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Day One, Survived!

Each new semester begins with anxiety, doubt, fear, and insecurity. Teaching means standing before a group of people, trying to convince them you are going to say and do something worthy of attention.

This was difficult teaching at a mid-range state university, a land-grant research university, and even a small private college. I don't care where you teach, you know that part of the job is rhetorical — persuading an audience to follow along.

Now, I teach at one of the top universities in the world, in a top-ten program. These students are the best of the best. These are not only the perfect SAT/ACT scores, they are also the student council presidents, drama club stars, musicians, and more. They are so talented it is often beyond my comprehension.

And I'm expected to help them learn about writing, public speaking, and general rhetoric.

Surviving the first day without a panic attack or meltdown? That's a victory. By week three, I'm fine, but those first two weeks are a learning period as I try to evaluate the audience and adjust my strategies. I can't relax until I know the first assignments have gone somewhat smoothly.

I love teaching, but it isn't the easiest thing for someone like me. I doubt it is easy for any introvert. But, once on the "stage" I do okay.

People ask if I would recommend academic careers to others, including autistics with passions for learning. Here's my answer:

Teaching is not for everyone, from the kindergarten classroom to the university lecture hall, each grade is a "calling" that requires the right emotional and intellectual fit. I could never teach the K-6 level, and I admit that.

Being a professor works for me, but it works because I'm at a place that respects my personality and my strengths.

You might love the idea of being a researcher, studying and writing on a specialized topic. However, being a professor includes teaching. It is an inherently social job. You must be engaged with your students, the staff, and your faculty colleagues. Your career will depend on being liked and known in your specialty, at the local and national levels depending on your career path.

When someone suggests "Academia is ideal for autistics" I cringe. That's a simplification focused solely on the research aspects of being a professor. If you teach at a community college, you'll likely need to teach four or five courses a semester. It is not a research setting. The rewards, and the demands, are social in nature. If you teach at a research university, the emphasis might be on publications and citations, but it is still a social situation. Teaching is secondary, though more universities do have "teaching" and "research" lines with job security.

Just as I cannot say that "computers" are a good field for autistics, I cannot say that of teaching or being a professor. We need to move beyond stereotypes and simple dichotomies.

I love teaching… and it causes me extreme anxiety with every new group of students. That constant change is not for everyone.


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