Sunday, November 24, 2013

A rhetorical question: should teachers stay or should they go?

I can't stop thinking about something that Historiann said in her comments section in the post on "Death of an Adjunct":
Tenured Radical raises a point that the Anderson article touches on but doesn’t address directly: the question of age. I’m already feeling (mid-40s) like my hold on the students has an expiration date. I think it’s hard to relate and appear relevant to students past a certain age, no matter how able-bodied, vigorous, or determined one is. (At least, not 4 classes a semester, every semester.)
 On one hand, I see how this could be, and it's clear that, to put it kindly, the subject of "DoaA" should not have been teaching.  On the other hand, I keep thinking about all the teachers I had who were older than mid-40s but still were vibrant and relevant in the classroom.  Yes, I had a couple who should have retired a few years before I had them, but mostly the older teachers were impressive. They just knew so much more, not that they displayed that unless we asked questions.

The time to quit would probably be when you're no longer curious, passionate, and really engaged in the classroom and in the profession.  On a personal level, I still feel all this, and students still respond to it as best I can tell (class discussions, good enrollments, good evals, etc.).

Colleagues (not necessarily those at Northern Clime) who are retiring or have retired have done so because, as they explained, "I don't want to do this any more. It's just time." But as Historiann's comment raises the issue, how would you know "should I stay or should I go"? What are the signs?


Bardiac said...

There's also the problem of eating and so on. There's a lot of evidence that it's hard to get a new job if you're unemployed in your 50s. But most of us started saving for retirement late, and don't make great money, so there's more to retirement decisions than just being less than completely inspired, no?

undine said...

Bardiac--absolutely! By my calculations, there's approximately 0 chance of getting hired in your fifties. Maybe you got an academic job at 40 after years as a VAP or equivalent. Say you decide at 50 you don't feel inspired. People in your family live to about 95. So you have to fund the next 45 years on what, exactly? Ten years of retirement savings? And that's not even counting the debt that many are still paying off in their 40s.

I thought about this but couldn't figure out how to get it into the post.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Ultimately, teaching is a job just like any other job. Do you do it better if you believe in it? I suppose.

For point of comparison, though -- let's look at marketing. Let's say you work in marketing and you have to create an ad for cigarettes. Let's say you've never smoked in your life, and you find cigarettes to be disgusting. But you create the ad anyway because that's your job. And you do the best you can because that's your job. You don't have to have any passionate love for cigarettes. You can think they're kind of awful. But you can still figure out a way to make cigarettes seem appealing, even if that feels smarmy and unethical.

What I'm saying is this: you don't have to be an inspired, impassioned teacher in order to be a good one (or to do a good job). I feel an awful lot of ambivalence about teaching and the usefulness of what I do. But I can fake it like a pro. I figure if I have to have a job, I'd better have one that I can at least fake well. I think that one's teaching integrity has to be ingrained in one's ability to at least seem like you care, even if you're bitter and depressed about how it's all turned out.

For those colleagues who really do love it -- good for you! The feeling is not universal, but I'm glad there are people out there who mostly enjoy their jobs. I'm on the fence. Some days I like it better than other days. But I do also feel fairly put upon. I keep thinking it might just be where I landed that makes me feel so oppressively overworked. I could be wrong. Who knows?

undine said...

Fie, there was that article in the Chronicle a while back that said you didn't have to like teaching as long as you could fake it. It's probably like that old story about the person who did good deeds all her life but said that her heart wasn't in it, so did it count? (Yes.)

I think it was a good question, or point, that Historiann brought up, but the financial part may be more compelling.

Historiann said...

Hi everyone--sorry to be late to the party. (I didn't get a trackback on this post, sadly!) No one wanted to discuss my point about age and teaching at my place, so I'm glad Undine engaged it here.

I think Fie and Bardiac both make great points. Our working lives are very short post-Ph.D., and there is that pesky necessity of eating WHILE ALSO saving for retirement. Fie's point about acting is an important one, too. There are some days when faking enthusiasm is all I've got, but it's funny: if I put on my game face, I usually end up feeling enthusiasm after the first 10 minutes of class.

My point wasn't to deny the importance of working for self-sufficiency (indeed, the larger post that comment is from was ALL ABOUT the self-sufficiency), or to deny that acting is (and rightly should be) a large part of effective teaching.

My point was more generational and about the "generation gap" between me and my students. I used to be the age of my students' big sisters. I'm now at the point where I believe I'm about the age of their parents. When I'm the age of their **grandparents**, how much energy will I have for that game face, and can I cultivate either the avuncular old proffie personality or the charming old crank proffie personality effectively enough?

It strikes me that this is a very gendered question, given the social invisibility that post-menopausal women report. That old crank proffie personality is something men can inhabit more effectively than women, I'm guessing, and the avuncular proffie too. I specifically resist being a motherly or maternal presence in the classroom, so performing a grandmotherly act will be right out.

So what's an effective tack for senior women in particular? I'd like to believe that my unique self will be enough to carry me through for another 20 years, but I'm happy to take advice & tips from others. Was there a charming older woman proffie that you recall from college days? How did she play it?

Anonymous said...

@Historiann-- My mom cultivates "nun" as her teaching persona. I think it works pretty well.

Historiann said...

I can work with that! Thanks, n&m.

undine said...

Historiann--Thanks for explaining. About what you and Fie said: I read one time, waaaayyy back in high school when I read Glamour magazine, that you should smile at yourself in a mirror because it will make you feel better. It works! The "game face" is sort of like that. Teaching is like exercise: you may not feel like it, but once you've started into the routine, you get enthusiastic. About the persona: "crazy about literature" seems to work.

undine said...

Nicoleandmaggie--or maybe "nun for literature"? Either way.

Anonymous said...

Natalie Davis was past Historiann's use-by date when I took her class, and she has not retired yet, and she is 85. Feminism, you know?