Post Academic

The Five Stages of the First Day of School

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on September 3, 2010
Tags: , ,

"First School Day" by ERWEH (Creative Commons license)

I’ve been taking note of all the back-to-school status updates from my Facebook friends, which don’t exactly make me envious, though maybe a little nostalgic.  We’re still about 3 weeks from the start of school here on the quarter system (yay, summer!), though I’m entirely sure if anything changes that much for staff.  Anyhow, I was recalling what that first day of school is like from one stage of my academic life to another, starting with college up to being an adjunct.

1. College: There was definitely a palpable excitement for the first day of classes, since I was definitely a little bit of a self-defined geek going from high school to college.  It wasn’t just the thrill of living somewhere new with lots of interesting new people, but there was a sense of exhilaration in getting to choose what I wanted to learn for the first time ever.  I loved leafing through the newsprint schedule of classes, then slowly whittling down all the candidates for the courses I wanted to take into my schedule that quarter, leaving a little wiggle room for the “shopping” period to make my final decisions.  The first day of classes was just a fulfillment of all the planning, though maybe an anti-climactic one in the end.

2. Grad school: I experienced something of the same thing on my first day of classes in grad school, only it didn’t feel like such a watershed moment.  Rather, I went about starting grad school with a more practical — and perhaps cynical — perspective: Things needed to get done, such as figuring out what the other folks within what was going to be a very insular grad school social circle were like and gauging the competition among my classmates.  The latter wasn’t exactly front-and-center in my mind, but it was definitely something I was thinking about as I started to make my flawed and judgmental judgments way too early.

The first day of school gets less and less looked forward to, below the fold…

3. Teaching for the first time: I would definitely say that excitement gave way to anxiety the first time I started to teach as a writing instructor in grad school.  We had all gone through our comp pedagogy training the week before (remember that, Caroline?), but none of us felt very prepared to teach because the workshops focused more on theory than practice — it was a rare occasion when I preferred less theory and more practice during grad school, actually!  So I pretty much dreaded going to the first day of classes for the first time, not sure I was going to be able to fake it until I could make it as a teacher.  Going into the thing, I even started wondering why exactly I wanted to put myself through this anxiety for the rest of my professional life, a nagging feeling which I learned to quell but could never really shake off, when I think about it.

4. The Ph.D. expected years: I don’t know how many times I began the school year expecting to finally finish Ph.D. very soon, though it was surely too many.  During those years, I would pretty much perform a surgical strike on campus: teach my class, do my business, then get the hell out.  I was quickly becoming — if I wasn’t already — the “who’s that guy?” of the dept that the younger students knew as the weirdo lone-wolf hanger-on sitting in the back at staff meeting.  At that point, there really wasn’t anyone I wanted to see on campus — and the folks I did know I tried to avoid, because I could expect getting questions about when I was finishing or my performance on the job market in some kind of passive aggressive but nosy way that was a combination of unsolicited pitying and unnecessary sizing up.  I felt bad enough *still* being a grad student without dealing with other people point it out, whether consciously or unconsciously.

5. Adjuncting: The existential condition of adjuncting felt pretty much the same as being a perpetual soon-to-be-done grad student, except the situation was a little more complicated.  Considering how bad the job market was, having a chance to teach self-designed courses roughly within my areas of interest definitely drew me out of my turtle mode a little bit, since that was about as much anyone could have expected.  And technically, I should’ve had more of a sense of authority teaching my courses, as a Ph.D. adjunct that most of the students couldn’t distinguish from a tenure-track prof — a lot of ’em didn’t know the difference, and it’s too convoluted to explain it anyway.

But I  couldn’t shake the feeling of “you’re still here?”, even if it was internalized more than anything and I was the only one thinking that thought.  Somewhere along the way, I figured out the easiest way to not feel like “you’re still here” is to, you know, not be there, whether I made that decision by personal choice or by a matter of circumstance.  Whatever the case, I probably had my last first day of school and I didn’t even know it…

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