The Livingston Avenue Review Of Zines

Thursday, August 6, 2009

On Having No Class (1997)

For just over a year, I recently had no class quite literally: I spent a summer, fall semester, spring semester, and summer with no teaching duties. It took some getting used to, since I'd been teaching more or less nonstop for eleven years—seven years in graduate school and four as an assistant professor.

The story of how I came to be unemployed hinges at least partly on having "had no class" in the more figurative sense. My immediate superior, and presumably the entire administration up to the president of the college, perceived me as unprofessional. And they had reasons.

First of all, my appearance. Somewhere along the line, I'd stopped wearing the business casual campus uniform and returned to jeans and tees. I just couldn't bring myself to continue spending a lot of time and money making myself uncomfortable. There was one other full-time faculty member who dressed like a normal person but she had tenure and could get away with it. I'm pleased to report that during my four years at the college, ties became somewhat less common; I think I had something to do with that.

I even let my hair grow. I've always hated having to go to a barber; just like wearing expensive clothes, it seems like throwing away time and money. Since it only needs to be done once in a while, it's much easier to put up with. But on the other hand, when my hair's grown out, I always know how it's going to look and it doesn't stick out anywhere and make me feel silly.

Now, I know very well that it's possible to succeed in academics with hair: look at John Gardner, Raymond Smullyan, Stephen Pinker, or David Chalmers, for example. But it's certainly true that my chir mentioned it to me disapprovingly. Obviously it made her uncomfortable.

Beyond my violation of the unwritten dress code, though, and presumably much more serious, were my violations of the unwritten code of professional conduct: for example, my call-me-Owen laid-back├ędness with students or my willingess to question some of the straight-from-the-Dilbert-Zone stupid management tricks indulged in by our administrators (in the most respectful possible way, of course).

For the first year or so, I tried to pass. I really did. I guess I made it, too: I got a better merit raise that year (as a percent of my tiny-for-the-profession salary) than most of the rest of the faculty. The irony of this is that my classes went fairly badly that year since I was just figuring out what was what, and that right around the time I hit my stride and really started doing a good job, I was fired.

So here again (see On Having No Talent last ish), I found myself prevented from doing something I wanted to do, and did fairly well, for reasons that I considered to be beside the point at best. For rekindling the lost curiosity of long-term math phobes where a lifetime of I'm-the-teacher-so-do-it-my-way authority figures had conspicuously failed—no matter how well dressed—I got essentially no credit; in fact, rather less than that. By the same token, my wide learning (to say I was among the best-read faculty members may be boasting; it isn't empty boasting) and my (more or less universally acknowledged) talent in writing seems to have counted for very little if they counted in my favor at all. According to my own standards, I had become a good math-and-humanities professor and was becoming a better one, but since I insisted on carrying myself like a prole, I was ejected from the profession like some foreign substance.

In a word, my version of my brief career at my ex-college is something like this: they wanted a salesman and hired a teacher by mistake.

Well, who am I to tell anybody else how to run their college? They clearly know what they want; I'm clearly not it; what's the problem? Why should I blame the world? The world isn't going to change on that account.

Ah, but the question for me is: to what extent is it the world's fault? I mean, OK, I'm willing to take my share of the blame: I'm stubborn and opinionated and lacking in tact and so forth and so on. For me to go on resenting the evil little no-talent bureaucrats that wrecked my life for no very good reason may be mere self-indulgence. I guess I'm somewhat inclined to self-pity, but I do realize that it's a vice. I don't want you to feel sorry for me just because I got shafted.

What I do want is for you to be ticked off because a whole lot of other people got shafted right along with me. I'll end up having hundreds, maybe thousands, fewer students over the course of my lifetime than I planned. A sizable number of students that I didn't have will go to become teachers; I could have helped them be better ones; their students will suffer in their turn. I'd like to be able to convince you to be angry on their account. But angry at who (or at "whom", for those who believe there is such a word) or what?

Is it really entirely because I wouldn't take the world as it is? And not at all because the world wouldn't take me as I am? What a responsibility The things I have to do to keep my soul intact. Geez.

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