“Mostly we authors must repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives, experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before. Then we learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three stories—each time in a new disguise—maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald, from “One Hundred False Starts” in A Short Autobiography (via scribnerbooks)
But let me expand on this just a bit, especially since the new semester begins next week and I’ll be teaching my graduate seminar in political theory. I usually tell grad students that it’s the best class they can take … but that shouldn’t surprise anyone, as I always tell undergrads that my political theory courses are the best and most important classes available to them at the university.
Is my mouth writing checks that my syllabi can’t cash? Maybe a little. But only a little.
My classes are designed to appeal to people who like the sorts of things that I like. They’re the classes I loved taking when I was in college. We read a lot of books, we talk about timeless questions, we think about ways in which the answers to those questions impact the way we live today, we try out different ideas and see if they work, we debate and discuss … and, throughout, I pepper students with pop culture references and lessons in grammar.
What could be better? Honestly, what?
When students take my classes and then go off to law school, I wonder what went wrong. Law school — and lawyering, thereafter — isn’t anything like what we do in my classes. Grad school and teaching, that’s the model here.
Of course, grad school isn’t for everyone; it’s not even for some grad students. It’s not enough to enjoy reading and thinking, though that is a big part of my job. You also have to be able to write and to come up with ideas about which you must then write. So, really, a good portion of my day is given over to thinking and talking and writing about ideas that interest me.
I’m not sure if there’s any other job that I’m capable of doing. But I know there’s no other job that would make me as happy.
Thus, I’m always amazed by the Hollywood portrayal of college professors, some of which is directly referenced in the piece to which Tofias direct people above and with which Tofias seems to identify; if I’m remembering all the movies correctly, there isn’t a single professor character with whom I actually identify. They’re all completely self-involved; they have almost no common sense; they seem entirely disconnected from the world around them; they generally have some sort of substance abuse issue; they have terrible home lives and relationships; and — perhaps most strangely — they all seem to be failures at teaching or writing or both.
Last year, I watched “Tenure,” a film in which Luke Wilson’s hapless professor character attempts to get tenure and then realizes — after failing to get tenure, in part due to his inability to publish anything and in part because of his behavior and the behavior of his odd colleagues — that being a tenured professor really isn’t something that he’d want out of his life. Having just successfully navigated the tenure process myself, I thought I’d get a few laughs out of the film … but there was literally no part of the film that had anything at all to do with my experience. Not a single moment.
Since they can’t find a way to succeed in either their personal or their professional lives, these movie professors make for at least marginally interesting characters in the way, I suppose, that I do not; the general lack of anything to do during the day or night means that the screenwriter can imagine all sorts of wacky situations into which they can be tossed. And no one ever says, “I don’t believe that could ever happen. It’s 11am on a Wednesday. Doesn’t he [It’s almost always a “he” in these movies] have something to do?” These are professors, after all. 11am on a Wednesday is a meaningless distinction. And yet, with so little going on in their lives, it’s hard to believe that these schlubs so consistently fail to get anything accomplished, even as it’s not at all hard to imagine that they keep filling their days with bizarre shenanigans.
Happily, I suppose, my life is nothing like these fictional professors. You probably don’t want to watch a movie in which I read books, spend hours typing at my laptop, play with my kid, make dinner for my family, watch movies, go to meetings, await publication decisions, and talk with students in and out of the classroom. There are no shenanigans.
But I’m also not depressed, addicted, lonely, or excessively narcissistic. My colleagues at the University of Nebraska don’t seem to be either. I like working with them; I even enjoy spending time with them outside of the office. This might be the exception and so I might be selling people an unreal or unreasonable bill of goods. But I don’t really know how else to describe it. My experience as a college professor isn’t at all like the one described in the Atlantic Wire piece to which Tofias links.
In fact, I love my life, I love my job, and I love my shenanigan-free days of reading, writing, discussing, and thinking. Of course, I’m also incredibly lucky to be in this job; it’s a bad bet right now to go to grad school with the hope that you’ll wind up behind the desk in my office in 5-10 years and I attempt to explain this to students who express an interest. Most, though, don’t ever even express an interest and I’ll admit that it puzzles me.
In the end, I don’t need you to want my job; I’m just surprised that you don’t.
What he said! (Except I liked and identified with the film “Tenure”.)
Whereas I have not seen “Tenure” at all. But congratulations on earning tenure! And let me tell you: full professor feels even better!
“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. […] Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.”—
Perhaps because I find the prose of women writers such as Jean Rhys, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Marguerite Duras, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Octavia Butler, Eileen Myles, and their ilk often fiercer in form and effect than that of their male counterparts, from Ernest Hemingway to Raymond Carver,…