Like everyone, I am looking forward to the end of the semester. After the last two weeks packed with teaching, oral presentation rehearsals, meetings–let alone my own writing deadlines and classwork–I’m right there with everyone else hailing the approaching summer. As much as I love the work I do, I know that in a mere month I’ll get the rare privilege to sleep in on a Saturday without anxiety. For those of us who are lucky enough to get to slack a bit in the summer, it’s sometimes all we can use to keep us going. Administrators right on down to students–we’re all singing the same poppy song. It’s about sunshine and sleep and freedom.
However, I’ve also been feeling something unique this year as the last weeks of the term arrive: I’m calling it the Grad School Year’s End Blues. You may be familiar with it. The Grad School Year’s End Blues comes sliding in with the deadlines pulsing just in the distance. It floats around as that residual senior-itis brushes off the folks who are actually leaving. It comes (to me at least) along with the swelling acknowledgement that “my summer off” will be a write-a-thon punctuated by expensive conferences and exams.
But it’s not all about disappointment or anxiety, these blues. That’s the chorus, to be sure–the hook. I want to sing one particular verse, one that I’m just learning for the first time this year: the verse about the end of a one-of-a-kind teaching experience.
I tend to surround myself with teachers who love to teach, and I’ve heard them each hum a line of this one in their time: about the honors capstone course they got to teach that once, or the totally blog-based integrated learning environment they’d finally perfected after years of tweaking. The last lyrics always end, “but who knows when I’ll ever get to do that again!”
That’s my situation this year. I ended up getting a repeat gig as a first-year composition instructor for the honors engineering program at City College. Two falls in a row now, I’ve taught honors engineers with a curriculum I adapted from the department’s template. I’ve experimented wildly, and received decent support and encouragement from my supervisors. I gave it a few injections of comp/rhet methodology (process work, freewriting, revision, collaboration) and technology (wikis, blogs, multimodal assignments). The really special thing is that this year I got to teach only these students: the two sections of the honors English 110 course from the fall followed me almost wholesale to the 210 course I’m teaching this spring. For the first time in my teaching career, I got to see how a writer develops over more than 15 weeks. It’s been tremendously instructive.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel a hokey kind of pride for how far these particular students have developed. They’ve grown tremendously in their understanding of writing, both as a practice and as a discipline of study. But that’s not the feeling in this song. This is Nina Simone, not Sarah Vaughan. There’s a snarl behind those tears.
The reality is, as an adjunct teacher who studies composition pedagogy, I benefit professionally from the chance to experiment on a wide variety of writing curricula, student demographics, and physical spaces (this year in a computer lab for the first and probably last time). I know that this was probably my only chance to study this kind of pedagogical situation, at least until I’m in a full-time job. The truth is, I got lucky just to get this kind of experience the first time: most people get very little freedom in the courses they teach. And I might get lucky enough to get another go at it, to see if the successes I had here are actually repeatable. But I probably won’t.
For me, and a lot of pedagogy folks out there I know, access to a free range of courses to teach is like access to lab space. The reality for most of us who adjunct at CUNY is that it’s usually the luck of the draw whether we land in departments that give us access to a variety of teaching opportunities, or those that reserve the more challenging courses for full-time faculty. If we want to push our scholarship as compositionists, to produce innovative work that will lead to publication, or to ensure a wide and impressive teaching portfolio for when we enter the job market, we need access to new and challenging teaching experiences. From my experience in English departments, at least, the keys to that lab space are guarded pretty tightly (tell me in the comments if it’s different elsewhere).
So, I’m sure I’ll enjoy my summer when it gets here. I bet I’ll have a great time at that conference, and I’ll learn Spanish, and I’ll write a ton and still somehow have fun in the sun. But for now, I’m still here reading student papers, trying to enjoy the last good bits of the term, and singing these Grad School Year’s End Blues.