Stand-up comedian Marc Maron describes well the environment which he refers to as “trench comedy.” This includes:
• Performing at small venues for small crowds, most of whom don’t know the performer
• Performing a specific brand or type of comedy – often alternative in nature – for an audience who largely went to the club just to “see a (generic) comedian”
• Performing for a crowd in which your active fan base comprises ~10% of the audience
• Scraping by financially because your pay partly relies on the size of your draw
I mention this because it’s a far cry from what most people think of stand-up comedy: George Carlin at Carnegie Hall, The Original Kings of Comedy, Dane Cook’s Vicious Circle – comedians performing for thousands or tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans. But for every special of the fourteen Carlin taped in front of thousands of fans, there are countless performances throughout the country (and the world, for that matter) by “road comics” – comedians who tour the club circuit and largely lack the television and media presence of the A-listers, slogging through the trenches described above. Marc Maron has become a popular comedian over the last couple years thanks to his top-notch podcast, but he’s been at it since the 80s. Hence his authority on trench comedy. Only now, over 25 years in, does he get to headline theaters.
I know, I know – I probably discuss comedy too much on this blog. But it’s relevant, as it often provides good analogies to music. And the above is no exception.
A few months back, after my ranting about a particular textbook (and academic writing at large), I enjoyed a very thoughtful email discussion with my friend and former classmate David McCarthy, a musicologist and saxophonist teaching in Brooklyn. He’s one that I always enjoy talking to about any topic. Always have, and always will. But without getting into our nerding out, one thing he mentioned is that he was glad to have me in the trenches with him, teaching as we do at the college level. The trenches. So very accurate.
Like the comedic triptych mentioned above, “professorhood” has its often-misleading perceptions, especially considering the nationwide attacks on K-12 public education – talk about working in the trenches! Some of these misconceptions are:
• Teaching a couple classes a week, with the rest of the time devoted to one’s research and/or art/vocation
• Cushy salary and benefits
• Tweed jackets abound
• Teaching highly engaged students, most of whom want to study specifically with you
• Office hours = Happy hour
• Grading? Leave that to the T.A.
• You just walk into class, talk for fifty minutes with little preparation, then leave
• Many high-level discussions with students; everyone “finds themselves” all the while
While some of those, and more, can happen for a select few, most don’t experience this. Sure, some on the list are a little over-the-top and/or tongue-in-cheek, but it gets the point across. As for me, I’m not upset about it, but I do try to be realistic. This is no “woe is me” post. I rarely complain about teaching. At all. If I didn’t think it was worth it, I wouldn’t put in all the work. I really enjoy it and my time with my students. It’s just worth noting that a majority of the adjunct/associate/instructors you know grinding away, often happily. But grinding nonetheless. (Similarly, why else would Marc Maron have stuck with comedy after two decades of “arguable” success?)
Even though my friend David and I have never taught together, and currently teach in different states, we’re nevertheless in the trenches together. Along with a number of my other friends and colleagues.
• Many hours are put into research and lesson planning for pennies on the dollar
• We’re often teaching students who have to take and pass our courses, as opposed to students wanting to study with any of us specifically
• Almost no one comes to our office hours if there’s no exam or paper due within a week, so we grade or plan
• Grading. Grading. Grading.
• Occasionally having to teach a music class in a room with no piano, no functioning sound system, or both
• Occasionally being assigned a new/different textbook – sometimes a whole course – at the last minute
Every job has its ups and downs, and is suited for a particular temperament(s). Most jobs also have odd misconceptions of glory associated with them. Almost no one I know is doing it for the glory. They’re doing it for the work itself. Because, trenches or no, that’s often enough.