I started teaching at Brooklyn College eleven years ago, in Fall 2002. Since then, I have taught a varying course-load per semester, ranging from an onerous three to a manageable two and once, a luxurious one. But I’ve never had a semester ‘off’. Till this one: Spring 2013.
Last year, anticipating the birth of my daughter, I applied for a union-negotiated paternity leave. I had two options: take eight weeks off from teaching or take two classes off. Initially, I applied for the eight week option, figuring I’d rather take a complete break to attend to childcare duties. But once I found out my assigned courseload was two classes–I had, over the course of my three-year workload cycle, taught enough credit hours to make this possible–I changed my application to the second option. I would still be on administrative duty (meetings, student advisement, programming events at the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities) but no teaching, no grading, no class preps.
A teaching-free semester is sometimes made out to be the academic’s most exalted dream, a chance to pursue one’s research undisturbed by the demands of pesky students and their ungradeable assignments. Well, I certainly enjoyed not having to grade papers or encountering a class that had not done assigned reading. But this semester also made me realize how much I miss teaching.
Most straightforwardly, I missed those things that are the lifeblood of teaching: the interaction with students’ questions and responses; the acquisition of a new perspective on supposedly familiar material: the pleasurable learning of new material; the encounters with the varied backgrounds and inclinations of a diverse student body (especially at Brooklyn College). And the intellectual awards of teaching extend and reach beyond the hours directly spent teaching and preparing for lectures. For instance, I often find myself thinking hard–perhaps while walking to and fro from my office or riding a train–about how to explain a difficult passage in the assigned readings. At these moments, I am confronted with the realization that an argument or a concept that I thought understood quite well, needs instead, further clarification before I could explicate to someone else.
But most central in the blessings of teaching regularly, I think, is the ferment that the acts of teaching and preparing philosophical material generate in my mind; I learn new connections to philosophical doctrines not on the syllabus, of course, but also to other material that I might be reading. That is, teaching primes my mind to critically engage with all I read and write, not just the material I teach.
My academic work came to a standstill this semester; I did very little reading; I did very little writing; I was often exhausted and sleepless and distracted, and I did not have as much contact with my colleagues at Brooklyn College as I might have had in a regular semester, so this failure to perform is perhaps not too surprising. But a significant contributing factor was the absence of the classroom experience.
Next year, I’m on sabbatical. An interesting challenge lies ahead.