Next Week in My Classes: Beginning My 20th Year

WP_20140827_005I started teaching at Dalhousie in 1995-96, which means that 2014-15 will be my twentieth academic year at the university. What with maternity leaves and sabbaticals, that doesn’t mean 40 consecutive terms (though for many years I did also do summer teaching), but that’s still a long time to be in one place doing the same thing.

Or, at any rate, that’s how it felt to me when I did this calculation a few days ago. In fact, I was suddenly and unexpectedly swept with gloom as I walked across campus with the phrase “twenty years” echoing in my head. It was a beautiful sunny day, with just a hint of fall freshness in the air, but the buildings looked all too familiar, the coming routines felt all too predictable, the inevitable administrative hassles of the new term seemed almost too much to go through yet one more time. Even the prospect of teaching Middlemarch again after a two or three year hiatus wasn’t enough to cheer me up. It’s not that I don’t know how lucky I was to get this job (even in the mid-90s the market was tough, though not as devastatingly so as it has become) and it’s not that I haven’t liked — loved, even — a lot of things about it. I just couldn’t muster much pride or sense of accomplishment. What did I have to show for those 20 years?

You’ll be glad to know that this fit of depression has mostly passed, though not entirely. I think feelings like this are a hazard of what is otherwise a great blessing and comfort, namely the stability and security of my position. If it sometimes feels like a mixed blessing, because the down side to it is a high degree of immobility, it’s obviously still, overall, something to be appreciated and (not incidentally) made the most of, as with the kinds of experimenting I have been able to do with my writing and teaching. A lot of the changes that I have brought about in my working life are not immediately visible, after all. “You know where to find me,” I tell departing students, sometimes a bit ruefully or even wistfully, as they move on to the next stage of their own adventures, and it’s true I do still spend my time in the same literal spaces. But my mental life has moved on quite a bit, to the extent that sometimes I feel strangely detached from some of the preoccupations of my departmental colleagues. (Some of that detachment grew, self-protectively, out of the lack of interest in or support some of them — not, happily, all of them — have shown for my new projects, from blogging to writing for Open Letters: being defensive is not a good long-term strategy, I found, and being an advocate also gets tiring in its own way, so I have had to stop caring so much and measuring myself by their standards.) I’m much more aware than I was in 1995 that there’s life — literary life, even! — outside the academy, and that makes some of what we worry about seem much less interesting and important. Anyway, for better or worse, that’s one way in which I do feel I have not been stagnating but changing and even growing.IMG_1276

And it’s not as if I don’t have anything to show in other ways for my 20 year investment in Dalhousie. My academic research and publications certainly count as accomplishments, but when I am having a “save Tinkerbell moment” and need my belief restored, my surest remedy is a browse through the fat file folder I have of thank-you cards and messages from students. It’s enormously uplifting to know that the part I played in their lives mattered to them. Teachers at all levels can have this incalculably diffusive effect — I know my own life would be very different without the influence of my own teachers. I hope I told them how much difference they had made; I am certainly very grateful to the students who tell me, because knowing they cared helps me keep trying to bring my best self into the classroom every time. Even at a conservative estimate, twenty years’ worth is a lot of students: even if the majority move on and don’t remember my name, much less what we studied together, there are still plenty who carry something of me away with them — as I am cheeringly reminded every so often when one of them gets back in touch. “I saw someone reading Middlemarch in a restaurant awhile back and thought of how pleased you’d have been,” one former student recently emailed me, and I was pleased, not just that someone was reading Middlemarch (always a good thing!) but that she associated the book with me.

