I know I am so incredibly lucky – I have so many things in my life that bring me joy: my puppies, my running, my work, my family (“joy” might be too strong a word there – let’s shoot more for “it’s complicated”). All those things, all kidding aside, do truly make me happy and recharge my batteries when they are low (but then again, some of them also drain my batteries sometimes, too, so…hmmm. Perhaps I should limit the asides I’m making here – I won’t ever get to the point).
Work is one of those things that brings both exhaustion and rejuvenation into my life. Working as an adjunct is one of those states of being that you can’t really understand until you actually do it, and for longer than a semester. First of all, it’s never certain. The length of a semester is all the job security I have, and 16 weeks isn’t a long time (it’s even shorter when it’s over the summer and magically turns into 8 weeks, but we are expected to convey in 8 weeks what normally takes 16). The little things become all the more trying as the semesters pile up: packing and unpacking my “office,” multiple times throughout the day, for instance. At first I thought of it as working from my car, but it’s not even that. I work from my rolly bag, and while it really is bigger on the inside, it’s only moderately so. The problem comes from the constant state of impermanence. It’s exhausting.
I was talking with some of the students at the community college where I work, and as I believe we won’t ever start to chip away at the more insidious aspects of our class system until we start talking about our incomes openly and without fear, I told them how much I made per semester. They were sufficiently horrified, and one student blurted out, “Good god, why do you do it?” Her tone and her face revealed not a small amount of her belief that I – and many other adjuncts – were certifiable, if not beyond hope.
I explained why I do it – and it really is as easy as “I love what I do,” even as much of a cop out as it sounds. Teaching scratches my advocacy and activism itch very nicely, it offers me (some) freedom of scheduling, and if I am smart and spend my money wisely (ahem, perhaps “save” is the better term here than “spend”), I can actually plan to take a whole summer off, even if it means no pay check. I hope that happens, actually, whether it’s this summer or a future summer, because I would love to see what I got written with that amount of time on my hands. I have a manuscript sitting patiently in my brain, but it’s hard to work on, and having a large amount of time that I would dedicate to it might be just the thing I needed. I could give to my manuscript, and recharge through my running (with Straxi and without).
But a big part of why I do love what I do is the interaction with students. My grandma taught elementary school, and she said that the children kept her young. I understand that better now, and find that my time in the classroom (usually) lights up the burned out bulbs that develop in my internal string of Christmas lights.
I have a class at Green University that is made up of nearly all engineering students. It’s the advanced section of the university writing class, considered Honors, and you don’t get in this section without having a little more going for you upstairs than the average student. These guys and girls are young, all very traditional uni students in the sense of age, privilege, and diversity (I have a couple of students who are Hindu, some girls, a couple of mixed race students, but most of them are white males). There is a row of conservative, truck driving, boot wearing, country music loving, conservative Young Republicans who don’t usually have much to say in our loud, almost-diverse-but-not-quite class, but they know they are outnumbered, and as such, they don’t say much. This is fine with me, because I’ve taught my share of conservative, white, wealthy students – including the one who very memorably told me that Obama was not American, but Kenyan, and he was serious, straight up, this was a fact to him, without doubt, and he didn’t question that belief for a second. I am happy to have a group who is young, energetic, and who don’t make me question the future of our culture quite so much.
I can forgive myself for catering to the more open minded of my students in this situation, I think. They are just so rare, to be honest, and when I run into them, they are usually loners. This is a pack, and it’s a sight to see: a feral pack of independent-minded, open minded, questioning students who toe the line only insomuch as they dance on it.
So this group of students give me as much – if not more – than I give them. I haven’t taught a bad class with them (yet), and that’s largely because they are so present, and so willing to work and think and speak their minds – my energies aren’t dedicated to trying to keelhaul words out from between their tightly clenched lips.
Today we discussed genre, and we read Kerry Dirk’s “Navigating Genres,” discussed it for a while, and then launched into one of the more fun exercises I have found for helping students think about why genre matters, how it functions, and all the various vagaries that exist around it. I have the students write a letter to an inanimate object – but not just any type of letter – it’s a love letter. We have to guess the object, and they can’t tell us what it is in the letter.
I wrote my letter to my running shoes. I always try to do the work with them that they are doing, when I can, and in this instance, I felt like it was important. These ARE engineering students, after all, and I couldn’t be certain any of them would know for sure exactly what a good love letter sounded like, much less be able to replicate one adequately that could also be read out loud in the classroom. They might not have blushed, but I was afraid I would.
I noticed one of the conservatives waving his right hand around as he talked to his buddies. “Inanimate objects, only,” I stressed again.
One of the really great students in the class, and one of the more socially awkward ones, volunteered to read his love letter. He stammered and struggled, but soldiered on. Another student, whose hair has never been free from oil all semester, guessed what inanimate object it was addressed to (Metal Gear Solid, I think, or another one of the first person shooters that has just come out), and the two high fived.
Letters to cars, trucks, and laptops were read, and no one was teased. No one was forced to read their letter, nor did I have to “make” anyone read theirs. They were all volunteers, even happy volunteers, and the work felt less like work and more like just plain fun. They charged my batteries for me again.