Because Three Women Showed Me How

I wasn’t sure what college was supposed to be. Was it a mix Legally Blonde, Dead Poets Society, and my beloved Mona Lisa Smile? In my own way, I hoped that my experience as a student at Oakland University would be a combination of all of those fictions put together to form my own new truth. I wanted to be the kind of shockingly intelligent student that made friends easily like Elle Woods; I wanted the kind of professors that stood on desks and talked about how lazy the word “very” is (that would have been pretty cool and now I’m half tempted to do it—sorry future students, I’m inspired); I wanted the kind of self-actualization that comes from doing something that other women don’t or can’t, like Julia Roberts’ character. I wanted to be it all.

I sat in my car in front of Wilson Hall on the first day of classes in on a beautiful September morning. The human health building didn’t exist yet, the clock tower might have been a thought, but it definitely wasn’t a reality, “they” showed movies off the side of O’Dowd, parking was still the one thing that nightmares run from, and I was ready to be a college student. My first class was an 8:00 writing class and I was one part excited and the other part scared to death. I had high school friends that were at O.U. also, but none of us signed up for the same classes and I wasn’t all that upset about it. I was there to do my thing, whatever that thing would be.

I worked up the courage to get out of my car at about 7:45. I’d been sitting there since 7:15 and the nerves were working me up a bit. I straightened my perky mega blonde ponytail, made sure my t-shirt wasn’t wadded up and making me look like a dork, and flip-flopped my way into Wilson, and as cheesy as it may sound, Oakland University flip flopped its way into my heart of hearts. That’s not to say I didn’t have my fair share of college stress. Just say the words: “political science 372” and I’ll break out in hives. But overall, O.U. became my second home, and it still is.

I remember what it felt like to walk into my first college class like it was yesterday, and to this day I still feel that same jittery excitement as I walk in, but the flip-flop is now on the other foot.

I never took a class that really “taught” me how to teach. I took professional development once I decided to teach at the collegiate level, but I didn’t have the same formal training as my friends and colleagues that teach K-12 did. Instead, I modeled my teaching style after those that I learned from.

During my sophomore year, I had a chance to study modern literature with Annie Gilson. I remember meeting Annie and she encouraged me to apply to become a member of Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society on campus, and I did. We’d spoken at a few English department events, and I am lucky to have had her early in my undergraduate career.

She came in on the first day and was the most enthusiastic professor I’d ever seen. She was happy to be there! And how cool! She sat on the desk! I don’t know what kind of world I was living in before that day, but I’d never seen a professor sit on the desk. She was (and remains) unassuming and genuine. We were instructed to call her “Annie” and into the class we dove.

I remember reading Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains and loving every second of the class. And it was in this class that I wrote what would become my archetype: the feminist paper. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was readying myself for what would become the one aspect of critical literary theory that I understand and what would shape the ways I approach the teaching of research.

Annie encouraged me to follow my interests. When I wrote for her class, I could write about what interested me? You mean, I didn’t have to write what I thought I “should” or what my professor wanted? She was teaching me open inquiry.

From Annie, I also learned the kind of classroom presence that I wanted. I wanted to be that person that oozed excitement for my subject and modeled that for my students. I wanted to be that kind of teacher that got my students to speak up in class simply by asking them to.

I have students now that say “you get really excited to be in class” or “you genuinely care about our learning.”  I reply that it is because I am happy to be in class and I do genuinely care about their learning. But what they don’t know is that I had that shown to me when I was nineteen years old and I never forgot it. I took a piece of Annie’s teaching style and put it in my toolbox, or imprinted it on my personality, either way you want to look at it. I hope to be for my students what Annie was for me.

By the time I reached the end of my junior year, I knew I didn’t want to teach high school. My prevailing thought was: I hated high school, why do I want to spend the next thirty years there? I didn’t “really” hate high school, but whoever tells you that they are the best four years of your life is full of shit.

I decided to continue onto graduate school at Oakland because by then, I knew that I wanted to teach college. My first class was critical literary theory and I went home many nights and cried. The class scared me to death. I even uttered, “Oakland made a mistake! I’m not smart enough for this!” But I must have been because I survived, and here I am on the other side and teaching.