WP_20140827_003The other thing I have to show for my twenty years — something I benefit from every day I’m at work — is experience! It’s easy to forget, now, how new to all this I was in 1995-96. I was hired while still “ABD” (all but dissertation), and my hands-on teaching experience was limited to two of Cornell’s Freshman Writing Seminars (both capped — ah, luxury — at 17 students) and one stint as a TA (in a 19thC fiction class, too, because there were no first year writing classes big enough to use teaching assistants). The class on Browning’s “My Last Duchess” that I taught as part of my on-campus interview here was quite literally the first time I’d ever stood up in front of a room full of students (not to mention a back row of professors there to see how I did). So my first full-time term was really jumping into the deep end for me. I don’t recall any massive screw-ups beyond assigning way too much reading in my first section of Introduction to Literature and way too much writing in almost every class, because I had no idea how much time it would take to mark multiple papers for a class of 50 or 60. I had the time at first: I was keen to throw myself into a job I was excited about and knew I was lucky to have, and at first I had no children, either. But the hours and hours of marking … on top of having no files of teaching notes or materials to draw on, so absolutely every part of absolutely every class had to be prepared entirely from scratch. Good thing I was so young and energetic! (I was 28 when I came here, which means I was barely older than the first crop of graduate students I taught — in fact, now that I think back, I was actually younger than some of them.)

Now, on the other hand, I have a drawer full of notes, handouts, transparencies, and other materials, as well as acres of virtual storage devoted to more of the same. I don’t have everything covered, of course: every year I work in a new book or two somewhere, and I rarely use exactly the same notes or handouts twice. It is reassuring, though, to know that for a lot of texts I teach on a regular basis I have an archive to draw on for information and inspiration. I’m glad, too, that I haven’t recycled even the oldest paper materials, because I pull out treasures sometimes — such as, most recently, a cache of old student discussion questions for Villette including a set by Dorian Stuber, who was in one of the first Victorian novels classes I ever taught. Good questions about interesting books don’t go stale!

I also have found logistical systems that work well for me. I don’t think they are particularly original (when I mentioned them on Twitter, a number of people said they have similar strategies), but those of us who started teaching long before ProfHacker existed had to fumble our way into them. Since the second-most frequent comment on my student evaluations is “she’s really organized” (first is “she’s very enthusiastic”) I think they must be pretty good ones. One is very dull and basic: setting up spreadsheets to track all administrative aspects of every class, from attendance to essay submission to test scores. I don’t enjoy Excel, but  learning to use it reasonably well has shored up my record-keeping in important ways. A more fun thing I do to keep order is use color-coded folders for each course so that I can be sure I have the right ones when I’m gathering up my materials and heading out the door to teach. Red has become standard for detective fiction, and it’s usually green for 19th-century fiction, though this year I’m using some elegant William Morris folders (thanks, EB!). Other courses vary, but the key thing is that once I internalize a term’s colors I do a lot less scrambling at the last minute.

WP_20140827_004Another very simple thing I do is designate one shelf space for each course. Often coming back from class is a distracting time, with students tagging along for conferences or somewhere else to get to in a hurry, so I don’t have time to do fine sorting. Instead, I dump all the class material onto its shelf and organize it when I get my next chance — but in the meantime if I need to find a book or paper from it, my search is neatly delimited. Again, less scrambling! I have a pretty low tolerance for stress and confusion, so for me it’s well worth the little bit of forethought required. When I see offices with indistinguishable brown folders piled in heaps all over the place, I know that — while it must work for the office’s own occupant — I would be a nervous wreck by the end of a single day in there.

My only other crucial trick is using post-it notes — many hundreds of them, cumulatively — to mark important passages in the (yes, I admit it) very long books I teach so often. One of the treats of re-using a well-worn edition is taking advantage of the existing post-it notes, which often help me regain my footing in key interpretations and patterns as I go along; one of the treats of a brand-new copy (such as this year’s handsome Oxford World’s Classics Villette) is putting in a whole new set. (Yikes, how book-nerdy is that. But it is fun!) On Twitter, people mentioned colored pens, certain kinds of notebooks, and colored printer paper as other things that make their teaching days easier, more efficient, and also brighter. However much we use and now take for granted our electronic devices, there’s clearly still a special charm and a lot of use in old-fashioned school supplies.

