Since this is a first-year class, most of you are new to the university this fall. It’s very exciting. You have profound personal and intellectual growth ahead of you. I’ve wasted my adult years teaching and writing, activities certified by schools like this one, paid for with government-sponsored debt, and I’m here to guide you.
Today, we’re going over the syllabus as quickly as possible to acquaint you with what matters versus what appears on the document as teacher talk. I’m going to ask you to take a selfie on my iPad, which I will use to take attendance, and that way I can learn your faces. From where I’m standing there are too many faces. Your tuition keeps going up, I still make a laughable salary, yet they continue to cram more of you into my classes. I suspect the people who run this place think of me as a sucker, the one-born-every-minute kind, and I’ll soon be replaced. Not all of your teachers are treated with this level of indifference: not the ones who wear ties and jackets and volunteer for every non-teaching-activity they can find, and not the celebrated ones you won’t encounter until you’ve nearly graduated — they’re paid quite well by any standard and they teach fewer classes with fewer of you in them — they also happen to be the people who have treated me, your humble contingent professor, more disrespectfully than anyone. You see, in order to justify the perks the elites of this university have always received, they need to think of themselves as better than me. They went to better schools, wrote more important pages, and are all-around better teacher-persons. Approach them with caution. You can learn a lot from them, but they will use your youth against you, and they need to be able to set the tone of every interaction. They know nothing about the murky job searches you’ll be tossing yourselves into, which I’ll be joining you in, though your prospects will be better than mine. I’ll be forty-eight and I’ve only ever been a teacher. If I’m doing something other than waiting tables next year it will be thanks to some great cosmic accident and by no agency of my own. But enough about me, let’s get down to some of the bare bones of our time here together.
This is a paperless classroom so all of your assignments will come in via email. I’m using a Gmail account because your essays need to come in as PDF files and, as I’ve noted, there are far too many of you and all those files will overwhelm my university email account. The Gmail syncs better with my iPhone and iPad, and it’s searchable — all things the university didn’t think about when purchasing an email service. Technically, it’s against university policy for me to ask you to send work to me on a private email account, but that’s one of many policies that we will ignore. There are other ways I could run a paperless classroom, but they are more labor-intensive and I’m not a fan of making needless extra work for myself, so we’re beginning this endeavor by breaking rules. I hope you are okay with that. You can break rules too, though you should probably run it by me first.
This is my last year at this university and very likely my last year of teaching, not because of anything I’ve done, but because of the nature of my contract. I’ve been in a multi-year non-renewable post, and my time here has run out. They are escorting me out of the building. It will take a year before they get me out the door, however, so I’m not going quietly. I have good references from colleagues who will recommend me for other teaching jobs, but frankly, nobody really wants a teacher with as much experience as I’ve got. They like new teachers to be new: bright-eyed, energetic, and with a recently-purchased wardrobe from Ann Taylor.
You may have noticed that there’s a required textbook on the syllabus and if you visited the university bookstore you saw there was a vast pile of them in direct proportion to those of you sitting here. If you bought one already, I applaud your ambition, but I’m going to ask you to please take it back. If you didn’t buy the textbook yet, please don’t. That is $80 you can use however you please. The line on the syllabus about the “required” textbook is for the director of composition, who isn’t technically my boss, but he does exert his influence on us here and there, and it will make him happy to think we’re using one of the textbooks he has reviewed and approved for us to buy and carry around. He’s also the one who wrote the paragraphs on the syllabus that we’ll be skipping over. He’s an expert on classes like ours. So much so that he’s fallen for the idea that a textbook is going to help you learn to write. I’m a writer and I know a lot of writers. None of us learned to write by using a textbook. No one ever did. In fact, if you think of yourself as a not-very-good writer then reading about writing from a textbook is probably going to alienate you and make you feel even worse about writing. So we’re not using one, but only because I’m not coming back next year and I no longer need to keep the director of composition happy.
Do I need to repeat any of that? Is there any confusion about not buying the textbook? Good. We will read essays from professional writers and from my former students who have allowed me to show you the work they did in a class just like this one. But it won’t cost anything. We have access to millions of current articles electronically through the library database services, and we have the Web. All the resources we need to engage with the debates of our time are available to us for free, and once I’ve shown you how to use them, I expect you to actively engage in self-directed research. That’s what scholars do. And despite your being treated mostly like tenants or fitness-club members, the university does have a mission statement that jives with erudition, so we’re going to adhere to it, even if that makes us seem outdated.
Under normal circumstances I would go home and study all your selfies and I’d know your names by the next class. Unfortunately, I’m going to be in a lot of meetings throughout this first week of school, and so it may take me longer than it has in the past, but I will learn your names. Tomorrow I’ll be busy sitting with other English professors as they collectively imagine the kind of teacher-person they’d like to hire for one of the higher-paying respectable positions like theirs. Right now the most popular imaginary teacher-person they’re excited about hiring is one who writes plays. While no one is saying it, it would be extra-fabulous if the imaginary teacher-person were an African-American, or a Latina who writes plays. You can understand their excitement about this potential teacher-person. I will be doodling on my notepad while they go round and round about what else they think this non-existent teacher-person might do. My input won’t be valued and when it comes down to a final tally of the most-desired qualities in a very-important future teacher-person and esteemed colleague, I won’t be allowed to vote. They like making me come to meetings so we can all be together, but my time is going to be wasted by these self-important egotistical people, and they don’t know it yet but they’re going to have to settle when it comes to this favorite new imaginary teacher-person. Nonetheless, next year you should be able to take a playwriting class from someone who has taught playwriting classes before and/or someone who is currently writing a play, and that’s no small thing, not every school is going to be able to say that.
If you didn’t require grades for motivation we wouldn’t have to talk about them, but the grading scale and the weight of each essay assignment are spelled out on the syllabus. Let me know if you have questions. The philosophy of the class is to give you practice writing papers so that you are more familiar with the form, with the assumption that you will write papers that matter more for the esteemed professors, who also matter more. They will grade you according to their own set of criteria, and I won’t be able to help you with that. Generally, it’s a one-shot deal, with no feedback, with your grade in the course largely determined by what they think about your paper-writing skills. Meanwhile, professional writers have editors and proofreaders and they go back-and-forth on a draft before it goes out into the world a guaranteed “A.” Very few of you will go down that road so we won’t concern ourselves with the writing process as the professionals know it. You’ll be writing something else while you’re here, something harder to classify. It will help if you bury any religious or non-cosmopolitan sensibilities. It will help if you attend classes, are always on time, and don’t wear pajamas or flip-flops. It will help if your parents are financially sound, understanding, and supportive. It will help if you lose the accent and appropriate the vocabulary of someone who reads. It will help if you always smile and are good looking.
Please understand that your years here are precious. Most likely, at no other time in your life will you be afforded the luxury to read and write, or to discuss ideas for the sake of ideas. You’ve got the rest of your life to be a good employee, so try not to be too career-minded while you’re here. You’ve got the rest of your life to drink, so be wary the lure of alcoholism while you’re here.
My office hours are listed but please make an appointment if you want to come and see me. I share an office with another low-ranking teacher and we’re in the basement of the oldest most-asbestos-laden building on campus, where I won’t be sitting around waiting for you. I have very high expectations for you as human beings and no tolerance for bullshit. Pay attention and put in the effort and we should get along great.