Friday, January 28, 2005

The First Day of Class

After 18 months (exactly) of searching for a job, and 3 months, 2 weeks and 5 days of unemployment, I finally have a job that actually pays my rent, a job as an Adjunct Professor of Science. Of course, if I plan to eat or wash my clothes or ride the subway, I must support those habits by being paid to do a variety of other things, such as pet sitting or tutoring or freelance writing, but for now, I am grateful for this job.

As I rode the subway home last night after my first day at my job, I found myself in the company of hundreds of excited and hopeful college students. It appears that yesterday was the first day of the academic semester for many colleges and universities in NYC. I closed my eyes for a few moments to enjoy my almost overwhelming feeling of satisfaction, of joy, of belonging. For months, I have doubted my value as a scientist, as an intellectual, and as a person and I was certain that my academic and research lives were forever lost to me. I was nearly ready to write a resume full of fiction and send that off to the many temp agencies in NYC in search of a mind- and soul-sucking "survival job" so I would have some way to mark time before my eventual death.

But a single phone call cut through my depression and changed it all. It was almost as if an alarm clock had awakened me from a nightmare so I could discover that my meaningful life had been there all along, that it was curled up in bed next to me; comforting, warm, real. As I sat on the subway last night, I felt this fierce, powerful conviction that I had rediscovered my true home: Academe. It's been a long time.

It was so abstract that I was afraid to believe it was true, so I'll say it again, I HAVE A JOB!

As you probably have guessed, yesterday evening was the first day of my anatomy and physiology class. It was the lab portion of the class (the photo on the cover of the lab text is how I feel right now). Despite the fact that last night was our first meeting, the lab went well and I managed to teach the students how to use microscopes without anyone destroying anything.

I arrived on campus several hours early so I could locate and inspect my classroom and talk with the people who set up the lab for me (CLTs -- Certified Laboratory Technicians?). Prior to this, I had spent hours trying to decide how many lab exams to have, the percentage of the total lab grade that each exam is worth, and how to account for other things such as lab reports, attendance and "lab technique" (basically, this is how I hold each student accountable for cleaning up after themselves, for personal conduct, etc.). I finally decided that I would never devise the perfect grading scheme, but what I had written down seemed good enough to start with, at least.

Surprisingly, when my students arrived, I was not nervous even though "stage fright" (or perhaps terminal shyness) has been an ongoing battle throughout my life. Okay, I was just a teensy bit nervous, but my relative ease in front of my students was unique for the first day of class.

I have 27 very motivated students. They range in age from 20 to 45 or so. Two are caucasian and approximately half are immigrants and they all speak English very well. All of them are employed, either part-time or full-time. Slightly more than half of my students are male, which is unusual (in my limited experience) for classes such as these that are designed for those pursuing nursing and other medical professions, such as Physician's Assistants (PA) and respiratory therapy (should I mention that the average PA's or general duty RN's starting salary is $45,000 ($60,000 in NYC with an Associate degree, $62,000 in NYC with a BSN) -- both are bachelor's degrees -- and the average starting salary for a respiratory therapist is $34,000, while the professor with a PhD who is teaching these students their anatomy and physiology only earns enough to cover rent, if she's lucky? Oh nevermind, I get ahead of myself sometimes).

At the beginning of class, I introduced myself and told my students a little about my background (but I forgot to tell them that my own collegiate career began in a Community College, too). I told my students they can call me by my first name, but I think they are somewhat intimidated (by me? by my title? by my position?) so they all call me "Professor Owl" instead.

In spite of the fact that I grew up in a farming community where college educations were very unusual, I wanted to be a university professor for most of my life. In fact, one of my favorite words is "professor" because it has such a lovely and venerable meaning, and hearing myself addressed in this way is so powerful and evocative. When I was a TA (Teacher's Assistant) and a guest lecturer in graduate school, my students liked to address me as "Dr. Owl" or "Professor Owl". At that time, I felt very uncomfortable with this, almost as though I was promoting a fraud by prematurely accepting credit for something that I had not yet accomplished. But hearing the respect in my student's voices (almost reverence, really) last night when they addressed me as "Professor" is a verbal reminder that I've finally "made it", or so I would have thought when I was a graduate student.

But things look so very different from this side of "achievement" than they do from the other side, when I was a grad and undergrad. For example, I never thought I would be unemployed (and seemingly unemployable) after I had earned my PhD and completed a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship, nor did I EVER think I would have to seriously consider living on the streets. How could I have missed this? How?

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