The Joy of Learning: Back to School

Melissa Downes, with her friends, Ellen Foster and Jeanne Slattery, who have also needed to consider ways of responding to the new university climate

Melissa Downes, with her friends, Ellen Foster and Jeanne Slattery, who have also needed to consider ways of responding to the new university climate

— Melissa K. Downes

I am an associate professor of English, and I’m currently getting a master’s degree in Library Science (MSLS). I already have a BA, an MA, and a PhD, each in a slightly different field. I once reminded my students that any claim that Dr. Downes “didn’t know what it was like to be a student” needed to take into account the fact that — since my graduation from high school (in the Dark Ages, of course) — I had spent approximately 15 years getting those three degrees. Their eyes got very big and they looked like they felt sorry for me.

In a later blog, I hope to address that gap between my perceptions of education and learning and many of our students’ perceptions, and how I try to close that gap (or fail to). Here, in this blog, I want to focus on the joy of being a student again and how delving into coursework from the student side might be valuable for good teachers in need of a reboot.

What first drove me to seek an MSLS? My current job feels very uncertain sometimes, with retrenchments affecting my department, my friends, and my colleagues across campus. I was one of those people who was on the thin line between retrenched and not retrenched. Someone hired the same year I was and just below me in seniority had to spend her entire year thinking her retrenchment would probably go through. Seeking the MSLS has helped me stay strong and be happier in this time of stress and loss.

Given the power to make my own choices, I would always choose to be an English professor. I quite simply love what I do (though, of course, that’s not simple at all). But one of the painful things about what’s happening here is how much we feel as if our own choices can get taken away or ignored. We too often feel powerless. Going back to school was such a good thing for me because it was my decision — something I could control.

But getting my new degree has value well beyond taking control of my life and having a new set of employable skills in my back pocket if I need them:

  • While I enjoy working on my own scholarship, I feel very alone in that work at times. Being a student again means that I have professors and other students working with me on ideas, but I don’t always have to be the person who takes the lead.
  • I’m learning a lot about teaching from being a student again. For example, I’ve learned that D2L looks very different from the student side, and I’ve felt how stressful it can be to be learning new skills when not in the physical classroom but, instead, facing a screen.
  • I’ve had real pleasure being a student who is also a teacher, because I look at my professors’ assignments and can see where those assignments are leading and why my professors have constructed them the way they have.
  • I’m applying what I’m learning in my classes to my own scholarship and to my teaching. For example, my students in my Jane Austen seminar will be reading an essay I wrote this summer in my history of the book course, and I hope eventually to expand the essay into a larger project. And I’m trying to design a research project for my British literature survey students where they will start to investigate resources in the library reference collection and begin to build a guide for other students in my department.

Mostly, I feel more awake and more alive as I view from a new perspective the familiar things I study, and teach, and love.

When my best friend sees me get all excited about this, or when I start to complain about the workload, he will shake his head and say that he doesn’t think he could go back to school again. Except, he goes back to school all the time, taking on new projects like cooking classes or reading projects that are less formal than my “back to school” but are still ways of investing in learning new things and staying engaged in the world.

Not surprisingly, I’m an intellectual. A nerd. I love learning and making connections between ideas. This summer I took four classes, wrote a conference paper, traveled to London (to give the paper), and prepped my classes. It was a glorious vacation. When I was home in Minnesota, my father watched my enthusiasm bursting out all over as conference paper, courses taken, courses to be taught, and even the museums I visited all informed each other, interconnecting into one big ball of joy.

Clearly, this experience has been wonderful for me in and of itself. But feeling again my joy in learning also compels me to explore ways to help my students experience that joy, to help them embrace learning, to help them imagine feeling sorrow for those who don’t get to be in school rather than those who do.


Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

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This entry was posted in Professional development, State of the university, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Joy of Learning: Back to School

  1. drolivas says:

    When life gives you lemons… Well done, Melissa!! This is an inspiring way to react to the professional threats the university has put in many colleagues… Very inspiring!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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