12 May 2017

Remembering As I Go: First and Last Days

I turned in my last set of final grades at the University of Connecticut this week. I'm leaving after nine years there-- I don't think I've done anything for nine years before in my whole life. These two classes marked my nineteenth and twentieth at that institution. People keep saying "goodbye" to me, but I'm actually not going anywhere for a little bit; we won't move until July, and I have an article I need to write, and I work better on campus than my couch, so I'll still keep coming to campus even though my official reasons to be there are slowly fading away.

I guess it feels appropriate to fade away instead of disappearing in a clean break, because as I nostalgically think back to my arrival at UConn in August 2008, it's much more of a fading in than a sudden arrival. What surprises me is how much I don't remember of my coming to UConn, just bits and fragments of what was surely at the time a hugely momentous change. I'm sure I could comb back through facebook and my old LiveJournal(!) to remind myself, but there's so much at this moment that's just vagueness. What was my first week of teaching like? My first graduate seminar? My first encounters with all the people who became some of the closest friends I ever made?

I remember the party the English Department held for incoming graduate students, in the backyard of the graduate director's house. Mostly I remember having a conversation with an M.A. student a year ahead of me about Stanislaw Lem. A year later, he wasn't readmitted to the Ph.D. and he left. I think that was the only conversation we ever had.

I remember the next day, a Friday, where all the new graduate students were oriented on how to be graduate students. The only thing I remember from that day was talking to one of my fellow new students about his living situation-- he had a weird roommate he'd only just met the night before who did nothing other than play videogames. He was sure it was going to be fine. When I talked to him on Monday, he'd broken the lease and moved out.

I remember the week-long orientation for new teaching assistants, the first of eight I would attend. (The other seven would be on staff, though.) I remember feeling pretty good and pretty set about teaching my own class for the first time the following week-- until Wednesday, when we spent all day at the library learning about information literacy. It was terrible, all the worst parts of my B.S. in high school education distilled into discussions of scaffolding and psychological development. At the end of the day, we were given time in a computer lab to write assignment prompts incorporating information literacy, and that was when I realized I couldn't write an assignment prompt incorporating information literacy because I had no idea how to write an assignment prompt of any sort, and I couldn't write an assignment prompt because I had no idea what my course was going to be about, and I couldn't design my course because I hadn't written a syllabus and schedule, and I couldn't write a syllabus and schedule because three days into orientation, I had absolutely no idea about what was expected of us.

I remember taking Chaucer as my first graduate seminar, with no idea that "medieval studies" was, like, its own thing with its own hardcore devotees, and here was me coming in, having not even remembered/realized that all the readings with be in a different language.

I remember assigning my students to read the first chapter of John Berger's Ways of Seeing because it was one of the only things in the Freshman English textbook I'd ever read before. Nine years later, I still teach it almost every semester that I do what is now called "First-Year Writing," and I suspect I will continue to do so. I remember assigning Susan Bordo's "Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body" later that semester, and the overjoyed reaction of the bro in class-- finally, someone talking about the visual expectations placed on men!

I remember that our research methods class, on how to be a graduate student, met late afternoon on Thursdays, and how all of us harrowed first-year graduate students would adjourn from the class straight to the bar afterwards.

I remember that one of the assignments I gave in my Freshman English class was this weird, cobbled together thing of texts about "journeys" I liked: a quarter of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a story from Ursula K. Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness, and Lost in Translation. A woman in class said, "I didn't really get all the sci-fi stuff in Four Ways to Forgiveness at first and then I remembered Zenon, Girl of the 21st Century and I got it and I was fine."

I remember the weird trajectory of my teaching methods class, which began with one professor who had her baby prematurely and so got merged with another class taught by a professor with a very different affect and approach, one maybe not altogether suited to first-year teachers. A group of students from my section started secretly drinking mimosas in the class. There was one graduate student who bought donuts for the whole class every week. One week our new professor was gone for a conference, but he tapped another professor to sub for us, and class devolved into a bitching session. The next week, our normal professor came back and was completely on the defensive about the way he taught our class, as we'd been ratted out by the substitute. He became my advisor in the end, and the "snitch" professor a good friend of mine. (The pregnant professor ended up on my committee.)

I remember not going to the graduate student Halloween party because I became incapacitated by indecision over putting a costume together. I ate half the Skyline dip I'd assembled myself that night. The next day, however, I went with a group of other graduate students on the first of many pilgrimages to the Mohegan Sun Casino breakfast buffet.

I remember wearing a Santa hat to the final I was required to give, as inappropriate as it was for a writing class. "Santa T.A.," said one of my students-- I'm pretty sure the same one who had started calling me "T.A. Steve" in class.

Somewhere in the midst of all that, friendships began to emerge and evolve, as did my last relationship with the department as a whole. That stuff I don't really remember, I'm sort of surprised to realize, I just know that as of a year or two later, it just was and it continued to grow.

It's all coming to end now. I think if I'd left a year or two ago, I'd be more sad about it. But of that cohort of friends I made over my first two years in the program, I'm the only one left-- everyone else I like has already got their jobs and moved on to different places. Now when I eat lunch in the graduate student lounge (which they thankfully still let me do) and attempt the crossword, I'm surrounded by people who are all doing what I was doing 3-8 years ago. I feel like a relic of a bygone age, constantly sounding like a grandfather who goes, "BACK IN MY DAY..." When I leave, it won't feel like leaving, because my UConn already left me.

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