By Spencer Gordon
Part 2 starts here
Last year — my god, 2014 already — was the most financially ‘unsound’ of my life. Great taboos be damned: I was unemployed from May 2013 until September 2014. For the first eight months, this was a willing condition, but for the last eight I’d entered a swampy funk of poverty — borrowing money, scanning job postings, worrying, and carrying on all the attendant duties of a semi-writerly person (editing, publishing, shivering, and not writing much at all).
Over the past few years, whenever I’ve been forced to declare a career, I’ve told my tax-or legal-related interlocutors that I’m a ‘post-secondary school instructor’ (I can’t identify as a ‘professor,’ the term ‘teacher’ sounds like I’m dealing with very young children, and I’m afraid of the repercussions of calling myself ‘self-employed’). I say this because teaching has made me the most money in my life (cue comic rim shot!) and required more conscious work hours than any of my other moneymaking efforts (gigs like dry cleaning, grocery store chopping, or hostel mopping).
I’ve been teaching at Toronto-area institutions — Humber College, OCAD University, George Brown College, and the University of Toronto — for the past five years. Between 2010 and 2013, I taught at Humber and OCAD at once and devoted my time to marking, commuting, and lecturing (a familiar trifecta of pain) as a partial-load, part-time instructor. And for five years, this made me a low but welcome income. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your perspective — depression, insomnia, anxiety, pride, and seething rage got in the way of a steady pay cheque, and in what felt like a convulsion of happiness and optimism I quit both my teaching gigs and set out on a hedonistic fugue of freedom.
Now in 2015, I am once again employed, but precariously. Since I quit my ‘serious’ teaching jobs, I haven’t been able to find equivalent work; the teaching comes slow, at much lower rates of pay, with even less security. I teach what classes I can with George Brown and the University of Toronto’s Continuing Education programs, and I fill the majority of my days writing for an SEO company from home in my stinking pajamas. Aside from writing my abortive stories and poems, teaching is still what I’d think of as my career, despite the fact that my general disposition and indolence have proven that it’s not the best job for me, and despite the fact that I am now walking away — hopefully forever.
I’m now wrapping up my last class, and it feels great. But even with the end in sight, it is still the Major Nightmare of My Life: I toil with it in sweaty episodes, have panic attacks at the mere mention of phrases like “late penalties” and “lesson plans.” The students I still teach lurk in the foggy edges of my brain regardless of whatever else I’m doing; the guest lectures and speeches I give in classrooms and at libraries make me physically ill with fear; and the abuses and misuses of power at our institutions make me choke on my own servitude. Now, with recent walk-outs and strikes showing more onlookers outside the university bubble just how unfair and false the system is, I’ve decided to write a little something to give testament to all that daily distress.
This is also a way for me to retire, formally, in a semi-public way, and as a means of holding myself to my promises. And it’s a way to say, “I see you” to others in the same predicament, much like Erin Wunker did in her February article of the same name — a little nod of recognition for your efforts, your trials and pain.
But this should also serve as a warning. I sometimes feel like I am 10,000 years old; when I imagine a plucky twenty-one-year-old writer poised to embark on a similar path, I feel enjoined to impart a few words of caution. So this is for those sensitive and artistic folk, who perhaps like me have chosen to write, and to beak up the crumbs of whatever career they can salvage, or who perhaps (like me) have earned an MA or MFA in creative writing, and see teaching as their only way to avoid perishing in very unsexy poverty.
Trust me: it is not the only way. (In fact, one can quickly perish in unsexy poverty while teaching, but I digress). Writing is a trying discipline, taken as a vocation, but teaching is much more so, and takes more of your heart and head and ethical organs, more of your charisma and perseverance and patience than writing poems or stories will ever require. My point is: do not take it lightly, but also avoid it if possible, especially if you are born with your moon in Cancer, say, or have the same birthday as Charles Baudelaire and Kristen Stewart, and see yourself dissolving in a pool of stress, paranoia, impoverished ruin, and greasy, tousled hair. (Until of course you cannot afford to eat and all those strands fall out and gather in small pitiful mounds of who you once were: that confident person who had a head of shiny hair and happy teeth and money, money, money.)
While the vast majority of teachers have the right idea about the discipline, some are drawn to it for less generous reasons. Though it offers little in the way of material capital, it can seem like a way to seize and wield power — especially for those who’ve lacked it, or perceived a lack. Thus a desire to teach can be rooted in toxic soil.
I’m not referring to people who’ve lacked power through historical and cultural factors, like racism or homophobia — though I suppose even people of colour who attain positions of authority must contend with Diane di Prima’s accurate portrayal of post-secondary institutions as “slum landlords, festering sinks/ of lies.” I’m instead talking about privileged people who mistake their frustrations, rejections, jealousies, and anger for lack of actual power. Or those who seek power for recognition, only to realize that power entails the ability to punish and reward students, and often nothing more.
Like many people, I assumed a tremendous amount of power came from being a professor. Yet it wasn’t the power itself that was so appealing, but the respect and love that seemed wrapped up in it. As a young man, I yearned for such consecrating power: power over other people, my mercurial surroundings, time, vicissitudes, nightmares — everything fundamental to life’s flux. Power would be a portal to a job that didn’t kill me or make me kill myself; power would let me cultivate my creative hobbies and spend more time at play, happy and oblivious.
Not gifted with nimble digits, an athlete’s frame, or a pretty face throughout my teenaged years, my sense of self-worth became entangled with academic achievement. As power became tied to the narcotic rush of a good paper, the A+ with minimal effort — the same little shot of pleasure with another consecrating wave of a professor’s wand — I logically sought out more of it at graduate school, and thought only more would await me should I become a teacher. It was dream, a path out of pain and repetition, and a way to feel a love I’d felt only as a little boy.
It took time to understand this, but of course, I’d already been gifted with a great deal of power from birth: I live in Canada, and I was raised in Burlington, Ontario to middle-class parents, which is a kind of richness unknown to most of the planet, and I have white skin, and I am a cis male, and heterosexual, and all these strokes of coincidence propelled me on a fast track to whatever measure of power I wanted. Compared to most people on Planet Earth, my hurdles are ankle-high. This is a horrifying confession because I’m never ‘off the hook’ by being even somewhat ethical. I pass through no real purifying fires; I endure no dismissals and hatred because of my race or sex or orientation, and for that I have our racist, misogynist world and institutions to thank. In other words, I’m unbelievably lucky, and like my other privileged peers, I often complain about grad school, college, and teaching as if it were all so cheap, or easy. It must certainly not feel cheap to those people who will never, ever approach it.
But I’m writing this piece to tell you that the power you get to wield as a sessional professor is not only paltry, but insulting (to both you and your students), and if you do not clarify your intentions — if you don’t, as I have had to do, interrogate yourself about what you really want, and who you are — then it is going to make your life miserable.
Teaching can be so much, and matter deeply, and change lives — yes, we know. But it can also feel like a cyclical process of discipline that keeps you obsessing over very problematic things. There are times for every instructor when the daily requirements to grade, chase, fail, and punish become too much, and too much a part of the very systems thinking people are taught to dismantle.
This is an enormous issue, and one I don’t have the time nor space to investigate, but everyone knows that grading and assessing student work is just completely fucked up. And for most part-time professors, this amounts to the entire world and horizon of your power: the ability to pass or fail a student, and thus coerce them into appropriate behaviour, comportment, and output. Aside from raw respect and charisma, it’s your only means of forcing your students to take you seriously, and play along. And if this makes you feel a little bit sick, then rethink your decision to teach.
My specific encounters with power made me feel like I was part of a punitive system. At OCAD, for example, students would self-elect whether to enroll in the mainstream essay-writing courses or their ESL versions. Because of this, I routinely had groups of students in my class who were not able to read or comment on the mandatory texts, and who could not pass the mandatory grammar requirements. After an early writing diagnostic, I would suggest that these students drop the course and switch into the ESL stream (at no extra cost to them — the courses were weighted the same), but many refused, citing pressures from home or even blind faith in their own abilities. Now, I have no training in teaching ESL, and yet these were students who desperately needed a specific kind of instruction. I would have to mark — and bell curve — these students alongside native English speakers specializing in the humanities, and each time an unfair and unreasonable situation developed. I either had to ‘go easy’ on the ESL students, and automatically pass them, or mark them accordingly, and thus fail all of them. Moreover, this course had, like at Humber College and other schools, a pass-or-fail exam that was marked blind, by other faculty members, who were informed that enough grammar mistakes required a rewrite, or an outright fail. Almost all of my ESL students would fail this exam. But this would necessitate further fees and payments to re-take the course, which no doubt made OCAD very happy.
At Humber, a similar situation existed with dialect English speakers. Every incoming student would write an entrance exam, and based upon its merits, would be sorted into one of three courses: an ESL class, a basic-skills class, and the standard course. Those who scored low and were forced to take the basic-skills class had to pay for an extra communications course to catch up, obviously, because poor literacy skills entail institutional punishment. Those who exhibited ESL writing traits but who were still technically unilingual — dialect speakers from Caribbean countries, for example — were always sorted into the basic- or advanced-level courses, where (as at OCAD) they were faced with arduous “standard written English” hurdles. Almost every dialect speaker I taught, even after countless hours of assistance and very generous marking from me, would fail their pass-or-fail exit exam. There was nothing I could do to help them, except warn them ahead of time that a fail would necessitate even more money, disappointment, and time. I still routinely think of one student in particular, and seeing his exam come back with a big red ‘F’ on the cover, and feeling genuinely guilty. It was my fault as much as anyone’s. What was I doing? Why be a part of something like this?
Another strange act of power you’ll have to grow accustomed to is grading creative writing — I mean putting down a letter or numerical grade for poems, stories and plays. If this makes you feel slightly nauseated and fraudulent, then this is probably a sign you should avoid such courses. George Brown College’s Continuing Education program — for which I currently teach — has the amazing good sense to make all creative courses simply pass or fail, complete or incomplete, which means you never have to impose a grade or enforce penalties; you simply have to give constructive feedback, which is the point of a workshop, if I’m not mistaken.
At other schools — OCAD, for example — creative writing workshops require not only letter grades, but grades that adhere to departmental averages. That means the majority of my “Introduction to Creative Writing” workshop students (twenty-seven, by the way) had to receive Cs, or a grade between 60 and 69 percent. These were kids writing poems for the first times in their lives, and I had the lucky opportunity to write ‘C’ on their best efforts. I refused to do this as much as possible and instead incorporated other elements — presentations, essays, etc. — into the course to give them a department-friendly mark, but even then I couldn’t fit the parameters completely, and had to spend time mounting a defense of my grading scheme and basically arguing that these students didn’t deserve to be demolished to meet the money-driven imperatives of the institution.
Not all creative writing situations involve you enacting power in bad faith; others involve being powerless to help students in need. Remember, you can easily be a teacher and still have zero pedagogical training, or an understanding of how to counsel at-risk pupils. After only a year at George Brown, I’ve already taught several adult students with obvious mental and emotional disabilities, some of who were obviously reeling from excruciating traumas involving sexual assault, physical violence, suicide attempts, and enormous loss. In the end, I’m a person with a literary background, writing experience, and a few years of teaching experience; I am not a therapist, nor a counselor, nor do I know the right thing to give or say to people dealing with this stuff. I can only be as empathetic and sensitive as possible, drawing upon my incomplete notions of pop psychology and social work, and try to be a support. I come away from classes in which we workshop harrowing tales of emotional violence feeling utterly wrecked, intellectually and emotionally, and with the terrible sense that I’ve yet again failed someone reaching out for help.
Imagine then forcing a C or a D or an F on this person. This is what power looks like. If you want to get involved to change, revolutionize it, then by all means, I wish you the best, and I hope you do.
Early motivation to become a professor is so often related to a desire for power. Most people forget this, begin to assume that scholarship, mentorship, and excellence are noble aims and worth all the failing, chastising, and punishment. Once granted power, however, you may come to realize just how much you wanted it — and how distasteful it is in actual practice. For me, this was not a happy, positive realization, and was yet another factor in why leaving the industry is the right decision.
On Sex and Manipulation
Power can also mean a sort of sexual entitlement — “violations of trust” and “predatory behavior” from men receiving power from “institutional support.” Here I’m quoting Emma Healey’s October 2014 article “Stories Like Passwords,” published in The Hairpin, which discusses her own complicated and disturbing relations with a male professor fifteen years her senior. Healey’s piece triggered a small storm of discussion, argument, and unease amongst writers, editors, and publishers in Canada. It also received a few notable published responses — Stacey May Fowles’ rapid nod of agreement, “The danger of being a woman in the Canadian literary world” in The Globe and Mail and Jacob Scheier’s guilt-ridden “CanLit’s Continuum of Abuse” in NOW. But this is also part of a larger conversation involving allegations of rape and abuse surrounding American writers Tao Lin, Stephen Tully Dierks, and Steven Trull, notable figures in the borderless alt-lit community. The piece that seemed to light the fuse (and perhaps inspire other women to come forward with their own stories) was Sophia Katz’s “We Don’t Have to Do Anything,” a painful account of several non-consensual sexual encounters with Dierks. If this is news to you, you can get an apt summary of the alt-lit abuse scandals by reading Guillaume Morissette’s “Alt-Lit: A Eulogy,” published in Maisonneuve.
I bring this all up because (as you surely know) teaching takes the invisible power structures at play in any arts community and makes them physical, overtly institutionalized. Creative communities each have their rigid hierarchies, but power relations are sometimes hard to see, or feel, unless you are the victim. As a teacher, it’s painfully obvious who wields the power; at the front of the class or in your office, you always feel a current of institutional energy throbbing through you, and what you do with it is ultimately your choice — whether you work to make your students happy and comfortable, or you try to fuck them.
In the “literary community,” I was sure that many male writers were creepy, and many were possibly abusive, but for some time I didn’t even know there were allegations of university-based manipulation, as described in pieces above. All my male colleagues seemed like mature, responsible, ethical, discerning people, and the thought of thirtysomething (or older) male teachers (and writers, members of our communities) trying to sleep with their eighteen, nineteen, twenty-year-old undergrads just seemed unthinkably ludicrous. That is, until I started listening.
I was never so blind to think that nothing ever happens, but it’s all still a bit shocking for me. Big surprise: I am not a worldly, well-connected, or well-informed person, by any stretch. My own heartache with teaching kept me in my own private bulb: I floated in a gross womb while I was a student, and once I became an instructor, male co-workers didn’t feel like sharing their romantic liaisons with me. Moreover, I’m a guy. To Stacey May Fowles, the “shared back channel” about creepy dudes is “amongst women” — “coded warnings relayed privately, chatter about who can be trusted and who is safe to be around.”
Shocking, too, because of what I know about teaching’s potential — the best moments of the craft, nearly indescribable, and also exceedingly rare — that make the thought of having sex with a student in my class many years my junior, regardless of whether this actually happens, queasy and tremendously depressing. Not just depressing, but disappointing.
It’s hard to explain. If there’s a golden nugget of wisdom here, it’s that teaching teaches. If you are seeking a means to know and learn — about yourself, about other people — then teaching is a crash course in human nature. It’s a rapid, adrenaline-pumping upload of knowledge (the phrase ‘steep learning curve,’ but actually used correctly, with swift progress in the early days). Think Keanu Reeves, The Matrix: “I know Kung Fu …” As an artist — the type of person David Foster Wallace suspected was a natural “ogler” and “watcher” — teaching even one class will give you character motivation, juicy psychology, and youth-friendly dialect for your work far better than an office, or Netflix can.
You learn how to read people, plainly: you become a good observer of body language, mood, irritation, attention (even amongst teenagers). Those who aren’t listening are easy to spot, and are the norm in major college classrooms; but those really listening radiate a kind of crackling electricity. They make eye contact; they nod; their pens race. They breathe and think in your pauses, and you can hear their heads churning in the silences you lace between the important points of your discussion. There’s something unbelievable about making contact with a student. You feel at once humbled, full of the gravity of your own words, and surprisingly chastened; your own affecting lessons can leave you red-faced in embarrassment, because you are communicating with strangers about things that you care so much about you feel you might burst, or weep. You forget how much you care about very unfashionable things: beauty, and art, and kindness. The right classroom, the right listeners, and it’s as if you’re sharing a foundational secret. You feel close to it. I know this is squishy but I’m not exaggerating. Everyone who has taught something they love will feel torrid emotions — and sometimes these are emotions you forgot you had.
These are the times at which, after so much bullshit in and outside the classroom, you feel something is at stake. Vital. You feel that what you are capable of giving is so much more important than your ego, or your libido. Sex would ruin this connection. No — it would absolutely carpet-bomb it.
Now, the notion of sleeping with a gorgeous (younger) student is a powerful aphrodisiac for nearly all men — another big surprise! This is part of the hardwiring, and the patriarchy: when I was fifteen and dreaming of a career, I actually wondered: “wouldn’t it be dope to be in such a position of authority that you could manoeuvre yourself into sex with young women?” I thought this was what professors and rock stars did, naturally. TV, movies, books all showed me this was natural, and something that most men aspired to. It told me that a lot of young women aspired to it, too.
But my inexperience (and outrageous virginity) was telling. I mean, c’mon; imagine me at fifteen, dreaming about being a professor, key-holder to some private office for porno-style fornicating with undergrads. It’s the stuff of teen-boy fantasy, ghastly clips from my old VHS collection. In other words, it belongs in the realm of strict private imaginings, or the super-bad brain of a premature, pubescent state of mind. Again, the thought that professors might retain this fantasy is shocking to me, and I suppose hammers home the fact that many of the men with incredible institutional positions at our schools are still teenagers, mentally or hormonally.
Something that I feel needs to be said, for better or worse. As a Young White Heterosexual Male and as a teacher and writer, I feel as if I have the requisite authority on this one issue, of all squalid subject matters: Ninety-nine percent of older male writer-authorities — profs, part-time instructors, mentors — who have sex with their much-younger students are going out of their way to do so. In other words, this stuff doesn’t ‘just happen.’ It’s not a spontaneous, torrid, accidental side effect of the gig (a hot and bothered hazard of the job, if you will). You don’t teach a class of young women and suddenly find your penis inside one of them, blind drunk at your place after the bar. So once again: if they’ve partaken, they’ve done so consciously, dicks at full mast (and brains half asleep).
Notably, Laura Kipnis’ article “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” in The Chronicle Review attempts to ridicule the notion that there’s a problem with intergenerational and cross-classroom relationships; it also attempts to paint critics of such hook-ups as hysterical and overly PC. Kipnis argues that teachers have always dated their students; that far from being cases of gross abuse, these affairs can sometimes lead to mutually satisfying, lifelong bonds; and that young women could seduce their professors as a means of taking back power. She claims that forbidding romance between teacher and student — through policy that frames students as victims and professors as predators — underprepares students for the “messy gray areas of life,” leading to a “pacified, cowering citizenry.” Female students “aren’t children,” so let’s stop infantilizing young women, she says, and insist that a 21-year-old student is an adult who can make up her own mind.
I will not make the dumb mistake of theorizing about what young women want (again, as a Young White Heterosexual Male, I am the least equipped to do this, as much as I am intimately equipped to tell you Just How Horny We Are). I can totally fathom how some young women will want to have sex with their male teachers; they might seem to desire a bit of extra attention all the way to a full-blown relationship. Sure. Why not? All is possible! I feel queasy about Kipnis’ claim that discouraging student-teacher relationships is akin to an insulting restriction on women’s choice and mature, adult relationships, but there are extreme reactions on either side of the spectrum. I can see some of her points. I suppose if you are approximately the same age as your pupil, and there is nothing to be gained or lost in the sex — a grade, a position, a publishing contract, a spot on an editorial board, or even entry way to a social circle with clear pyramids of power — and if you are both really, really aching for it, and you tick all the necessary boxes of consent and know no one’s making a rushed or silly choice because of liquor or drugs and you are still aching for it, then okay, okay, okay, but then you can still wait until class is over, right? What’s another month or two? Or are you too much of a boner machine (or selfish creep) to wait? Are you too used to wielding power like a massive phallic bludgeon? I’m not kidding.
One thing that Kipnis seems to think is that if women refuse the sexual advancements of authorities, nothing’s lost. She literally poses the question: “What sorts of repercussions can there possibly be if the student refuses?” Healey touches on this exact notion of consequence, saying “The influence [professors] wield may seem insignificant to those in their community who have moved beyond their reach, but for those who haven’t, it is more than enough to frighten or threaten or silence.” One situation, opposite reactions. Given the choice between believing someone like Kipnis, a tenured, mature professor who can’t understand why someone might be intimidated, and Healey, a young woman articulating her own experience of intimidation, I feel it’s imperative to believe, and listen to, the latter. Moreover, creative writing drops students into a world where the border between classroom and social scene often becomes porous. It means that grades and ‘favour’ aren’t the only things jeopardized by not flirting, or accepting a touch or grab, or ‘hooking up.’ If you can’t understand this, then you’ve got a long way to go before you understand how publishing works.
If, as a teacher, you become adept at reading young people, and you use that talent to not only educate, grade, and discipline, but also seduce and have sex with them, then doesn’t that smack of creepiness, abuse, betrayal, or worse? Please don’t equate this with stripping away ‘adult’ choices from legally ‘adult’ women, or imagine that you’re always embarking upon a two-way adult relationship — one that responsibly mixes ‘business’ with ‘pleasure.’ Can you not think of your grim, pimply self at nineteen? What did you know? Were you wise in all the ways of sex and love? Age carries the weight of an anchor, but so should your role as teacher — despite the collapse of the system, you are still looked up to in many real fiduciary ways, and you are not a rock star on tour, and young women are not your groupies.
So guys, if you’re about to become a teacher, it is your job to be good men. I’m sorry if that’s disappointing, but I’m sure you’ll find many other opportunities to be dirtbags in other domains. The arts entail a world of extra-curricular activities: gallery launches, productions, screenings, book signings. You’ll encounter young women outside your class, and maybe they’ll be drinking or doing drugs, and maybe you’ll be drinking and doing drugs too, and maybe you find them attractive, and maybe they look up at you adoringly — but now you must endeavour with all your being to not make things insanely weird even though they are insanely weird and often fraught with peril. This is your job. If you cannot do this, then never go out in public, or castrate yourself. Or (perhaps more easily), don’t be a teacher.
Luckily, it’s quite easy to be good; it’s quite natural to never step over the line, never make a student feel uncomfortable. Those who continue to do so — or those who argue that we’re too uptight about all this, like geez, c’mon, what’s the problem? — are either too lost in their own lack of empathy, thinking that because it was okay for them it’s like that most or even some of the time, or they’re trying really hard to be complete assholes, or they are themselves naturally predisposed to coercion and emotional manipulation and capitalizing on other people’s inexperience. In a word, abuse. This isn’t about people unsure of the line between business and pleasure. This is about control and authority.
Oh, yes, that word again: Power.
On Confrontation, Public Speaking, and Terror
One major warning I wish I’d received back in 2010 is just how much a college teacher must act as referee, babysitter, negotiator, and conflict-resolution expert. That, and thespian — always on call, always in the spotlight. And as much as I am maybe too touchy, I am equally averse to prolonged and emotional confrontations — as you might be, as a poet, novelist, academic, or some other withdrawn melancholic weirdo.
In the summer of 2010, I was working at a hostel in Kensington Market, cowering beneath the shadow of $30,000 of debt, drinking my nights into fever, and wondering how I’d ever get a job without a PhD. I’d just graduated with an MA in English in the Field of Creative Writing from the U of T — which in many ways is advertised as some kind of Power Gateway to Soirees of White Publishing — and the thought of more school made me want to die. By a stroke of luck, a friend managed to pass my puffed-up resume on to an Associate Dean at Humber College, who immediately called me in for an interview. Feeling weird about the instant contact, sweating from the August heat, and nervous in my too-small, second-hand suit, I chatted with him in his sterile office for only about five minutes before he handed me a course outline and textbook, shaking my hand and telling me I’d be starting in three weeks.
Wham, bang, I was now a professor, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This is how easy it can be, and how unfair. I was thrilled, if somewhat confused. It seemed like a dream job, if only because it actually made use of my degree (and didn’t involve putting out literal balcony fires or scaring rats away from piles of garbage). The promo seemed like sci-fi: only about fifteen hours a week of in the flesh work, and I’d be raking in about $78 per hour. I started thinking of actually buying quality groceries, clothing, of paying off eternal debts. I drooled over the imaginary mountain of free time (power!) I’d inherit. And most of all, I allowed my ego a dull roar of applause — any scrap of success even distantly related to my writing life was a little mercy, a little reminder that I wasn’t dead yet.
That generous, now retired Dean gave me four sections of “COMM 200: College Writing Skills,” a mandatory class for the majority of diploma and degree-based students, and Humber’s way to instill some basic reading, writing, and analytical techniques. As instructors, we were there to champion critical thinking and basic literacy: how to take apart arguments, restructure them, express yourself clearly, and without a gross thicket of errors and logical howlers. I’d go on to teach “COMM 300: Business Writing Skills,” the letter-, report-, and memo-writing version of 200, and then “LBST: 1B11: The Essay and the Argument” at OCAD before sailing into (more relaxing) creative writing courses, but for a while, each class I taught had more or less the same aims.
This was pretty exciting for me, all told. I was eager to take some of the skills I’d learned in school and actually use them for good. Despite being exhausted by it, grad school was a major trip for me: collegial discourse, care and respect, courtesy and almost ridiculous conditions of etiquette. A rarefied environment. So after pursuing a graduate degree for long enough, it can be (understandably) difficult to imagine what a first-semester college or university classroom is really like. Now, I was never so removed to assume it was all heavenly order and compassion. I recalled my own undergrad days, what school was like in my teens and early twenties. Classes had the occasional disruptive burst, sure — someone carrying on a side conversation, the usual late-comers, a cell phone ringing to someone’s great shame. I suppose I had this model in my mind heading in — that students weren’t perfect (who is?) but still fundamentally respectful.
Part of my problem was related to COMM 200 (or 300) itself. As you can imagine, it was not often the students’ favourite class. In actual practice, probably 85–90 percent would drop it if given the option. But because they didn’t have that luxury, they endured it as most seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen-year-olds endure work designed to ennoble, educate, and inoculate against the perils of illiteracy: with great anguish, condescension, sullenness, and occasional rage.
There was, to frame it in a cliché, no honeymoon. When September hit, the old “throw ’em into the pool” metaphor was all I could think of, but it didn’t seem extreme enough; let’s imagine a drained basin, bottom littered with broken glass and bent syringes. I was suddenly facing 130 students, responsible for their education and grades, without a single moment of training or clearly explicated expectations: no number to call, mentor to emulate, rulebook to follow. Eight a.m. classes meant I was up before dawn, preparing a face of granite and sludge into a poorly drawn mask — this dancing, charismatic version of someone who often just wanted to hide, or sleep off my tremendous hangovers (I had a habit of drinking to excess, which I will admit complicated things). Compounding the problem were my age and facial features — at twenty-six, I looked younger than half of my students, their scowling mugs hardened by hardscrabble lives, mine kept ivory-smooth by clerical hobbies. Most hated me on sight (some on principle), and there was no amount of inside jokes or cultural references I could lob to repair the damage once I started dolling out their Cs and Ds (or zeros).
In writing this, I’m trying hard to avoid sounding like Father Time or Old Man Winter: the classic adult who looks upon the current generation of young people as so much worse than their own, so much more disrespectful and damaged. Damn kids! Come back here! Lemme hike up my pants and beat you with this rake! You get the picture, or the dark Polaroid I’m trying to avoid.
Born in 1984, I fall into what some call “The Bubble” (those born between 1977 and 1984, roughly), which others define as a weird space between Gen X and Gen Y (and Z?). Others would more conveniently package my birth-year as early millennial, I guess — Time and Pew Research tell me I’m just a millennial, plain and simple, but it can feel more nuanced than that. In other words, I didn’t have a computer in the house as a kid; our first desktop arrived while I was in Grade Ten. I got my first cell phone around 2002 or 2003 and it was a huge piece of crap Nokia. I used a terrible Dell laptop in university that barely connected to the Internet, and I adopted smartphone technology as a full-grown adult. And yet I’m awash in teh lulz and in the same economic predicament as younger millennials, and many of the same social and political concerns. Caught in between, I guess.
In my late twenties, I was thus a full decade older than my students (born 1994 and later). I never assumed there’d be a generational gap between us, or at least not one we couldn’t easily bridge. So know that I’m quite reluctant to say this, or even quite believe what I’m saying, but there has been a profound shift in etiquette and social mores in the last fifteen years — and it’s not one that’s kind to the conventional authority figure. If I never had to teach, I’d laugh at this admission. I mean, we all know that institutional authority is mostly crap, right?
Aside from the nice people, people who look you in the eye and pay attention, college students cannot go through class without texting or scrolling around online. My first few impressions of thirty students, all texting at once throughout a lecture, were of sheer disbelief. Teachers now know, unless they are crazy strict about enforcing a “no electronic device” policy, that half of what they say is lost — you literally lecture to a room of people ignoring you. It’s not even concealed, with hands and phones under desks, in laps; students sit with their elbows on their desks and their phones covering their faces. They tend to share pics, texts from their phones with neighbours, leading to more disruption. Classrooms click-clack with hundreds of digits tapping screens or hammering laptop and tablet keyboards. If you think this is rude, people look at you like you’re a dinosaur.
Despite desiring unending personal freedom, and requiring constant stimulation, many students are strangely incapable of conceiving that you, as teacher, are a human being speaking to them. This means listening to music during class, coming and going indifferently, and shocking outbursts of displeasure. On the other hand, these same students have perfected the art of grade groveling — for young women, this usually means tears and theatrics, and for boys, this means anger and indignation. In the end, the corporate model of the university — with students as paying customers, the institution as hand-wringing, accommodating provider — means that while they work hard to ignore their education, they damn well get their diplomas.
I had it easy, too. I was relatable, generally well liked. I scored extremely high on SFQs (Student Feedback Questionnaires, or the college’s version of the Customer Response Card at Wendy’s). I’d look at some of the more socially awkward (or elderly) teachers slouching their way to class beneath visible storm clouds of depression, and whisper to myself, in pained empathy: “Man, you are so totally fucked.”
And as a guy, I had it even easier. At Humber, my female colleagues were like war veterans, often enduring daily theatres of unrelenting misogyny. One friend had a condom (casually) hurled at her. Another was grabbed by an irate boy, her arm yanked back because she wouldn’t continue entertaining his demands for a higher grade. Professors and doctors (these are geniuses) are called “miss” and “hey you” and the old fashioned “bitch.” I’ve heard male students loudly talking about gang raping their teachers — my colleagues, coworkers, friends. I’d see them walking through hordes of leering males and actually fear for their safety. It’s enough to send you into a bloodlust. The atmosphere can be unbelievably hostile at a college, and this is usually a college issue, but it certainly spills into the university and into continuing ed. To get a better position elsewhere, with more insidious, palatable forms of misogyny, one must often work through the utter shit trenches (or become stuck there). It is 100 percent more difficult for women. How they endure, persevere, and not kill these boys, I don’t know.
As I alluded to, it’s my belief that the fundamental problems facing universities and colleges today come from a neo-liberal model of education. Students have merely ingested this, having had it hammered in their skulls by parents, government, and media. When I see teacher-acquaintances on Facebook posting about how they so love their hardworking, inquisitive students, I believe them. (Of course, I think it’s dumb to post about your students, but that’s just crusty old me.) Students are not the root problem, and are most often the victims in the whole debacle (even during a strike — as much as I completely support those who walk out, we all feel for the students scrambling to graduate).
On that note, you must never believe the online reactionaries who are stressing out and getting angry about “PC culture” or “trigger warnings” or “overly sensitive students.” These agitated critics (many of whom haven’t been in a classroom in many years, naturally, if at all) argue that small or isolated incidents reflect the norm, that free thought is now in jeopardy, that hyper-sensitive i-Generation kids are creating a new Orwellian era of thought policing. Believe me — this is conservative, narrow-minded politics masquerading as a “Personal Liberties in Danger TaskForce!” Incorporating trigger warnings, for example, has felt like a humane gesture, and my classes have appreciated it; we’ve still read the same texts, still had the same discussions, albeit now with a compassionate framework that merely says, “head’s up; what you’re about to read is full of terrible shit.” Being sensitive to the psychological state of your students — some of whom actually do suffer from PTSD and other traumas — is part of being a good person, the sensitive sort of person you want to be and want young students to aspire to be. And sometimes, given what I was dealing with at Humber, I would kill for an overly sensitive student — it would beat the daily blitzkrieg of “retard,” “faggot,” and “slut” any day.
So there are amazing students — brilliant, articulate, or just plain good-natured and lovely and trying their asses off people who inspire you — just like there are amazing people. In fact, teaching gave me an 80/10/10 theory of people — 80 percent are meh, the middle, the average, 10 percent are stellar, and 10 percent are utter cretins. For every 40-person classroom, that means you have 32 average, 4 amazing, and 4 horrifying students.
If you can readjust your Zen-like composure to see the best in those 32 average people, and focus your real heart-emanating energies on those 4 superb people, you’re more or less set. The other survival option is simply not to care about anyone. I’ve encountered teachers who’ve embraced this before: mostly tenured, comfortable, and older creeps who rely on a fleet of TAs to mark their papers and have a kind of “dusty undead whisper” lecturing style. I suppose they imagine lecturing to an empty room, or are sadists. But as graded, evaluated, overworked, underpaid, desperate sessionals with big ambitions and not yet dulled energy, we cannot afford to ignore our classrooms — we are here to connect, to change lives a la John Keating in Dead Poets Society (ha!) — so we look the students each in the eye. For some, this is life enhancing, emboldening stuff, a call to action and a reason to continue. For me, this has meant staring into some primordial abysses — mirror-like voids, in which I’ve seen a tiny, trapped version of myself, screaming.
*** Part 2 starts here:
What I mean to say is purely personal, and has nothing to do with what’s right, or political correctness, but after only five years of student-interactions, I’ve often thought and said terrible things along the lines of “I hate them all.” I’m ashamed to admit this, but the bad apples soured the whole batch. I let this happen to myself. And if someone told me this was how things would be, I would have never begun teaching in the first place, but no one wanted to say this, and everyone lied.
For these reasons, the profession was a major emotional tilt-a-whirl from day one. Most people can have an “off” day, a sad day of depleted energy where you aren’t quite yourself. It’s raining, you’re tired, your boss is grouchy; a blue Monday, let’s say. This is part of being a human being (you can watch this Taylor Swift video to get a sense of what I mean). Coworkers, colleagues will understand and respect this. But teaching forbids this sympathetic reprieve; teaching demands another great performance every single day. It means turning into an extroverted, charming, cavorting puppet, and if you feel hollow and shitty, it means your lessons and discussions will suck, your students will rebel or disengage, you will be rated poorly, and conflicts will ensue. So most teachers learn very quickly to quell their emotional distress, the bad faith of playing and acting as a jolly and booming speaker, until the mask becomes second nature or their stomachs start to rot.
I could never perfect this. I took everything seriously, personally, to heart. Each skipped class, each text, each disruption was a personal failure. Other teachers would tell me I was being too sensitive, but I am extremely sensitive. It’s who I am. And I shove disappointment down into my guts where it festers and consumes me. I dwell on small, petty insults for weeks. I pretend to be cool, unaffected, but my mind is a weird master that lets nothing go.
As I mentioned, today I teach adults in a non-graded environment — one of the finer perks of continuing education. It means things are far less fraught with tension. But even now, my Teaching Anxiety is a quivering stress that begins in the late afternoon the day before and only ends two-thirds of the way through my class (if at all). Like Philip Roth once said of voice, it “begins around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head.” In other words, it’s body engulfing, chest and throat constricting, bowel churning, and heart palpitating performance anxiety that only the most Zen, zoned-out, natural, or extroverted teachers manage to banish outright. For me, it’s been a five-year stomachache — five years of sighs, razor-winged butterflies, and hot sweats.
I read somewhere that part of our fear of public speaking comes from enduring all those sets of eager eyes: a primordial reminder that packs of strange animals will likely set upon you, eat you alive. One way to combat this terror is to imagine yourself instead as apex predator, seeing all those beady peepers as belonging to soft rodents or streaking hares: a buffet of warm student flesh. I have trouble readjusting to this predator-prey dynamic, but I have tried embarrassing ways to pump up my confidence: cozy tricks like deep breathing and repeated mantras, all the way to screaming in the mirror like Brock Lesnar, slapping my face, and having a few glasses of wine “just to take the edge off.”
The worst days are the first days: the classroom filling up, popping with anxiety, recognition, excitement, and making that long walk from the door to the front of the class. It’s enough to make you piss yourself. My worst day happened in early 2011. Instead of heading to class, I simply broke down, and hid in a bathroom stall for 60 minutes, wiping my lips with toilet paper before slinking back to the bus leading home.
By year two, my anxiety had blossomed into middle-of-the-night insomnia (MOTN): I’d go to bed at a reasonable, adult hour and wake up at 2:30 or 3:30 a.m. and not be able to get back to sleep. I’d then rise at 5:45 to be clean, dressed, and prepared for an 8:05 a.m. class at the North Campus, which is a kind of moon base that dehumanizes all who enter, but that’s another story. One or two days of this is manageable, but teaching on a handful of hours each night is a recipe for hallucinations. After weeks of MOTN, I’d come home from a day of mumbling through lectures, forgetting what I was saying mid-sentence, and collapse into bed, losing entire afternoons (times I would spend marking, normally) to awful catch-up sleep. I started taking herbal pills, shoving towels under my door, turning on multiple fans, jamming in earplugs, and wearing an eye mask to bed — these are not the fun activities of a “fun laid-back twenty-seven-year-old cool guy.” These were the activities of a murderer in training.
Other forms of public speaking — hosting or giving readings, for example — don’t bother me in the slightest. Compared to teaching, they’re a jaw-melting relief. As “artists,” we speak before crowds as welcome guests (most of the time). We are there to offer pleasure, promote our miserable occupation, and leave. Put more plainly: people are listening to you, voluntarily. No matter how many writers bemoan the cultural practice of the reading, no one is forcing anyone else to be there, and no one is angered by your performance unless you commit some truly egregious sin (like reading too long, or using poet voice, or you leave after your readings, or you read conceptual poems about murdered black people, or you offer some heinous pre-amble that goes on and on and on…). No actually introverted writers are giving routine public readings, because unless you are acquiescing to major pressure from a publisher to tour your book, you do not have to give a public reading, period.
If you are, however, sometimes filled with anxiety over a reading (I believe the term is stage fright), imagine now that your audience is filled with thirty to two hundred teenaged students — folks majoring in things like HVAC, or cosmetics, or culinary, spa, or sports management — who do not read books at all, and who hate the words “Communications, English, Poetry” in ascending order, who cannot conceive of how an essay-writing class could ever help them in their professional or personal lives, and who without a doubt Do Not Want To Be There and Would Rather Be Doing Anything Else. You must discipline, punish these people, and make them respect you. This is not a poetry reading.
So what to do with all that stress? I’m not sure what would work for you, but when I’d push myself to the brink, I got through it. I’d work extremely hard, and eat “fruits and vegetables,” and drink 100 glasses of water a day and not smoke cigarettes and even take vitamins, and during these periods of near-orgasmic brain relief my life resembled a well-filed desk. I wrote early in the mornings, did household chores, scheduled time for marking, fulfilled my day-job obligations, even made time for friends and loved ones. I was like a dream of myself, a Martin Prince-ling. But soon my natural inclination toward sensitivity and indolence would return, slugging forward like a miasmal tide, and I’d drown. Another chaotic class, illegible pile of marking, a student spitting on someone or weeping for a grade boost, and I’d be way down in the muck.
All that anxiety became so natural that it felt like a part of who I was: like I was fundamentally incapable of having fun or relaxing. And yet as soon as I quit teaching and began my unemployed sojourn, the anguish vanished. I felt better than I’d maybe ever felt, or would feel again.
Because writers, artists are sometimes sensitive and touchy people, I offer this warning. Do not pursue teaching if you can’t divorce your work-life persona from your real self. Avoid it if you take criticism personally. Run away screaming if you have a full-blown depression or an anxiety disorder. And make sure you have a loud, charismatic, prancing, and ultimately thick-skinned persona to don before each class, because there will be no ‘off’ days for you, not ever.
On Your Career
Teaching seemed to be enjoying a ‘moment’ this past winter and spring — a snap of blogs, articles, debate and condolences, all swirling around the two major strikes at the University of Toronto and York (its education workers represented by CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903, respectively). Now, with the strikes long over and another fall semester already gearing up, nothing substantively has changed; it’s still a great time to work for a university, just so long as you’re not teaching.
As readers of this piece, you’re likely well acquainted with grad school — and that it’s a prohibitively expensive place for students without parental or institutional support, or those who can’t sink further into debt. Unless you’re living in a hovel, you’re stealing your books, and you’re eating Styrofoam chips, earning a degree without another job, scholarship, or a huge loan is preposterously hard. With the poverty line for a single adult in Toronto hovering around $19,000 per year, most grad students with only a minimum funding package and no other support sit several thousand dollars below it.
As all grads know, the reading, writing, and research necessary to complete your degree is roughly a full-time gig. But with such financial stress, grad students logically hold part- or full-time jobs, and thus work around the clock to meet their shifts and fulfill their academic obligations. A lucky few can also work as teaching assistants, which provides valuable insights into the grading, bell-curving, and haggling nature of university marking; it also looks good on a resume. What it doesn’t really do is solve the problem of being so poor.
As a TA, marking papers and running tutorials means doing much of the work of a part-time or full-time instructor, albeit at a fraction of the pay, and with even less long-term security or protection. CUPE 3902 went on strike (in part) because the U of T was offering its TAs $43.97 an hour with a cap at 180 hours a year, starting September 2017. This was a $1.92 hourly wage increase from their current rate of $42.05, but a slash to the yearly cap by a whopping 25 hours. That meant a loss of about $700 a year — despite many media outlets reporting that TAs were in fact getting a raise.
Some critics scoff at a rejection of this offer, saying that nearly $44 an hour is more than generous, and that if students want to make more money, all they have to do is work another job. But again we’re into a situation where we have professional academics scrambling from morning to night just trying to crawl their way up to a decent, livable wage. Besides, whether they receive 180 or 205 hours of paid work, TAs routinely go way beyond this number. With class sizes increasing each year, doing the work properly — with focus, attention, and with enough flexibility to meet with students in a cramped, shared office space or in some wretched café — becomes increasingly absurd.
Similar problems plagued grad students at York. Ever since “Mike Harris deregulated tuition fee increases … York and other universities significantly increased tuition fees each semester” (at least according to CUPE 3903 at York, and the article “What is tuition indexation?” — required reading if you want to know why striking is important). York students fought hard about fifteen years ago (in the strike of 2000/2001) for tuition indexation, which put a hold on the Harris-enabled deregulation. Nevertheless, York U made another attempt to dismantle the indexation inroad; international grad students were threatened with a spike in their tuition by $7,000 per year, which if left unchecked could mean protection for all grad students would erode. Striking York students were therefore on the picket line for far more than their own wellbeing, despite what undergrads might assume, and despite what the administration, media, and capitalist cheerleaders might spin about the situation.
York’s student workers were the first to walk out (February 27), but the University of Toronto’s were close behind (March 2). Faced with no one to mark papers or provide grades, the two universities scrambled to maintain their client-based model and maintain the illusion of business as usual. In a letter dated March 23, U of T’s David Cameron declared a state of emergency, characterizing strikers as simply “absent” (condescendingly) and instituting an undergraduate continuity policy that would “alter the marking scheme” (ominously). This would mean students could receive course credit regardless of whether their TAs or professors were there, teaching them; according to Cameron, “general letter grades … or CR/NCR in place of numeric grades” would be used to shuffle the students along and give them their product. York’s Senate Executive similarly called for emergency powers to force classes forward, all without a proper vote from its own senate members.
These are, as Professor Rebecca Comay states, “strikebreaking measures designed to make the work of the TAs dispensable,” and which pit “the interests of the undergraduate students … against the interests of the graduate students.” In other words, these are methods to divide the student body, create a “false dilemma,” and encourage the business model of grades at any cost. Comay describes one letter distributed to faculty that begged for volunteers to take over work from CUPE members (i.e., “to scab,” as she rightly observes). To students, this means a “failure of leadership”; for faculty members accustomed to the slow denigration of the institution, it’s just as Cameron desired — business as usual.
Of course, this is an issue afflicting schools across the continent, for which we have many agents and forces to thank. In my province of Ontario, our generous Liberal government spends the least on each student out of all the provinces, leaving us with an average debt of $37,000 when we graduate (my $30,000, which I still owe over $9,000 on, seems mild in comparison). But we’re all suffering from a rapid transformation of the school as a place committed to some admittedly creaky, incomplete notion of academic excellence to a corporate institution operating for profit alone — The University of Toronto’s “New Budget Model” being a good example of such a shift. Even if the traditional school blended its emphasis on knowledge, experimentation, and literacy with problematic forces — nationalism, patriarchy, capitalism, militarism, Christianity, etc. — the school of today is, as Bill Reading claims in the prophetic University in Ruins (1996), a “corporation driven by market forces, and, as such, is more interested in profit margins than in thought.”
As a professor, it means you’re caught between the corporate, downsizing imperative and the urgent need to give your students a proper educational experience — two forces which are increasingly incompatible. The University of Toronto pays its President over $350,000 per year (and pays its highest-paid employee over $770,000), but cannot afford to pay its teaching assistants a living wage. Canadian universities as a whole crank out approximately 6,000 PhDs per year but can only employ 20 percent of them with full-time jobs. CAUT (the Canadian Association of University Teachers) reports that only 67 percent of working professors have full-time jobs. The refrain is now nauseatingly familiar: we’re hyper-educated, eager to work, but caught dashing between schools to patch together a low-income wage, and if we complain too vocally, we can see those precious jobs go just as easily to another worker. As Benjamin Ginsberg claims via The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (2011), “professors do not have nearly as much institutional power as they used to” — a predicament that “dovetails with another trend: the growing regimentation and corporatization of the university.”
So what do we do, here in the afterglow of our cultural ‘moment’? We make constant appeals to society at large, explaining that overworked, underpaid, angst- and debt-ridden professors will equal poor quality education for students (as Laura McKenna argues in “The Cost of an Adjunct” in The Atlantic, for example). Some argue (half sincerely!) to reverse roles and transform administrators into precarious adjuncts, and give professors the security admins enjoy (see Glenn Harlan Reynolds’ “Toss out abusive college administrators” from USA Today). Other teachers simply walk away from their comfortable positions in emotional, albeit ineffectual acts of protest and solidarity; others hold up signs on Tumblr, turn to social media, or simply grit their teeth and wait for that ever-illusory full-time position, ready to move at a moment’s notice.
So what does this mean for you, if you’re thinking about entering the industry? If anything, it means a fight — and one in which you’re desperately needed.
* * *
After everything you’ve seen, heard, and ingested about the state of education, you need to be prepared for a limited career, or one that keeps you working extremely hard at several institutions at once, without long-term security at any of them. Unless you are lucky, teaching keeps many teachers in place, spinning wheels until they succumb to the stasis and accept the situation, or they roll away.
My own attempts to better my career were to grab more mature classes and switch to more faculty-friendly institutions, but these eventually felt like futile misinterpretations of the industry. After a few years of working the COMM 200 and 300 circuits, I beseeched the Humber Associate Dean for a taste of something different — basic creative writing- or English-style courses, maybe. Even one per semester would have felt amazing. Nevertheless, despite already teaching the damn things at OCAD (and having published a book that fall) I was told that I was not experienced enough to do so. In no unclear terms, I was informed that there wasn’t much room for flexibility at the college, and that I could look forward to teaching the same sections for my entire tenure (that is, unless I applied for full-time status, which was such a remote possibility for me, and one that made me so physically ill with apprehension, that it was basically like saying “unless I grew scales”).
While a marking nightmare, teaching creative writing at OCAD was still far more satisfying than most other courses, and it paid quite well. But of course, receiving a glowing review or being excellent at your job does not stop the stranglehold of seniority — as soon as a few teachers returned from various jaunts, mat-leaves, and sabbaticals, all the cushy creative writing courses were again snatched up, this time for the long-term. It seems I was lucky to get any courses at all (this is a presiding theme and imprecation throughout all schools — don’t complain; you’re lucky to have anything at all — and it’s poisonous).
After having my creative writing dreams snatched away (lol), things also turned sour for OCAD’s essay-writing classes. “The Essay and the Argument” was, when I began, capped at 35 students; as instructor, I’d be responsible for a 3-hour lecture each week and for grading each student (no TAs were needed for such a small class). It was a decent set-up — it let me guide the group from start to finish, control most aspects of the curriculum, and forge solid relationships. But after a year, the department upped the cap from 35 to 170 students, which meant instead of paying for five sections (and five professors), they only had to pay for one. The teachers who got to lecture to the new room of 170 would see their hours cut from 3 to 1.5 hours each week; the other hour and a half of class would be spent in seminar rooms, or tutorials, broken down into groups of 30 or 35. The instructors who’d lost their positions would be redistributed as TAs to cover each of these mini-groups, and be paid accordingly — i.e., as teaching assistants, not instructors, and so for far less. That meant I had a group of PhDs as my TAs, each making much less than me, until it was my turn to swap, and I’d become their TA and take the cut.
While the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education seemed to offer a way out of this mess, and also seemed to offer a respectable hourly wage for its instructors, it too has turned into a dead end. It’s been over two years since I was first offered teaching work there, but I’ve yet to actually teach a class, or earn the corresponding money for doing so. Each year, the section I’ve been given at UTM (University of Toronto Mississauga) has been canceled due to poor enrollment, or lack of interest. The course is offered in the middle of winter on the Mississauga campus, and students have the option of taking it online or at St. George, with more popular writers — no wonder.
While still under the impression that teaching was my career, I kept the wheels spinning. I applied for positions with the U of T (at St. George, Mississauga, and Scarborough campuses), with Humber’s distance and continuing education programs, with Ryerson, and with many more, but I could never break through. In fact, during my long spell of unemployment, I even applied at almost every writing centre in the city — no response. So remember: teaching experience doesn’t always help, even if you rack up lots in a relatively short period of time.
My final destination, George Brown, pays the least out of all four schools — teaching in Continuing Studies means I make as much as a TA at the U of T, or about $42 per hour. Classes are 8 to 12 weeks, with three hours of teaching per week, giving me a pay cheque of $1,000 to $1,500 per section. The rate of pay is only for in-class work, however; after you factor in marking, prep, and other concerns, the actual dollar amount is closer to $12 per hour. I can only get one or two classes per semester, which means even if I wanted to stick around forever, this could only ever be an income supplement — I have to work another full-time job to support my teaching habit. In fact, after factoring in the time I’ve had to take off from my at-home SEO work, teaching at George Brown is rather irresponsible. It costs me money to teach there.
As one of the “We Teach Carleton” teachers admits: “I love teaching, but I’m worried I can’t afford it anymore.” That’s me, except I don’t love teaching.
Not everyone encounters such roadblocks, and others are certainly more patient and prepared to overcome (or endure) them. Others will rightly claim that just because you have an advanced degree, you aren’t guaranteed (or entitled to) a fair or secure job; your advanced education is usually a product of privilege, and your outrage over the situation may stem from classist assumptions about what fields ‘deserve’ respect and power. I felt caught up in this way of thinking, and I don’t like admitting it. The trick is to realize that all people are entitled to fair and secure employment, regardless of their education, and then go back to the necessary business of fighting for workers here and abroad, in every discipline.
