Teaching and timelessness

As I write, night is falling slowly and heavily, like a train gaining momentum gracelessly. It’s easy to feel sleepy when I come home after the all-day heat, which still lingers in the house, but I eat dinner early and make myself go for a walk, the better to sit down afterwards to prep for class tomorrow morning.

It’s Thursday, and my last class of the week is about twelve and a half hours away. Some part of me wants to start getting revved up now, since it still feels performative to teach, taking an energy that I try to build up in advance.

But a painless and oddly physical sense of disorientation has also set in, clouding the evening clock. It remains viscerally confusing to be alone in South Africa, teaching; my family is in America while I’m out here this year, as I’ve mentioned before. (This is very hard in completely obvious ways, which I won’t elaborate just now.)

In any event, I’ve been here the past three weeks, but the days and nights never quite learn to get along. Each day there’s too much coffee or too little, too little motion or too much, and never quite enough sleep, and even that, always disorganized. Time is like an outfit that you thought would fit, but when you got home, somehow it was slightly too small.

There’s an institutional reason for this over and above the existential factors; while elsewhere teaching usually confers a stable rhythm, here it’s a bonus source of disorientation, since here my class isn’t scheduled at the same time from one day to the next. I’m just teaching one class this quarter, which meets four days a week; twice it’s at noon, one day it’s at eight in the morning, which is inconveniently early, and one day it’s at nine. The evening before the early class, an unwelcome, unsleepy energy sets in.

I’m not an anxious teacher, as these things go. And increasing experience brings some kind of dedramatization. If my offhand math is right, I’ve taught about 160 university class sessions, cumulatively. It’s enough to start to be habit-forming; I’ve started to take certain parts for granted, like the basic logistics, the classroom “learning materials,” and the grading. While other parts — how to pace the material, how to adapt to diverse learning capacities — still feel like a work in progress.

But the odd thing about teaching is that, as soon as the first day of class was over, it stopped seeming like the first week of the term. Instead, it seems to me right now — this is Day 4 — that this class commenced at the birth of the universe and will continue on, exactly like this, for at least 525,000 years from now. I actually really love this class — teaching people how to do ethnography is probably my favorite thing to teach — so I don’t think this sense of timelessness is a form of angst, escapism, or complaint. Nevertheless, I don’t remember this degree of disorientation from previous classes.

It’s lucky that I have many alarm clocks.

In the meantime, the crickets are loudly keeping time, the last light is gone from the west, and I’m thinking about how to teach my students some feminist epistemology in the morning.

Here’s what I’ll look out at when I hastily print my teaching notes in the department office: