What happens when we teach? It’s a more peculiar process than you might think.
To illustrate, here’s one of those True-Stories-That-Are-Also-Parables we writers like so much: My first term in graduate school, I landed in a research seminar taught by an old guy nearing retirement. Apparently he’d been hot stuff back in the 1930s, but in 1968, not so much. He hadn’t published anything in years, and from our fifteen weeks together I can remember only two classroom moments. One came when he hauled out from his desk some photocopies he’d made years earlier, of a seventeenth-century ship-building contract– he thought maybe he could publish the details in a model-ship-building magazine. The other time, he showed up twenty minutes late, wet from the rain, and mad because he couldn’t find on-campus parking. It was like a laboratory demonstration of Clark Kerr’s joke about the duties of a university president– to provide football for the alumni, sex for the undergraduates, and parking for the faculty. There were only four of us students. We crammed into his office for a couple of hours every week, listened to him ramble on, then went home and did our research.
So this was about as hopeless a teaching set-up as you could find– yet the seminar turned out to be quite the big deal for us students. All four of us wrote seminar papers that turned into dissertations, and all the dissertations became respectable university press books; we all got decent academic jobs, though one of us bailed out of the profession (and into law school) before getting tenure.
Every parable needs a moral, so here’s mine: we see part of what goes on in a classroom, but there’s lots we don’t see– invisible forces swirling around, electrical charges sparking and fusing at subatomic levels, multiple temporalities colliding and redirecting one another. Had there been teaching evaluations back then, we’d have given Professor X F-minuses, and the deans would have packed him off to teacher remediation boot camp. But then, check out his “learning outcomes”– meaning, did the course give us students what we signed up to get? That’s the big metric now in vogue among administrators, and according to it Professor X belongs in the Teaching Excellence Hall of Fame.
Now, I understand the objections to making anything much of my story. It’s just one example, and graduate school is a peculiar business; we were bright, proto-professional keeners, not disaffected freshmen. Anyway, it was a long time ago, when the world had more room for ineffectual bumblers like Professor X.
All fair enough, but I’ve encountered less dramatic examples of the Professor X story all my life– bad teachers from whom I learned a lot, certified teaching stars who left me bewildered and/or scared. Of course some of those stars were the obvious fakes, the bombastic performers with nothing to say, but some were the real deal– I just wasn’t ready for what they were offering. I see the same things happening these days among the students I encounter.
Obviously that explains some of the subatomic interactions going on in the classroom. People need different teaching at different moments in their lives. Sometimes a conscientious and brilliant instructor overpowers and discourages; sometimes the chance to feel snooty and superior about your teacher (as we did with Professor X) is just what the doctor ordered– it encourages intellectual adventurism, or just helps you survive a difficult stretch like the first weeks of graduate school. And then there are all the other logics– lucky encounters with the right mix of fellow students or with the right topics and books, no matter who’s teaching them.
But when we’ve said all this, there are still plenty of classroom forces at play whose logics elude us– and some that we don’t even see. Which is just to say, the classroom is a site of human interactions, much like other human interactions only moreso than most: more compact and intense, with more at stake, with more layers, more moving parts.
You don’t have to be inside the university to know this human-interaction model of teaching faces challenges nowadays– from online education, from students who feel they’ve already got too many human interactions in their lives, from shrinking university budgets, from measurement-besotted administrators.
All I can say is, check out those learning outcomes!