20 Years In

I taught my first class as a professor in the fall of 1999. As I enter class today, this will begin my 21st year as a professor (my first class as a teacher was in fall of 1994, so that’s 25 years ago, not 20 but whatever). Undergrad and grad school were 10 years combined for me. This feels like a long time. Everything I can say to describe the feeling sounds like a useless cliché, or just a jumble of confused emotions (which would be correct).

Lots has changed since I walked into my University of Pittsburgh office sometime in August 1999 and found an “officially up to date” computer with no sound card (they weren’t wrong in terms of most professors’ needs at the time), and an unplugged 300 baud modem. I don’t have a scientifically accurate sample of how students have changed over the years, since I spent my early career at mid-level public US institutions and am now at a fancier Canadian institution, with all that implies. What I can say is the politics have shifted mightily, and contrary to all the whinging about millennials (I don’t think this year’s entering class even are millennials) the students are an absolute joy to work with. They’re serious, engaged, and ready to talk about complex and difficult stuff. In the 1990s people warned us new teachers about not mentioning the word feminism as it would turn the students off. Well that particular problem no longer exists, at least in media studies courses.

I always joked that my career goal was to get to “graduate student,” minus the poverty and angst. I am still happiest doing the intellectual parts of the job: conversations with colleagues about their ideas; conversations with students about their ideas; reading and writing and workshopping my ideas; doing research. It is also often a challenge preserving those parts of the job against the bureaucratic-paper-pusher-middle-management part of being a professor, which seems to grow each year as well. My own goal now is simply to focus as much as possible on the good or at least meaningful stuff and try and give less energy to the rest (especially now that I am acutely aware that I have limits in that regard).

If you know anything about the current politics of university, you should be able to tell from this entry that mine is a case of tremendous privilege, both in a global and in an institutional sense. So today, I’m taking a moment to be grateful both for the experience I’ve had, and for the positive role that higher education can play in the lives of the students who pass through our classrooms on the way to other things. That’s one of the main reasons we professors do what we do.