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What Teaching Again Taught Me

This week I finished teaching a 6-week course, I’m in the middle of teaching another 6-week block of another and I’ve had a few ad-hoc workshops around that too. And after what turned out to be an almost full year away from teaching for the first time in a decade, and the general 2020-ness of everything else I realised how important teaching is to me. 

First and foremost let me preface this with a caveat- this is about both general importance of teaching to me and a very specific type of teaching-optional learning for adults. It is not about the frankly astounding and astoundingly difficult job my colleagues in schools and Universities are doing. To my school teacher colleagues; you are heroes as much as our health workers and you deserve 100 times more recognition. To my colleagues in Universities; you deserve better. Honestly, I’ve got nothing more for you, you deserve so much better than what you VCs and the media are giving you, and I see you, I support you. 

Even with the difficulties, the insurmountably ridiculous situation my colleagues in formal education are facing, I think there’s a thing we’d all agree on right now; just how important education is now, more than ever. The times we’re up against socially, politically, personally, education offers us so much in all its forms. And I include myself as a teacher in that also.  

The teaching I have done then, truly has been a highlight of my 2020, but also very much saved my sanity, my sense of purpose. But also gave me so much more than I imagined. 

I didn’t realise how much I missed being able to quite simply, talk about things that matter to me. And I found that difficult at first too, the idea that ‘nobody cares about that’ when I’m about to do a deep dive into something, or find weird links across a variety of things that make sense when I finally get to the point I promise. A year out, and only very occasionally being able to nerd out with friends (or bore my Mother) I had forgotten that is my job when I’m teaching. That people (for the most part) want to listen to that information, they’re here for the detail. I also forgot that the reason we’re here is that I’m an ‘expert’ in the thing I’m teaching (I use quotation marks because my Imposter Syndrome really doesn’t like it when I do otherwise). 

But what I also remembered in teaching is, I have things to say. And things that might be useful, or make a difference, or at least be diverting or occasionally funny to people (have I mentioned my teaching career is really a substitute for one in Stand Up Comedy?). In teaching my LGBTQ+ literature course in particular I realised how much I have to say, which reminded me of my love of research, but also the joy in sharing it. 

It’s no secret I’ve had the confidence knocked out of me time and time again by academia. I frequently call myself a ‘failed academic’ and I kind of stand by that label. I haven’t succeeded by any of the traditional measures of our profession. I haven’t secured a job in a University, I’ve never published in a journal, I haven’t spoken at a conference in four years (after an experience that left me so traumatised I never wanted to go back). I veer between wondering if I’m just not clever enough for that world, or if I’m just really bad at playing their game. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t lost the love for the things that drew me to it- learning and sharing learning. Maybe I’ve just needed to find another way to do it. I first trained as a teacher 10 years ago, that wasn’t the right fit either (and people seem to disregard my teacher training as another failure too…) but I am a good teacher, and I do love it.

And I was nervous about returning to teaching, especially virtually. There were times I didn’t think I could do it. There were days when I had full-blown anxiety attacks before teaching. And every time if anyone could see me the first few minutes before class I’m watching one of my tried and tested ‘calm yourself down’ youtube videos. There’s also an added vulnerability to teaching online. I’m without an armour of my teaching clothes and make up in the same way. But also the physical envirnoment- teaching is more than just the words I’m speaking as we all know, and I’m a drama person, I talk with my hands, with props…sometimes interpretive dance. And inviting people into your home essentially to do it too, is weirdly disarming too ‘don’t judge my books, oh yes that’s a penguin stuff toy, don’t mind the sirens outside it’s all kicking off.’ It throws us all off, it’s all very artificial. But also it felt the most authentic thing I’d done all year. I found myself being really honest about things I loved, didn’t (Normal People, Call Me By Your Name we’re looking at you) and about things I didn’t know. After a while talking from my spare room felt oddly comfortable too.

But returning to teaching, especially now, having lost my job and been forced like many of us to think about what we ‘really want’. What I didn’t want was more of the same way I’d been living, or the same jobs, but having felt like I’d failed at the one thing I loved …I was feeling even more despondent at where that left me. So this timing, this remembering how passionate I am about learning, sharing and just about knowledge. And teaching adults, who want to learn for ‘fun’ really reminded me why I love this. 

