I started working for the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona on 15 September 1991, which means that I have just celebrated my 25th anniversary as a university teacher (not just as a teacher, as I had been already employed teaching English by diverse language schools for a few years). ‘Celebrate’, however, is perhaps the wrong word in this context, as, in the end, I have not had any celebration.
I told myself that I would do something, anything, but then I started asking around and it turned out that none of my colleagues at UAB, past the 25th year mark, had celebrated this kind of professional anniversary. I have not yet discarded my original idea–giving my students some candy as little kids do in schools!!, silly as it may sound– but somehow I lack the motivation. I also realized that if I did something in the Department (colleagues offer cookies or chocolates on birthdays or other relevant personal occasions) I would be forcing everyone else to do the same. So I let it be… I am actually writing this post to encourage myself to finally do something before it is too late and I reach my 26th anniversary.
Why’s 25 such an important figure? After all, I didn’t write anything here when I hit the 20th year mark, 5 years ago. Well, 25 is more critical because although, if all goes well, I will retire having reached the nice figure of 40 years as a teacher (20 multiplied by 2), I know at this point that I don’t have other 25 years ahead of me professionally speaking (I certainly don’t want to retire at 75 after 50 years as a teacher, my gosh!!!). Also, this year I’ve celebrated my 50th birthday, which means that I have been a university teacher for exactly half my life, which impresses me very much. Where does time go, we ageing teachers wonder?
I explained to a friend whom I met in one of my earliest years as a teacher (he was my student 24 years ago!) that the strangest thing is looking back and thinking that I knew nothing when I started as a teacher. In these 25 years, I have never stopped studying–for this is what research is all about in the Humanities–which means that, logically, I should be much wiser than I was at the beginning. Funnily, I have the simultaneous impression that I’m both wiser and more stupid, as I notice now much more than I noticed 25 years ago how little I know but also how much I’m beginning to forget. I think that no matter how hard you study in your own area and no matter how convinced you are that you know at least something, many specific points still escape you. Otherwise, I would not need to update my class notes every year.
In part, one of the reasons why I have not celebrated my anniversary with my students is the embarrassing feeling that they might think I should be a much better teacher after a 25-year-long experience in the job. Ageing in public is not easy and some days students are, as every teacher will say, very difficult to face, with their demands and expectations, and their youthful faces. I was myself a very demanding student and I often wonder how I would have reacted to my own classes: would I find that I digress too much? (I think I do), would I find that I’m not systematic enough? (always something to work on). Writers often say that they never have the feeling that they improve as they write, as each novel is a different challenge and I’m beginning to feel the same as a teacher. I’m not a better teacher than I was 25 years ago, I just know a few tricks of the trade. Certainly, each course is a new challenge, if only because students are never the same ones.
As a teacher, one important barrier is crossed when you first double your students’ age (they’re 18, you’re 36) because this is when you start seeing yourself as part of a very different age group, no longer an elder sibling or young aunt/uncle. The second barrier is crossed when you realize that you’re their parents’ age, which puts you definitively in a different generation. As a Coordinator, I was often surprised to see that students were accompanied in their registration day at UAB by fathers and mothers already younger than me. Since I don’t have children myself, I cannot have the perception that students are my (hypothetical) children’s age, but I’m sure that they often make the connection between teachers and parents as obnoxious authorities… I wonder what this is like for colleagues with children in the university.
Back to the idea of the anniversary, I’m not sure what should be done. UAB used to offer in the good old days a sabbatical (thus ignoring in quite a cavalier fashion the actual meaning of ‘sabbatical’, which is ‘every seven years’). Now the much yearned-after sabbatical is gone, swept away by the economic crisis, to be replaced by nothing in particular. I joked with a friend who narrowly missed her anniversary sabbatical that perhaps we should be given a pin, or medal, soviet-style I would add. Of course, celebrating the 25th anniversary of teachers would open a Pandora’s box, with teachers demanding to celebrate next 30, 35, 40… years in the profession. There is somewhere a nice absurdist short story to be written about a university where teachers are colour-coded in their dress according to seniority (“Wow! You’re finally allowed to wear green! Congratulations!”).
Generally speaking, we’re abandoning ritual in our lives. On the personal front, many people no longer marry, christen their babies or celebrate their children’s first communion. This, of course, has to do with the waning interest in religion in what used to be a deeply Catholic country (I had a crazy, hilarious conversation yesterday with a colleague about what exactly we commemorate on 8th December, the day of the ‘Inmaculada Concepción’). On the professional front, as I’m reporting here, nothing much is happening, at least in my work circle. We have just celebrated the yearly graduation ceremony, but this is for students, not for us teachers, just as birthdays are for children but not for parents (they should be). Yet, to my surprise, I see that many teachers reject the only ritual we maintain: their retirement ceremony. That should be a good reason for a party…
So, this is it, time passes–with mixed feelings. On sunny days I think ‘My! So many years to retirement, so many interesting things to do. 50 is nothing, 25 years even less so’. On cloudy days, like today, I think, rather, ‘Gosh, I’m tired, I can’t go on like this, being my own tyrant for 15 more years at least. I’m getting old, I want to rest!’. But then I shut up, thinking that a) many chronically unemployed (or underemployed) people surely wish they were so lucky, b) it’s up to me whether I go on at this manic pace or call it a day and start braking down for deceleration and a soft landing.
There’s a candy store on campus–perhaps I should visit it next week, see what my students might like.
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