Photo credit: D. Sharon Pruitt (edited by B. Hate)
I’ve taught college for nearly 30 years. I love it. I hate it.
It was the first adult job I ever saw that I admired. I was a terrifically bad undergrad at a giant party school in the late 70s and early 80s. But I remember some of those profs, cool old timers with offices and hi-fis and crazy rugs both on the walls and the floors. “I want to do this,” I said to my Shakespeare prof one day while he was lighting a pipe and nodding his head as if he’d heard it before.
So I changed majors a few time, fell into English and then went to grad school for MFA and PhD degrees.
Then I became a prof. It was different.
I loved it at first. I loved talking about writing and reading.
And it was hard, too. Nobody wants to take a writing course. They funnel every poor freshmen through the sequence of personal, argumentative, and academic writing classes, and for every 20 dolts you might get 2-3 folks who make the gig a gas.
I can’t believe I’ve been doing it all these years. And it has changed over that time. Everything about it has gotten worse. Colleges have given up. Dedicated to meeting the needs of every lowest common denominator we can find, we just roll out the red carpet for any breathing knuckle-dragger whose folks have the money for a meal plan and a shitty closet-sized dorm room.
In my darkest hours I believe that colleges perpetrate a terrible fraud on the populace. But this isn’t about that.
My interest in college has always just been the classroom, the first year writing classroom. That’s my place. I’ve taught grad students and upper division kids, at state schools, private universities, two community colleges, a top ten research university, and I’ve taught every subject from American Lit and Brit Lit, to poetry and non-fiction. But first year writing has always been the kerosene to my flame. I love meeting a group of 18 and 19 year old kids every year. I pretend it keeps me young. It doesn’t, of course. I always wish they knew the writers and movies and bands I love. (That’s something I gave up on in the 90s. Once a year I meet a kid wearing a Sabbath t-shirt. I always have the urge to ask them if it’s their grandpa’s.)
They come in dumb as wolverines trying to drive a car, and we begin our 15 week journey together.
My freshmen have ALWAYS been bad. Don’t get me wrong. They’re kids, of course. “Do we have to put a title on the essay?” “Do we have to be here on Tuesday?” “Do we have to read ALL those pages?” But, shit, they’re freshmen so I used to push them around. I’d stand up there and bat all that stuff away. “Have to? Yes, you HAVE to.”
But it just keeps getting worse. My freshmen now are not just dumb and lazy, they’re dumb, lazy, and proud of it. There’s sort of arrogance in how little they know or want to know. And “Yes, you HAVE to,” gets replied with “Oh yeah! Why?”
Frankly, I don’t want to work that hard. Last week I actually lost my cool in a one on one meeting with a particularly idiotic student who simply kept saying, “I don’t want to rewrite that.” After a pause I said, “Fine. If you don’t give a shit, then I don’t give a shit.” He hasn’t returned to class, and I hope he drops.
I like to think I can really reach kids. I do, too. I get a few of them fired up after 15 weeks of motivation. It’s hard, but I love that moment when someone figures something out – or better yet, when someone finds some pleasure in the learning itself.
But when they don’t find pleasure in anything other than celebrity culture and their peers’ Facebook and Twitter accounts, what are we to do? I can’t prove to them that the study of my field will reward them with ducats or prizes. I teach in the Humanities. I’m all about making human beings…yeah, I know you’re rolling your eyes. It’s the path I took, and I think it’s an important step in becoming a better, happier person.
So, yes, you have to. And you have to do it by next class. And, although I suspect you won’t like it, I still want you to do it anyway.
But for how many years, and for how many iterations of the modern student can I stand it?