The Absent-Minded Professor

It’s inevitable, this subject, this joke.

One of the questions I address in my FAQ is “How did you ever become a professor with AD(H)D?”

I started teaching in graduate school, as a graduate assistant, at the ripe old age of 23, barely older than my students.  I taught three sections of freshman composition the first year and it was exhausting.  The first time I sat down to grade papers it took me five hours to grade five papers, and not for lack of focus.  You see, a myth about English professors is that we spring from the womb with a fully developed understanding of grammar, right down to the participles and appositions.  Not true.  In fact, I earned a C in my News Editing class as an undergraduate.

My first semester, I would read a paper, and know how I would change it to make it better, but I would be at a loss on how to explain that to a student in a way that wouldn’t be longer than the paper itself. I have a knack for language, but it’s a knack for imitation, not a knack for studying grammar books.  My only real grammar instruction was seventh grade English, taught by Mrs. Grettum, who would would accuse us of stealing her glasses when they were on top of her head.  I’ve taught myself about grammar and style through the years.  I’m still learning.

I also picked up some classes to teach at the community college while still in my master’s program.  That’s when I developed my complex relationship with grading papers, in that I have a complex about grading papers, in that I do not like to grade them.  The greater the number of papers, the harder it got to get started. (It turns out, as I recently discovered, it’s best to grade them together with the students.)  I eventually got hired at my current institution, first as a part-timer (meaning “temporary,” because I actually worked overtime), then as visiting professor (even though I wanted to stay), and finally as tenure track.  I earned tenure in 2005 (not a life-long guarantee of employment; there are plenty of ways to get fired and I’ve worried about them all).  My current rank is Associate Professor, and I can apply for full Professor in a couple years.

I have had a lot of difficulty with my relationship with work, mostly stemming from this automatic resistance to grading papers. It’s pretty common among writing teachers; it’s our burden, and we always lend each other a sympathetic ear, but I made avoiding it into a high art form.

One interesting thing I’ve noted throughout the years is that it is easy to be mediocre, if you’re okay with that (I’m not).  For an average teacher, just getting by, it’s true that students won’t be happy and that person won’t get promotions, but no one is going to fire this person for being mediocre or even mildly incompetent.  If I really wanted to, I could get by on minimum work: using the same syllabi and assignments every term, putting minimal effort into grading, doing as little committee work as possible.  If I did not want to get promoted, I could easily become complacent, somewhat invisible to the administration.

Beyond promotion, though, I have always wanted to do good work.  When I was younger, I wanted to do the best work, but now I will settle for highly competent.  Nearly all of my colleagues have at least some degree of professional interest and most of them have a high degree of interest and competence.  In fact, the cases of incompetence I’ve known about were largely due to secondary issues: senility, mental illness, other illness that reduces a person’s ability to work.

I have never borne my failings very well.  The way AD(H)D plays out in my professional life is clear to see: trouble following through on projects, trouble sustaining interest in projects long-term, trouble with routine work and meeting deadlines.  These habits mean there’s a wide gulf between what I see myself capable of and what I accomplish.  My life requires some degree of regular, consistent effort on my part, and if there’s one thing I’m consistent about it’s inconsistency.

The persona that emerged from these symptoms was someone I did not wish to be.  He did things at the last minute, often arriving at class unprepared and just winging it, or giving out handouts that had last semester’s dates on them, or just letting students go early.  He let papers pile up ungraded for weeks and then graded them in a rush, with limited or sometimes no feedback.  He would promise too many things to too many people, get involved in too many projects, and get things done very late or abandon them until someone else did them.  He became expert at crafting convincing excuses. When life got really overwhelming, he hid out in dark rooms alone for hours at a time.

Back then I could not understand my behavior.  I would have to make excuses because I didn’t know the real reason for my procrastination.  I could not explain it.  I could not imagine telling my students or colleagues the real situation:  I wanted to do the work, I thought about it the whole time, but I just couldn’t do it.

I stayed employed.  I honestly think that part of the reason is that when I came to my current university, the school was in the final throes of a long downtrend due to mismanagement, and there was little accountability for professors.  As long as no one complained too loudly, I was left alone to do my work.  When students did complain, the authorities usually gave me the benefit of the doubt.  Some of my colleagues tell me that I was not all that bad back then anyway, but I have a hard time believing it. I knew I was doing sloppy work.

This semester I tried something new.  Armed with my new ADHD diagnosis, I just put it out there to students.  I told them on the first day that I have ADHD and that it’s not an excuse, but I have some quirks.  I told them that I forget names, so not to be offended, and that I forget to do things that I say I’m going to do, so they should remind me.  I spend lots of time working individually with students, and that sort of narrows the distance between us.  I ask them about their degrees and what they’re doing, and for the most part they are grateful for the time and attention, that I take them seriously.  I find, too, that I do take them seriously when I know something about them.  (Otherwise, their quirks just seem annoying to me.)

They’ve taken it in stride.  They laugh when I stop in the middle of a sentence to say “Look, it’s snowing!”  They do remind me of things I forgot (which are fewer and fewer) and I am thankful for the reminders.  A couple of students have told me they have ADHD as well, and we’ve talked about strategies together.  Contrary to a popular myth, no one has asked to “get away” with not doing work because of ADHD, though.  Through the years, I have probably structured my courses to be ADHD-friendly, because I teach them the way I would like to learn—things that make it good for most students, though: a clear structure and schedule, things presented visually as much as possible, one-on-one meetings, varying class activities that get students involved.

So, the big question.  How did I ever get to be a professor?  No one else would have me.