Tuesday, September 27, 2005


On Being a Teacher

This is a long one, so be forewarned.

I’m thinking about what it means to be a teacher. In a very real way – and perhaps this is because of the kind of institution at which I am employed – teaching and not research is more and more the means through which I define myself as an academic. It’s strange, because one of the reasons I chose graduate school over becoming a high school English teacher was because I couldn’t see myself as a teacher. Or, rather, I thought I might like it ok, but I thought it was ultimately something that was easy or not very important. I’m not sure what this says about me, or about the kind of teachers that I had. This isn’t to say that I had no good teachers – I had many good teachers – or that I didn’t have teachers who were central to my successes. But I suppose that I believed that I liked them separately from any sort of influence they might have had over my intellectual development. I saw my intellectual development as my own, and I was empowered by that. And so I left my undergraduate career believing that in the end my teachers weren’t really of vast importance. I mean, sure, they chose what to make me read, and that was cool, but I didn’t see teaching as part of the attraction to academia, except in terms of teaching being the means by which I would get to have a schedule of my own choosing and a vehicle for the Great Thoughts that I would (of course) be thinking.

On the one hand, I think the academic track courts people with this attitude. If I had any sort of reverence for teaching in itself, I’m not sure I would have bothered with graduate school. I mean, that’s a lot of years to spend if one is “just” going to be a teacher at the end of the day. I didn’t want “just” to be a teacher; I wanted to rise into the intelligentsia.

And so now I am employed at a teaching institution. And after settling into my career at this institution, I wonder if I had it wrong when I started out, about the importance of teaching to who I am. It’s in the classroom – and it always has been – and not in my head or on paper – that the things that I study are alive. It’s in the conversations that I have with my students that I feel passion for my field, much more so than in my conversations with colleagues or in my solitary intellectual pursuits.

But to define oneself through one’s teaching is problematic because whether I am a “good” teacher isn’t ultimately decided by me. My authenticity as a “good teacher” only exists inasmuch as my students authenticate me, inasmuch as they trust me to guide them through whatever course it is that they take with me. Now, this summer I sat with my courses and redefined them and tried to come to them fresh. Part of this was out of fear: I’m teaching an upper-division course this semester that scared the shit out of me even though, of course, the whole thing was my own idea; I knew that my writing courses last year sucked and I was afraid of them continuing to suck and of growing to hate them even more than is my natural inclination. And so I made some changes, I did some preparation, and I entered the semester excited and fresh. But as I sit through this conference week, it’s clear to me that all of that, while it made me feel good and while it contributes to how I’m feeling about my classes this semester, is not enough to make good teaching. This week it has crystallized for me that it’s not enough that I am committed to my teaching but rather that my students authorize me as a good teacher and that I win them.

It’s not about the assignments that I design or about the level of difficulty of the material or about how much I challenge them, or cut them some slack, not at the end of the day. At the end of the day it’s about whether they trust that what I’m doing is getting them somewhere. Now, I can’t inspire that trust without the assignments and the material and all of that, but that’s because as much as I’m a natural performer I feel like I need some kind of reality behind the performance. I can’t sell something that I believe sucks. But their trust is ultimately the key. They need to feel comfortable being vulnerable in the classroom. They need to believe that they can take risks; they need to believe that there is a method to my madness.

This semester, I think they do. But I’ve got to give them credit for that, too. Because part of it is that I like my students so much this semester. I got lucky: I have a good mix. And it’s not because they’re all geniuses or something. Come on, I teach at RCU. It’s because I’ve got a student who wore a Death Cab For Cutie T-shirt the other day; it’s because I’ve got students who are willing to keep reading one of the most difficult novels they’ll ever read and to trust me to guide them through it while at the same time they are completely open in telling me that they both hate it and are lost in it. (I should say, that they are not nearly so lost as they believe they are, and I give myself props for that. They’ll only realize it like 10 years from now, but from the questions they ask and the things that they notice it is clear that they so fucking get it. It’s amazing to realize that they do, in spite of their insecurities.) It’s because I’ve got students who have recognized the way that I respond when I think they’re not quite getting something – you know, with the “Yes… that’s one way of looking at it… but if we add to that this thing that’s completely unrelated…” and they laugh, because they know that they got it completely wrong but they also know that I’m trying to be supportive of their attempt. And they don’t feel like I’m being condescending or mean (I don’t think) because they still keep trying. In other words, at the end of the day, it’s their show and not mine.

I’m not imparting my Great Wisdom to them. I’m having an experience with them. And I respect them. Yes, I’m coming to that experience with more education and more familiarity. And yes, ultimately I evaluate their performance. There is a hierarchy in our relations. But we are in it together.

Last year I wasn’t in it with my students in most of my classes. And I think that is why I was feeling so insecure about my teaching. I felt like I was doing something wrong. I felt like the success or failure of my classes was all on me. I forgot, ultimately, what I felt as a student – that as a student I thought my teachers weren’t that important other than as facilitators for my Deep Thoughts. The best teachers were the ones for whom it wasn’t all about them. And this semester, I don’t think it is all about me. And somehow that makes it easier to define myself through my teaching, even if to do so with this in mind seems entirely counterintuitive.

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