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?


  1. Oh, you poor thing. I'm bad at confrontation - I'm always better at suggesting what other people should say or coming up with a great response hours later. I hope she feels bad she hurt you x

    1. Hi Annalisa,
      I doubt she feels bad about what she said; she kept rationalizing what she said afterward and then they went on to talk about something else, while I sat there seething. I don't like confrontation either, but I often think of what I should have said later, like you. I wish I had a time machine just so I could go back and deliver the witty comebacks I should have said.

  2. Condescending people always take me by surprise.

    1. Hi Sandra,
      I have to admit that I was surprised by the Girlfriend's statement too. I don't think she meant to insult me, but she didn't seem to fully realize that what she said was condescending and insensitive.

    2. That's what it sounds like. My husband taught Developmental English and got a lot of that:)

    3. Hi Sandra,
      I've taught Developmental English too; it's an important class partly because it focuses on grammar, and that's something that many people still don't fully understand, which might explain all the grammatical errors.

  3. Grr! I'd be angry too. That's ridiculous. There's no such thing as a throwaway class. Lower level classes are foundations for later classes. Every class can teach you something. And for crying out loud, there's lots of interesting readings in every class. People who disregard the value of education really bother me.

    So there! :p

    1. Hi Deniz,
      I know, right? I had a student once who said that they weren't in college for the education, just for the degree. And it made me mad because as an educator, I see my job as more than just about making sure that students get their degrees but about helping them learn.
      I think that the Girlfriend thinks that way because she doesn't have to teach the kinds of classes that I do. But I'm glad that you can see the value of those classes; I wish I'd said what you said because then it might have helped her understand that she was wrong.