So, what do you teach?


It’s the beginning of a new semester and with that comes new students, new hires, new roles, new people in and out of our offices and classrooms and buildings. There are meetings and events to attend and often those situations require sharing information about what you teach or study or do on campus. Of course, this happens off-campus, too when people ask “where do you work?” or notice you wearing a university t-shirt which begins a conversation where you disclose that you work at said university. 

My students in Business & Professional Writing are about to begin a unit on concise genres, and I am admittedly poor at being concise.

When someone asks, “what do you teach?” I usually say, “English, writing.” And wait for them to make a face or comment about how they hated English in college or high school or are terrible at writing. This makes me a bit defensive and I’m never sure how I’m supposed to respond. I don’t want to start a dialogue about how your 10th grade English teacher made you read _The Red Pony_ and now you hate all literature and anything to do with English or writing, at all. What can I possibly say to that? 

I didn’t particularly love high school Geometry. In fact, I’m terrible at spatial understanding, seeing shapes and angles, but I get the importance of it. I try very hard not to belittle it. 

I’m fascinated by things I do not understand. I have no clue about most of the sciences. A lab classroom reminds me of the awful chemistry class I almost failed in high school or the Anatomy and Physiology class where the teacher dissected a fetal pig with great glee. When I meet people who make disciplines of science the work of their life, however, I do not relay these stories. Instead I ask them what they’re working on or I ask how students respond to lab courses or I mention that I admire them because I don’t have the aptitude for such work. I never roll my eyes and sigh. 

I don’t know how to explain what I do. I don’t know how to convey my aching shoulders and tired back because I’ve trekked student essays from four different classes all over campus, to my home and office. I could tell you about how my eyesight has suffered from reading too long and too many hours on screens, or how frequently I skip meals because there’s no time in the day to eat much beyond carrot sticks and yogurt. No one wants to know how much money I’ve spent supplying students with textbooks or how often I loan out books I never get back. I am not sure how to explain sitting in my office long after 5 with a student whose ex-boyfriend is stalking her and she is afraid to walk to her car and that she may have to leave school with one semester left until graduation. I don’t know how to talk about the joy of watching a student’s writing flourish paper after paper or how to explain why I feel sad when a student fails. I am not sure I could do justice to the connections I’ve made with students, or the pride I feel when they get good internships, jobs they love, when they write emails to thank me for making a difference. I don’t think people want to hear about committee meetings and faculty conference and all the places we show up to advocate for our students. You see, the work academics do, it often moves beyond subject matter. I don’t know how to say all of that when someone asks, “what do you teach?” 

So I just say, “writing” and brace myself for the reaction. 

I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t reduce other careers in the same way. I’m sure nurses get people telling them “I don’t know how you deal with blood, or sick people or whatever it is that makes us squeamish”. Unless someone is close to us, we rarely understand the work others do. We are mired in our own perspective. 

I appreciate that my brother is a mechanical engineer. I enjoy having people in my life who do work I can’t imagine doing, work that seems beyond my capabilities or enjoyment. I hope I am respectful of their positions and don’t judge their experiences. I aim to listen when they want to talk about their days and offer distraction when they do not. 

I know I should be used to the reaction, the looks, the disdain. But I’m not. 

My father was a minister before he retired a few years ago and I constantly tried to explain to people the work he did. My brother once told a teacher when she asked that our father, “married and buried people.” As his daughter, I was often protective and defensive of my father and his work. I sat with him as he visited parishioners in the hospital. I kept my brother entertained when he worked on sermons. I sang in the car when he drove hours for a wedding or a funeral. Sometimes both in one day. I heard him, voice breaking and in anguish over untimely deaths, other people’s pain. I saw the frustration of church politics and bureaucracy. I also saw how comforted others could be by my father’s presence, watched as he moved people with his words, his teaching. The kind of care my father was often required to provide was powerful and exhausting. It is no wonder that I do the work I do.  

While our jobs are not meant to be our sole identity, they are frequently seen as such. I feel a deep connection to my work. I don’t know that I could separate it from who I am, any more than I could the influence place has had on my personhood. So when education feels like a budgetary afterthought or worse, feels under direct attack, when people I meet react the way they do, when snide comments are made, how else can I respond but defensively? 

I’m typing this from my campus office at 8 AM on a Sunday. If that doesn’t tell you something about me, about the work I do, I don’t know what will. 

And yeah, I’m supposed to be grading. I’m always grading.

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© 2017 by Devon Ralston. 

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