So far I haven’t even mentioned the 20 years’ worth of increased knowledge I presumably have: when I consider how little I had read in 1995, and how much of that was not really very useful — well, I’m almost surprised they even let me teach! But they did, and here I still am. I’ve probably got another 20 years until I retire: just think how much more I will have read and learned and filed by then. I just have to keep my spirits up — so I don’t lose that third thing I’m often thanked for in my course evaluations: my sense of humor.

16 Comments to Next Week in My Classes: Beginning My 20th Year

  1. August 31, 2014 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Dear Rohan,
    I for one feel honored to have this insight into your feelings about the passage of time, and your methods of managing the emotions as well as the practicalities of life. Perspective is a wonderful things. Thanks so much for taking the time to think and write this out for your readers. It is all quite inspiring and comforting.

    Susan

  2. September 1, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on the milestone! You’ve done good work and that is definitely something to be proud of.

  3. September 1, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations on reaching your 20th teaching-year and wishing you many more of inspiration on the podium! I’ve always thought the best teaching comes from knowledge and love of subject and PERFORMANCE … it sounds like you’ve had and will have plenty more!

  4. September 1, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m grateful for all I’ve learned from you since I first met you at Dal, Rohan. I believe it’s nineteen years ago this week. It was wonderful to be in your classes and to learn so much about the 19th century, and of course about both Jane Austen and George Eliot.

    I feel tremendously fortunate to have had you as my PhD supervisor. Thank you so much for everything — from long conversations about 19th C. novels to bringing me a cup of tea when I was writing my comprehensive exams. I, too, will always associate Middlemarch (and all of Eliot’s novels) with you.

    And I’m glad you talk about books on the internet as well as in the academy, because it gives me — and so many others — the opportunity to continue to learn from you. Congratulations on those 20 years! Dalhousie is very lucky to have you.

  5. Dorian Stuber's Gravatar Dorian Stuber
    September 2, 2014 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    Hmm, I can’t imagine those Villette questions are up to much. (I’d like to read that novel again though; I remember it as a favourite even if I don’t remember much about it.) But I happily join the chorus of praise here. I learned so much from you as a student (when I first started teaching, I tried to model my comments on yours–long typed pages–until I nearly burned out), and even more as a fellow academic and reader. In recent years, you’ve been my most important and inspiring model. Congratulations on all you do for your students & the world of letters, and thank you for all you’ve done for me.

  6. TW's Gravatar TW
    September 2, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Let us raise our glasses to Professor Maitzen from whom we all of us continue to learn. May Rohan’s generosity of spirit continue to inspire us all!
    With thanks and Congratulations!
    TW

  7. Diane Magras's Gravatar Diane Magras
    September 2, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that if I had gone to Dalhousie, I may very well have gone into that PhD in Victorian Something that I sometimes dream about in these much busier, family-occupied days! Your early style of many assignments, both reading and writing, shows your generosity as a professor. It’s something that I would have eaten up. And as for the twenty years, I understand the melancholy of it, but at the same time there is a certain significance in the many students you’ve taught and the many different notes of all the works you’ve shared with them. You’ve given your students a truly inspiring experience with the great Victorian authors, and that’s something that will help them–whether it’s to giggle with recognition as they read something like Possession, or see parallels between the characters you helped them appreciate and the people of their lives today. Thank you, too, for this blog. It’s such a treat for those of us outside academia to hear your thoughts, learn about the books you love, and enjoy the connections you make.

  8. September 3, 2014 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Twenty years is a HUGE achievement, Rohan, and I’ll bet twenty generations of students wholeheartedly agree.

  9. September 3, 2014 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    I’m having a similar reaction to my 25th year this year, asking many of the same questions you are. I can’t offer any insight into the experience, though. Certain anniversaries just seem to carry that little bit of extra weight. Congratulations, though, on 20 years that sound like pretty good ones to me.

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