Social Leverage: Teacher’s pet hate

Social Leverage: Teacher’s pet hate

T.S. Eliot may have famously written that life could be measured in coffee spoons; my life is undoubtedly – and decidedly less poetically – measured in exam scripts.

As anyone who teaches can tell you, November is – quite simply – the worst time of the year. Final essays compound the horror of endless exam scripts and it all comes in one hellish three week period. Ever seen Heironymus Bosch’s painting of hell? That’s what the inside of my head looks like right now.

To all the students out there, I’d like to say something: You think it sucks having to crank out some miserable paper on gender stereotypes in Austen, or yet another opinion piece on the Secrecy Bill? Imagine how it feels to have to actually read it (I know you don’t before you hand in). Now imagine how it feels to have to read multiple versions of that essay again and again, for every person who left it to the last minute, googled the same SparkNotes site, hid their tracks just as poorly and handed in. Who needs a stiff drink now, eh?

See, for most of the year, I have a sneaking suspicion that the people I parade the ideas inside my head to may not be listening entirely as closely as I might like. I get my first little hint from a poor early essaymark, a second from a glazed look in class. But, in the face of these whispers of reality, I employ that blissful medication of the delusional: denial. I assume that they’ll smell the burning as my soul slowly roasts in the hell of having to explain the basic use of the apostrophe for the seventh time. I assume – in short – that they’ll catch a wake up call and – I don’t know – learn.

…it rarely happens.  Four years of lecturing later, I still find myself getting vertigo when I read about Bono’s “deep Irish ascent” [sic]. As I trawl through pages of well-meaning typos and earnest bastardisations of the English language, I take a moment and re-evaluate my life. Teaching: why?
Turns out, if I’m honest, it’s because I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve tried different things, but no other job allows me to talk for hours about things that I like in front of a captive audience. (And – crucially! – get paid to do it.)

I’ve always been of the opinion that 95% of the curriculum content in a liberal arts degree is entirely inconsequential. I don’t care whether your set work is Shakespeare or Serote; it’s the skills – critical analysis, clear expression, careful concept referencing – that you need to pick up.

This view is why I’ve taken every opportunity to draw class examples from what I darn well choose – everything from why the metaphors in vampire fiction have always been a natural draw card for the sexually repressed to the real way Catherine the Great is supposed to have died. I figure class may as well be fun. Even if it’s just for me.
There’s no making light of my current situation, though. The slog is on and the only way through is gritting my teeth, lowering my expectations and powering through.

It’s at times like these that the only salve is mindlessly and determinedly trawling the internet (ok, fine, even more than usual). It’s on one of these recent trawls that I found a real gem: Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to a friend recently hired to fill his old position as a lecturer at an Iowa College. “Every so often you will go nuts,” he warns, with his usual knack for hitting on a pithy truth.

During the course of a rather lengthy missive, Vonnegut’s only real academic advice is the savvy “Don’t ball undergraduates. Their parents are still watching.”For the rest? He dishes a good dose of colleague gossip (“Vance is lazy as hell. My feeling about this is mainly – so what?”) and sneaky tips (“cancel class whenever you damn well please. Nobody will be checking up on you”). His biggest piece of advice, though? “Go to all the [college] football games. They are great.”
Now if only we could all approach the teaching experience with the same low bar and highly pragmatic coping strategies. Oh wait…

Follow Carla Lever on Twitter (@carlalever)
Email your thoughts to carla@48hours.co.za