Sobriquet 42.11: Why I Do What I Do When I Don't Want To Do It

The following post was originally published on 5/10/08.

One of the best professors I have ever had once asked me if I wanted to become a professor because I never really wanted to leave college behind. My answer, of course, was Yes. Yes, that's precisely it. I loved living among and learning aside bright, inquisitive people and I cherished the many wonderful intellectual exchanges I'd had as an undergraduate. And, yes, I said, the possibility of experiencing that sort of exchange, that beautiful sharing of minds, for my career, that was what motivated me to attend grad school. Of course, cynicism crept into my perspective as I found myself driving deeper and deeper into my studies. The publish or perish mentality, the university politics I saw swirling around me, the realization that many students are not in college to learn for the sake of learning, the economic realities of the profession: they all contributed to a less idealistic impression of what higher education is (which, I have learned, must be distinguished from what it could be). Still, beneath the dissatisfaction, under the layers of scar tissue caused by comments such as "reading is stupid" or "I don't ever really finish homework," I always looked forward to the exchanges I knew were possible.

One thing that I have learned is that some classes are just better than others. Sometimes you get a group of students that really click, that work together like a well-oiled engine. Other times, it feels you've got jalopy chugging along, about to sputter out and die. Inevitably, you wonder "have I lost it?" and "what did I do wrong?" And, indeed, you will find several things every semester -- several shoulda-couldas -- that would have made things better had you thought to do things differently. Often, you'll have one "good" class and one "bad" class the same term, even though the material each class is identical, and you'll wonder why, just why, your strategies work for one but not the other. Of course, classes are like any other randomized group of people. Some folks get along well with others; some people don't. Some students appreciate a particular teaching style; others do not benefit from it. Some people are quiet, others talkative; some diligent, others lazy. The binarism goes on ad infinitum: smart/not so smart, open-minded/closed-minded, nurturing/self-centered. And you never know how the mix of people is going to end up.

Once in a while, you have an exceptional class. You know, one that either blows your mind or makes you shake your head. More often than not, early morning classes tend to be quieter, a bit more reserved, noticeably groggier and later classes tend to be more active, occasionally hyperactive -- so the time slot factors into forming the classroom dynamic. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of my "best" classes have been mid-day courses full of well-rested but not restless people.

This semester, though, was an odd one for me. Many of my colleagues have mentioned that, for whatever reason(s), students this term have been markedly worse than in previous years. Fewer students turned in homework, more people withdrew from classes, attendance has been poor, and grades have been quite low. Furthermore, several of my students have mentioned that something "just didn't feel right" about this term. And, I have to admit, I felt a bit dismayed at times, too. There were days where I'd have prepared discussion questions only to find out that most of the class hadn't done their reading assignment. Some of the trouble, of course, stemmed from the fact that my classes were early in the morning -- which, given that so many of my students are commuters, often meant that they'd barely slept the night before. Another factor is that I taught at a community college this term where, prior to even meeting my classes, I was told that the percentage of students withdrawing from a given course would be quite high. In other words, students would drop out one-by-one until only a handful of the hardiest would remain. One of my colleagues went from twenty students in January to three at term's end. You could almost see the tumbleweed. And you could definitely see the pain it wreaked on her; it was not her fault but, as an educator, every lost student can feel like a personal failure -- or worse, a betrayal, an unfulfilled promise to enlighten, inspire, and improve.

I was lucky because I did not lose as many people as some of my colleagues. I did, however, struggle some days to engage groggy classes, to coax discussion out of students who simply hadn't read the assignment. Still, each of my classes had some wonderful students, eager to learn and succeed, and they made the rougher patches that much easier to weather.

The one truly bright spot in my week, however, was my Saturday class, a six-hour intensive writing class, populated by mostly older students. This class was wonderful. Every week, we'd have a lively discussion of our reading. The students' writing improved over the course of the semester, the pupils shaking themselves free of grammatical errors and the passive voice. It was a beautiful thing.

The most beautiful thing, though, was the way the class worked together. No one was excluded from our discussions and many were willing to provide support to a classmate academically and, in several extremely touching cases, emotionally. I found that discussions never lagged and that I became a better teacher as a result. My students inspired me. Their eagerness to learn ignited my eagerness to teach, to share the literature and ideas I love.

And I learned a hell of a lot. I've always felt that the best approach for a teacher of literature to have towards the discussions he or she leads is to share what he or she knows while being open to new ideas, especially those that challenge his or her previous beliefs. And, boy, I felt like a student again. Every Saturday, when I returned home from class, I felt enriched. I felt myself learning and it was wonderful.

Today, on the last day of class, with a reading assignment due and no test looming to make certain everyone read, we had an amazing discussion of Emily Dickenson and The Seventh Seal, making all sorts of connections I never would have thought possible. I leave this class a better person than when I started it with a fuller appreciation of the many (largely existential) texts we covered and a genuine love of teaching renewed, refreshed, and rekindled by this inspiring group of people. When we said our goodbyes, I received the sort of Thank Yous any teacher would be ecstatic to receive, I saw books I'd recommended tucked into bookbags and wedged between arms and torsos, and I watched some of the best teachers I've ever had walk out of the room. And for a moment, I wanted to cry with gratitude.

For all those rough days ahead: remember, Erik, this is why you're working on a dissertation: for the privilege, the honor, and the pleasure of the exchange of ideas, the expanding of minds and souls, and the forging of friendships.


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