Sunday, April 09, 2006

Swan Song

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I want to hate Elite University. I want to feel cross at the students for being so privileged, so confident, so enthusiastic, so (mostly) white. I want to hate the campus, so noveau and midwestern and striving, its 1920s and 30s Oxford/Princeton/Yale bespired and gargoyled buildings so out of date when they were built, even by gothic revival standards. I want to resent the immensely pleased faces of the faculty and administrators floating by me as I leave class, their clothes so respectable, their hair so gently mussed, their smiles the drugged smiles of cult devotees. I watch yet another boy in sandals bob across the quad, the afternoon sun making a golden halo of his long, soft brown curls. Of course you're happy, I think to myself. All you have to worry about is writing papers and passing tests. You have the best teachers, the smartest classmates, the brightest future.

I test my grumpy attitude out on each figure I pass as I walk to my car. The girl with maroon tips and a pierced eyebrow who waddles on her way to class. No, I can't hate her. She looks a little out of place. She's overweight and awkward, and for some reason I decide she can't be rich. The boy with the dreadlocks might be smug enough to hate, but his battered army jacket is a little soiled, like it might be his real winter jacket, maybe for a couple of years now. Another guy with a bad haircut is walking very slowly because his backpack is so loaded down with books I'm surprised it hasn't burst open. An older woman with a lined face and fading blonde hair is wearing a puffy, unfashionable down jacket that also looks as if it could use a washing machine. She is obviously no friend to either sun block or makeup. Can't really hate her, either. I'm looking for rich kids and frat-boy types, but all I see are misfits, nerds, and sweet, dorky intellectuals who don't seem to notice the peeling paint and indoor-outdoor carpet, the sooty buildings and dull classrooms of this school. There is a grail inside their heads, shining out of their eyes. They are living for something higher, something more than what is here around them.

In fact, I'm finding it hard to hate anybody here, or anything about this gig. When I go in to class, the students are respectful and hesitant at first, then their ideas and feelings come tumbling out. They have not only done the reading--they've digested it. They have ideas about it, criticisms, hypotheses. Some think Roe v. Wade is a curiously woman-centered document. Others are suspicious of the conclusion that everything rests on the bourgeois confidentiality of a woman's relationship with her doctor. I let them go. I rein them in. I remind them what the manifestos wanted. I try to make sure the two really talkative boys don't take up all the space, though I love how excited they are. I try to get them to think hard about Othering in Simone de Beauvoir, but then let go when they also want to just talk about the plot of the original Stepford Wives. They like the comfort of all these different levels. One chubby long-haired boy scrunches up his face when he thinks hard. Another young woman remains cool and impassive in her groovy silk headscarves and big earrings, asking smart questions from the far corner. A tall, gangly blond boy whose mouth falls wide open and stays like that when he gets an idea has finally gotten up the courage to sit next to me at the discussion table. I try to resist them, but I can't help it. I think I love them.

I know I should get paid more. I put together a great syllabus. There's a lot of reading. It takes years of experience, education, and research to be a stimulating teacher. Still, sometimes when I look around the room after a great discussion I can't believe they're giving me money to do this. And I can't believe people who get to teach here for good could ever not know how lucky they are. This is what you hope for in grad school. This is what you think a professor's life will be like. This is what it almost never is.

No wonder so many people walk by me with gentle smiles on their faces.

I tell a friend of mine who taught here as a postdoc that I can't find anything not to like about being here. He agrees that there is no place like it that he has ever been, before or since. "People really care about ideas there," he says. "I think it's a great place for you to be right now in your life. A perfect Swan Song."

I feel myself getting irritated. Swan Song? Is that what my career is doing? Dying?

I was hoping that law school would give me new things to think about. I don't really think of it as an ending--more like a road leading out of what for me has become the cul-de-sac of literary studies. The other day I had a conversation with someone who works out at my gym and can't get a job. She has an Ivy League degree and a postdoc at Elite University. She told me that the MFAs hired as creative writers are teaching all the modernist courses in a lot of departments now, since that's what so many undergrads want to read. I thought about all the PhD programs continuing to accept more applicants every year than they will ever be able to place, a pool of today's exploitable graduate students that will become tomorrow's exploitable adjuncts. I told her I was going to law school. She told me she was going back to her Ivy school to adjunct for a couple more years. "If I can just hang on," she said. "I just have to hang on."

I think about how law school seems so different from my academic world of scarcity and myth. Law students know there are probably going to be jobs for them when they finish. The professors know it too. There's a ridiculous amount of optimism. I wonder if that optimism is misplaced. How could things get better? How can it not be just another delusion on the road of delusions that make up my student loan debts? I hug close to my heart a recent study I read that found that while law firms have grown bigger and bigger to accomodate new business, the number of law applicants has fallen, setting off fierce competition for graduates, second-year summer associates, and even some first-years among employers. It's hard to believe, but there seem to be a lot of opportunities out there for a JD-PhD. It seems, finally, like there might be more to life than hanging on.

When I look around my classroom, I see a lot of optimism. I see students whose liberal arts education has given them critical minds, political consciences, and the desire to make the world a better place. I would never recommend a vocational major for them. I believe in their broad education, and I hope they will take a wider, bolder road after they graduate than the one I took. I didn't know what to do after college, or how to do anything other than go to school. They seem less worried about what they can get and more interested in what they can do. I wish I had been more like them when I was their age. I'm glad I get to know them know, though. They are curious and kind. Their education is a privilege they seem to take very seriously. I don't think this class is a Swan Song, for me or for them. These days, when I walk out of the classroom into the afternoon air, across a campus that smells and feels like the first muddy green days of spring, everything feels more like a beginning.


La Lecturess said...

One of my closest friends from back home (and to this day) went to Elite U, and she describes it just as you do: as a place for the kids with a 2-day-old beard and bloodshot eyes who've stayed up all night reading the entirety of the book from which they were assigned one chapter. The kids who often don't have Ivy-level entering GPAs or SATs because they were actually interested in learning rather than in gaming the college-admissions system.

Whether or not that's precisely true, what a beautiful experience for you, and what a beautiful beginning to the rest of you career as a student, thinker, and teacher.

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

Well put. Such grounded hope, which is the only kind of hope worth having, yet the hardest type to have.

I keep wanting the students at my school to be like undergrad me: full of wonder, reading things I didn't quite understand, never missing class, drinking it all in while spilling so much of it, caring only about learning instead of grades or even a degree.

lil'rumpus said...

I envy you the law school route. Not a Swan Song at all. I think of it as an opportunity to become a student again. To again join the ranks of the eager thinkers. To be in a classroom that you don't have to run, but can participate in with the sort of intellectual freedom that I have only found as a student.

I may just follow in your footsteps...

Professor Zero said...

cool post, cool school, cool law school plan, good for you!