better this year, curiously. After so long feeling dismayed at the blank stares of eyes that have seen one too many winters, this time I feel strangely comfortable. Not one of them exactly, my fellow Cold City denizens, but like an exilic being that has finally figured out how to float above it all. This euphoric state may come collapsing down at the first serious dip in temperature, but for now, it has persisted beyond any possible oxygen deprivation from commercial air travel.

The past week or so I have been being inculcated, initiated, into the rituals of PLC. New Faculty Orientations are always a trip, and for the newbie, the freshly minted PhD or lucky girls and boys who finally make it off the adjunct tilt-a-whirl, it is one of the passages of the profession. Who knew that slightly endless seminars on everything from Sexual Misconduct codes to FERPA to library reserves could be so meaningful? (Note: it’s not, but still) PLC’s ritual is somewhat more extensive than usual, lasting basically three days, the results of which has one’s smile at the end of a taught wire.

Of course, as the old hag I am, I can pace myself. This is, after all, my third inculcation into institutional mystery. And like losing your virginity, you only really experience it once. Everything else, whether better or worse, reminds one however faintly of that first, awkward groping moment. Institutions attempt, through these orientations, not only to guide new faculty to appropriate resources, but also to bring these faculty members into an institutional fold, a single standpoint that can last an hour or a lifetime.

For me, partly it’s a case of having been through it before, in different guises and fashions. Sadistic College’s orientation was labourious, but brief, at just one day. No bells or whistles, a rubber chicken lunch, and a brief disquisition by the insane president that only offered the briefest of glimpses of the Apocalypse Now-type horror that would unfold, later, in the dark. Cold City U., as befits its institutional profile, was no-bones: simple, chic, and elegant (minus the chic and elegant): a two-day long marathon in windowless, humourless classrooms. Just the facts, ma’am. No porn or gambling on computers, please. Here’s the benefits package and your password to Cold Place’s system-wide website. Stale sandwiches and an endless march of staff across one’s glazed eyes. As seductive as a testicular exam.

In contrast, PLC has put on the dog. Sociability and printed nametags. Lunches fabricated out of locally grown organic vegetables and offering the most incredibly creamy tenderloin smothered in blue cheese held in neo-Gothic halls with elaborately painted ceilings, tablecloths and real napkins, and founder’s portraits in oil on the walls. Erudite talks from the Dean and President that focus on texts and ideas, not regulations. Personable introductions to the general faculty, along with little cocktail gatherings featuring hot buffets and wine. No free t-shirt though.

And although there have been a number of eye-glazing moments, as today when half the library staff came in to discuss their various services arranged as an awkward tableau vivant in front of us, for the most part one feels, well, to be frank, one feels the money. PLC is prestigious, well endowed, and not afraid to demonstrate it in those tasteful ways that matter: good food, for one, not to mention a benefits package that is incredibly generous. And staff and faculty folks are competent and seemingly happy. Who knows if and when the mask will fall off: all institutions have their dark sides of course, but for the most part, PLC’s orientation seems to lack either the Gothic atmosphere of Sadistic College or the astringent Socialist realism of Cold City U.

Also, to be completely honest, as a visitor in this leather-padded magical Hall of Versailles, I am relatively free: to speak my mind, to be light, to be wind, to be water. While my fellow neophytes keep their mouths shut, on the tenure-track, I am chatty, provocative, engaging, flirtatious. Why not? I am here a year then, like Cinderella’s coach, will disappear into a puff of smoke, back to Cold City U., hopefully with a book under my belt. I got my education! To be the visitor is both to be marginalised and liberated. Marginalised by an institutional politics that looks at my specialty and department as unbecoming of true academic study (oh well) or that sees me as passing cannon fodder, the glances at the name tag and affiliation leading to unfocused smiles; liberated in not being beholden to those forces for my professional future through the mechanism of tenure, of the small-town politics that define baccalaureate collegiate faculty culture. Over the summer, having a coffee with a Cuban lesbian professor, an old hand herself, she remarked that the institution of the academy has “no memory and no heart.” Keeping that in mind means that my time at PLC has more to offer me than the institution, in terms of my own agenda free of the perturbations of unfriendly colleagues. Like Charlotte Vale, I am no longer afraid.

As I continue to move across the institutional spectrum, these differences are as instructive as the similarities. All of this only reinforces the old saw of “all politics are local.” For whatever limitations PLC may have, it is a relatively safe space to launch a career, or rather build on an already extensive foray into the halls of academe. Already an accomplished teacher and dedicated worker bee, it will be important to keep one’s eyes on the prize, which is to say, one’s research agenda, even as I luxuriate in and nervously anticipate the opportunity to teach talented, traditional students once again.

The adult learners I have taught for the last two years have been remarkable, and the shift in professional perception one gets teaching at a place like Cold City U. is bracing and wonderful. Traditional students have their pitfalls, especially at baccalaureate colleges where the expectations for faculty-student interaction are rather high, at times almost strangely infantile. (Moment: a panel featuring undergrads where one plaintively states she expects us to be “family”) But the change suits me, in exactly that dimension: as a change and challenge of mind. As many of us increasingly move around the profession and across different dimensions of student constituency, the ability to teach in the different registers that movement requires is what distinguishes the teacher from the technocrat.

So it’s not an argument of either/or: either talented students or the dregs, trad or non-trad, grammatical skills or illiterate dullards, bright-eyed eager beavers or exhausted lumpen. It is rather a realisation that one needs to speak to all of those groups simultaneously, which reveres and honours the act of teaching in ways that most admin speak give short-shrift, even at “teaching institutions,” with their nifty slogans and empty pockets. Bad teaching remains the dirty little secret of the profession: many of us can’t really do it terribly well, I would argue, and those of us who do slide down the professional ladder unrespected. Tim Burke has had a fascinating conversation over at Easily Distracted on popular anger at the academy, and I think that robotic or disinterested teaching is one of the reasons as to why we, as a social and professional class, are both respected and loathed with equal measure.

My temporary return to the Casa de los babys of traditional studentry signals also a return to a type of teaching that thrills and chills at the same time— the thrill of engaged, bright student interlocutors, and the chill of projection and home telephone numbers on syllabi. I think I’ll feast at the table of the former and forget to include the latter.


GayProf said...

I think that I have deduced the institutional identity of PLC. Three days sounds horrific in my mind. I barely had patience for a couple of hours.

Being on a visiting fellowship is the best. I mean, what can they do? Fire you? Nope.

Oso Raro said...

What gave it away? The tenderloin? Cripes, that was delish!