Monday, August 02, 2004

Wait a Minute. If I Understand You Correctly, You Should Be Paying Me to Read This.

A good question for any columnist -- from those who are doing the most "objective" analysis of politics and economics to those who share with us (in installments) the pageant of their bleeding hearts -- would be:

Isn't your column writing a kind of therapy for you? Aren't you talking your way toward mental health even when you are talking about monetarist theory?

You can't type lying down, but in a way the creation of a column is like a session with a non-directive therapist. You talk to fill the silence even when you really don't have anything that urgently needs saying. I am interested in exploring this aspect of column writing, though I can't think of a way of approaching it -- of phrasing the question -- that's likely to get a satisfactory response from your average columnist. To describe your work as therapy when it is supposed to be a purposeful act of superb self control would be seen as a confession of weakness, of a lack of professionalism, wouldn't it?

I haven't asked anyone the question. It's rather ... California. But it's just occurred to me because of my intellectual stirring around -- scratching, sipping coffee, adjusting myself -- in preparation for writing this particular "column."

What shall I write about today?

What shall I write about today?

I notice something: There are items high on my list of possible topics that I keep reaching around, to what's behind them as it were. We have a can in our cupboard like that. It is a can of Boston Brown Bread that we bought in Raleigh, North Carolina, and it's moved with us for the last 30 years because we have never ever ever felt like having canned Boston Brown Bread but you never know. There it is. I don't feel like canned Boston Brown Bread today. Again. Ever.

One of the topics I have not gotten around to writing about is my life as a teacher. In terms of duration, that's what I am. I have worked full-time for more than 34 years -- with nine months subtracted for that period in 1975-1976 when I was out of work, on the dole, I'm all right, Jack.

I reached the tipping point a couple of years ago, and now the numbers are clear: 16 years as a journalist and 18 as a college teacher. If my life were a fertilizer, it would be labeled 5-16-13.(We will also ignore my six months as an advertising copywriter since I was doing some freelancing.)

I am a teacher, but you'd hardly know it, not from this "column." I love to talk about my days as a journalist, particularly the time spent in bars! I apparently enjoy emphasizing what some might call the bohemian -- and others the adolescent -- aspects of journalism.

But I veer away from talking about all these years I have spent teaching. I will now force myself to write about this aspect of my life since I apparently don't want to.

Let the healing begin.

I can think of one reason why I might not want to. I hold my current job -- tenured, lovely, cushy -- not only because I worked as journalist for 16 years but also because I have a Ph.D. No Ph.D., no tenure-track job even if I worked as a journalist for 116 years.

Why do I have a Ph.D.? Why did I spend six years, four of them as a full-time student, living the life of the book hermit, immersed in arcana, beset by bibliography, encrusted by a dusty lust for all things dead, gone, buried and best forgot. In short, why did I become a graduate student of English literature?

Start with inclination shaped by circumstance. I come from a working class background, and the only people I knew with college degrees were my teachers. Assumptions were made. I would either be a teacher or an engineer -- that, I've since learned, is another job that first-in-my-family-to-go-to-college kids fall into -- and I liked books better than math. (Though I was very very good at math, he said defensively.)

Thus, I was originally an English major working toward a teaching certificate. As part of that program, we were required to observe in public schools. I did a single class observation. The students by any measure of human civility were lovely little animals. They were loud and enthusiastic. The teacher, who couldn't have been more than 25, bounced from the chalkboard to the back of the room, moving the students through the reading of a story for which they would write "blurps," as she repeatedly told them. She held up a book. On the back was someone's high praise.

"It's a blurp!" she said.

That I knew better didn't matter. What I saw in the classroom was chaos, manageable because this woman was managing it. It terrified me. I could not imagine acquiring the skills -- and I knew there were skills involved though I could not quite make out what they were -- that would enable me to curb and direct the energy in a classroom.

I dropped out of the teaching program the same week. I applied for graduate school for a single reason: I was afraid -- and not of the draft and going to Vietnam. I had been told that getting a doctorate would take a very long time, and it was also clear from my own undergraduate experience that the average college teacher could survive without a single iota of pedagogical skills beyond knowing what "iota" meant.

I'm feeling a breakthrough here. I think I need a hug. Is my 50 minutes up?

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