Imagine my surprise Friday morning as I was preparing to teach my class when I came across Jessamyn Blau’s column (“Now hiring: Koffee Too? but not grad school,” 9/3) and discovered that I wasn’t actually about to report to work. No, I was going back to school. Apparently I’m not really teaching Intermediate German this semester; I’m a student in the class itself. Never mind that I already took this course in college seven years ago. There were serious charges against me: I’m not an employee, not a teacher, not a professional, not even an adult. For just one moment I let myself take those allegations seriously, and when I did, my world began to unravel.
It seems that I had somehow managed to deceive myself into thinking that last year I taught Elementary German every day. Talk about confusion! It must have had something to do with my leading discussions, explaining grammar, grading homework, making quizzes and tests, holding office hours and writing letters of recommendation. With the exception of the day we read a selection from Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, none of this had anything to do with my dissertation, yet somehow all this work had led me to think I was working. Were my memories false? Had it all been a sham?
Let me think back: what about the day I taught how to arrange the elements in the middle field of a German sentence? No, I hadn’t taught it, I was learning how to teach it. Or what about when I wrote exercises that humorously incorporated the private life of Thomas Mann? No, I was learning how to make up fill-in-the-blank worksheets, which I am assured will be the decisive factor in landing me an assistant professorship. And when at year’s end, my students could all speak German and thanked me for being accessible, enthusiastic and tirelessly patient with the challenge of adjective endings, were they really just congratulating me on having partly learned how to teach?
When I go to class on Monday I shouldn’t really presume to stand at the front of the room. No, I think I’ll take a seat in the back left corner and wait to see who shows up to actually teach this class. As Philipp Nicolai wrote, wachet auf – wake up. Of course I learn more about teaching every time I step up to the blackboard. I hope every professional continues to learn through every stage of her/his career.
I acknowledge that I am a student, but I am a worker also. Neither description inherently cancels the other, even if the Bush and Levin administrations seem to think so. Maybe this is why Wal-Mart now runs advertisements stating that they “teach” their “employees” to always do the right thing?
That I better myself through the work that I do does not change the fact that it is work someone else would have to be paid for if I didn’t show up. It would be a better world if all jobs were clearly spaces of self-improvement, but to argue that only workers whose work doesn’t help them grow are permitted to collectively protect their interests is fantastically cynical and woefully disempowering to workers of all stripes. As the child of two public school teachers, I know that every year when the budget comes up, many in our town expect my parents to voluntarily forgo a raise because they happen to love teaching and love the students. I love teaching and I love my students, but the fact that I enjoy what I do shouldn’t hold my dignity hostage nor should it exclude me from the rights of an employee. If enjoying your work really is an excuse to make you do it for cheap, then maybe we should be seizing the inflated paychecks of professional athletes and redistributing them to all the self-loathing investment bankers who gave up on more creative dreams.
Yes, I will likely need an “impressive list of student recommendations” to go far in my profession. I’ve got them, though, and when I look at the evaluations from last semester, the first one to come up says: “Evan is a very good instructor and he should be paid more.” Looks like I’m learning from my students after all.
Evan Matthew Cobb is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. He teaches German 130 and is an organizer for GESO.