Episode 1: Backstory
After eight years of grad school, living far from my family, with little social or love life, the nearly medieval torture of writing a dissertation, and then 70 job applications, I did the seemingly impossible: I got a tenure-track job teaching philosophy at a small college. I was exhausted, but proud of my newly minted Ph.D. The financial sacrifices, the life-sacrifices, the blood, sweat, and tears, seemed like they were finally going to pay off. I loved philosophy. It changed my life. It felt like what I had always been looking for. It was a great validation against those who claimed in my youth that I “think too much.” I was absolutely transformed by my college professors, and I wanted to live the life that they lived. I was in awe of them. I knew I’d never make a lot of money, but I would enjoy my daily life reading, thinking, writing, and discussing important ideas with other interested people. I wouldn’t have the kind of life I felt like I needed to spend a lot of money escaping from. I’d live as a life-long learner. I’d help open minds. That was my dream. I dedicated everything to it. And now I was finally going to live this dream. I had to be willing to live anywhere if I was going to pursue a career in academia. So I did. It took approximately 10 hours and $1,000 to get home to see my friends and family. Tough, but I thought it would be worth it to pursue the work I loved.
The first year nearly killed me. I created and taught a full load of courses for the first time, and spent every waking moment prepping class. I wanted to teach in the discussion style that had excited me so much in college, and so I did . . . Then I realized that most students didn’t read, and had no intention of reading. They were rather irritated at the suggestion that one needs to read to learn. Then I realized that most students did not want to discuss things in class, even ideas that did not require prior reading. Then I realized that many students had never written a paper, and could not write a grammatically correct sentence. Most did not take pride in their work, and many did not even care if they got bad grades. It was unclear why most students had chosen a philosophy class, since they seemed generally disinterested. There I was, day after day, spending every waking moment coming up with interesting reading assignments and questions to discuss in class, trying to learn all that I could about the philosophies I was teaching to be ready to discuss them . . . and I was alone. Alone in the room. I was confused, disappointed, frustrated. I thought it was because I was a new teacher, and I just needed to find the right ways to reach students, the right ways to motivate them to read and talk, the right pedagogies to teach them to write and to care about their writing, the right amount of comments on their papers, the right stepping stone assignments, the right suggestions for how to revise. And things would surely get better once I started repeating courses, right?
I spent nine years devoting myself to reworking syllabi, pedagogy workshops, spending time teaching students what seminar-style classrooms are, making guides for how to write an argumentative essay, creating evaluation rubrics, trying to change my expectations to better fit where the students were, even trying to rationalize that it was ok that students were not engaging in their education (maybe they were just really busy with other stuff I didn’t know about), that it was ok that I couldn’t change the situation (after all I was just one person); and it was ok that I didn’t feel like all my hard work was of any value (maybe 10 years down the line they would realize that my class had taught them something, or maybe if I could just reach one kid in the class that was enough). After nine years of this, I am done rationalizing or trying to make excuses that this whole thing is somehow “ok”. It’s not ok. The cycle has been completely toxic. The work has been unsatisfying. It has left me exhausted, demoralized, isolated, frustrated, totally burnt-out, and in physical and emotional pain. I was crying uncontrollably in my office on a daily basis. I had successfully achieved tenure; I had won the highest awards; I had published a book and articles; I was respected by my peers; my family and friends were proud of my accomplishments . . . and I was miserable. One comes to a point where one must save their life. That time is now.