81 Days to Zero: The University (Part I)

Since September 2014, and, with particular force, since January 2015, my third and final year at the University has been defined by a countdown: 81 teaching days to zero. My academic attachments are slowly unraveling, each passing day distancing me from the University more and more, while bringing me towards another place, still mostly unknown.

Though my time at the University has not always revolved around a specific countdown, I cannot hide that it has always been tinged with knowledge that my stay here was temporary.

Year one. As I remember it, my first year here was a dizzying blur. I was overwhelmed with many new arrangements, information, and teaching responsibilities, and I felt disconnected from my new workplace. I was trying to find my place in a new community at the same time as I deciphered my thoughts about and feelings toward it. There were days when I was curious to walk past those imposing white columns announcing the entrance to the University’s buildings, but chose to stay put instead. There was so much to learn and do that year that I felt exhausted as I neared its end. I wanted the first year – and all the lessons and growth it brought with it – behind me.

I normally work hard but that first year I exceeded even my own expectations, motivated by a new array of factors: my vision for the program for which I was responsible, the University’s and students’ approval of my performance, and the support of my academic department. Staying within my building’s walls was sufficient for my goals. My eyes wandered rarely as I walked the ever more familiar route between my office and classrooms. By the year’s end, the University was thus still a very shiny place with many unopened rooms calling for me to open their doors.

Year two. With year one completed, I was decidedly less exhausted and more cheerfully involved in my community, especially in the early part of the year. There was time to enjoy teaching and to make creative improvements to the courses I had taught the previous year. The campus was more familiar, and I began to open the doors to some of those unexplored rooms that I only caught glimpses of in year one. I engaged with the University’s spaces now: I pondered the details of the décor; I noted the gleam of the hallways; I trod the curated paths of the campus and crossed its wide plazas; I neared the Neo-classical columns and marveled at their volume; and I raised my eyes to meet the heights of the domes. All the architectural choices, I was told, were infused with great meanings. Inevitably, I mixed those with some of my own. In doing so, I sometimes wondered: Do the meanings align?

Halfway through year two, my enthusiasm began to wane. I saw how personal visions could enmesh but also collide, and I perceived divisions among the University’s community members. Miraculously, especially at night, the University’s buildings still retained their beauty and magic; a shake of the head, however, reminded me to question their messages of promise and truth.

Year three. Overwhelmingly, I am happy. But my happiness is disrupted by unexpected moments of sadness about the changed dynamics in my relationship with the University. While I enjoy my teaching role and the collegiality of my department, I am removed from any sense of real participation. The University and I no longer share a future. My physical presence is merely a reflection of an obligation, a dwindling relationship. Now, I participate most fully through a series of routine acts: I shut my apartment door behind me, climb into my car, drive, park after circling various lots, walk towards my building, enter it, go up the stairs, turn right, then left, then right again to go down the hall. When I stop in front of my office door, I sometimes pause to let out a sigh before I pull the keys out of my purse, hear them clang, and slide the right one into the keyhole. These seemingly insignificant acts carry an indefinable heaviness; the completion of each feels like both a defeat and a triumph.

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My physical surroundings are incapable of revealing anything to me. The University remains untouched and unmoved by my coming departure, and I observe its indifference toward me with an increasing indifference of my own. I am happy to let it go despite moments of sadness for the end of a once promising relationship between me and the University. It is only when I turn my gaze away from my physical surroundings to meet the eyes of my students and colleagues that I remember the joy that strengthens and enlivens the University’s walls. The warmth and support shown to me by my students and colleagues have been the thread uniting my three years here. I feel both fortunate and privileged that these people have surrounded me right through to my final year – my relationships with them will be my most cherished memory of the University.

Written and photographed by Filomena Calabrese. Edited by Agnieszka Polakowska.

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8 responses to “81 Days to Zero: The University (Part I)

  1. I am saddened by losing you as a teacher of Italian, especially since you have discovered such a wonderful teaching method in blending great Italian cinema with a bit of grammar along with a nice mix of listening, speaking, and writing. All of that is enhanced in the small group, informal setting when your eye contact and engaging, pleasant, respectful personality shine. I can see the feelings of delight in all the students. One of the most enjoyable teaching methods and experiences in my 10 years of courses at the university. Hope you think strongly about continuing to teach Italian, even if only part-time. Free spirit that you are, I think, you will, in any event, have to accommodate to the restraints and limitations of the “gesellschaft.” In bocca al lupo!

    You are also a wonderful photographer!

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    • I am also saddened by my departure from academia, despite my enthusiasm and happiness. In particular, I will miss the special relationships I share with students like you. Thank you for enriching my life.

      Crepi!

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  2. Great work Filomena. The part that really hit home was: ” I am removed from any sense of real participation. The University and I no longer share a future.”

    All the best in your exciting career change!

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  3. Even if the university as an entire institution remains untouched by your departure (too little time to have left a lasting mark?), I can assure you that your students are NOT untouched – so always remember that everything you gave of yourself in these 3 years has been appreciated (if not by all, by many) and that you may, may, may just have changed someone’s life. You never know what seed you might have planted. Now go forth – and continue to be AWESOME as you always have been in everything you’ve put your heart into!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Sabrina! You’re right, and I admit that, as I leave academia, I hold on to the hope that I did inspire a student or two in some way.

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