Saturday, January 29, 2011

Round numbers

I don't know if anything like this happened when I was ten years old. My memory doesn't reach back that far. But when I was twenty, I hit a fork in the road, followed by a comparable fork at thirty and forty, and now I honestly wonder what's going on.

At twenty, I reached the culmination of seven years of non-stop obsession, which built to a climax that didn't leave much more to do. I'd had my first competitive debate at thirteen, and knew immediately that I'd found what I wanted to be good at. The problem was, I'm really not cut out to be a competitive debater. I can think like a debater, and I'm reasonably good with words and on my feet, but I don't have the cut-throat instinct. My competitive streak is about the size of an eyelash. Still, I poured time and effort into debate, and slowly, slowly grew into my potential, which was never much to begin with. In April of 1989, I was in the room as my teammates won the national championship for intercollegiate debate, making fairly heavy use of arguments I'd researched. We celebrated madly that night.
This was it, was what I'd always wanted, dreamed about, and I had it.

About ninety days later, give or take, I turned twenty. About ninety days after that, give or take, I quit debate for the first time. I came back for a full season, quit again, came back for one tournament, and retired permanently.

That didn't mean I was soured on debate, though: I'd just made a decision to become a college debate coach. I loved the activity; I just figured all the struggling I'd done, the snail's pace of my improvement, the dozens of places I got stuck, would make me a fantastic teacher of debate. And, honestly, I was better as a coach than competitor. Working with some incredibly gifted colleagues, I was part of a coaching staff that took the University of Georgia program from an underperforming team with loads of potential to a performance, in my last year, that they've still never matched, and that no public school in the history of intercollegiate debate has ever exceeded: second and third place at the NDT (National Debate Tournament) in a single year. Kansas matched it back in 1976, and Emory would later surpass it in 2000 with first and third in a single year, but it's still an achievement I'm proud of my part in. That was my launch into intercollegiate debate coaching: I went on the job market that year, was a fly-in finalist for four different jobs, and was snapped up by Arizona State.

After two years at Arizona State, I very suddenly reached saturation, rapid-onset burnout, and decided I had to walk away from debate altogether. I left Phoenix for a job in Nacogdoches, Texas; it was one hundred percent teaching. It's not as though I wanted to be a teacher, but that was the only work experience I had outside debate coaching that could potentially pay my bills.

During the summer between my last year at Arizona State and my first at SFA, I turned thirty. At twenty, I peaked in direct involvement with debate, and almost immediately lost my love for it. As thirty approached, I peaked in my indirect involvement with debate, and it happened again.

So then, at SFA, I began to learn to teach, which was even more painful and difficult than learning to debate had been. Praise God, the job had me teach a single class, public speaking, over and over and over again; at one point, I had seven sections, which meant I'd teach each lesson seven times, usually in the same week. I can't imagine a more perfect setup for learning to teach, and it paid off. By my third or fourth year, students had begun telling me that I was their favorite teacher, and it slowly dawned on me that teaching was actually a very enjoyable way to spend my days. In my eighth year of full-time teaching, I started on a three year winning streak, and if you're good with math, you can see the pattern cropping up again: in 2007, SFA awarded me the Teaching Excellence Award. Within weeks, I'd accepted a job at Northwest Christian College, and at the end of my first year there, the graduating seniors voted me Professor of the Year for 2008. The following year, I won the 2009 President's Award for Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership. And about sixty days later, give or take, I turned forty.

So does this mean my love for teaching is about to take a fall? I have seen a few signs of that. The fall term has been tough in each of the past two years. The little spells of mild depression that I fight off from time to time are coming a little more quickly, and are going from mild to moderate. My snap diagnosis is that the dislocation from Texas to Oregon, far away from family and everything familiar, is catching up with me. That might mean I'm going to wither on the vine here, or it might just mean that I have another adjustment to make, and have to be patient and give it time. It's the kind of thing I can't judge while I'm in the middle of it; when I emerge from it, I should have more of a read on what's going on.

And I am very attuned to the potential irrationality of thinking this way. I might just be seeing animal shapes in the clouds. There's nothing magical about periods of ten years, and what I'm describing as though it were a reliable pattern could be nothing but coincidence. It is entirely plausible that my love for teaching could deepen and settle on a reasonably smooth curve, accounting for the occasional dip, for the rest of my days. And there's a very real danger that if I pay too much attention to this alleged "pattern" of round numbers, then framing effects might take over and I might bring it about when it wouldn't have happened otherwise. I might sabotage a career that I love dearly, give it up to corrosion and self-doubt, when it didn't have to be that way. So I'm on guard against that. But the pattern is striking enough that it would be foolish to ignore it entirely.

And I always hope I'll get to the end of these things and either the act of writing will have given me clarity, or that I'll at least have a good zinger to reward anyone who's had the patience, or the lack of anything better to do, to slog through this. Neither seems at hand in this case. So, allakazaam, blog post is ended.

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