Sunday, June 19, 2011

Gypsy in My Soul

By Nicholas Stix
(June, 1993; previously unpublished)

“If I am fancy free, and choose to wander, it’s just the gypsy in my soul.”

Joe Williams’ clear, clean baritone rings in my ears as the subway train rocks to and fro beneath me. I’m wandering out from close to the last stop in Brooklyn to New Jersey, via Manhattan. Two fares each way, and three-and-a-half hours, the round trip.

I am a “gypsy,” as itinerant college instructors are called in some quarters. Gypsies have no job security and no benefits. My gross earnings for this academic year will total $6,350.

“No cares, no strings, my heart has wings.”

How do you pay the rent on a $6,350 gross? You don’t. I’m borrowing the $600 rent from friends and relatives, buying time, living off pancakes and oatmeal and pasta.

There are those who say that this is all my own stupid fault. I should have studied something more practical. Sure—instead of being an underpaid, university gypsy I would then have the privilege of being an unemployed lawyer or engineer or architect.

If I devoted myself to what I consider proper preparation for my current classes, I might earn as little as $4 per hour. It takes 4-6 hours of preparation for every class hour, if I am to give the sort of lectures I got from the unsung heroes at the community college where I got my start.

Even so, students have told me that I’m by far their toughest instructor. One meant it as a compliment, but another is outraged. She expected this to be a “gut” course, à la Basketweaving 101.

A colleague paints a picture of Socrates that makes the Athenian who willingly died for his city look like a 1960s’ New Left professor. What’s this, a McDonald’s of the mind?

If it sounds as though my colleague never read Plato, it’s because she hasn’t—her training is in anthropology.

Many of my younger students come from high schools where they were passed from grade to grade with their respective age groups, regardless of their degree of academic progress. Their essays make me wonder if anyone ever corrected their spelling or grammar.

Comparing my classes to my own college days makes me feel like the sort of old fools I mocked only 16 years ago. And yet, I never heard students blame the professor when they blew an exam, lecture him on his teaching methods, or try to turn him into a social worker with lame excuses for not showing up for a mid-term. (Despite my general agnosticism, I have to wonder: is this abuse divine retribution for having driven my professors to distraction?)

Some things haven’t changed, though. The older students were more serious, better prepared, and more mannerly during my student days, and still are.

Not that I tell my students that I started out below them, a junior high school dropout, and that teaching at a community college means coming home.

Professionalism means demanding and getting respect from the beginning, without pandering to fashionable nonsense about “role models.” Anyway, the role-model mystique somehow doesn’t apply to “white males.”

The lip-service paid to “multiculturalism” and “diversity” combines with wails about the white male devil to mask a deep cynicism about the abilities of low-income black and Hispanic students. I call it cynical when an instructor drops all the politically correct words, but merely checks off substandard work. This gives students the false impression that their work is adequate, as well as crippling them from advancing to higher-level work. Eventually they will sit in advanced classes, a transfer school, or on a job where they will be lost. There will be no one whose job it is to develop their basic skills, because the very people who were paid to do so were shirkers.

Students not taking my speech class report that they are assigned to give five- minute talks on recipes as their final projects in speech classes. My students—who came from the same background— gave fifteen minute-talks on the men’s movement, feminism, the Zoe Baird debacle, and the Waco tragedy. My students were good, but all supposedly began at the same level as their peers in other classes.

My secret? I am a proponent of the “gonzo” school of pedagogy. Rather than throwing bones to an insatiable lapdog called “self-esteem,” I take that old hound running. I make my people write progressively ambitious essays, return each proofread and copyedited, and make them redo the papers, inserting the corrections. The progress is palpable.

I use music. I have spoken the Rolling Stones, sung Carly Simon, played tapes of Aaron Copland, and even whistled classical music, to get discussions going on abstract concepts. I know it worked, because students were able to remember my points and discuss their own positions regarding concepts like “God” and “father.” (I’m a tenor, in case anyone needs a fill-in!).

Beyond all the theatrics and gimmicks, however, my formula is simple: I take my people seriously intellectually. Eventually, they respond by taking themselves seriously. A man in one of my philosophy classes just wrote a paper on the existence of God as ambitious and rigorously argued as anything you’ll see at NYU or Columbia (or from me, as an undergraduate!).

Note that in the Humanities Department where I teach, 51 out of the 57 instructors are part-time gypsies. The vast majority of those 51 are moonlighting, after having worked all day at their “real” jobs. They’re exhausted, the pay stinks, and since administrators do not expect them to get much out of the students, why should instructors kill themselves? The point is to get fannies in the seats, and keep them long enough to get more government money to pay for more non-academic administrators, more tutors who don’t teach, and more learning disability specialists who can’t seem to find any abilities. And, of course, to build more buildings to be filled with more young minds being wasted.

“There is no other life, of which I’m fonder, it’s just the gypsy in my soul.”

There’s a saying: “You’ve never learned something, until you’ve had to teach it.”
Teaching has ideas bouncing around my head like pinballs in a bonus round. I want to go back to school and finish the book I began as my master’s thesis, and on which I base my philosophy lectures.

Pleasant thoughts for the best of all possible worlds. That’s not the one I live in, though. I’m already hustling around for the next jobs that won’t pay the rent, let alone put me through graduate school. After all, I’m no role model. With my lousy politics and demographics, I’ll be lucky to get an 80-hour-a-week gig at “Mickey D’s.”

“Last stop, Journal Square!” Journal Square is where I work, the end of the line. End of the line?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

End of the Line: Traveling Wilburys. Great little tune.