Notes from the edge – of retirement

Nov 16, 2011 10:37 AM

Mary Doyle marking assignments in the newsroom.
In the early years, Mary Doyle spent a great deal of time marking in the newsroom at Middlesex College, too busy to even notice there was a cow's head beside her.
By Mary Doyle

I’ve started to clean out my office, and memories keep bubbling up. They are attached to a file of marked student assignments from my first year teaching at Western, and to copies of the little newspaper we produced, and to lists of teaching assignments, and to notes from students.

It’s a little shocking to see how much stuff I’ve accumulated. As I resurrect the attached memories – mostly good but sometimes not so – I’m also left to wonder: Was I always a hoarder or was that a skill I learned on the job?

In any case ... when I moved from Toronto to London in 1990 to take up a three-year contract teaching position at the Graduate School of Journalism, there was no thought in my mind that I would retire from Western.
But that is exactly what is going to happen at the end of June, almost 22 years after I first stepped gingerly in front of a class full of journalism students.
I remember that first year so well, and I remember those first students better than almost any I’ve taught since. Part of the reason they are imprinted in my mind is that they were good students, but a larger part, I’m sure, is that the experiences were so new and so intense that they made indelible memories.  
That year was one of the most challenging of my life. Despite the fact that I had worked in pressure-filled newsrooms at the London Free Press and the Globe and Mail for 15 years, I remember telling my print-workshop colleague, Judith Knelman, that I had never worked harder than in my first term of teaching.
That was ironic, as Judith was quick to remind me, because she remembered that when she was telling me I would teach in two (or maybe three) workshop sessions a week, I questioned her about what I would be doing to fill up the rest of my time.
It’s no wonder she laughed. I had no idea how much time and energy were required to do class prep, marking and one-on-one sessions with students, not to mention sitting on committees and doing other service work.
So that was one of the things I learned. There have been many, many others over the years, including:
  • Don’t take things personally. I have to confess, though, that this is a lesson I’ve learned only in theory. I’ve never been able to actually put it into practice.
  • Try to treat everyone equally. This is also a work in progress for me, and it is sometimes especially tough in the determinedly hierarchical milieu of a university, but it is worth attempting anyway. Oh, and just to be clear, I mean treat everyone with equal kindness, not equal nastiness.
  • A follow-up: To cut down on the nastiness factor, take frequent breaks while marking.
  • Don’t ever count a student out. Seemingly weak students often rise to the occasion in the reality of a newsroom.
  • Don’t give up. This one does double duty: Don’t give up on the students, of course. But also don’t give up on fighting for change if you see inequities. My bete noire for years has been the fact that not all faculty members have equal status. Now there are some tiny signals that change may come – not in my time but maybe in time for some of my colleagues.
  • A follow-up: It’s not all about you.
Now, as I approach my post-classroom life, I am trying to savour the countdown. The “lasts” have started – the last time I will ever teach police reporting, the last time I will ever mark interview stories, the last time I will ever place an intern.

I’m looking forward to the last time I have to write “attribution needed” or “check stylebook” or “fix comma splice” or “it’s vocal cords, not chords” on an assignment. Those are parts of the job I won’t miss.
I will miss the people, though – the students and my colleagues. Next month, when I attend my last faculty Christmas luncheon, I know there will be a sense of poignancy attached to the hilarity.

And, oh dear, next June when I present my final Bud Wild prize at our journalism awards ceremony, the reality will really set in. My checklist of lasts will be complete.