I’m an English professor. It’s how I earn my living. Invariably, when I show up on the first day of any given semester and see a group of 30 or 40 college students staring at me as I prepare to introduce myself, I’m always struck by the same thought.
How did I get here?
I’ve been teaching English since the fall of 2006. While I like to think I’m good at my job, there was definitely a time when I knew I was terrible at it. Not for lack of effort, mind you. I just didn’t know what I was doing nor did I know how to get any better. It’s taken me these last five years to reach a point where I feel like I almost know what I’m doing.
It wasn’t always my ambition to be an English professor—or do anything at all in the world of academia. In fact, growing up, I had no idea such a world existed. As a kid I was shy and timid, so the easiest thing for me to do was get lost in my imagination. I loved professional wrestling and comic books. My brother Greg had an impressive library of comic books that he collected during his own childhood in the seventies, so, for as long as I could remember, I had access to Batman and Superman and Spiderman and most every other superhero that came out of DC or Marvel.
It was never the words in the comic books that captivated me, but the pictures. I loved drawing pictures as a kid. Some of my earliest memories involve me hiding under my bed and falling asleep with a crayon in my hand and a coloring book pillowed beneath my cheek.
My love of art and drawing stayed with me through high school, culminating in an advanced placement studio art class during my senior year. But, by the time the class was over, I found I was burnt out with art. This should’ve been alarming, as art was the only vested interest I had in school, but I found that avoiding the idea of my post-high school life was a lot less stressful. Of course, high school did eventually end and I had nothing planned for myself, so I enrolled at Chaffey College.
I grew up five minutes away from Chaffey and, more importantly, I knew how to get there, so, obviously, it was my number one choice. While I went into Chaffey completely clueless as to how I was supposed to succeed in college, I had the great good fortune to end up in a freshmen composition course taught by S. Kay Murphy. It was Kay’s first time teaching a college course and it was my first semester in college, so we were a perfect pair. More than that, Kay saw something in my writing that I had never seen before.
She spent the semester encouraging me and my writing and I, in turn, applied myself—really and truly—for the first time as a student, college or otherwise. With her encouragement I discovered a love for writing that seemed to come from the same place that my love for art and drawing had once come from. Interestingly enough, that same year I took a U.S. history class, which assigned, among other books, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.
It’s important to note that I was not a reader growing up. If it wasn’t a comic book or Pro Wrestling Illustrated, I had no interest in reading it. So, when I was assigned to read The Jungle—which is around 400 pages with teeny-tiny font—and only given a month to do it, I was terrified. For reasons that I can scarcely articulate, something triggered in my brain soon after I began reading The Jungle and, without meaning to, I finished Sinclair’s seminal novel in three days. So in just under a year, at the age of nineteen, I discovered a love for reading and writing.
A few years would pass before I decided to study English, but even when that time came, I didn’t know what I would do with a degree in English. All that made sense was becoming a high school teacher. As I was preparing to graduate from Chaffey and transfer to Cal State San Bernardino, I went to see my counselor for a State-of-the-Union-type sit down. He asked what I wanted to do with an English degree and I told him I would teach high school.
“You don’t want to do that.”
“No,” he said. “Just stay in school for an extra two years and get a Master’s degree. Then you can teach in a community college.”
I finished my Bachelor’s degree with relative ease, as the enthusiasm and motivation I discovered in Kay’s class was still going strong. Graduate school was another story altogether, proving to challenge not only my intellect but my will. It was tough and I’d love to tell you that I stuck it out for some noble reason, but the truth is I didn’t have a backup plan. I had painted myself into a corner, so to speak. In the absence of any other reasonable options, I managed to earn my Master’s degree in three years.
As I was finishing up my degree, I called the Language Arts department at Chaffey College to ask how I might get a job teaching there. A month or so later I was interviewing for an adjunct teaching position. About fifteen minutes into the interview, I was offered a couple of advanced composition classes to teach. Before I knew it, I was holding two textbooks and a set of keys. Classes would begin in three weeks, so I needed to start writing a syllabus. The fact that I didn’t know how to write a syllabus was the least of my problems, as I didn’t know how to be an English professor.
I took the job anyway.
That was about five years ago. I’ve learned a whole lot since then, much of it coming the hard way. While I’m far from an expert, I feel like I’m pretty good at my job. And, more than that, I also like to think I have some useful insights to offer college students and professors alike.
And that's why, from time to time, you can expect to read any number of posts here on Inside Martin regarding my life as a college professor. It’ll be a chance for me to share my stories, talk about my experiences, fill you in on some of my personal victories, as well as some of my more demoralizing defeats. Even if you find that what I have to say here doesn’t make you a better student or teacher, hopefully you’ll find that you’re too amused to care.