I always think I’m a bit of a weirdo to be so passionate about things. To paraphrase something I heard at a conference (back when I used to go to such things) about people who are inclined towards being ‘fans’ of things, they asked the question ‘well what do other people think about’ and I feel that way about being passionate about (and ok nerdy about) the things I’m passionate about, in my research, my teaching, my writing…what DO normal people think about? But I also have this ceaseless desire to share that with people. And I get that not every particular deep dive of nicheness in my head is one that needs to be shared. But then there’s also, the idea that we all bring a particular nicheness to what we do and that’s where the…magic happens? to paraphrase Harper’s final monologue in Angels in America  ‘I saw something only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things’ and without any sense of ego, just that maybe one of these weird intersections of knowledge is worth sharing, either in teaching or elsewhere. 

But teaching adults, who just want to learn for fun, and teaching them in a pandemic, insolation, taught me the value of sharing knowledge. But also the community element of sharing knowledge. For two hours a week we came together and talked about books. It is of course an immense privilege to be able to do that, and of that I’m also mindful. But also, maybe for some of us also a mental health necessity. Either it gave us an escape, something else to think about, or it gave us other people/community for a moment that week, or it gave something to go away and do- read a book, an article, watch a film. Anything really to hang onto in all this. And that felt important too. 

I found myself growing really philosophical more than once. Teaching AIDS literature, for the first time since…all this…teaching Larry Kramer for the first time since his death, I found emotional and difficult, but it felt important to talk about. In my final class predictably I got passionate talking about Angels in America. We talked about travelling to the Bethesda Fountain, and how pilgrimages of literature in the real world mean something. And that felt important right now. I talked about my career and how Angels shaped it and that we all have to be, to quote myself ‘a bit ballsy’ sometimes. I didn’t think my silly stories would have an impact but apparently they did. And finally, as we talked about Angels thinking about where we all are right now, in that moment saying to a group huddled around laptops in their homes, because we can’t be in a classroom sharing this, talking about my favourite Kushner quote ‘there is an ethical obligation to hope’ and reminding everyone, as Angels tells us, that  ‘The world only spins forward’ seemed like an important thing to say, even if only a handful of people are there to hear it. 

And that session reminded me why teaching is so much more than ticking off weeks or texts, or theorists. It’s about coming together and experiencing something. And yes that’s pretentious and full of my own importance, but also, I think it’s true. For this, for my writing classes right now, it’s as much about the act of learning as what we learn. I’m not testing anyone on the books, or their writing, but they’re doing it anyway. And that’s powerful and important. 

And for me as a teacher, and as a person, it came at a time I needed it. Ten years ago I trained as a teacher and it’s never left me. It’s always been what I’m best at. I’ve just never found the right fit for where. This sort of thing seems to be. 

But beyond that, I think like many of us, locked at home, without a job, I’ve struggled with ‘and what now’ that’s bigger than this of course. But that reminder of what I do, what I’m good at, and more importantly what I love through teaching has really saved me this year. My students laugh, and rightly so at the strange tangents my brain takes me, and therefore us on. We would get through a LOT more actual textual analysis if my brain was more…linear. The weird connections I make, or side stories I tell, but I think it’s just because there’s a lot up there…a lot of nonsense for sure but also some useful stuff. All this has made me want to share that again, I have, at last count 3 more book proposal ideas, some random article ideas…and I feel like I’m sort of falling into who I am again. 

More importantly, I can’t wait for a chance to teach again. It’s not ideal, Zoom is very much not the one. I miss being able to properly talk to students. I miss being able to see their reactions properly (Yes, I’m a needy teacher, I need to hear them pity-laugh at my jokes). I miss being in a room with them for sure. But also I will continue to give anyone who wants to learn a chance to however we can. And that helps me just as much them too.

There’s a sister post to this, that I also went back to studying, just a little myself too. And how much that has informed my thinking on teaching, but also on my own ‘journey’ or however we want to put this with my life, my career and all that that entails. That learning deserves its own post for other reasons.

None of this comes with a magic wand of ‘oh great you’re a teacher and a real academic now’ none of it is the solutions to my failed academic problems or my unemployment problems. But I think in these weird times, a reminder of what you’re good at, and what you love, is an important thing. To steal another Angels quote ‘You’ll find, my friend, that what you love, will take you places you never dreamed you’d go’

Putting it out there in this post as a footnote…I’ve had a crazy idea for a while for a series of online lectures/discussions from academics and other experts on…just about anything we can think of, the things we want to nerd out about, and want a platform to do it on, and share with anyone who wants to learn. If you’d want to listen, or want to be part of it…let me know. 

By Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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