Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Hidden Cost Of Contingency

A friend of mine of Facebook is about to leave his second temporary gig in as many years, and posted a comment from his student evaluations: "This is the best class I have had in college so far."  On this same day, the last for the seniors in my elective class, one of them came up to me to let me know how much he appreciated having me as a teacher.  I have taught many in this group of seniors for three years now, and it has been one of the great pleasures of my life to see them develop and help them along the way.  My academic friend will never get to do that, because he has to hit the pavement and find another gig.

His story reminded me of my last day of my visiting assistant professor gig.  I wore an ascot to class on a bet between two of my colleagues over who among us would be the first to score a tenure-track job.  The students in my class that day were a memorable bunch, one of the best classes I've ever had.  They asked me why I was leaving, and felt hurt, as if I someone was rejecting them.  I had to then explain that I was not a "real" professor, and had to go somewhere else if I wanted to be one.  I had proved myself in that job, had developed a loyal student following, and liked the city where the university was located and wanted to stay there, but in the end, that didn't really matter.

One of the hidden costs of contingency is never being a full member of a university community.  It doesn't just mean not having a voice or a seat at the table, it means not being allowed to develop long-term student relationships.  I came back to the university where I VAPed two years later for a conference, and one of my favorite former students was there, who had sent me some punk rock mix CDs after I moved to my t-t job in Texas.  It was great to catch up with him but bittersweet, knowing that I only knew him as an intro-level student, and never got to teach him in any upper-level electives.  At the place where I taught, like so many others, first year students were introduced to college-level disciplines by temporary laborers who would be long gone by the time they graduated.  Perhaps some of those students were confused the next year when they looked for our names in the course catalog and couldn't find them.  We were ghosts hovering over the commencement ceremony, I hope fondly remembered.

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