Monday, January 4, 2016

Resolutions and Being Good Enough

Its that time again. You know, the thrice-annual academic moment for the making of resolutions: September, January, and May. September has its crisp leaves and new school supplies kind of optimism. Resolutions made then tend to focus on positive aspirations. January not so much. If my social media feeds are to be trusted January's resolutions have all the cold self-reprimand of a wicked Victorian school master. And May? Well, as much as I love May it seems to me that the academic resolutions one tends to make in May are filled with a mix of helium and gin: effusive, gravity-defying, and likely to give you a headache in three months time.

Now that our infant is seven months old and I feel smug and secure  more comfortable in my new role as a parent I am starting to think of these academic moments as trimesters. Things grow, you change, something new (and possibly horrifying or astonishing or humiliating) is around the corner and you just keep resolving to notice and to take stock and to take it in stride and to keep watch and keep thinking about how to be a better and better human. Or you try to do those things. You try to be the right balance of grounded and amazed that things just keep happening. You try to keep up and keep your wonder intact without tripping over yourself.

Or, if that analogy doesn't work for you, how about Antonio Gramsci's amazing essay on why he hates New Year's Day? Here's a particularly poignant excerpt:

Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s Day.

That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.

Let's imagine that these moments of reflection in an academic worker's life are not dates but opportunities. Not a wrestling and reckoning with past accounts, but rather neat little reminders to see how you're growing? What if we collectively worked to refuse the disproportionate aspirations of May (I will grade my papers, get a job, go to all the conferences, finish three articles, work on the grant, go on vacation, relax and refuel, plan my fall classes by June, and WRITE A WHOLE BOOK)? What if we embraced the optimism and energy of September in...February? What if we took stock and set intentions in March? What I wonder is this: what if we circled back, re-read, and re-introduced ourselves to ideas that we have encountered, bookmarked for a later time, and forgotten? 

I did just this as I sat down to write this. 

I was, as I often do, scrolling through the Hook & Eye archives and I came across Lily's first post called The Good Enough Professor. Do you remember it? In this piece Lily thinks through Winnicot's notion of the Good Enough Mother to imagine what it might look like to apply these principles to her own work. Being Good Enough is, in Lily's reading, a form of radical self-care and, I daresay, a radical paradigm shift for academics. Being Good Enough isn't dropping the ball or dialling it in, not in the deeply negative sense. Rather, being Good Enough is a careful negotiation of what is possible, practical, and pleasurable. Being Good Enough means taking into account the gendered paradigms in which we live and operate (Winnicot, as Lily points out, is talking about heteronormative mothering. We could extend and complicate this to think about race and sexuality, I think).

So my resolution for today is to recognize that I am a Good Enough Professor. Let me explain:

Today I will be walking into the classroom -- two classrooms, to be precise -- for the fortieth time. What I mean is that today I will be teaching my thirty-ninth and fortieth class. I'm not counting the in depended reading courses I have taught, nor am I counting any guest lectures. Nope, just this: I've taught forty classes. I've written forty syllabi. I have planned forty different classroom arcs for forty different groups of students. This is both a big and small accomplishment. On the one hand, teaching is what I do. While I pack research and writing and blogging and working with CWILA and sitting on Boards for various projects and associations into other moments of my day, teaching is what I get paid for, not the other stuff. So in that way, the fact that I have taught for score classes is just (forgive me) par for the course.

On the other hand, of the forty classes I have taught I would say about a quarter of them are squarely in my very specific area of training. I did my candidacy examinations at the University of Calgary, and at the time PhD students had to write three lists: a major field, a minor field, and an area of specialization. My major field was in writing by women of the 19th and 20th century. No kidding. All genres, all over the world. My minor field was in contemporary critical theory. My area of specialization? Avant-garde and experimental Canadian poetry and poetics.  While I have taught a number of theory courses and general surveys of Canadian literature, I have only taught two courses on contemporary Canadian poetry and poetics. The reason for this is pretty simple: as a precariously employed academic faculty member I rarely have the luxury to reteach the same course. Like so many of my peers I often am hired a few weeks before the class begins, and often of late, because the hires are emergency hires, these are classes that are very large and very generalized.

I have learned--and am continuing to learn--to be a Good Enough teacher. I still get nervous walking into an auditorium in front of students, whether there are ten or (like today) two hundred. I still wonder if a lecture is going well, if the students like me/the material/my teaching style. I still brace myself for the inevitable comments on my wardrobe or my voice or my verve. But I realize something has shifted in the years since I began teaching. I know how to write a syllabus. I trust my ability to both write and deliver content. I (mostly) know when and how to go off script and respect or manage those moments in the classroom when things do not go quite as I planned.

Now, I am not talking about the myriad power dynamics that happen in a classroom, not here, not today in this post. I'm not talking about the vulnerabilities I often feel, either. Not today. Today, on this first teaching day of January 2016 I am talking about being Good Enough as a mode of self-reflection and renewal. Today, on this first teaching day of 2016, I'm urging you to conjure up a little of Gramsci's resolve to keep reflecting and renewing throughout this year.  

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