Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why This Is My Last Class

As of today, I am all done being a part-time college teacher.  Final exams are all over. Spring 2014 grades are now posted and all my administrative paperwork turned in. I am officially finished with my work as an adjunct instructor of Sociology.  

Over the past 20 years, I taught for 5 community colleges and 2 universities. Guessing I taught 3 terms each year with an average of 30 students per term, that means I worked with about 1,200 students over the course of my career.

Teaching has never been my primary job. I have held a variety of positions with different organizations as we have moved from state to state, ranging from exec director of non profits to coordinating grant programs. Still, it was the adjunct teaching I did one or two nights each week, or even the distance-learning classes I taught online, that gave me the most satisfaction.  

In many ways, it has been my role as a teacher that has shaped my sense of worth and personal identity.  When I was in the classroom, whether face-to-face or virtual, I would get into "flow" experiences and feel like I was truly doing what I was born to do.

So turning in grades for the very last time feels like something a lot bigger that simply quitting a job.  I feel as if I am giving up a core part of who I am. Even though I am absolutely certain that our decision to go on this mission is the right choice, this is one of the sacrifices I will make that feels really hard.

This is the lecture I posted on Blackbord in our unit on Religion and Society to explain to my students why I would not be back next term:

Why This is My Last Class

A few of you already know that this is going to be my last term teaching. In this learning unit I will explain why that is.  

At the end of the year, my husband and I are planning on moving to New Zealand for two years to serve a full time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.   I’m quitting my job, putting everything I own in storage, and leaving behind dear friends, family, and my beloved basset hound, Morgan the Wonder Dog.  I am leaving everything that feels safe and familiar to go to a part of the world I know very little about.  I am doing this because of a deep spiritual commitment I feel to my faith, and a belief that this sacrifice will result in deeper meaning in my life.

In your text book it says: “religion is the way people make sense of their world” (Conley. 2013. P. 613.). Emile Durkheim called religion “a fundamental and permanent aspect of humanity”(Conley. 2013. P. 622.). Whether you personally agree or disagree with the tenants of any particular religion, it is clearly evident that matters of faith have been important to human beings in one fashion or another in nearly every society.

One of the challenges of American life is that we have so many different types of beliefs.  Even though half the population of this country rate God as very important in their life (Conley. 2013. P. 625.), how “God” is defined and what it means to follow one’s faith can be very different from one person to the next.

Humans are social beings. Rather than doing things based on instinct, we rely on social experience to teach us what is appropriate or important in how we think and behave. Some of the people I know have reacted to the news of my choice to go on a mission with praise and admiration.  Others think I am misguided and foolish to give up a good job to go volunteer for my church, especially since I will have to pay all my own living expenses to do so. 

We define who we are in relation to others. We are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. We are members of clubs, employees of companies, neighbors and friends. How we experience our lives is very much shaped by who we feel connected to or apart from. One of the challenges we all face is how we cope when our opinions, beliefs, values or choices are very different from others we share close social bonds with. For those of us who feel deeply connected to deity or to a specific church family, those ties can have a strong influence on the choices we make in our lives. 

Right now, in many social circles, religion is considered taboo to talk openly about. Why do you think that is?  Does that custom serve us well?   How might our society be different if people in general were more inclined to ask “What is your faith?” instead of “What do you do for a living?” when they first meet? 

The American practice of asking “What do you do?” has everything to do with quickly summing up matters of status.  It gives us a shorthand way of knowing how much respect or deference we will be expected to show the other person. When meeting in a social situation does it really matter if the person you are talking with is a plumber or an attorney?  Generally not. But in a class based society, we tend to categorize people by profession. Their job title gives us clues about how much education they are likely to have and what their level of income is.  Those pieces of information carry a lot of weight about who gets what life chances in the way our world is arranged.

It is essential in a pluralistic culture to develop tolerance for those who have different religious views from our own.  But how we develop cultural norms around the way we express our beliefs related to faith could follow different paths.  

Increasingly, our society is becoming more secularized.  Rather than putting matters of faith and religion first in our lives, may people today put careers and material success at the top of their priorities.   When asked what is most important to them, the automatic answers may be things like family, good health,  core beliefs.  But if you look at how people actually spend the bulk of their time and energy,  it is quite often lopsided toward work and the accumulation of prestige or things.

I truly love my jobs (both teaching and what I do for the non-profit where I am employed). But at the end of the day, I do not want it to say on my tombstone that I was really good at my job. I want my life to have meaning and purpose beyond titles and accomplishments or gathering up more shiny things. It is because of my deeply held beliefs about the nature of God and what the real purpose of this life is that I am walking away from my life here in Boise to serve as a missionary for two years, where ever I may be sent.  

For your assigned work in this unit, you will need to understand the various terms and theories described in your text and the associated online lectures. I will never ask you to explain or defend your own personal beliefs.  You do not have to tell me anything about your own religious views.   That being said, I challenge you to think about whatever your beliefs are.  

You do not have to answer any of these questions for me, but here are a few things you may want to consider for yourself:

How do you integrate your ideas about religion into your daily life?  How do you assess what is true and important or what is not?  To what extent do you align your personal choices of what you do with what you say you believe?  

That, more than anything else, is what religion comes down to.   How human beings make meaning, and how that meaning shapes the way we lead our lives is at the very heart of sociology.

Dalton, Conley.  (2013).  You May Ask Yourself.  Third Edition. New York, NY.  W.W Norton.

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