Anxious Pedagogies

These are my prepared remarks for MLA18 Panel 202: Anxious Pedagogies - Negotiating Precarity and Insecurity in the Classroom. Please join us if you're in NYC on Friday morning, bright and early!

I dedicate these remarks to Miranda, to Margaret Mary, to Robert Ryan, to all the adjuncts and contingent faculty who literally gave their lives and lived much more anxious pedagogies than many of us can imagine. These are the three names I know and can speak, but there are countless others who suffer and (yes) die in silence, without health insurance, without financial security, without a voice.

I want to extend a welcome to all of you here today, and not because it’s an 8:30am panel the night after departmental cash bars. No, I welcome you to this panel because you recognize the state of your students, your institution, your colleagues, these states of anxiety and insecurity. Maybe you are even feeling it yourself. Welcome. Welcome to a state that your colleagues and students have long experienced. Thank you for finally noticing. Welcome to the state of higher education that has existed right under your noses for decades.

My pedagogies have always been anxious, and not just because I have been diagnosed with anxiety, although living with an invisible disability is a part of it. As a student, I lived through food insecurity, sexual harassment and stalking, and abuse, on top of studying in a second language. I have taught contingently for the majority of my career, as a non US-citizen. I have primarily taught students who are defined in one way or another as “non-traditional”. I have had students who have left young children with family to pursue their degrees, who lived in their cars, who had immediate family incarcerated, who are sole caretakers for their families, who struggled with addiction, who came back from war and are living with PTSD, who are the only one in their family who can speak English...The list goes on.

We all came to university with one thought in mind: Education was going to save us. In the face of all the other anxieties, education was the hope. I knew what had to be overcome in order to even set foot in my classroom, let alone succeed. It’s what Tressie McMillan Cottom has called “the education gospel” and we believed in it fiercely, however imperfectly. If I stayed in higher education, if I keep staying in higher education, it’s because I still believe in this gospel. I naively still cling to the belief that I can make a difference in a student’s life, in the face of systemic and systematic obstacles thrust in our way.

My current area of research is around affect and how that impacts our work as educators more generally, but as what is loosely referred to as “faculty developers” more specifically. Anxiety is just one of those emotions we as educators are dealing with, both our own and our students’. Another one is love. I think those two things are closely related, as we feel the most anxiety around those things and people we love the most. We worry about the immediate and uncertain futures, not in the abstract, but the concrete as we attach it to something or someone we have a deep investment in wanting to see successful.

I was struck recently when I read a piece by educator Kiese Laymon:

I loved my job. I loved going to work and I understood the first week of school that it was impossible to teach any student you despised. A teacher’s job was to responsibly love the students in front of them.

As I was trying to find the article again in order to write these remarks, I misremembered the quote and reversed it, instead searching for “you can’t teach who you don’t love”. Unsurprisingly, I am not the first to think of this:

In higher education, for a long time, we believed instead that we couldn’t teach WHAT we didn’t love. Who was sitting in front of us was immaterial; it was WHAT we taught and how we felt about it that mattered. And I think we see that in how we expressed our anxieties: around disciplinary boundaries, funding, the future of X, the creation of Y, and even when we talk about “students” as some sort of amorphous monolith that didn’t understand or appreciate the greatness of what we were teaching. Here lies the traditional sources of anxiety for some faculty, often the ones who control the narrative around higher education.

Adjuncts, of course, turned that notion on its head and proved that you could teach what you didn’t love if you in fact loved your students instead. Thrown in front of classes to teach a topic we were only tenuously connected to, insofar as we had enough graduate credits hours to satisfy accreditation requirements. Instead, we loved the students. Not uniformly or evenly or perfectly, but as individuals within a system that we were all beginning to recognize as being oppressive and exploitative. Our anxieties weren’t concerned with disciplinary battles, but instead with getting a job, paying bills, survival, and then, hopefully, being able to thrive.

We loved the students in the face of being told we were less-than, that we were expendable, that we were failures. In the face of holding multiple jobs to make ends meet. In the face of our lack of health insurance. In the face of delayed, forestalled, lost, missing, paperwork and pay.

I’ll never forget the fear I felt when paperwork was delayed and delayed and delayed and I didn’t get paid, didn’t have health insurance, and was pregnant with my second child, with the first one at home with her dad, not even two. How would we eat? Was this child I was growing even ok? To those who immediately dismiss my story as bad planning, personal choice, or foolishness, I say, this is nothing I haven’t heard before, from colleagues, from strangers on the internet, from friends, from family, from a college president. Where is your empathy? Where is your sense of solidarity? How is your anxiety clouding your ability to empathize with someone else’s?

Also, this was in a tenure-track position.

It is impossible to teach any student you despise. You can’t teach who you don’t love. Can you learn from someone you despise? This impacts my work now as a faculty developer even more acutely.

How do I extend the love and empathy I showed and still show my students to faculty, faculty who dismissed my own anxieties, my own precarity, my own experience and expertise. Faculty who actively shame, dismiss, demean, belittle students and staff and contingent faculty. My pedagogy and my anxiety has shifted, because I worry about my own perceived lesser position as staff, precarious in a new and different way. But I also now struggle sometimes to find a new way to love, a new point of commonality, a new path to empathy required to do my job effectively.