Joelle Renstrom on the Becoming a Professor and the Merits of Getting a B

Noodle Expert Joelle Renstrom discusses what it's like to be a college professor and why her mother persuaded her to trade in her straight A's for an occasional B.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

Ray Bradbury. He's my hero. Not only did he write some of the greatest and most enduring science fiction out there, but he wrote with such gusto, or "zest" as he called it. Even when he was 90 years old, the tone of his writing is that of a 16-year-old boy who is excited and fascinated by the world and his place in it. Bradbury was one of the least jaded, most genuine, and most prolific writers and thinkers I've ever encountered, and his approach to the world (in addition to his approach to writing) is something I would want to study and learn. Even with all the bad things happening in the world, and despite offering plenty of societal criticism in his work, Bradbury remained full of hope for humanity and for the future. Achieving and maintaining that balance is something I would love to learn.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

"You need to get a B." In elementary school, I was obsessed with grades. I had to get A's on everything and put enormous pressure on myself to do so, despite my young age. My mom, who was always perceptive and wise, talked to me after getting my sixth grade report card. She said that she and my dad were very proud of me, but that she would be even prouder if I got a B in a class. I was flabbergasted — how could that possibly be true? She said that no one was perfect, and that maintaining all A's forever, especially as I got older and school got harder, was unrealistic, and that I would push myself too hard trying. Some teachers don't like giving A's no matter what you do, she said, and you don't want to hand over your sense of self worth to someone else anyway. It's not worth being unhappy to get straight A's, she said. And she was right.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

Almost anywhere, really! I think traveling is among the most important and profound experiences offered to us at any age. There's something to be said for diving in headfirst and going somewhere completely culturally and linguistically different; there's also something to be said for baby steps when it comes to travel. I think it really depends on how the student feels about traveling, and how confident the student is in herself.

I would send a less confident student traveler to the U.K. or Ireland. I studied abroad in Dublin and absolutely loved it. I studied writing, and Ireland has a rich history of poet, playwrights, and novelists, and being able to read and discuss these writers in both their and my native language was very helpful. But for a student who wants to get into human rights or international relations, I'd pick a different place — Zimbabwe or Uganda, perhaps. A student interested in history could go to Poland or Bosnia. A student who wants to attain fluency in Italian should go to Florence (and Rome, Venice, and so on). I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer to a travel question, but there are always plenty of great options, and some of the best are the ones that are less well-known among traditional tourists.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

Senior year AP Calculus. As someone who never particularly enjoyed math (or was particularly good at it), why on earth did I think it was a good idea to take AP Calc? I guess that's just it — I didn't think about it at all. My high school only offered a few AP courses, and I figured I should take them all, no matter what the subject. I had a very fixed mindset about it (AP good / non-AP bad), which didn't take into account what I actually wanted or needed. Taking AP Calc was like being taught in Greek — I had no idea what was going on, ever. It was frustrating and even humiliating. Scraping by — something that was new to me in school — made me a grittier student. Experiencing and recovering from these setbacks was difficult, but hugely important for both college and real life. I also learned to make better and more deliberate choices about my academic career and classes.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I feel as though my field chose me, rather than the other way around. As a writer, I always knew I'd need a day job, but at a certain point, bartending and waitressing stopped seeming like a fruitful way to pay the bills. I had done a little bit of teaching in college and had loved it, but wasn't thinking about that as a career until I moved back to my hometown and bumped into a friend who taught in a program I'd been in years earlier. That program just happened to have an opening...and nine years later, I still teach!

What surprises me most about being in academia is how corporate and political it is. The act of teaching itself remains noble to me, but some of the machinations of the system don't, especially when it comes to hiring and tenure practices — but that's true of almost every field. I've taught at seven schools in the past nine years, and have often taught at two or three schools at once, so my job has never looked nor felt traditional. But as with anything else, perseverance and resilience count for more than anything (which happens to be true for students, too!)

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