The Broad is Back!

February 5, 2013

Americans are getting to me

Walking home from class today, I realized that I was in trouble. I’ve been saying “Americans” a lot. As in “Americans are strange,” “Americans are screwed up,” and “I don’t get Americans sometimes.” This worries me because as my friend has pointed out, “Sweetie, you are American.” And this is my trouble. I’m starting to feel very alienated in my own country.

It might be because this term I have had two Europeans in my class, reminding me of what I left behind, but I don’t think that’s it.  This has been building. The sorry state of my profession in this country has been eating at me for a while.

I went to the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) annual conference in January. The MLA is my professional organization, and to hear modern language professors from all over America discussing the de-professionalization of the profession, the overuse of “contingent labor” (that’s a pretty phrase for underpaid part-time workers, mostly without benefits, who are the mainstay of college faculties all over the country), and the alarmingly poor job market, well, let’s just say I realized I should have gone to law school. Or med school. Or done anything else.

Alternately, I could be a literature professor and be well paid and respected. I just have to leave America. Again.

I think this might be part of my problem. I’m gearing up to leave again.  It’s not set in stone that I’m leaving, but I’m definitely looking at options. In order to leave, I have to remember all the things that bother me about America in order to make the leaving easier.

And I have to say, after five years back, I’ve had a good long look at the fruits of American education. The majority of students I have in class are truly not prepared for the work they are expected to do in college, so I spend my days teaching 6th-10th grade level skills.

I still teach one course a term in Sweden, and my student exams from that course are often better than the papers I get from my native students.  This breaks my heart.  It’s not that I begrudge my Swedish students their skills. But I am brokenhearted that what was once one of the top educational systems in the world is now broken. It’s not broken beyond repair, but I honestly believe the entire system needs to be dismantled and then rebuilt.

But even if we did that, it still wouldn’t work. Our society is broken, as well. There is precious little respect for teachers and education in this country. Oh, we say we respect teachers, but ask any teacher, at any level, and listen to what he or she thinks of the respect we receive. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Yeah, right.  People laugh, but they think that. We’re either inspired selfless zealots who teach to change the world, or we’re losers who can’t make it elsewhere.

Granted, I teach in New York City, mostly in community colleges, so I’m not getting the top of the high school classes, but I’ve taught at “big name” schools here in New York City, as well, and frankly, I’m not impressed.  So I’m back at the community college because I have a union supporting me (I’m part of the contingent labor force), and at least I think I’m making a big difference in people’s lives.  Whatever gets you through the night, right?

So maybe alienated isn’t the right word. I’m angry. I’m angry with the state of my profession, the students’ lack of preparation, the full-time salaries being offered that won’t even support me in New York City, the seeming waste of my education.  But I’m alienated, as well. How can I live in a country that thinks like this? How can something so precious, education, be so disregarded?

Hopefully, this is the beginning of me doing some serious writing about American society. I feel a strong need to write, to chronicle what is happening.  American education is on the edge of a huge change.  Thomas L. Friedman’s essay in the New York Times last week, “Revolution Hits the Universities” sparked much discussion with my co-workers, and that’s just the beginning. The Broad is back, but for how long? I spent 13 years out of America. Was that too long? Is it time for the Broad to be Abroad again?  Time can only tell.

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