Does It Make Sense to Spend One’s Life Teaching?

Exit by Freaktography (CC BY-NC-ND 2014)

“The academy is no longer an investment of time worth making,” Oliver Lee declares. Why not? While claiming “there’s no one single problem,” his essay pivots around a pair of central concerns. His school didn’t invest adequately in his students’ learning. Neither did his students. Lee’s best friend sat in on one of Lee’s lectures only to be distracted by a student watching Breaking Bad in class. Afterward, the friend asked, “Why aren’t you doing something meaningful with your life?” When Lee couldn’t convince himself of an answer, he quit teaching.

Although his essay has its problems—in pedagogy and public policy—Lee asks and has found his own answer to a question all teachers should ask: Are we doing something meaningful with our lives by teaching? If not, we can find some other work to do. If so, we can remind ourselves of why.

Michael K. Potter argues that the very “foundations” of modern higher education are set against meaningful learning. For instance, while learning requires slowing down, graduating requires hurrying up. Such contradictions shadow everything teachers and students do.

I find Potter’s analysis almost as bleak as Lee’s, yet far more helpful. While Lee and Potter would both like to dismantle the foundations of higher education, only Potter envisions building new ones. But Potter leads me to ask the same thing as Lee. In a short essay I wrote a few years back in the International Journal for Scholarship on Teaching and Learning—which I am writing this post to share with you—I respond to Potter by posing the following questions:

  1. Does Potter describe contemporary higher education accurately?
  2. What can we do to bring about the depth and breadth of reform Potter calls for?
  3. Can such reform even be accomplished?
  4. Can we do meaningful work in teaching and learning without reform?
  5. Weighing the obstacles against the possibilities, does it make sense to spend one’s life teaching and working for reform?

Perhaps you will enjoy reading the full essay. Whether you read it or not, perhaps you will find these questions worth pondering. Perhaps you will share your own answers.

Photo of exit photo by Freaktography (CC BY-NC-ND, 2014).

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4 responses to “Does It Make Sense to Spend One’s Life Teaching?

  1. I feel a bit strange stepping into this discussion since I’m no longer in academia and have no plan to return to it, but I think my reasoning for that decision may provide a different way to approach the question. I share the critiques and frustrations of these writers, and I agree with much of your analysis. But none of that has to do with why I left. In an otherwise mediocre film, Morgan Freeman plays a character who says at one point “You do what you are.” Another characters responds, “You mean you are what you do.” And he corrects her, saying our actions don’t determine our identity but are expressions of it. There are things I loved about teaching and sometimes miss; I do believe that even in the screwed up settings where I worked, I did some good, I engaged some students, I helped some become better writers. But teaching was never the thing I *had* to do to be fulfilled. For me, writing is that thing. Even if I’m never a “success,” when I’m not writing I’m not content; I’m lost. So I would answer the question of whether teaching is worth it with another question: When you teach, are you doing what you are? Is it something you can’t *not* do? Because if it’s something you must do, then you’ll find a way to do something meaningful, however limited that is by the flaws in the system. Every kind of work has its flaws and frustrations, its compromises, its bullshit and toxicity. Believe me, writing certainly does. I walked away from teaching because I could. I walked toward writing because I couldn’t walk away, whatever the cost. I wonder what teaching would be like if *only* the people who couldn’t walk away, only the people who *had* to do it, were left. Not the career builders, not those who loved the subject but couldn’t care less about the students, not the administrative climbers, not the people just looking for a steady gig to support what they really want to do, not the people going through the motions. Some of those folks may be and are effective teachers. But what would it look like if the vast majority of people teaching weren’t just people who teach but people who *are* teachers? Because if you’re that kind of person, I think the answer to your titular question is obvious, even when it’s not easy to live out. My two cents.

    • M.A., thanks for this great comment. I am so glad you get to do what you are “are.” I imagine that a lot of people feel that their work does fulfill or correspond to some deep, inner part of themselves (or do not and wish to find work that does). But I also wonder whether that is universal. I imagine many people could choose among various tasks that they could put their hands to and do well and be fulfilled through that. Then again, I’m also thinking of those for whom this whole conversation seems superfluous, since they do not really have much choice in terms of switching (or finding) work. Again, thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. I think you’re right that some might feel fulfilled in a variety of occupations and that others have no choice about work and have to take what they can get to survive. But I don’t know how much people in either of those groups speak to your initial question about whether a life spent teaching (particularly in higher ed) is worthwhile. The question itself implies, correctly I think, that those who teach in higher ed *do* have choices. And my point is that we might all be better served if we each thought about “worthwhile” less externally (what “should” I do or how much good can I do or can I change the system) and more internally (is this really what I’m called to do, what the one life I have is meant to be about). I’m suggesting that is we’re going to talk about whether something is worthwhile, we should consider carefully *how* we define worthwhile.

    • Another fine comment, M.A. Yes, I suppose the post really does imply mostly people who have choices. And I do very much like the idea of a sense of a “call.” I know that a lot of people experience that (or do not) with respect to teaching and find it sustaining. Also, I very much like your distinction between internal and external worthwhiles. I do think plent of folks get be stuck (and feel it as “stuck”) doing work because it’s externally important even while it’s not personally fulfilling. At the same time, I imagine that the internal and external are connected for many folks. Perhaps to put too little nuance on it, I feel good when I’m doing good, and I don’t when I’m not.

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