An academic career never seemed a possibility for me until I was in my fifties. Unlike most who end up teaching in colleges and universities, I was never a star student. Nor did I show signs of creative genius. I had little direction in my life, drifting in and out of jobs over the years after college, never thinking much about the future. I even went to graduate school on something of a whim, certainly not to establish a profession. By the time I turned 50, I had ‘experienced’ about that many jobs and had moved almost as often.
Two things, today, lead me to want to stay with my current profession, both of them consistent throughout my life (even when not much else was): love of teaching and love of writing. Most of my time is now split between the two, though “service,” that necessary evil, encroaches on both. They are my passions; they also make me impervious to “Quit Lit.” As Faculty Editor of Academe, I read such pieces anyhow, but more from curiosity than conviction.
So prevalent is Quit Lit today that Sydni Dunn of The Chronicle of Higher Education has created a Google Doc of examples and The Chronicle itself, last week, published an article about why it’s such a popular topic. It even has its own historical survey, Megan Garber’s “The Rise of ‘Quit Lit’” in The Atlantic. In frustration over its proliferation, Ian Bogost, also in The Atlantic, wrote “No One Cares That You Quit Your Job.” At the end of it, he begs, “More staypieces, please.”
One of my favorite songs is Lowell George’s Willin’:
I’ve been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet
Had my head stoved in, but I’m still on my feet and I’m still willin’.
Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, I’ve felt “cold, hungry, embarrassed, incompetent,” though never in the horrible context experienced by the character or his creator. Still, I’ve gone through some tough times.
Yet I’ve also been lucky, incredibly so. I struggled alone and, generally, without encouragement. Few of my teachers cared about me—few even noticed me. No one ever took me under their wing or shepherded me toward an academic career. Toward anything, for that matter. That I eventually landed in the right profession astounds me.
It’s true: I am seriously thinking of giving up my current position, even sloughing tenure, but that’s not because I don’t love my job—I would only leave for another teaching position. CUNY faculty haven’t had a contract for six years—six years when the cost of living has gone up in New York City dramatically—and I don’t think I can afford to stay here. I may be willin’, but I don’t think I’m foolish. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, the only person who can break the logjam, has no love for CUNY. But I have found what I want to do and I’m going to stick with it.
What I love about teaching comes from never having been a star student, comes from my own failures. The best can take care of themselves; set them a direction and they will take it. It’s the others who need the real teaching, and it is they I identify with. That’s a prime reason that I’d rather teach at a school like City Tech, a Brooklyn CUNY campus which, though much improved over what it was even a decade ago, is still a college where students ‘end up,’ not one where many (outside of those in our few marquee majors) choose to go. I started out at a college not so different. I know that our students can be just as bright and as successful as students anywhere, given the right guidance.
There’s very little reward for what I try, and success is rare. But I love the struggle and the occasional glimmer in the eye of an awakening intellect. I love the kid in the back row that Ira Shor calls “Siberia” who, at the end of the term, mutters an unsolicited thanks before turning away, embarrassed. The former student who, when I was walking in East Flatbush, yelled “Professor!” from across the street and came running, telling me she had just completed an MA at Columbia. The advisee, who had had no idea of a future, suddenly turning a flair for composition into a career path. I’d teach, though, even if that sort of thing were even more uncommon. Again, I love the struggle and the constant revising of strategies. I’m imperfect and so are my students. Together, we work for improvement.
It seems to me that Quit Lit comes from those who wanted to be stars, not teachers. Those of us who, for whatever reason, fell in love with the constant classroom struggle, can’t leave. “The sun is but a morning star,” we chant as each new semester dawns. We won’t give up the unfolding of that day.