Strangers in Academia: Teaching and Scholarship at the Margins

No, there was no way out, and no one can imagine what nights in prison are like.

Meursault, The Stranger, Albert Camus

I left public education after an 18-year career as a high school English teacher and coach. The exit had its symbolism because at that time I was wearing a wrist brace on my right hand from overuse after almost two decades of responding to about 4000 essays and 6000 journal entries per year; in other words, I left public education broken.

A former student of mine on the cusp of becoming a first-year English teacher asked me recently what my first years were like, and I had to confess that from day one, my career as an educator has always been at the margins, a stranger at all levels of formal schooling and academia.

Yes, my hand was exhausted from marking essays, but I was broken as a public school teacher by administrators and in a bit of not so hyperbolic science fiction, The System.

Every single day of my life as a public school teacher, I worked against the system—but I did so with my door open because I believed (and still believe) my defiance was for The Cause.

I was never defiant for my own benefit, but resistant to the structures, policies, and practices that I believed dehumanized teachers and students, that worked against formal education as liberation.

I didn’t punish students for being a few seconds late to class, for asking to go to the restroom. I didn’t stand guard at the doorway or in the hallways as if we were surveilling a criminal population of teens.

We laughed and moved around in my room, played music and even danced during breaks. Students ate candy, food, sneaking in drinks occasionally.

And to a fault, I was friendly with my students—a friend to my students. In the perfect sort of irony or symmetry, many of those students are today my friends on Facebook.

But toward the end, after year upon year of wrestling with administration and finding little collegiality or camaraderie among my colleagues, I found my breaking point when I took off days to present at a national conference—one I was afforded through my doctoral program, which I completed while a full-time high school teachers—and returned to work to discover I was docked pay for those days and even the substitute fee.

Public education, I learned, had no room for teachers who were also scholars.

Because the opportunity presented itself, I begrudgingly applied for, was offered, and then accepted (at a significant reduction in pay) a position in higher education as a teacher educator.

I entered the role as tenure track assistant professor very naive (even in my early 40s) and so deluded by public education that I also idealized higher education: my land of milk and honey where my full self as educator, writer, and scholar would be not only welcomed, but also encouraged.

After 14 years an the university level, making my way through tenure to full professor, let me offer the short version: more delusion.

“Don’t be so political.” “I never published an Op-Ed until I had tenure.” “Dressing awfully casually for a junior faculty member.”

Yes, my university is in many ways a very wonderful place, and my colleagues are brilliant and supportive.

But the old patterns recurred in higher education that had run me out of public education: critical pedagogy isn’t welcomed, scholarly activity creates as much friction as it receives praise, wading into public intellectual work creates even more friction, and even well-educated people can be prejudiced and petty.

Department politics and dynamics have proven to be as frustrating (for me and other professors) as my experiences with administration while I was a public school teacher.

As one example, my university has recently conducted a gender equity study because the playing field isn’t level here. Professors of color and LGBT professors will also note significant inequities as well.

Higher education has revealed itself to be in many ways as flawed as public education because even in our systems of formal education, we are apt to replicate the society we serve instead of being a working model of how things could be, how things should be.

Race, class, gender, sexual identification, and ideology—these all even in higher education create those of us who are strangers in academia; we are forced to teach, conduct scholarship, and write at the margins.

Just making this claim, I know, pushes me further to the margins, boundaries possibly well secured by the statuses I have attained despite being a stranger in academia.

Yet, I am not yet willing to throw up my hands and simply accept that we cannot be otherwise—because if the most well educated cannot set aside our biases, what hope for all of humanity?

In Albert Camus’s The Stranger, the allegory reveals the existential message that we are all prisoners. Meursault, after being literally imprisoned, confesses, “Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner.”

But readers are cautioned to note that Meursault also makes the case that his new situation in a physical prison is no different than his life as a so-called free man.

As academics, I think, it is ours to resist the same dynamic between the so-called real world and academia in which there is essentially no difference.

Academia need not be the pejorative “Ivory Tower,” suggesting we are above it all, but academia sure as hell could be, should be a model of how to honor and celebrate the human dignity of everyone.

4 thoughts on “Strangers in Academia: Teaching and Scholarship at the Margins”

  1. True true true. I have experienced all of this! Thank you for persevering and standing strong.

  2. I was fortunate to start out teaching full time with a middle school principal that relived in bottom up cooperative site management. He organized the teachers into teams that pretty much ran the school. There was even a team of teachers that met and dealt with students up for suspension, expulsion and even retention. Ralph, that principal, supported the consensus decisions of those teacher teams. What most if not all of Ralph’s teachers didn’t know until the stroke that almost killed him was the pressure he was under from the top down style of management from district administration. Ralph acted as a shield to protect his teachers from THEM, and he almost died from that stroke his doctors said was triggered by all that stress.

    That’s why Ralph retired early from public K-12 education and ended up taking another job at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona where he worked with teachers in training as a mentor in the education department there.

    I taught for thirty years until 2005 and worked with about 10 principals. None of them led their schools like Ralph did and the district administration seems to have learned a reverse lesson from Ralph too because the brutal, micromanaging district monarchs were ruthless with administrators who treated their teachers like professions instead of peasants to be abused and forced to do what the top wanted in everything.

    For most of my thirty years in the classroom after Ralph I was often in conflict with the spineless principals and VPs that did the will of the autocrats at the top. And when a decent principal or VP came along, they seldom lasted long because they either left early on their own or lost their jobs for not bending to the will of the district tyrants.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s