I get that there are bad teachers out there. I get that there are people teaching English classes who really shouldn’t be. I get that some of these people hold advanced degrees and are currently in charge of undergraduate composition classes. I get that plenty of people have been traumatized by bad teacher.
Here is the thing though: English teachers are not a hive mind. We disagree with one another, sometimes quite vehemently, about what constitutes good teaching. Both English and pedagogy are dynamic fields of theory and practice that are constantly adjusting and changing as new knowledge is produced and old assumptions are challenged.
This is why I get chapped when, if my job comes up in casual conversation, I am suddenly called upon to answer for the transgressions of everyone’s 9th grade English teacher or freshman comp instructor. This happens with acquaintances, with total strangers, with my father-in-law, with my grandfather. These last two pass up no opportunity to tell me–again–about the English prof who failed to recognize their latent genius back in college. That teacher had the idiocy to give them C’s and made them feel like crap by using red ink to mark their comma errors, and now they hate English forevers. And my role in the conversation is, I suppose, to confirm that I and all members of my profession traffic in bullshit. Keep in mind that I get this from people who last took English classes during the Eisenhower administration.
In addition to reflecting the speaker’s insecurity and butthurtitude, these demands that I speak for all literature scholars and English teachers since Matthew Arnold also often takes the form of regressive attitudes about academic labor and the nature of tenure, which many individuals in my immediate circle seem to think is just handed out like candy to Trick or Treaters to any idiot who puts letters next to their name. Also: resentment about ever being asked to consider the experiences of women or minorities.
Samples from the past month or two:
Passing Acquaintance 1: “Is there something about getting a PhD that makes a person’s head immediately go up their own ass?”
Me: “Well, that will be me in about a year, so I guess you can let me know then.”
Passing Acquaintance 2: “Are you like that teacher who tried to make me like Jane Austen back in college?”
Passing Acquaintance 2: “I mean really, why is Jane Austen considered to be a good writer? I only read half of Sense and Sensibility and didn’t think it was so special.”
Passing Acquaintance 1 (in a tone conveying disgust): “My English prof is worthless. She talks about feminism and how women are stereotyped all the time. Just saying”
Grandfather: “Blah blah blah. Tenure is a betrayal of the free market…protects bad teachers. Blah blah blah.”
Me: [Something about intellectual freedom, the difficulty of attaining tenure, and the problems with applying free market principles to education].
Family: “BLAH BLAH BLAH UNIONS! BLAH BLAH BLAH.” [Pile on.]
Friend: “You must cringe when you read my emails. My grammar is so bad…”
Me: “Actually, I don’t care. I find you to be perfectly understandable, and I don’t expect texts or informal emails to be perfectly edited.”
Friend: “…because I had this English teacher who used to jump all over me for not putting commas in the right place, and I’m a pretty bad speller, and…”
Me: “Well, that was part of her job, and what I do in my job and in my personal life is different, and I make typos all the time because I’m human and and and…” [Dying a little bit inside].