After I managed to make it through my first semester, I had to great fortune to meet Bailey McDaniel and take her Post-Colonial Drama and Performance class. Like Annie Gilson during my undergrad education, Bailey was also the kind of professor that I wanted to be.

She told the class about her own educational journey and was relatable! She infused her class with laughter and even made the darkest works we read something to enjoy.

As the other students and I arranged our desks in a circle, Bailey sat with us as we talked about what Post-Colonialism was and what we would be studying. I hadn’t studied plays before and I was excited to look at a new genre.

Sitting in Bailey’s class made the genre come alive! I loved coming to class every night, and even though I was exhausted from working my full-time job, I felt re-energized once I got there. Bailey was just the kind of professor that I wanted to be!

I remember writing a paper for her that I proud of today. It might be one of the only two papers from graduate school that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have my name attached to. I remember walking into Bailey’s office hours and telling her that I wanted to write about the Irish play that we studied. I was fascinated by the female theater group, so once again, I wanted to write “the feminist paper.”

Bailey’s face lit up and she encouraged me to research the play and write the paper that I wanted to write.  The takeaways from her class were these: teach your class the way you would want to be taught. Don’t talk to your students like you’re talking “at” them; talk to them like you’re talking “with” them. Encourage their research and the reasons why they are interested.

My final semester in graduate school led me to many things but one of the most important is my friendship with Andrea Knutson. I took Andrea’s class and throughout the semester, we read literature from colonial America. I’ll never forget reading Thomas Jefferson’s description of the Natural Bridge. Traveling there is on my life’s “to-do” list.

While the semester came to a close and I prepared to write my last graduate school essay, I found myself, once again, writing the feminist paper. This time, I’d set my sights on Hannah W. Foster’s The Coquette. I thought this was the best paper I would ever write and I felt smart (finally) while I was working on it. My thesis was something about ownership of the female body and for possibly the one and only time in my life, I incorporated Foucault, Rousseau, and Locke into something that made sense. I scored well on the essay and that bolstered my confidence as someone looking to begin teaching writing to others.

I was terrified to apply for teaching jobs. I knew I had the “smarts” but I had no idea how to showcase those abilities in any sort of academically relevant fashion. One day I visited Andrea’s office and asked for help.  I brought my pathetic looking resume in and we studied it together. She was the first person to introduce the words curriculum vitae to me and told me that my CV wasn’t the same thing as a beginning resume. I didn’t have to stick to one page!

We worked together for weeks getting my CV in shape. Just like writing any paper, I drafted, revised, and drafted again, then I went to see Andrea for feedback. And one day I received an e-mail. I had an interview to teach! Later that week, I had another!

I went to both interviews and landed both teaching jobs. I couldn’t believe it! I had done it! The months leading up to graduation proved taxing and without Andrea’s guidance and patience, I wouldn’t have landed my first teaching job. Before she sat with me and explained the way academic job searches work, I had no idea. I had “hi, I’m new here” stamped to my forehead.

Today, Andrea is one of my dearest friends. From teacher to mentor to friend, she has exuded endless patience and kindness. She’s been to my home and explored my weird and lovely town with me. Andrea is one of those rare friends that a person finds in an unlikely situation, like ours, first as professor/student, but is one of those friendships that has great depth and value.

Without these women: Annie, Bailey, and Andrea, I don’t know if I would even be a teacher, or the kind of teacher that I am to say the least. I had the desire to teach but these women showed me how to teach. Each of them has a style all her own and characteristics that not only make them great teachers but they are also women to look up to, to aspire to.

Now that I am in the classroom at the very same university I attended, I sometimes have to pinch myself. “Am I really here? Am I really doing this?” And the answer is yes, yes, I do. I work in a different department than the women that taught me, and I am surrounded by friends and colleagues that inspire me every day.

Today, when I walk across Oakland’s campus, I get a similar feeling to the one that the eager eighteen-year-old with the electric blonde ponytail had. I walk in to face the day, and my students, as a mental combination of Elle Woods, John Keating, and Katherine Watson.

All because three women showed me how.

 

 

 

 

Written in celebration of inspirational women and Women’s History Month.


 

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