Ah, terrific. The start of a brand new semester. The smell of crisp, glossy pages of textbooks that will never be opened. The touch of smooth, unwrinkled Scantrons, fresh from the 5-pack, that by the time we have our first exam, will be crumpled enough to jam the scanner. And the disinterested, possibly stoned blank 2×4 looks of everyone in my late afternoon HIST 101.
“Today we are starting with the Bronze Age and the foundation of our earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia. After the Neolithic period, when we developed agriculture and gained the means to form permanent settlements….”
My very first day of teaching (as a graduate student at the university where I’m completing my PhD), I walked into the classroom, totally rocking the Jansport backpack and an ironic history t-shirt with my dress slacks. I was 5 seconds older than the students I was teaching, and they all knew it. This was how Doogie Howser must have felt working at Eastman Medical Center.
Even ZZ Top was in awe of my cool.
My program dropped me into the classroom with little preparation, which backfired on some fellow grads but was really the ideal system for me. Trial by fire. Go big or go home. Excellent, my kind of poison. I was given a specific course my first semester but had Kim-Jong-Il levels of dictatorial control over the syllabus and structure with little oversight. I was in a perfect position to learn what kind of professor I wanted to be and the pros/cons of every decision.
It took a couple weeks to find my rhythm. At first, I was typing full-on lecture notes for every single little detail possible, complete with footnote citations in case a student ever dared to question my sources. (They never did.) I used to sweat blood over creating informative powerpoints. I struggled with pacing and having the Goldilocks just-right amount material for a 75-minute class.
Those were my pre-briefcase experiences. Now I have a leather, Indiana-Jones-esque bag that I sold a kidney to buy before my first semester at my current university. So worth it. That briefcase contains a piece of my professor-identity, like a friggin horocrux.
“Writing is critical for success, not just for you guys stuck here taking notes until 5:00 but also our early civilizations. The ancient Sumerians created a system of writing called cuneiform, based on distinct wedge-shaped characters. This was vital for record-keeping, harvest reports, business transactions. Here, you can see a bill of sale on a stone tablet, written in cuneiform, for a field and a horse in exchange for silver.”
It takes time learning what kind of teacher you want to be.
I tell the undergraduate and graduate students I mentor that when you’re teaching, you create a persona beyond yourself, someone that can take the punches, deliver the lecture with finesse, and overlook the kid drooling three rows back. Personally, I like to think I’m a cross between Jon Stewart as a history professor and Carmen Sandiego.
The Venus of Willendorf statuette, c. 25,000 BCE
“Remember, fertility was critical for the survival of our Paleolithic tribes, and the Venus of Willendorf is one example of that. Obviously, she’s a little…uh, well-endowed here, and as a result, scholars argue that she likely functioned as a fertility statue to encourage pregnancy or ensure safe delivery. Think about it. I’ve seen from TV, childbirth is scary, and even if you watch the birds do it and the bees do it and the woolly mammoth do it, actually giving birth to a baby back in the Paleolithic period had to be frightening. If some shaman tribal chieftain pressed this into my hand during a contraction and told me it’d ensure a safe delivery, I’d have it surgically implanted.”
If I throw my pen at the girl clearly not taking notes on her laptop, is that a lawsuit? If so, how much of a lawsuit?
My first very semester, I tried being a strict, no-nonsense instructor because I feared students challenging my authority. I limited classroom discussions. I was nervous whenever a student might ask a question I didn’t immediately know the answer to because I worried it would make me look weak. Like a limping gazelle in front of a pack of rabid lions. I didn’t let myself tell jokes. I never left the podium because it could double as a riot shield in case of a coup. I was miserable. Teaching wasn’t FUN that way.
By examining the best and worst of my own professors, I’ve learned the balance of enjoying my job and still establishing lines in the classroom that can’t be crossed. I always dress hyper-professionally because I am such a young instructor. It evens out the laid-back approach I have while lecturing.
For as Unabomber as I look on my off-campus days, I rock young professional wear.
I tell jokes that only I think are funny. I wear Converse with my nice slacks. I enjoy getting to know my students, whether it’s the kid in the front row who always wears an Attack on Titan jacket (rock on, Survey Corps) or the two soul sisters interested in studying abroad next summer. I probably care too much, but it hasn’t backfired yet. Maybe when my teaching style finally does reveal its faults, I’ll re-weigh the pros and cons and adapt. Then again, maybe not.
“Here’s your Trivial Pursuit for the day for ancient Mesopotamia. Forty percent of all the grain grown in the region was brewed for ale. How about that, eh?”
Just the other day, my department head advertised a job listing for a new American history instructor at another state university. A woman saw the salary and commented, “Who can possibly live on that?” I laughed. I laughed and I laughed. The answer? No one, lady. Would you like the chicken or the beef Ramen tonight?
What adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty do isn’t for the money. Clearly. We work for something else. Sometimes, some semesters more than others, when the vibe of the classroom is dead, when you’re tired and stressed and scrounging for appreciation, it’s hard to quite remember what that “something” is.
“This is a Sumerian terracotta relief of a woman playing the harp. Here’s the thing, these ancient Mesopotamians aren’t static or dull. It’s easier to realize that when you imagine them coming together around the fire and listening to something so familiar to us as music.”
There! Movement in the back of the room! We’ve got a live one!
Student: “So…what did they make the harps out of…?”
Heads poke up like meerkats on alert at the beginning of The Lion King. Even Laptop Girl has perked up to pay attention.
“Well, you see…” I start to explain about the set of 11 stringed instruments (2 harps, 9 lyres) that have been uncovered in the region. Suddenly, there’s interest. They ask what other instruments have been found. I tell them about the music guides we’ve found on stone tablets.
Hook, line, sinker. We springboard into an active discussion on how we are still learning more as historians about the distant past and why history matters. They ask perceptive questions about the hierarchy of Mesopotamian society, the building of ziggurats, Gilgamesh. By the time we get to Hammurabi’s Code–“Eye for an eye, people”–a couple even Thunderdome-chant “Tooth for a tooth” back at me.
We all know it: next class will be a brand-new struggle to get them engaged all over again, but right now, that doesn’t matter.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget why we teach the way we do: why we make the decisions we do, organize lectures the way we do, even why got into this career in the first place. But then, just when we are getting the most desperate, we get the reminders we need.
“All right, guys. Thanks for a great class. See you all on Thursday for Brendon Fraser’s personal favorite, ancient Egypt!”
A few kids even laugh.
Oh right. THAT’S why I do this.
Song of the Post: “Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne