I think most people at some point stand still and look back at the path they took, even if just briefly, before continuing the pilgrimage. I have spent the better part of this blog questioning everything from the passing of time to the value of doubt, but this particular small and relevant-only-to-me word dump is solely a note of appreciation to remind myself how thankful I am for the ride it has been.
Next week I begin my final semester at Tidewater Community College. It’s been quite a run. During my tenure at TCC, I’ve roughly (very roughly) done the following:
1360 Credit Hours
26 Different courses
8 Years Assistant Division Chair
26 Years full time faculty
3 Years full time adjunct
12 Grants to write articles and to teach at universities in Russia, Prague, Norway, and Amsterdam
16 States for conferences and readings
4 College presidents
27 Humanities Department full-time colleagues left during my years
6 new buildings/3 redesigned
5 US Presidents/8 terms
1/2 my life.
The last time I was not full time at Tidewater, in the summer of 1992 when I was first told I had the full-time job after three years of being an adjunct, I was sitting on a bench behind the humanities building humming “The Reach” by Dan Fogelberg. My son would not be born for another six months, George H. W. Bush was in office, and we were still using DOS.
When news came of 911, I was in an office on the other side of campus. My officemate Tom Williams and I walked back understanding the sudden irrelevance of collegiate minutia. I wanted to quit.
When my father died I was teaching Creative Writing. It was a Wednesday night.
The first class I ever taught was in an auditorium in the library. There were about 25 students scattered about the room. I had arrived before anyone else and sat in one of the seats halfway up to review my notes and see the podium from their perspective. Time slipped by and I found myself surrounded by students before class, but since I was twenty-nine, I blended in and everyone talked freely about their expectations. This was clearly pre-cell phone, pre-computer, when interactive meant meeting the person next to you and technology was an overhead projector.
I listened to their comments, their jokes and anxieties. Someone a few seats away said, “I hope this guy isn’t an asshole.” When I rose to head to the podium I could hear him gulp, I honestly heard him gulp. I put my notes down and said, “I hope I’m not an asshole too. Let me know if I tend toward that way, if you would.”
I had no clue what I was going to talk about. I still thought of myself as a student with some writing skills who just hadn’t applied himself. My previous job was a bartender. Before that I worked for Richard Simmons. Before that I’d rather not talk about. Now I stood to teach College Composition One. I had no background—none, zero, no experience in any way to teach college or discuss college comp. My history of standing in front of others was limited to exercise classes and playing guitar in college. My writing experience was journalism.
Spontaneously, I said: “Everyone write 200 words about what they’re doing here.” They did. Fifteen minutes later I collected the papers and said, “If I had told you I’m only going to grade the five that really catch my attention, and the rest fail, would those have been better?” They all said yes, they would have been better. Then I added, “So if I had said the five that really catch my attention each get a thousand dollars on the spot, would they have been even better than that?” Everyone laughed and nodded and talked to me and each other and God about how they would have been excellent if that had been the case.
I was quiet a moment. I was making this up as I went. Then I said, “Okay. So you can do better; you just can’t be bothered. That’s what you just admitted to me.” Everyone was silent. “Why is it we have a tendency only to apply ourselves if we can see some immediate reward?” I tossed their papers in the trash and said, “Okay, let’s start again.”
32,000 College essays
64,000 Rough Drafts
2200 Humanities exams
1250 Student Presentations
8350 or so Lectures
200 or so Division Meetings
12 or so Student Complaints
6 or so Grade Appeals
20 or so Students dropped for Plagiarism
12 or so Students kicked out for behavior problems
There was the guy who threw a desk at me and started to cry when I caught it.
Or the Russian exchange student who stood up and started running around the room and cursing in Russian who, when I yelled at him in Russian to get out, ran out the door and out the building and never came back.
There’s the guy who plagiarized an article about 911 from the local paper and turned it in for one of my assignments not knowing I was the one who wrote the original article.
There’s the former surfer in a wheelchair who was hit by his own board and was paralyzed from the waist down, who said it saved his life, that he was on a collision course with drugs and he could finally get on with his life.
Or the girl who became known as “Spaghetti” who would randomly scream out thoughts in the middle of lectures.
One student came to my office to say he was dropping the course because I don’t like him. I said it was only the second day, that we’d never met, and I have no idea who he is, and he said, “See?” and dropped the course.
My office has 272 cinder blocks and no windows. 1 desk with three drawers. 1 file cabinet with four drawers. 3 bookshelves. 1 desktop computer. 1 refrigerator. A bunch of art.
It became my refuge on campus. It is absent windows except for two photographs my son took of windows; one in Spain from inside a pub overlooking the Atlantic, and the other in Siberia from inside the passage between train cars. Both are quite realistic and I spent many days leaning back in my chair lost in their vistas. But mostly I was able to enter my little cinderblock office, put on some music and disappear from the noise in the hallways and the classrooms. With my headphones on I could write, and write and write, recreating my time in Russia or Prague or Spain. Sometimes I’d even write about teaching, trying to explore the reason for so much failure, narrowing it down to three primary causes: the students, the teachers, and the administrators. So writing became a way to vent my anger, my confusion, and my frustration; and when that didn’t work I would write about the places I’d been to somehow get there again, using words as locomotion to transport me to, well, wherever the hell I wanted. And somewhere along the way on this collegiate journey to become a better professor, something defining happened: I became a writer.
8 Collections of Essays
6 dozen articles in journals and other publications
100’s of pages of works in progress
I’m not going to criticize this professional experience. I’m not going to negatively evaluate and assess, make notes and analyze about how things could have been different. While it is true I never had a desire to teach and I fell backwards into this career, I have had a great time and it has treated me well. I am aware more than I care to admit that I’m not a great professor. I work with great professors; people like my colleagues Robin Browder and Tom Williams and Joe Antinarella, and I even have great professors in my family, like my brother-in-law Gregory Urwin at Temple, and I am nowhere near their caliber. Their attention to detail and thoroughness of the material is beyond my attention span, or, to be frank, interest. What I have been excellent at—what I’ve mostly been best at since I’m nineteen or so—is keeping people’s attention. My attendance numbers rarely dropped, and while in the room I could make them want to be there. I was less a professor than I was an entertainer. To my credit the best material in the world is irrelevant if no one is paying attention; still, I know plenty of professors who can both keep students’ attention and communicate the necessary material. But I believe that through the years my students were for the most part better prepared for their other classes because of the lessons I passed on to them. I feel good about their ability to do excellent, focused research; their ability to structure college essays for other professors; and, hopefully, their residual ability to apply those writing skills to everyday life.
In the end I am better at writing about humanity than teaching the humanities. And I’m even better at exploring humanity. Every once in a while through those years of teaching I knew something with absolute certainty: I always could do better—I just couldn’t be bothered.
I’ll tell you what I’m really good at, I mean I have mastered this ability: wandering around the world and meeting people. I’ve had that down since I’m a kid. My father liked to point out how all my elementary school teachers—none of whom knew each other since I went to four different schools by eighth grade—all wrote on my report cards, “Robert pays too much attention to those around him.” Well, yeah. I still do.
And the truth is my life at the college is what allowed my life in the world to occur. As a result of my position I’ve been able to travel extensively and meet some unforgettable people, some who have remained friends.
And I’ve learned a few things:
The philosophy of why we learn what we do in college is often more valuable than the lessons themselves, otherwise the lessons are quickly lost.
Showing up and making mistakes is more valuable than sitting quietly and assuming you’ve got it right.
Just because a faculty member is qualified to teach a particular course doesn’t mean he or she should be teaching the course (or teaching at all for that matter).
All success must start with passion.
Grandma Moses was right: Life is what you make of it; always has been, always will be.
George Elliot was also right: It’s never too late to become who you might have been.
College is too accessible and the bar is set way too low. It should be a privilege to attend college, to be a scholar, and to earn a degree, not an expectation.
Most of my students came to college too soon after high school. Many came for all the wrong reasons.
As for me, here’s what is left of my career at the college off of Princess Anne Road in Virginia Beach:
6 Classes/3 Courses
18 Credit Hours
4 Division Meetings
Many thanks to Tidewater Community College for tolerating me since just after Reagan left office. With Jimmy Buffet appropriately playing in the background right now, I can confidently quote him: “Some of it’s magic and some of it’s tragic, but it’s been a good life all the way.”
Associate Professor of Humanities
Tidewater Community College
1700 College Crescent, Pungo 141
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23453
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
– Henry David Thoreau