Here's the thing: This is my second year on the tenure track at my current institution. This is my eighth year teaching in higher ed. I've worked at a variety of schools ranging from small liberal arts colleges to emerging research institutions. While I have had to learn a lot as I went along and sought out help and support at every turn, the truth is, my primary struggle as an emerging academic is not with the teaching/research/service paradigm I find myself in at this point. I teach well, I am productive and I contribute wherever I can. My primary struggle seems to be, upon reflection, about guarding my heart in the academy.
I came into the academy because I wanted to teach and to serve. I've been blessed to have a mother who was a wonderful teacher and truly, I've had good teachers throughout my education, both in the classroom and in community settings. With age, I even appreciate the teachers I had that were not so excellent, because truly, they reminded me of what not to do. Fact is, folks can really only show you what to do and what not to do, so I am grateful for both examples in my life because they have taught me a lot. My point is, I came into the academy because I value learning, I wanted to share my gifts as an educator and I wanted to create new knowledge with my students. I'm the kind of educator who values diversity -- of all kinds -- in my classroom and believes that when we work together to support student learning, the entire society benefits. I am committed to infusing best practices in my classroom even when taking the time to learn new strategies and re-design courses proves inconvenient. I live for that moment when my students are connecting seemingly unrelated ideas and making new discoveries. It is so worth it. Always.
Don't get me wrong. This tenure - track "thang" is exhausting and demands so much to do it well. By the end of a day, I am tired. By the end of a week, you could knock me over with a feather...but that's because I put my all into everything I do and teaching is no exception. I have learned how to implement classroom management strategies and prepare for teaching in an efficient way that gives me time to do the research I want to be doing (while meeting tenure requirements.) I am also becoming more adept at finding service opportunities that align with my interests. My big issue is dealing with the day to day stuff that I find obscures the reasons why I came into the academy in the first place.
I know that the business of the university requires more than my enthusiastic, idealistic and altruistic spirit, but c'mon. It's so disheartening to realize that very seldom do we as professors come together as a group and reflect on the essence of our endeavor. We have a responsibility, in my opinion, to do all we can to support our students and facilitate their educations. Yes, the research matters -- a lot! But it seems so critical to draw a line between what you research and what you do in the classroom -- even if that "line" has to do with ethos or sensibility and not topics, per se. I can go a full week and not be engaged in a conversation about what is in the best interests of the folks I've been hired to educate. I can also check my inbox and have way too many messages that have nothing to do with reaching the people I've been called to serve as an educator. And no, I'm not mad about it. I'm surprised. And...it makes me sad.
When I get sad, I have to go to a quiet place and remind myself why I did this. I have to remind myself why I've lived in 6 cities trying to become a professor. I have to remind myself of the people who sacrificed their comfort and convenience to make sure I learned something. I have to talk to myself about the value of the work I do in the classroom when I find myself in contexts that seem to only value the number of publication entries on my CV. I have to close my eyes and see the faces of the folks I serve in my classroom and remember that to them, what we do together is important...especially during those weeks when nobody around me has even broached that subject. I have to close my inbox, close my eyes and remember that good teaching changes lives and that's why I came into this whole enterprise. I have to speak to myself about the truism that education is a passport to the future. More than anything, when my very heart as a teacher feels battered and bruised by the pressure to reduce the academic enterprise to some pseudo - corporate foolery, I have to wrap my arms around myself and remember my "why." And I do that. And then? I get ready to go to class...
In an era where higher education is under attack and folks will openly question the value of what I do, I have to guard my heart. In a moment when folks openly suggest that professors are just a bunch of spoiled, lazy folks pontificating in the dark and taking our summers off, I have to guard my heart. And more than anything, when I find myself in conversations about various policies, procedures and initiatives where the best interests of students aren't even considered or discussed, I muster up all the strength I have in my heart, open my mouth and urge "us" -- whomever "us" is at that time -- to put the needs of our students back at the center of the dialogue and use that information to guide the decision making. This ain't no light action and it ain't easy, but it seems so necessary to me preserving not only my sanity but my integrity as a professor.