03 January 2009

Waiting to Exhale

The holidays passed with their usual desultory combination of fast and slow, a morose conclusion to an arduous fall semester with occasional moments of delight. Like many who lack the accoutrements of the sentimental familial, whether in the figure of the biological family or a husband and his family, I again pass through the excruciating weeks of the holiday season in a sort of numbness, insulated as much as possible from a reflection on the potential personal meaning of having a void in those spaces.

Some schools offer long winter breaks, intersessions marked by weeks of cold, quiet time away from the demands of the classroom. I do not have that, and official faculty presence is required on Monday, with classes starting a week subsequent. It feels I have barely had time to get over my end-of-term head cold, much less recuperate enough to face once again the Roman Forum my classes seemed to be in the fall. I am exhausted by the very thought, although in the end I know I will put on my makeup, my costume, and return again to the proscenium arch. The show, after all, must go on, even if, especially at this point in the academic year, I feel as if I’m dancing as fast as I can.

One class in particular this fall was the proverbial thorn in my side. An introductory course with many students enrolled due to scheduling or General Education requirements is not, in and of itself, an omen for disaster. But in this case, the ecology never came together, and a mutual antipathy grew over the course of the semester like a marginal cancer rapidly metastasizing into every vital organ. You know, that kind of class. Since it is very hard for me to just walk away from my teaching, my response was to devote yet more time, more energy, more thinking, into the entire project, from assessments to classroom presentation to endless consultation hours re-explaining everything we had covered in class.

It was, in the end, all for naught. All the King’s horses, and all the King’s men could not put that shitcan back together again. Of course, I could spin it the way we are meant to nowadays: a learning experience, a teachable moment, an insight into greater attention to the needs of lackluster, unmotivated, and resentful students. All of which I will dutifully do, some snowy night by the fire. In the meantime, I remain hopeful that the next cohort of students shall be better equipped to respond both to me as a teacher and to the challenge of collegiate education. Since classroom ecology is situational, every semester we have another chance to succeed more effectively at what we do.

The high-wire antics of the crabby class were meet by other pyrotechnics of professionalism happening outside the classroom. A polite way to describe it would be personnel problems. I do not feel at liberty to elaborate greatly here, other than to say I have been particularly struck by how the politics of ‘respect’ are intensely and peculiarly felt amongst senior academics of color, to the general detriment of probationary faculty who are also themselves racialized. I have thought long and hard about this question, and can offer no straightforward solutions. I will say, however, that the drama of respect that plays out amongst racialized academics in a racist institution (the university) is incredibly destructive; it leads to mistrust, suspicion, paranoia, and stress, not to mention destroyed lives and careers. Mentoring is hard, and leadership is even harder. And in my experience, often those most obsessed with respect forget, conveniently, that ultimately it must be earned.

The paucity of these skills in the ranks of certain members of the senior professoriate of color I have encountered, or their selective and haphazard application, works against our greater interests. That said, our common humanity is never more apparent than in the twisted, ugly sneer of a senior colleague trying, pathetically, like a drowning swimmer, to destroy you: insecurity, damage, fear. I can empathize. It is a mark of the nobleness of the human social experiment that some of us try to rise above such self-involved survival strategies, that some of us know the value of living in human communities, and what that may mean. Such nobility tends not to protect you, however, in the star chamber of tenure. I’ve learned quite a lot in my traipse down the tenure track, not the least of which is the art of documentation. That does not relieve the stress, however.

My life has felt like an electric arc of stress, producing and draining energy in strange ways. In what should be the halftime of my adult life, I am still blocking, passing, sprinting to catch a soaring ball. I want to slow down the pace, but am not at liberty to do so now. I must continue to work as hard as I can, dance even faster, smile ever more broadly, jump even higher. The professional demands meet, awkwardly and uncomfortably, the playing field of the personal, the challenge of being fat, gay, single, 40, and an intellectual, a deadly combination I wouldn’t wish on my worst friend. I am highly conscious, perhaps overly so, of my rather precarious position, walking the edge of an active volcano of professional and personal desires, dreams, disappointments, and longings. I wish I could be more elegant in my handling of these challenges.

