The other morning, I was reading on the 2 train on my way to school, reading a book on education issues that a publisher had sent me for review. The subway wasn’t crowded, maybe a dozen or so others in the car. One was a young woman who, I noticed, was eyeing me from across the car. A couple of stations passed, and suddenly she was sitting next to me.
“You’re a teacher, aren’t you?”
“I could tell by the book you are reading.”
I nodded again, closed the book, and turned to look at her, waiting to see where this was going.
“Could you look at something for me?” She produced a large envelope. “I wrote up a resume and cover letter, but I am not sure they are right.”
Startled, I stifled a laugh. This week, I’ve been working on just such documents with my writing class. The students had just completed their first business-style letters (addressed to Clay Shirky, a new-media scholar who has decided to ban electronic devices from his classroom, the letters had to briefly and effectively express agreement or disagreement) and were moving on to work on their resumes.
“Do you know about these things?” She had noticed my reaction.
“Yes. In fact, I teach them.”
She pulled two sheets out of the envelope and handed them to me. The top one was a resume. I scanned it. Down at the bottom, under “Education,” she had written that she is a student at New York City College of Technology–the school where I teach.
“Wait a minute. You’re at City Tech?”
“Yes. In the nursing program, though I am completing a Liberal Arts Associate degree this fall.”
“That’s also where I teach.”
“I’m glad I asked for your help! And I’m lucky.”
The student and I went over her resume and cover letter until I had to get off near school (she was going on to a job).
Coincidence, even in New York City, is not particularly rare. What struck me more was the confidence this student showed in teachers. That speaks very well for the instructors she has had at City Tech and even back in high school. She trusts that teachers can be approached and that they will find ways of helping her. I don’t think this young woman, had she needed advice from a doctor, lawyer, or member of any other professions (with the exception of the clergy), would have approached someone on the subway. It would have been even more surprising had that person (again, except for clergy) actually helped. For a teacher, it is so common that it is expected.
When we leave campus, we leave with more than a stack of papers to grade and a manuscript to review. We also carry a responsibility as educators and as scholars to the betterment of the wider community. And we don’t leave our passions inside the ivory tower.
When we give advice on the subway or tweet (or do almost anything else), we aren’t simply individuals opining outside of work but are carrying the weight of our positions into the public sphere. This is why the protection called “Academic Freedom” is so vital: we make ourselves vulnerable, but that vulnerability is critical to our professional existence. This is why we are hired and evaluated by our peers (or we should be) with administrative oversight at a minimum. This is why we so cherish shared governance.
No one outside of the field knows what the pressures on each of us are. Only those who have experienced them understand the vital nature of common incidents like mine on the subway. Therefore, we, as a group, need to be making the decisions about our own futures; outside evaluation is always going to fall far short. Steven Salaita was hired by faculty members for the university. The university has an obligation to respect that, an obligation it failed to uphold. The needs and interests of university trustees should never interfere.
If we want students to continue to have faith in teachers, and teachers to feel comfortable guiding students, in our classrooms or even far from campus, we have to continue to support the doctrines that make possible the special role that teachers play in society. Among these is Academic Freedom.
[Recent posts on the Salaita situation: