Almost two months ago, one of my former students emailed me to tell me how much my class—Apocalypses and American Religions—meant to him. It was a course he took almost eight years ago. He wrote about how my class continues to be relevant to his life. His email delighted me, but soon my joy morphed into sadness. I'm not a teacher anymore, and his email reminded me of this fact. And I realized, yet again, how much I miss teaching and continue to mourn the loss of having both a classroom and students.
I have always loved school. From elementary and secondary school to college and graduate school, I was always the kid, then teenager and then young adult who was eager for school to start when the previous school year just ended. I counted the days until I could return. I longed for the structure of the classroom: the rituals of opening of notebooks and shuffling things into my bag at the end of the day; the sounds of the bell, warning tardiness and letting us know when to leave; the exactness of my course schedule down to the minute; the large, ticking clock on the wall that allowed me to know when to change classes; and the feeling of a pencil on the page of worksheets and tests.
School, for me, was as much about learning and knowledge as it was about routine and order. The school year had a pattern, a logic that made sense to me, especially when my home life often didn't. I was good at school because I was eager to learn and to follow the rules, spoken and unspoken. I remain an overachiever.
But, I also found freedom in education and the potential to be more than what people expected me to be. Knowledge felt like power, and I wasn't sure I would ever want to stop learning because of all I gained. Education was surely a way to liberation, so I couldn't help but learn and move forward.
For much of my life, then, I imagined that education was the only way I could excel, grow and find a tenuous freedom that I craved and needed. No one was really surprised when I graduated near the top of my class in high school. No one was surprised when I went to college on scholarships. No one was really surprised that I continued to graduate school, first for an MA and immediately after for a PhD. My family used to joke that I had majored in school; they weren't wrong.
I went to graduate school because I wanted a college classroom of my own. I wanted to teach students all the things that I learned and stoke their own curiosity about the complicated nature of our shared world. I wanted to reach out to them—like teachers and professors had to me—with encouragement and guidance, if that's what they wanted. I wanted to show them why learning about religious studies mattered, not just to me, but also to them, because religion was relevant to our lives. And I also wanted to anchor myself in education for as long as I could, because education defined me.
Wanting to have a place in education, in institutions of higher ed, is not the same as actually having a place. My wants and desires couldn't overcome the obstacles I faced on the academic job market or, more pressingly, the adjunctification of colleges and universities. So, I left academia a little over five years ago.
I lost the classroom, and I feared that I had also lost myself.
What is a teacher without a classroom, after all? Not a teacher at all, I thought. How could I teach when I was no longer employed as a teacher? I couldn't, I assumed. And who would I be when I didn't have school—the only thing I thought I was good at—to define me anymore? I wasn't sure, but even more, I wasn't sure I wanted to find out. How could I teach now? Would I want to?
It took me a little while to realize: You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can't take teaching away from her. I started teaching beyond the confines of university classrooms. I taught on Twitter, tweet by tweet, and in essays. I taught in radio and newspaper interviews, in books and in Skype sessions with students in other professors' classrooms. Now, I knew that other people educated us beyond the classroom because I was already learning from them on social media, in articles they wrote and in conversations and emails. But, I had a harder time recognizing that I too was doing this kind of work. I was teaching without realizing it. I found that I couldn't walk away from teaching or higher education entirely, so I didn't. I positioned myself as adjacent to academia, unwilling to let go.
Becoming editor of WIHE is a continuation of my journey as an educator, yet another way to stay close to higher ed. My column is often my classroom, in which I can think aloud about pressing issues for women in higher education and in the larger world with each of you. It's my 24th issue of WIHE, and I'm still teaching.
So, thank you, lovely readers, for allowing me to teach beyond the classroom. It's an honor.