A Sense of Place

Like a surprising number of adjuncts I know (considering poor pay, no benefits, and little professional respect) I enjoy teaching – a lot. I enjoy talking over the function of narrative with students whose perspectives are different from mine, and I enjoy forcing myself to try to communicate the aspects of writing (and literature) that I think are important, without being able to rely on shared experience and aesthetics to carry the day. It’s remarkable how much of a reflective bubble your personal circle of writer friends can be, simply because you’ve got a common project and a common set of standards. But students… well, students have a way of taking your deepest assumptions about writing and turning them on their head.

But more than that, I like teaching in Philadelphia. Not just because I enjoy my brief commute (although I do), or because the idea of moving for another academic job is terrifying (although it is), but because the place where I teach is enough of a local institution that the students who come through my classroom have recognizable stories. I usually know the neighborhoods they come from, and I sometimes know their high schools – not as well as I could, being a coddled private school kid myself, but enough to place them in a kind of framework, and their perspectives bring up parts of the city I might not have visited, places I only know on the surface. They’re doing me a favor, and deepening my experience of the world, the city that is ours.

That, to me, is the importance of a sense of place: a commonality the can be expanded with each piece, made sharper and deeper. 

Recently I had a conversation with an old professor of mine, in which we discussed professional issues. He pointed out that I’ve got enough classes on my CV that I could look for other places to teach, to which I replied that I like it in Philly, and that my current school (Temple) seems like one of the better situations in town.

(Of course, I’ll soon be looking for more schools than Temple, but that’s the life of an adjunct, and not worth elaborating in this post.)

It might seem stubborn, my insistence on staying in Philadelphia. An academic career is made by being flexible, by taking opportunities on a national scale, not a local one. Certainly there are limited opportunities to teach fiction as it is, and someone looking for a long-term (not to mention tenure-track, that grand dream!) fiction position had better be prepared to range far and wide in search of it.

I’m only a novice, of course, but I think my experience with Philadelphia informs my teaching, and makes it better. I like that I have points in common with my students, even if those points are only geographical; we can find some kind of shared ground to discuss. “I thought you’d like that one,” students have said to me, “because I felt like it was about the city.” Part of this is selfish, of course – I like the perspective the students gift to me – but I don’t think it’s all one-sided. I think the students appreciate having a teacher who has common reference points.

It’s a common theme among fiction writers who end up teaching: the sense that the pressure to grade and respond alienates you from your own work and distracts you from writing. I feel that; the sense of time slipping away is sometimes palpable. But one of the great rewards of teaching in the city you’re from is that connection points spark, day to day, that keep you from feeling disconnected. Just the other day a student of mine wrote a story about a Korean BBQ place, and since I know where he’s from I spent the rest of the day wondering which spot he was talking about, where in South Philly it was located, and whether I’d ridden by it on my bike, one of those day when I used to rent a studio west of Broad – strange times, those were!

(Times I’d been forgetting, until that story about Korean BBQ brought me back.) 

Which is what I mean about shared place – and another reason why, professional development be damned, I’m staying put in this town until somebody carts me away.

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