Yet, as someone I know recently put it, we constantly re-learn the most painful lessons in our life, over and over again like a masochistic version of Groundhog Day, specifically because they are important to who we are, who we want to be. And yet another has remarked that, on the commencement of the New Year she wanted to look toward the future, not the past, as the avatar of possible lives. This is of course what the New Year always promises: a new year, a new you; a promise also deeply grounded in the American psyche.

It is at moments like this, confronted with relentless American optimism, that I do not feel particularly American, but rather like the crazy aunt from the Old Country, wandering around the attic of memory while outside Ford motor cars and moving pictures and women with bobbed hair change the meaning of life, which in itself is a particularly ripe American image-text. So perhaps I am more deluded than even I perceive myself to be, at least as far as my place in a spectrum of American longing is concerned.

All I know is that it feels like I have been holding my breath for quite awhile. I am sure I am turning blue. I certainly did not expect to be here, where I am now. Fitzgerald’s famous dictum on no second acts in American life was matched, somewhere, by another who noted that American life is exclusively second acts. So, with that latter, more optimistic thought in mind, “I put on some makeup, turn on the tape deck, and put the wig back on my head…This show must go on.


kiita said...

Spinning a dissatisfactory class into a teachable moment, etc -- as if to write it into the emotionally-edited teaching portfolio -- is hard work. Otherwise, a class works or it doesn't. The professional burden to keep teaching in a dissatisfying environment felt heavy for me last semester. I still need to learn how to detach, like an ER nurse or something.

One of the most painful discoveries for me is that senior colleagues of color can be the most dangerous, and that I lack the boundaries I had as a graduate student. I'm learning to keep the paranoia and isolation at bay.

I would say that if you slip off the edge and perform imperfectly, it would be more beautiful. After all, Hedwig's wig is often askew. Best wishes for the new year and the new term.

Maggie said...

There's a lot in your post I want to respond to, but am not sure how. For the moment, I'll respond to this bit: "classroom ecology is situational."

My favorite examples of this have come when I've taught two sections of the same class in one term. Shortly before I went up for tenure, I had two sections who responded to me in directly opposite ways. The first section's comments on my teaching could be summarized thusly: "She was so helpful! And caring! And funny! We loved her and can't wait to take more classes with her!"

The second section's were not far from this: "She was so difficult! And cold! And sarcastic! We thought she was evil incarnate!"

For my tenure portfolio, I simply offered these two sets of comments, side by side, without commentary. (Along with the rest of the data.) To me, it illustrated perfectly that, ya know, sometimes some classes just suck.


As for the rest, I can only really offer this: the holidays are some of the most excruciating times for those of us who are positioned outside of all the Family Christmas Letter norms. That combined with a short supply of sunshine and a too-brief break between semesters is a deadly combination.

Take care of yourself, and don't put too much pressure on yourself regarding the quality of your performance this coming semester. Sometimes simply surviving the show is enough, some years.

GayProf said...

I have thought a great deal about the few negative senior-professors-of-color. Some (but, it's important to note, not all) are simply no help to junior faculty. Is it because they were burned out? Or did they just give up? Are they insecure? It's a mystery, Scooby Doo.

As for classes, yeah, each one has its own personality. Sometimes they love you. Sometimes they hate you. Can't win them all.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, so much to say and so little time, or maybe too much time :) Does our age have anything to do with your musings? You implied as much. It seems the forties are a time of much assessment about where we've been, where we're going. Met up with friends from college and high school over break and on more than one occassion someone commented "You're just as I remember you." Is that a compliment? Why might we need to remember people, places, events, as they were? Again, hmmmmmm... Regarding senior faculty of color, I pray I won't subject my junior colleagues to the same sort of drama I've been subjected to, and at the same time what to do with feelings of never having been respected? That bitterness eats at the soul and woe to the person who doesn't play into the matyrdom. Often, they've had it hard, we have it hard, and the academy continues on it's merry way. One of my diss committee members swears the academy killed Barbara Christian. The academy's prime directive is to reproduce itself. can we stop the cycle of bitterness?