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Faculty Chronicles: Being Present to Becoming~Professor

Earlier this week, a cool front moved through South Texas, teasing us with several days of early autumnal weather. Unlike the North (where I grew up) which usually has one final spell of warm weather before the long, dark, cold months of winter set in, I’ve learned in the South that we have this momentary break in warm weather that reminds us of a winter yet-to-come. The warm, humid weather is not really over; it will return once more before the cooler, less-humid months of winter set in, usually in mid-to-late November.

The benefits of this temporary respite are several, including the opportunity to open the windows, allowing fresh air into our homes and offices (and home offices). This morning, the air is cool, and I am enamored of feeling the gentle wind blow into my home office, enveloping me in cool calmness.  Hearing the wind-chime from my balcony adds a bit of morning musicality.  It being Saturday helps – a day that always feels less frenetic compared to the rapacious speed, fury, and frenzy of the ‘traditional’ work week.

The cooler, calmer, more cheerful weather of this time also fills me with a greater ability to be present. To reflect more deeply.  I’ve been spending a lot of time in my own head, with my own thoughts these past few weeks, and especially the past few days.

This has not been a typical start to the autumn semester. Having commenced our term on August 23, the greater South Texas region was visited by Hurricane Harvey on August 25. Like an unruly and drunk party guest, he refused to leave until August 30.  Universities were closed; people’s lives have been upended. It has been a confusing and disruptive time for everyone involved.  I know our colleagues in Florida will soon experience a level of displacement and up-endedness to their lives that we can’t quite imagine. It will materialize into our collective consciousness soon enough.

This semester, I’m co-teaching an undergraduate course called “Understanding Whiteness: Historic and Contemporary Views on White Privilege.”  One important skill my colleague and I are attempting to instill in students is that of being critically observational; or, put another way, being present.  Understanding how whiteness and privilege perpetuate and proliferate in society requires a level of acute awareness increasingly difficult in our modern culture and society.  This is most true for white people. In class, we’ve guided students through several activities to hone their observation skills of everything from the physical environment to the digital environment.  The question we will continuously unpack is how is whiteness and privilege manifested in our day-to-day lives.  Where do we observe it? How can we dismantle it? This conversation goes beyond events like Charlottesville; egregious as this example of white supremacy is, we are hoping to help students discover whiteness and privilege in everyday life.  This is whiteness, privilege, and supremacy are perpetuated – in the everyday.

Being Present to Becoming~Professor

I’m using this idea of ‘being present’ to think about other topics that unfold in the every day.  Earlier this week I said aloud to myself: “I am a college professor.”  Awkward though this may seem, I do not believe I have ever truly let this sink in since starting my role at Sam Houston State University two years ago.  The ‘identity’ or ‘label’ of being a college professor comes with a long history of baggage, privilege, and responsibility that is sometimes difficult to think through until you live through it. Like most things in life, one cannot truly know unless one experiences. Even then, the very concept of ‘knowing’ is difficult to articulate; we must trouble ‘knowing,’ and perhaps focus on the unknowing.

But as I’ve traversed these past few weeks, I’m attempting increased presence in this process of becoming~professor. One reason I’ve never really let it sink in that I’m a “college professor” is because the harried pace of faculty life leaves little time for self-reflection.  One runs from blocks of researching and writing to teaching to meetings and committee work.  In-between one works through blocks of grading and providing insights to students.  Perhaps one makes time for self-care, family, or culture.

In speaking the words “I am a college professor” to myself, I’m attempting to be more fully present to what that means. What sort of “professor” am I becoming? What sort of professoriate are we collectively becoming?

Becoming~professor is about our ethical responsibility to those with whom we commune in pursuit of knowledge and living. Sometimes these fellow travelers are called ‘students,’ though really they are our greatest ‘teachers.’  I’m fairly confident I learn more from my students than they learn from me as they are brilliant.  Part of our ethical responsibility lies in journeying alongside students as they discover this brilliance, their interests, their passions.  There is great joy in this journey, even if at times the terrain is difficult.

Part of our ethical responsibility is being present to our fellow traveler’s needs.  In fact, this may be the greatest responsibility we have, and it plays out in many forms. Sometimes it means simply ensuring that physically, emotionally, and spiritually they are thriving. At other times it means pushing them to go beyond what they believe they are capable of achieving. For me, this has manifested in a fierce commitment to providing good insight on student work (often known as grading). Asking challenging questions, supporting provocative lines of inquiry, encouraging students to take the leap of faith to create something new.

But it also strikes me that we have responsibility to fellow travelers in the professoriate. I feel beyond blessed that there is a nurturing, caring, critical, and justice-minded group of faculty by whom I am surrounded.  In our pluri-identities, many of us struggle, think, and dialogue about ensuring equity undergirds our work and the becoming~university where we work.  But I often wonder about those who may not be around as much. Do they feel cared for? Do they feel valued as part of our professional community? What is our responsibility to ensure these fellow travelers understand our desire for their company? Or, to borrow a phrase from my dear colleague and friend Molly Quinn (2010), are we being hospitable?

I think similarly about members of the administration.

Becoming~professor is also about the discomfort and ambiguity of what this all means. What does it mean to say one ‘produces knowledge?’ How can one actually engage in the act of ‘teaching?’ When others belittle our desire for ‘service,’ how do we reconcile our own longing to be servant-leaders? Are we not here to ‘serve?’  Good thing LSU taught me the language of ‘unknowing.’

While in the quiet of this space~time~moment, these are provocations and meanderings in the journey of becoming~professor. It is my great hope to continue being present to the (un)ease they bring to my practice(s).

Quinn, M. (2010). “No room in the inn?” The question of hospitality in the post(partum)-labors of curriculum studies. In E. Malewski (Ed.), Curriculum studies handbook: The next moment (pp. 101-117). New York, NY: Routledge.

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