Thursday, June 11, 2020

Throwaway Teacher

A couple months ago, Small Town Guy proposed a Zoom meetup for everyone in our social circle since we were all still living under the shelter in place order. I'd kept in touch with Small Town Guy and my other friends in Small Town through Facebook and texting, but I hadn't actually seen any of them since I moved to College Town three years ago.

The first time we all talked on Zoom, we ended up talking for more than three hours. It was wonderful to see all of them again and hear about their lives, as well as tell them about my life here in College Town. Small Town Guy is now living with his girlfriend. When I saw him on screen, I thought of how just a few years ago I thought I was head over heels for him, but whatever I felt for him paled in comparison to what I felt for the Model. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling a small pang when I saw him with his girlfriend in the house they share. I thought that if he had felt the same way about me back then, I might have suffered a lot less heartache than what I went through with the Model, especially because even though Small Town Guy has his flaws, he's not a narcissistic sociopath like the Model is. On paper, Small Town Guy was almost perfect for me (whereas the Model was wrong for me in pretty much every way), but he just wasn't that into me.

We all had such a good time talking to each other on Zoom that we arranged more Zoom meetups. But the most recent one ended badly, at least for me. I want to preface this by saying that I actually liked Small Town Guy's girlfriend because she was a nice person and I'd never had a conflict with her before. The Girlfriend, who is a tenured professor at the college where I used to teach in Small Town (though unlike me, she does not teach English classes because she works for a different department), kept talking about an award she'd won for her research.

Then we started talking about the classes we were teaching. I mentioned how a few of my students were not doing their assignments in the freshman composition classes I was teaching, and the Girlfriend said, "Well, that's because it's a throwaway class that no one cares about."

And that's was the moment that I wished that I was with her in person, so that I could do THIS:


I didn't say anything right away, but through the webcam I could see my facial expression change from a cheerful smile to something more like this:


I didn't say anything for a long time, until someone else commented that I was being really quiet. Finally, I spoke up: "You know, I don't think that the General Education classes that I teach are 'throwaway classes'. I think that they're important too."

The Girlfriend quickly said, "Oh, I wasn't talking about your classes." But she knows that as an untenured faculty member, the only classes that I am literally allowed to teach are General Education classes, like freshman composition and lower-level literature classes, whereas as a tenured professor, she gets to teach advanced classes and graduate seminars.

Small Town Guy did not say much either. He stayed out of the conversation and got down on the floor to play with their dog, maybe so he wouldn't have to look me in the eye or witness the smoke coming out of my ears.

I told them that I had to go and I logged out of the conversation. But here's what I wanted to say to the Girlfriend and to the others, many of whom were also tenured professors: "I'm not like you. I'm not on the tenure track. I most likely never will be. I admit that I envy you. But I don't resent your success because you earned it. But I work hard too, and I'm a good teacher. Yet no one will ever recognize the value of my work like they do yours just because I'm not a tenured professor. I'm not even eligible for more than half the awards that you've won because I'm untenured. Untenured faculty like me teach bigger classes and have heavier courseloads so that tenured professors like you can teach fewer, smaller classes that are related to your pet projects.

"Yes, it's true that most of the students don't want to take GenEd classes. But there's a reason that the classes I teach, unlike the classes YOU teach, are required for almost every college student in the country. The skills and knowledge I teach, like writing, are essential in college AND the workplace. I'm not saying that your classes aren't important too, but I AM saying that my classes are not 'throwaways' either.

"The reason some students ask for extensions isn't always because they view my classes as throwaways that they don't care about, as you so thoughtlessly put it. It's because they spend at least 6-7 hours a day on their phones and 1-2 hours a day on their homework. Then the deadlines start piling up and they panic and ask me for extensions. But not all of my students are like that. Some of them show me several pages of notes and outlines they wrote for a five-page paper. They want to do well and are willing to work hard.

"I know you didn't mean to insult me. But you did. And I need you to understand where I'm coming from, so that you'll understand why it's not okay to say crap like that."

But I didn't say that. I wish I had. It made me think of the pandemic and how although millions of people were furloughed or lost their jobs, others were classified as "essential" workers and were able to keep working. It made me wonder about the value people place on certain jobs and how it must have affected the people who weren't classified as "essential", even though their work was important too.

It also made me think of how that conversation, as well as the Girlfriend's attitude, was indicative of the hierarchical nature of academia. It's a world where there are way too many people with PhDs and not enough jobs, so we all have to do whatever we can to succeed. It's so competitive that it's cutthroat. And there's definitely a wide gap between the tenured faculty and untenured faculty because of the disparity in how we're treated and paid. But it's also a world that I chose to work and live in, so it's just something that I have to deal with.

But the next time they organize a Zoom meetup, I'm going to say that I can't join in. I'll just say something like, "Oh, I can't. I have to replenish my voodoo doll collection so that I can cast a curse on someone tonight, one that will hopefully cause them to have nightmares that make them wake up screaming or one that will cause their hair to turn into the snakes that adorned Medusa's head. But have fun on Zoom!"

I'm not saying I'll never talk to them again because I will. But I think it's best if I not participate in the next Zoom meetup because what the Girlfriend said still bothers me, and I don't want to lash out at her or any of the others.

What about you? Do you deal with competitive or condescending people in your line of work? Are you an essential worker, and if so, what has it been like for you?

