A Post About Teaching Because My Brother Says I Never Talk About It Anymore

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So, I’m instant messaging my brother the other day.  He is also a professor at a liberal arts college.  Being a professor at a liberal arts college  might be a genetic disease that just hasn’t quite manifested in my sister yet.  My brother teaches astronomy and physics and some (the horror) math.  He tries to figure out the meaning of the universe by looking through a telescope and I try to figure out the meaning of the universe by looking out the window of my local coffee shop.

Instant messaging my brother, he asks me what’s going on.  It’s a Thursday morning, so what’s going on is yoga class followed by my weekly lunch with friends.  Not every semester, but many semesters I have a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule.  Students like this, I like this….everyone’s happy.  If I’d wanted a job with 5 day a week, 9-5 hours, I would’ve gotten such a job.

“Do you ever teach?” my brother asks.
“Yes, but not on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s,” I reply.
“You just never talk about teaching anymore,” he says.

Here commences the talking about teaching.

Teaching more by teaching less.  A former dean at our college would tell us that the best teachers said they taught less and less as they progressed in their career.  It’s only recently that I’ve started to understand what she meant.  Teaching can pretty quickly become what Max Weber would call means-oriented rather than ends-oriented.  That is to say, we can pretty easily fall into a pattern where we do things in our teaching without being really clear about exactly why we’re doing those things.  I used to give in-class exams with multiple choice, identification and short essays.  Why did I give these kinds of exams?  Well, partly because the right/wrong answer nature of the exams made it easier to give students lower grades and therefore helped my grade distribution.  Before tenure, demonstrating that I was not an “easy” professor was important.

But now I have tenure, and the freedom to consider whether these kinds of exams are actually the best way to teach my students given the particular things I want them to learn.  No, not really.  I’ve always said I want students to learn skills in my classes rather than facts.  So after my sabbatical, I boiled all my syllabi down to the most essential skills I wanted students to learn in that class.  And then I re-structured the syllabus around practicing those skills.  Only very good students can learn how to do something on the first try.  It makes sense to repeat and repeat again.  In one sense, this might mean you’re teaching less in terms of content.  But hopefully you’re teaching more in terms of skills–how to use knowledge rather than cramming knowledge inside their heads like you’re stuffing a pepper.  No one likes being involuntarily stuffed.

Letting go of anger.  I apologize to any former students who might be reading this, but for a long time, students pissed me off.  They wouldn’t come to class.  They wouldn’t turn things in.  They would sigh and turn all the way around in their seats in order to look at the clock every two minutes.  They would lay their heads on the desk.  They would not sign up to come talk to you about their classes.  They would not read the syllabus.  They would not follow even the simplest of directions.  They would not do the reading. Ugh.  Just writing about it kind of pisses me off.

I spent a lot of time thinking up very creative ways to get them to do all the things I wanted them to do and to punish them for doing the things I didn’t want them to do.  But nothing is fool-proof;  all students will not behave exactly as you would like for them to behave all of the time.  Most will not do what you want them to do even most of the time.  By the time my sabbatical came, I was angry at my students.  I needed a break.  This is what sabbaticals are for, and I feel everyone should have them, regardless of your job.

After my sabbatical, I let go.  Letting go sounds easy, doesn’t it?  You just un-flex the death grip you have on your life and let everything float away.  Letting go is easy once you’ve done it.  But not always easy to actualize.  But teaching, like any relationship, is not a battle between two contestants.  The goal is not to win submission and cooperation.  At least, that’s not the goal that works best for me.  Here’s how I think of teaching now (actually, I just now thought of it, but go with it).  It’s like I’m walking down a path.  It’s a path I’ve been down a few times, so I know some things about the path that my students don’t.  But they know some things that I don’t, too, which is part of why they’re coming along.  In the best of worlds, I’m excited about this particular path I’m walking down.  I’d like my students to come with me, because I think it’s cool.  But I can’t make them, and if they just stand there watching the rest of us move off into the distance, well, I did the best I could.  I’m still getting paid whether you come with me or not.

Being present in the classroom.   Generating discussion has always been one of my strong points as a teacher.  My undergraduate experience was all about discussion, and it’s the mode I feel most comfortable in as an educator.  I’ve gotten better at lecture, and sometimes you have to get up and tell them something.  But what I’d like to be doing most of the time is talking about sociology with my students.  I think my discipline is pretty well suited to this particular mode of pedagogy.

Students lead discussion a lot in my class.  This is only partly because I’m lazy.  Having students lead discussion enforces the message that learning is a cooperative endeavor.  And sometimes what’s interesting to me about a particular reading is not at all what’s interesting to them.  Having students lead discussion means largely letting go; when they lead discussion, they’re in charge.  I did this a lot before my sabbatical, but since I’ve come back I’ve found that sitting in the classroom while my students are leading discussion is different when I’m focusing on being truly present as opposed to when I’m just sitting there.

When I’m just sitting there, I’m fussing.  I’m worrying about whether the discussion is going well.  I’m looking at my syllabus to see what we’re reading next.  I’m taking attendance.  I’m looking back over the readings for that day.  I’m projecting myself into the future or worrying about the past, but either way, I’m not really present.

When I’m present, I’m really listening to my students.  I’m watching their faces, hearing the sounds of their voices.  I’m thinking about what they’re saying, rather than thinking about what I’m going to say next.  When I’m present, I can more easily see my students as full human beings.  Sometimes teaching can narrow the particular view you have of your students.  They are minds to be taught.  They are people who turn in papers or don’t turn in papers.  They are a series of grades.  When I can truly be present in my classroom, I begin to see that my students are much more than any of those things.  It is as if a shady outline begins to be filled in more completely, and I realize that the time I spend in the classroom with my students is only a thin little slice of their lives, just as the time I spend in the classroom with them is only a thin little slice of my life.

So, that’s what I have to say about teaching.  I still think about teaching.  I still talk about teaching some, though apparently not with my brother.  I still like teaching, though I have to confess, I’ve discovered that I also quite like writing, knitting, fiddling, playing guitar and spending time with people who are not my students.  It seems okay that we all have much more in our lives than just what happens in the classroom.  I don’t complain about teaching.  Here’s my job in its simplest form: I pick some interesting stuff to read and then I sit in a classroom with other people and we talk about it.  That’s nothing to complain about.

Here ends the talking about teaching.

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