I have of late–but wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
OK, so maybe Hamlet’s self-indulgent impotence is a bit much to start off with, but the first few clauses at least do seem to encapsulate my feeling about teaching these days.
Teaching is one of the most enjoyable things I can imagine doing. Indeed, I waited thirty years of my life to finally get enough knowledge and experience under my belt for people to agree that it was probably time to let me in front of a group of undergrads. In the past semester, I have taught a group of students who are among the most committed, passionate, insightful and articulate that I have ever met. (And a few, of course, who are not that, but the good outweighs the bad by a fair sight.) Yet… Yet…
I find myself dragging myself to class like a whining school-boy, with satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school. Honestly, I am not sure why this should be the case.
I am one of the lucky ones. I teach Shakespeare, my specialty. I am able to talk about plays that I love, ideas that I love, history that I love. Yet it is still there, this doubt.
I thought at first it was because my students are unable to unwilling to get one of the most fundamental tenets of contemporary Shakespearean criticism – that Shakespeare is not “universal” and that such statements only end up reinforcing a western hegemonic vision of literary production that is both disabling and racist. That doesn’t seem to be it. Oh, to be sure, there are some students who would really like it if Shakespeare were universal and that we could just enthuse about how GREAT he is, but, I’m not the leader of a fan club. I think most people get on board rather quickly that this isn’t how criticism works.
Then I thought it was because I’ve just expended a tremendous amount of effort (emotional and intellectual) on putting together a course (EN245) that I will always regret having put together as a flipped classroom. I am unapologetically against the flipped classroom as a teaching method in the university as it is now structured. In order for this to work, the whole of the education system would need to change. That said, I don’t think this is it either. I mean, yes, I’m a little emotionally low right now because of the amount of effort I put into that course, but that certainly doesn’t explain my lack of enthusiasm.
Then I thought perhaps it is the fact that I am in that most precarious of places in the academy – a sessional instructor – and that because of EN245, I simply did not have the time to put together any job applications this fall, which pretty much precludes the possibility of me getting out of the precariat. Then, of course, that’s not something that is any different than a few months back. Nothing changed, so there’s no reason for me to be upset.
There’s a list I’ve gone through in my head…
…I turned 40 – nope
…I only have one course next semester – nope
…I’m tired of not having an office – nope
I think the closest I’ve come to an answer is that I’m suffering from what Marx called entfremdung. Teaching Shakespeare is one of the greatest things I can do, but because I don’t have a home in terms of my teaching, I can’t care about my students as a set of people – I can only care about them as individuals. Yet, because I can’t actually spend any time with them, I am alienated from the product of my labour. This semester I have had TAs for the first time who have taken on a lot of the face-to-face meeting with students, which has further exacerbated my sense of alienation from my students.
Further in both of my courses, the sense of alienation is doubled and redoubled by the fact that both courses I am teaching I could, in theory, be teaching for the last/first time. I am teaching this semester at two universities. One, I may never teach at again. The other, I may never teach this particular course again. Ultimately, I think this is the reason behind my funk. (Funny how I move from Hamlet to Marx… Derrida would be proud.) I’m unable to control the ends of my labour because the meaning(s) of labour are so far outside my control as to be a sick joke at this point.
It’s funny. I’ve had students in the past accuse me of being a SJW-style feminist who is just trying to censor their rights(?) as young white men to speak, but I’ve never actually had someone accuse me of being a crypto-communist. Maybe I need to do something that I actually feel attached to to get out of this funk. I don’t know… write a novel, finish that podcast I’ve been wanting to do, take up a freaking hobby.
Anyhow, this isn’t something anyone will likely read through, but I thought I’d write it out… just cause.