Dickens’ opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities—the famous “best of times; worst of times”—sometimes at risk of turning into a cliché, instead seems truer all the time. I can listen to any song ever recorded and ingest better wines, cheeses, fruit, and fish than all the kings of yesteryear, even as the world is plagued by more apocalyptic scenarios that I can recount here, from scorched earth to possible pandemics to rogue nukes to real-life zombies to the end of year tax cliff.
In keeping, this best of times/worst of times dichotomy also works for the opening of the college term. For students: friends! College life! And best of all: possibilities. And the worst, as they often discover after a class or two: the pressure, the exhaustion, the work. College would be so much fun if not for the classes.
I too relish the energy and opportunity of the beginning of the school year. But I also feel doubt, even dread. Unlike for students, the angst isn’t about work, which I love. It’s existential. Does teaching students to read, write, and think make any difference in the world at all? Americans hardly read books anymore; schools are teaching less and less fiction and creative writing; writers can’t stop plagiarizing anyway. So why bother? The majority calmly play Angry Birds while Rome burns, but is teaching writing and literature—or, worse, writing or blogging itself—any better, or just a more painful and equally pointless endeavor?
I didn’t always feel this way. If anything, ironically I worry more now that I have more experience and am, arguably, at the top of my teaching game. Unlike during my first few years, I no longer feel like an imposter, and unlike future decades from now, when I’ll remember the good ole days of online course management systems, discussion boards, and blogs before it all went downhill with the introduction of cerebral cortex implants in 2032, I still know what I’m doing.
Maybe it’s me. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last spring suggested that mid-career professors were less happy than those who were starting out, despite better pay and job security: “The survey shows that on most key measures, professors are actually happier while working toward tenure than they are once they’ve earned it.” This reversal calls for more clichés: journey not destination, be careful what you wish for, etc etc etc.
But in another sense, this dissatisfaction is a narrative problem as well: what do you do after you’ve reached the end? I am applying for my final promotion this year, to what is commonly known as full professor, and after that, despite that I’m on the early side of midlife, I have nowhere left to go professionally. Except, I suppose, down.
Or maybe: it’s OK.
Not the problems, but the doubt, the ambivalence, the conflict. In addition to more doubts, I feel a concomitant skepticism of the usual virtues of certainty and decisiveness. It appalls me that the dictionary lists “weakness” as an antonym of “determination,” and that, say, Hamlet’s doubt is often taught as his tragic flaw. If anything, the seven deadly sins get it right: pride is far more dangerous than uncertainty, since it is through doubt, even vacillation, that we grow, reflect, change, and learn. If anything, Hamlet’s real flaw was the same as in the ancient tragedies: his hubris. He believed that the world revolved around him, and that he could treat those closest to him, especially Ophelia, with caprice and contempt, BECAUSE HE WAS WRONGED.
The little voice inside that always asks, “Why should students have to do this?” is my students’ best advocate, so that when they think—or ask—the same question, they’ll learn that I do not treat the question casually or cynically. It’s the best question I can think of.
One of my little pleasures is that the word “Commencement” means beginning; it is used to signal the opening of the term, but it is also now synonymous with completing one’s education, graduation, or what feels like the end of something for students. Yet once they graduate, most jobs are about the same in September as they are in January or April, and the narrative wonder that’s built into the school year disappears. But I cherish it, so that I always have another start, and a new conclusion that begets a new start and another finale, to look forward to. Students—and teachers—get to experience life with a series of beginnings and endings built in. Everyone else receives only one ending.
At the risk of sounding trite, students should read because it’s fun, and a different, deeper, better, even more lasting kind of fun than Fruit Ninja. And that sometimes, it also happens to be beautiful, or ugly, or compelling or—and I use this word despite doubt, skepticism, and ambivalence—true.
Although I reserve the right to change my mind on that.
Time: 60 minutes. Back on schedule.