As my semester is winding down, I am mentally reviewing the class that I taught this semester. It is loads more fun to review my lecture notes, slides, and activities than to read papers or prepare for the final. I have been teaching for 47 years; I think I would like to make it to 50. I have worked on and off at the university even longer, starting in food service in the cafeteria at age 18.
In my time at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, I have worked as a dishwasher, kitchen assistant, undergraduate student, student advisor, graduate student, consultant, fellow, and instructor. I have taught school psychology, educational psychology, and community/social psychology. I have also held appointments at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in psychiatry and family medicine. I have also been the founding administrator of a joint health care and university center.
All of this history, these jobs, have brought me relationships with scores of other instructors, staff, assistant/associate/full professors, administrators, chairs, vice-chairs, assistant deans, and deans. I have had well over 1,000 students in my classes as well as nearly 250 medical residents. Other than my four years as an undergraduate student, all of this involvement with the University has been part-time.
I recall a time in the 1980s when my late friend Larry was in the graduate theater program at UWM. At first I was mystified and then later envious of the academic community that his program had developed. Some of his peers and faculty socialized with each other; some worked on plays together off campus. But more than socializing or working, his program built a cohort of students in acting, production, and performance that comprised community. They knew themselves to be part of something larger than the sum of their individual relationships. That knowledge seemed at once valuable and costly to me.
For the past ten years or so I have felt increasingly distant from most of my university peers. The majority of the other academic staff are 10 or more years younger than I. The educators at the university who are not faculty are vital to making the enterprise work. We teach the undergraduate classes at lower per pupil costs so that faculty can do research, academic administration, graduate education, and program design among other things. This is a reasonable way to do our business. But it does not foster community.
Recently my more familiar colleagues on faculty have been leaving because of the erosion of tenure, wage freezes, and budget cuts in all programs. The importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has overshadowed social sciences, arts, and humanities, and faculty in those departments seem increasingly remote. My closest colleagues are office workers in departments because they have weathered many shifts in the winds of higher education.
I write these things not with a sense of disappointment, but rather as a description of my experience in higher education.
This confining experience, however, does not extend to my work with students. Like most academic staff, I have my share of disinterested and flailing students. Some semesters, there is even one or two of whom I am glad to see leave. Still, in my classes of 40 students there are always gems — young people who want to learn, find the vulnerability to do so, and challenge me to think and grow. Semester after semester I find students who are not just in school, but learners. On the way to the final exam, they talk with one another, their families, and their friends about psychology, oppression, acceptance, readiness, love, identity, expression, and research.
In a week, I will no longer be the teacher of the students I have this semester. However, I will be their former teacher for as long as they are alive. We have done something that is bigger than the sum of the people in class would have predicted. We built community.