Further thoughts on becoming
- any process of change.
- Aristotelianism. any change involving realization
of potentialities, as a movement from the lower
level of potentiality to the higher level of actuality.
Teaching upper-division traditional undergraduates after teaching adult undergraduates for the first six years of my teaching career has been a rapid but fascinating transition. Adults are more experienced, more fixed in personality, and generally more mature. They are also not students by identity; they are procuring an education for some specific reason. To them being a student isn’t a transitional identity on the way from child to adult.
I loved teaching my adult learners. I discovered very quickly that teaching people around the same age and phase of life as me meant taking a humble approach. Nobody calls bullshit faster than a fellow GenXer. I saw myself as a facilitator of learning, a knowledgeable peer, within a system that demanded some kind of performance report (grades) but where I encouraged my students to be critical customers of what the institution was selling them.
I was also told by my older colleagues that to be informal or vulnerable with traditionally aged undergraduates was to cede all authority and power and risk disaster. This was one of the reasons I shied away from applying for these positions. But needs must, and upon graduation, I realized that I just needed a damn job and I would have to face the unknown.
When I was very suddenly (and at the last possible minute) offered a full time teaching load at a public university, I had to get over myself and jump in. I flailed around a bit at first. Fun fact: people 20 years younger than me do not get my cultural references or laugh at my lame jokes. I was unprepared, as the process of getting me integrated into the university’s systems and thus gaining access to basic materials took literally up to the moment I started teaching my first class.
But I decided that I would not stray too far from the approach that had proven so successful in my career so far. I stayed humble. I was honest about struggling to catch up. I asked for student feedback. I paid close attention to what seemed to engage my students and what caused them to tune out. If anything, over the last two semesters I have become far more authentic than I was at my old position. I give impassioned speeches about things I think are important. I try to be as real and authentic as possible. I make space and time for my students to talk about issues that affect them. I give them room to figure out how they feel (first) about what we are learning and then what they actually think. Not what they should think.
I’ve learned that these young people are far more aware, awake, and stressed out than I was at their age. My mostly femal and non-white students have faced both structural and personal hurdles that I can only imagine. They are generous with me and each other, and they blossom under the smallest bit of care.
There is a discussion in education about the moral failings of adults who never learned to be human. That the mad dash to the top of the hierarchy, which has been mostly only available to a small percentage of elites and incredibly high performers, has led to a moral vacuum in our society. This has led to generations of leaders who don’t know how to be human, only how to win.
My students are some of the even smaller population of high performers from modest backgrounds. They carry the pressure of their communities, their families, the internal pressure to meet expectations they are not even aware they have internalized, and all of this at a time in their lives when they should also be living. Having relationships and breaking up and making mistakes and learning what it means to be human and flawed.
I have intuitively realized that this vacuum is forming within them, and have fit my classes, and to some extent myself, to give them a few moments each week of becoming instead of achieving. I talk about my flaws. I remind them that every time I point out passive voice in thier writing that I speak from years of trying to stop doing it myself. I tell them that I don’t care what they remember from my class, as long as something captured their imagination and led them to consider some experience or conundrum from a new perspective. I don’t care if they remember which theorist did which study, I care if they understand how history and society and colonialism and privelige and oppression will always be preserved and propogated through science if continue to believe that scientists are purely objective by nature.
When I was a singer, the most memborable, transcendant moments were when instead of me singing the music, God sang the music through me. When I stopped being the focus and became the vessel.
Teaching is not exactly like that, but it is a highly intuitive process, where I have to constantly remember to get out of my own way and get out of my students’ way. To help them trust their inner urgings and encourage them to find their voices. When I feel the energy and help shape it into something that is welcoming and safe and accepting of vulnerability. If for just a moment one of these exceptional people can feel a connection to who they truly are, rather than what they hope to do, I’ve witnessed something sacred. I might not know it’s happened, but I get an email or a visit a week or month or hour later and find out that something clicked and they moved into themselves more fully.
There is nothing better. There is nothing more sacred to me than moving closer to who I am and helping these amazing young people remember what that feels like, before it’s been too many years to recall.
This is what it is to have a calling.