Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Here's one of the reasons I love teaching. The other day I walked into the classroom and confessed to my students that I was in a really good mood, for no apparent reason. One student nodded knowingly and said, "It's the serotonin."

I teach community college English as an adjunct (adjunct="temporary" instructor who may teach up to 25 years without benefits and the security of a contract. I'm at four years and counting.) It's a complex job. While I love what a colleague once called the "performance aspect of teaching," I can't stand the outside-the-classroom stuff: grading zillions of essays, calculating grades, holding office hours and hearing the pitiful stories of students who just HAVE TO PASS the class despite the fact that they stopped coming, never turned in essays, failed all the quizzes, etc. I also don't like confronting students about plagiarism, which is a rampant problem administration doesn't always seem to care about.

What I do like is introducing students to things they might not have read otherwise (my two English 1A classes are right now reading Me Talk Pretty One Day), getting them interested in history and literature, breaking them into groups to work together and hopefully make friends (sad to say, it seems like unless if you're at a residential college with dorms, it's hard for students to develop those friendships that are really what college is about...) Some of my happiest moments have been hearing students talk about going over to each other's houses and knowing that that contact arose because I put them together to do a task. A colleague once told me that those friendships also increase retention -- a problem where once the semester gets underway and essays are actually due, people begin to drop out.

I think my main underlying philosophy of teaching is that if I can make reading fun, and make students want to continue reading after my class is over, then I've done my job.

Because let's be honest. I can't undo the decade or so of teachers shrugging and promoting students to the next grade even though they can't write a complete sentence and don't know how to make their subject and verb agree. I can't, in a three-month semester, make students understand the nuances of irony (one of my saddest days was using The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 and seeing the students not "get" the Onion article anthologized in it.) I can't turn their chunky, nonparallel sentences into paragons of eloquence with our twice-weekly classroom time. What I can do is turn them on to reading by selecting real books that I read and enjoy -- with the hope that they will continue to ferret out reading and by pure exposure pick up the writing tools that I and my peers picked up by the same method.

I can't tell you how many times students have said to me, "I never read an entire book before."
This is from community college students, who (hopefully but not necessarily) graduated from high school! The one book that has most often elicited the tacked-on postscript to that startling statement -- "until I read this one!"-- is Kindred by Octavia Butler.

And speaking of school, I now have to go there.

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