Why I Teach
Teaching at the college level requires a certain combination of factors. You must have confidence, because by definition the gig presumes you have something to offer others. You must be humble, because some of your students will be smart. Occasionally they will be smarter than you. You have to be willing to keep learning because knowledge is not static. You need patience because our primary educational system is broken and you will inevitably encounter students that can barely construct a sentence, let alone write a paper. You should enjoy it, or you probably won’t do it well.
I’m an adjunct professor for the school of arts and sciences, department of women and gender studies. I teach classes about gender and the legal system, though my classes are more intersectional than that as they are heavily influenced by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Dorothy Roberts. I design my own classes. I teach about motherhood, sexual assault, domestic violence, and a special topic course wherein the experience of Black women in the criminal justice system is explored in depth.
I write, and I have my own methods of analysis, but I do not consider myself an academic (well, maybe in scholarly, studious, literary, well-read, intellectual, or clever sense of the definition but definitely not the kind associated with career track at a university). I am a teacher. I have two core strengths as an educator: (1) taking complex concepts and distilling them to a 101 level, and (2) organizing a wide variety of different authors and scholars on one topic.
I sure as hell don’t teach for the money. Adjunct courses at my university pay $3,000 gross per course. After taxes are paid, if you take the remaining funds and divide them into the amount of time I dedicate to course creation, actual teaching, class material creation and maintenance, course work development, grading, and student correspondence, I do not net minimum wage most semesters.
I don’t teach because I’m bored and have lots of leisure time. I work a fulltime legal job, I have a husband, two little boys, and two teenage step sons who live with us for part of the year. I have a beagle mix with the appetite of a billy goat. I live in the same town as my mom and a close group of friends. I write. My plate is heaping full before I even consider piling on another obligation, and a demanding, time consuming one at that.
I teach because my college experience impacted the course of my life in a significant way, because I believe many people are capable of change if they are exposed to the right information, and because I love the way it feels when you assist someone in learning something new.
I was a nontraditional college student. I had a small scholarship, worked 3 jobs, and attended a community college. One of my first college courses was Black Women Writers. My professor had a Phd and wrote her dissertation on Toni Morrison. We read Morrison, of course, along with Nikki Giovanni, Gewndolyn Brooks, Octavio Butler, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde …. I took an intro to sociology class and started to see the world in a different (and more global) way. I got my associates, transferred to a university, and started taking PAS classes and majored in soc.
My education exposed me to information that contradicted the stories white children are told from birth to adulthood. The classes I took exposed me to critical writing by foundational writers (that Black Women Writers course remained a crucial foundation, years later, because much of my education was male centered).
Cognitive dissonance is when a person is introduced to information that challenges what they believe to be true. This creates conflict, which our brains do not enjoy. To avoid this conflict, our brains reject the new information. Sometimes angrily so. Think about that conservative uncle of your and how he reacts when you point out the deficit has actually shrunk under President Obama. Cognitive dissonance!
College, for me, was the opposite of that phenomenon. New information challenged what I grew up believing about our society. Sometimes it hurt, but for the most part my mind sought out this new information and absorbed it like a sponge. It felt like waking up after a long slumber.
Sometimes these things just come together like magic. The right student (a student who wants to learn and grow, who wants information that challenges them, or who knows a truth deep inside but does not have the literature to illuminate that truth) comes in contact with the right article and the right time and – bam – the earth shifts ever so slightly underneath them. And you know it happened for them like it once happened for you. That student is forever different now. That is one of the best things I’ve ever experienced. It only happens a few times a semester, but when it does, whew.
I teach for that moment.