Unfolding: An Academic Memoir

My students don’t see much mystery in me, a fat white man the age of their grandparents
hiding behind a beard and a jacket and a tie. I try to see the mystery in them, but I miss most of it, too, and that does make me feel meager. They are as opaque to me as I am to them.

Many of them, most of whom are first-generation college students, feel they are college
outsiders. They see me as the ultimate insider, though I feel quite differently. It is all subjective, dependent on individual perspective; we’re all outsiders somewhere.

Which is something all of us in academia know. We get the origami of it. Much of our
teaching life is involved with figuring out the patterns of our students.

At the same time, it may not even be any of us individually, teachers or students, but
academia itself which is the real outsider. Maybe none of us in academia has a clue about
anything. We’re not part of the “real world” as long as we teach or until we graduate.

Maybe those who claim this are even right; maybe faculty members need to experience the broader world if teaching is to become our calling. Maybe the divide is necessary. The higher-education gadfly David Horowitz calls for “content” only in the classroom, claiming personal experience is irrelevant, desiring a wall between.

But learning and the college experience call for much more than corrals of knowledge.
The odd thing about teaching is that the “much more” beyond content rarely shows up
in what my students see, in what anyone looking into the classroom sees, in what the general public imagines. I sometimes nearly convince myself that it’s true, what Horowitz and cultural bean counters say, that all that matters is content and “outcomes.” Or, as Lindsay Waters has described this attitude in Enemies of Promise, that “[p]roduct is all that counts, not the reception, not the human use…. For the academic under this regime, his or her life’s work has been cordoned off from living experience; practice counts for nothing there” (36).

Then, of course, I come to my senses.

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