Those Who Can(?), Teach

Those Who Can Teach

For years I’ve been needling my friend Tim, an English Professor and Department Chair at Northeastern Illinois University. I met Tim during the pursuit of a Master’s in English Literature at NEIU from 2005-2007, and he was one of my favorite instructors – energetic, learned of past and present, and truly inspiring in his encouragement of student potential. Although I learned everything I use today in terms of writing acumen, research discernment and (hopefully) clarity of argument from the education he and other talented faculty members imparted, I now enjoy the benefit of hindsight.

In the eight years since graduation, I’ve built a reasonably successful communications career. There has been much paying of dues. There have been mistakes, setbacks and a heap of lucky breaks. But there it is. I’m a proven corporate marketing professional. I’ve amassed a large body of freelance journalism, criticism and opinion work. I’ve risen through the ranks of important state and national communications organizations, and the experience has taught me how to lead, network and build communities. I’ve developed proficiences in all of these areas for one important reason – a liberal arts education. With one caveat.

What my degree course at Northeastern did not teach is that we need to start growing these “extra-academic” communication skills before walking out the door with paper in hand. An MA, while impressive in conversation, did not qualify me to do any of the above, or for that matter, a whole slew of other non-profit, startup, government, freelance or corporate work. During the years I harangued Tim, I passionately argued that given the mountain of debt with which many students graduate, and the often anemic employment opportunities that await, learning on the job takes time most can ill afford. Wouldn’t it be great if colleges and universities held some type of transition class for liberal arts majors?

Fast forward to Fall 2015 and a phone call from Tim. Over time, we’ve become close friends and frequent collaborators, an honor often beyond my comprehension. I idolized him as Professor – full command of subject authority with none of the pretension. And he always believed in me, well before I demonstrated an inclination for much besides finishing the degree and serving as an enthusiastic NEIU English Department ambassador. Our post-collegiate friendship has offered many occasions for discussing ways to improve student opportunity. During one of these conversations, the idea for the progression class was born.

Anyway, that fall day, Tim called and mentioned a Spring 2016 staffing shortage – sabbaticals and such. Was I serious about teaching the course after all the talk? And if so, name it and provide an abstract.

Ok. I’m a German-Italian woman born and raised in America’s third largest city. I also happen to be a dramatic creative with a loud, opinionated streak. OF COURSE I’m a talker. I have great ideas by the second and share them with anyone who will listen – often at a volume intolerable to common decency. But am I a teacher? Sure I have this diverse experience, amassed by trial and error. But do I have the command, and more importantly, the balls, to channel it into something meaningful that could make a difference for imminently graduating students?

Folks, I guess we’re about to find out because here it is:

ENGL 358 – Making Your Liberal Arts Degree Work:
Writing For The Professional World & Internships
NEIU Spring 2016
College of Arts & Sciences

This course provides a personal and professional communications orientation, covering the integrated landscape of digital media. Students will learn to adapt their writing for such practices as social marketing, blogging, headline writing, messaging, networking, community building and resume development. Whether a students’ ultimate career goals lead them to freelance, startup, non-profit or corporate endeavors, this course helps students learn more about putting their degree to work.

Whatever symptoms of Impostor Syndrome I’m experiencing at present (moments of acute panic), better take a pill. Because this is happening. Starting next Wednesday evening, every week, for 16 weeks. I’m all HR registered, lesson plan developed and guest speaker prepared. There are 27 officially registered pupils as of this post and they deserve a lot more than sluggish insecurity from the newbie. As do Northeastern and Tim for believing I have the credibility to pull this off.

I am honored. I am energized. And I’m shit scared. I’ve heard from experienced teachers, as they shared wizened, tired smiles, that these might be my greatest qualifications. The cause is bigger than my ego. If I can remember that long enough to get through my opening introduction – “Good evening. Thank you for being here. My name is Becky Sarwate and I’m here to try to save you eight years by sharing what I know.” – I think we’ll all be ok.

Re-Reading Jane Eyre (May 8, 2010)

Jane Eyre

Sometimes, despite the overuse of the term, a novel is deemed a classic with good reason. This work of art by Charlotte Bronte is a fixture of the English Literature canon because it is a fantastic read. Yes, I am a former member of the academic criticism world, a place where nothing is taken as fact, and everything is up for argument, but I don’t trust anybody who doesn’t believe with all their heart that Jane Eyre is literary magnificence.

I am currently reading the book for the third time in my existence. With each reading, at different stages of my life, I have found something completely new. As a 14 year-old girl, I deemed Jane’s rags to riches romance with the arrogant Mr. Rochester to be an ideal romantic fantasy. As an unhappy teenager, I often dreamt of the Prince Charming who would love me for who I was, and whisk me off to a life of foxhunts in the English Countyside.

When I picked up the book for the second time as an undergraduate, I felt a painful kinship that I could not believe I had previously overlooked, with Bertha, the “mad woman in the attic,” the forgotten and isolated first wife of Rochester. The presumed disposability of this woman, on the part of both the author and her character, angered me. As a rebellious young adult in the full throws of a 1990s post-gothic malaise, I identified with the helpless dependency of Bertha’s predicament. I wished to rescue her, to empower her, even if I didn’t yet grasp how to do that for myself.

As I round the corner toward 32, a little wiser, and at the top of my physical and psychological game (that’s right people, this is as good as it gets), I have taken up my old favorite (or one of about 15 anyway), greedily consuming it with another pair of fresh eyes. I am now older than Jane is when she finally gets her “happy ending,” and I now realize that happiness is a slippery term. The truth is that finding your destiny is oftentimes a simple combination of mistakes and calculated choices. Jane and Rochester’s union is indeed a love match. And like all imperfect loves (for is there any other kind?), theirs is full of untruths, and disfigurements of the literal and metaphorical kind. They are equal partners in the sense that Rochester provides the money, and Jane, the sight and strength. Neither of them are much are on their own, but as a whole, it works. Jane Eyre is not a fairytale, as I believed when I was 14 years old. Somehow I like this even more.

I have a humanist approach to my take on the act of reading. The book acts upon you as much as you act upon it. A great text allows room for the the reader to step into the story, letting it become personal. Depending on the moment, and your environment, the narrative can make you laugh, cry or feel disgust. One of the reasons I will always love Jane Eyre so much is that book feels so essentially me. I wonder what I will look like when I take up the book again in my 40s.