Sunday, May 27, 2012

Valediction Forbidding Mourning, or Farewell to Evanston & Chicago

My office bookshelf
Part of my office bookshelves, soon to be packed up

Since my colleagues and students at both institutions know, and since my family members and most friends know, and since C has asked me more than once when I'm going to do so, I figured that now that the spring quarter is nearly over (yes, it runs until mid-June) and I've already begun packing up, I can share with J's Theater readers who do not already know that, after nearly a decade in Chicago and Evanston, at the university (Northwestern), I will head to a new one this fall, back home in New Jersey (Rutgers-Newark). I shall be teaching similar but slightly different things, in a similar, very amenable configuration, and am now winding down at the former institution and up at the new one.

As even infrequent readers of this blog will know, I have greatly enjoyed many aspects of my time at NU.  I will certainly treasure the relationships and friendships I developed with so many wonderful students, colleagues and staff, and will always consider them invaluable.  I particularly cherish the opportunities to teach a range of courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, in creative writing and literary and cultural studies. Although I previously had taught at the secondary school level, in non-academic settings, as an adjunct, at a superb private university, and as part of public and private university-sponsored writing programs before arriving at NU, I can say without hesitation that it's there that I truly learned how to teach, and how to learn from my students and colleagues. Shortly after arriving I applied and was admitted as a fellow into the university's Center for Teaching Excellence, which aims to improve college-level teaching. My year in that program taught me a great deal. But more important has been my time in the classroom, listening to my students, working to create the conversations that ensure dynamic learning, figuring out how to adapt and change when needed, and observing my students' learning processes to improve my teaching for subsequent classes. Crucial too has been observing colleagues who are excellent teachers. Several years ago one colleague said at her investiture ceremony that to become a better teacher, one of the models she followed was that of one of her teachers, who was always "present in the moment"--and I have striven every day to take that to heart, to make that my practice.

I also learned about many other aspects of university-level teaching, including how to be an administrator, how to serve on multiple committees simultaneously without losing one's mind, how to work with colleagues across different fields and departments, how to be a junior colleague and to advocate for them once I'd moved up the ranks, and how to survive the tenure process. I learned how to advocate for and support students, especially women, students of color, queer, and working-class students, who sometimes do not have the support they need or enough people to advocate on their behalf. I learned that one of the most important things that I could do was to be in the room and speak up. I learned that one can read hundreds of job applications, 54 student short stories, masters and doctoral theses chapters, honors and independent study projects, and a mountain of committee-related material, and still work on (some of) my own writing. I learned that zilch happens without the remarkable support staff who really keep everything running. I learned that laughter is one indispensable element of being a professor, and may have to be deployed more than one ever envisioned. I learned that university administrators can be approachable, and that they can often be allies if you get communicate with them. I feel utterly fortunate to have had wonderful chairs in place during my time at Northwestern; each of them was different, but demonstrated how to lead in their various ways.

I especially learned that it's possible to teach anything at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the inhospitable-to-learning quarter system, and that when I've reached students, the knowledge they acquired and built upon would be there not just for subsequent courses but for years to come.  I will miss these students and the prospect of teaching them, and my many extraordinary colleagues, in a range of fields, who have taught me so much. But I also am deeply excited to my new position at a new and very different institution in a new and very different city, my soon-to-be-colleagues, and my new students, whoever they may be. I'm looking forward to many new challenges (and to forgoing others, like long-distance commuting), all of which this past decade has prepared me for.

I'll like to end with a photo of one of the last Northwestern students I worked with, my honors advisee this year, Steve Koteff, reading a selection of his superlative novel(la), WalMart, at the annual English department prizes ceremony. Not only did this novella earn Steve departmental honors, but it also received the English Department's 2012 Thesis Prize in Creative Writing, and this dazzlingly gifted young man will be heading to Syracuse University this fall to continue his studies. Congratulations to him and to all my students who are graduating this year, and a million thank yous to all my Northwestern students, colleagues and staff for many wonderful, insightful, amazing years.

My honors undergraduate student, fiction writer extraordinaire Steve Koteff
My final NU undergrad honors student, thesis prize-winner Steve Koteff (c)


  1. Congratulations on navigating another of life's changes. I am sure you are mixed about this. Chicago is a great city and I am know you will miss it. But the commutes had to be tiresome and you will not miss that.

  2. All the best to you as you start this new chapter. Great post, as usual.