It’s simply best to know what it’s like, and what to expect. And it’s also worth mentioning that one of the most significant contributions to the industry you can make is not in terms of actual teaching, but in your willingness to fight the corporate paradigm. What we need today are not only compassionate, talented, empathetic teachers, but people with a political backbone. Holding an academic position should necessitate union involvement — and yes, labour unions are flawed, imperfect beasts, but they’re often the sole defense between a workforce and a downsizing, corporatizing university or college operating according to the principles of austerity (i.e., neo-liberalism).
Another shameful admission: I was so caught up in my own hunger and ambition that I barely got involved in my various unions. The thought of this really bums me out. When professors are asked to organize, voice dissent, refuse contracts, or show public solidarity with other striking workers, the response is often indifference, pessimism and cynicism (even jokes). For whatever reason, this apathy seems even more pronounced among writerly people — MFA grads just recently tasting the consecration of a partial-load contract, or long-time writers hopping between short-term contracts while completing other freelance gigs. As we know, refusing a contract can mean losing contact with the school; agitation can equal elimination. And if you’re only there to supplement your income, you’re lucky enough not to have a precarious contract as your only deal, and thus you might not see the efficacy or need to renegotiate or strike in the first place.
Each school works in its own way to isolate its employees, to portray poorly paid, unstable contract work as the new, unavoidable reality, while ramping up marketing budgets, chasing corporate sponsorship, admitting (and graduating) more students than ever, and making administrators far more secure in their jobs than faculty. Such is late capitalism’s ingenious strategy — to paint its conditions as inevitable, as natural as oxygen or death. When schools make striking seem like an illegal, unethical, or immoral violation of trust — or the entitled braying of an intelligentsia that needs no more frills — it’s easy to succumb to the intimidation. It’s everywhere in the culture; aside from notable articles this spring in major venues like The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, the media tended to join in this chorus, fixating on bothersome car line-ups at York’s campus or the illusion of a raise for U of T’s TAs. As in the days of Mike Harris, the Ontario media has worked hand-in-hand with deans and MPPs to spin a gutted education system as a fiscal inevitability, education workers as selfish exploiters of public funding — or worse, as leeches, bloodsuckers, louts and frauds.
If you want to teach, this is your economic and political reality. It’s imperative you add your voice and your work to the discussion, to demonstrate, strike, and be vocal. If you are swooping in for an easy contract to supplement other income, it’s even more necessary for you to show solidarity with your peers. It’s your job to get fired up and angry. And though this is again another drain on your time, and may be frightening, and may not reward you with tenure, it’s an obligation that invests in both teachers to come, and the students they shape.
As things stand, there’s not much hope for a fulfilling ‘career’ for most teachers (in traditional terms). But if you are not interested in fighting to change this, and you have no investment in the labour dimensions of the university, your fellow workers, and their plight, then you have no right being there, and you should not teach.
I Feel You
So you’ve just finished your undergraduate degree. Maybe a few years have passed. You have bad eyes, bad teeth, a knee that swells before a storm. You decide that you can’t continue as this semi-educated, half-employed barista or bartender or intern, not with health problems, rent spikes, million dollar condos, your friends in every other discipline about to make more than your parents. You make the decision to continue with school for reasons that are shadowy and half-conceived but all swirling around a fear of being cut adrift: of having your liberal arts education giving you only enough to know you’ve made some bad choices. Were you misled by teachers, the school, your peers? Is your retirement plan seriously just “to die”?
For both pragmatic and vocational reasons, you imagine further education and the half-baked idea that you will find meaningful employment — as a TA, as a sessional professor, as a research assistant. Something. Something that keeps you reading and analyzing texts, building on the body of otherwise impractical knowledge you’ve accrued through writing essays, reading, and getting high marks. And something that actually pays you — the idea of money is ticklish and fuzzy but you could get used to it. You don’t know if you want this work (whatever it might be), but it seems like something you are supposed to do. The school seems like a good Dad, or Mom. It’s worked out so far, you think: you’ve known how to cajole it for money, known how to ask for the keys to the car. It’s set semi-serious deadlines but given you a ridiculous amount of freedom.
Conversely, you may have wanted to teach all along; you loved school, loved the whole shambling, gilded waltz of the university. You wanted the power that comes with standing before a class. You wanted to touch, change lives, and looked up at your creaky-limbed or “hot-peppery” professors and thought, “one day, this is going to be me,” but you just encountered a few snags — no job offers, no idea how to get noticed, or just plain academic exhaustion.
That is, until something comes along, and a door opens, and you grab whatever position you can grab.
Over the last few years, I’ve had a number of people come to me with these same stories. They say that teaching might be their only way out of poverty. That teaching sounds kind of cool. “Should I teach?” they ask. “Would I be a good teacher?” Their eyes go starry — they get that dreamy look, imagining an office, or disciples, or whatever. When I quit both Humber and OCAD, I posted about my newfangled freedom on Facebook — I was jubilant and truly scared. Immediately, I was hit with a storm of DMs, each asking if there were new job openings at either location. Rather than ask me why I was leaving, or what I was planning to do, most instead asked, “Can I have your job?”
Yes, by all means, you can have my job. But I hope this long, crooked piece has helped you make up your mind, for better or for worse.
I’m now saying goodbye — also a long, crooked goodbye to the thing I wanted, burned for, and saw turn to shit in my hands. This long, winding confession, act of recognition, and warning ends with me walking away, and for that I am happy. It’s also a chance to move on — to grow into someone else without a constant glance back, imagining the things I might miss.
If I have regrets, they are for all the time lost building up another means of livelihood. I miss some of my co-workers, some of the best students, and I certainly miss the steady money of holding down multiple sections. And I still have the eerie sense that there are thousands of conversations left hanging, thousands of words left unsaid — hanging there in torn-down classrooms, smudged in my binders, rotting in the bottoms of abandoned lockers.
It’s weird, but no matter how much relief I feel in finally walking away, I’m even now second-guessing my decisions, lingering and taking a final glance back.
At the end of each semester, I’d find myself lingering in my barren, industrial classrooms — the students gone, the door shut, the room as quiet as a coffin. Alone with my ticking heart and big sighs after another long season: another semester of striving and hoping, nagging and bitching and finagling, of boredom and stress and doomed battles of will. Another little theatre in which people had to face, work with, and endure each other, all under grotesque circumstances and delusions. A place now glitching with strange, bittersweet feelings, infuriating as they might be, that reminded me that despite it all there were a few good days, a few human beings after all.
Leaving hurts. When we move house, sunlight stabbing through dirty windows in our empty rooms, we pause in doorways, run our fingers over moulding, breathe in dusty closets. We feel like ghosts, unmoored from reality, and everything rushes back as a beautiful gift: even the horrors of life are gorgeous to the departed. So I am lingering here now, in my final classroom, and the sun is setting over the jagged teeth of downtown Toronto, and King Street is glowing with another summer night, and I am perhaps one of the few people still haunting campus. The doors are locked, the bathrooms running with cold water, and everything that ends is sad. I am lingering here as I would in all my classrooms, even the most abhorrent rooms, rooms I hated, rooms of suffering, and still miss them, those moments when teaching meant something, and even the students, because they are all gone now, and all the anger and pain we shared is too.
And while they stepped into the rest of their blooming lives, I still had to go back to mine.