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The New Normal

Three months ago, this is what a normal workday for me looked like: I drove to the college where I teach, walked past coeds throwing Frisbees or hanging out on the quad, and I smiled and waved at undergrads who called out, "Hi, Professor!" I taught my students how to write, do research, and analyze difficult texts, and I said things like, "You're not supposed to be on Snapchat right now. Put your phone away...No, I know you're not looking up something for class because I can literally see the animal filters on your phone."

Then, I either ate lunch in one of the dining halls or ate the lunch I brought in the office I shared with other untenured faculty (only tenured professors get their own offices), where we chatted about the classes we were teaching. After that, I held office hours with students to discuss their papers.

And then all of a sudden, everything changed. One day, I was teaching my students in the classroom. The next day, they were all forced to move out of their dorms and move back home. The faculty, most of whom had never taught online before, were given a one-hour workshop on how to use Zoom. We were told to be "creative" and "try to make the most of it" in our online classes.

Instead of driving to campus, I went to my living room, where I set up my desk, chair, computer, and filing cabinet in front of the window and prepared to do my work each day. I liked watching people walk their dogs, who were obviously happy at getting more time with their humans, and other people teach their kids how to ride their bikes. The Amazon Prime van and the FedEx truck showed up on a daily basis.

I set up online discussion forums with writing prompts. I posted notes online. I held office hours on Zoom. Many of my students did not read the notes I posted. They kept emailing to ask questions that they would already know the answer to if they had read the notes. (I responded, "The answer to that question is in the notes.") I tried to be understanding about missed assignments because I knew a lot of people had issues with WiFi, but it became frustrating when days or weeks passed by where they ignored my emails and the incomplete assignments started piling up. I finally had to impose penalties on the ones who weren't doing their work, even though I felt bad about doing so. I ended up with severe carpal tunnel syndrome from spending so much time in front of my computer.

I attended faculty meetings on Zoom. I received several emails from my department head, who said that most of the faculty in the English Department will have to continue teaching online in the fall. She said that we can opt out of that and teach on campus, but then our fall schedule will change so that we will get classes scheduled in the early morning, the evening, or on Saturdays (basically, the classes that no one wants to teach). So in other words, it's not really a "choice".

When the shelter in place order was first imposed, I received several worried emails from my students, who were upset about the loss of half of their spring semester. When I talked to them on Zoom, I felt sad too; I felt angry that they were cheated out of a significant part of the college experience. For them, going to college isn't just about going to class. It's about living in a dorm away from their parents, where they can experience independence for the first time in their lives. It's about staying up with their roommates or friends until 2 A.M. It's about going to college parties, meeting new people, and trying all these new things. And they were denied all of that.

Not to mention, they are paying thousands of dollars in tuition for resources that they can't use, such as the science labs or the library (they can use the library's online resources, but they can't check out print copies of the books). One of my students is a theater major who had gotten a leading role in a school play, which was cancelled due to the lockdown. I thought of other students who were suffering from depression or other mental health problems and couldn't take advantage of the school's counseling services. And it just made me feel even angrier.

I understand why the shelter in place order was imposed. But it also made me feel sad for the college seniors, who were cheated of the graduation they had spent four years working for and the opportunity to walk across the stage and be honored for their accomplishments. It made me feel sorry for the high school seniors, who didn't get to go to their senior prom, their senior trip, or their graduations. They'll never get that back.

It also makes me angry when I see people ignoring rules about social distancing, like the college kids on spring break and the one who said, "If I get corona, I get corona," and of course, several of them did get infected with the virus. This is the same generation who says, "OK Boomer," which basically means that they dismiss everyone whose opinion differs from theirs and act like because we're older than them, that means that we're ignorant/politically incorrect/dumb, but then turned around and claimed that it wasn't their fault because the adults didn't tell them about how serious the virus was. My response to that is, "What-EVER, Gen Z."


The only place I went to on a regular basis was the grocery store because that was one of the only places that was open. I went to the grocery store sometimes just so I could talk to people since I live alone and didn't have anyone else to talk to, except my students. Everyone was wearing masks, which was helpful on days like when one of the grocery store employees screamed at me because I reached for a cart that had not been sanitized yet, and she couldn't see me mouthing the words, "Not today, Satan," through my mask.

It did, however, make me appreciate the things that I could do. I felt grateful that I did not get sick from the virus. I felt grateful that at least I still had my jobs (I also have a second job for a website, which I was already doing remotely), unlike many other people who lost theirs. My former dance teacher in Chicago, who performs in many plays in the city and also teaches dance classes at gyms, like the one that I was a member of, started posting videos of his workouts online. He also posted his Venmo screenname in case anyone wanted to send donations in exchange for his online workouts. I felt bad for him because unlike me, he could not do his job from home. I sent him several donations, which added up to about a hundred dollars (I used some of the money that I got from my stimulus check.) We weren't really friends when I lived in Chicago, but we lived in the same neighborhood and he was always kind to me when I ran into him or when I took his classes. I wanted to help him.

I felt grateful that I could still do things like write, read, and listen to music. When College Town's public library finally reopened (curbside pickup only), I immediately requested a stack of books and felt happier than the time I drove past the Starbucks that had recently reopened for drive-thru (when I saw it, I yelled out my car window as I drove past, "I've missed you! Never leave me again!" because I may or may not have a minor addiction to caffeine.)

This whole situation has made me value the things I took for granted before, like teaching in a classroom, walking around without a mask, writing in a coffee shop, etc. It makes me hope that things will get better, and that the people who got sick will make a full recovery.

What about you? How did the pandemic affect you or your life?