Friday, February 07, 2014

Frustrating teachers

Had the unusual pleasure today of being interviewed about my teaching by a scholar of higher education. How I become interested in what I teach was a familiar question, and I often talk to friends about the why and wherefore of particular courses, but I can't recall the last time someone asked me about my own best experiences of being taught.
(Snowy rails at 125th St.)
Three teachers came to mind. One was Rose Sleigh, a legendary, perhaps infamous, English teacher at Torrey Pines High School. She gave the students in her freshman humanities course insanely long and advanced things to read (Walden II, Howard's End, The Gulag Archipelago, etc., in their entirety); parents complained bitterly each year, to no avail. She also taught us how to formulate a thesis, make an argument, write. Once, some years later, I had a moving conversation with her about becoming a teacher: you have to be willing to be like a train station, she said, accepting that all your students will move on to places you won't go, leaving you behind...

But what I recalled today was when she called us up individually halfway through the semester and asked us what grade we thought we deserved. Expecting her to protest I said with false modesty "a B or B+." She called my bluff: that sounded about right, she said. Why was this what I remembered? Was it the moment when a teacher shows you that you're capable of better than you imagined? (I cherish similar memories of students who - if not right away - thank me for giving them their first C.) I described it to the interviewer as the moment when the teacher's pet learned that the instructor's approbation was not the point, something bigger than both of them was at stake.

The second formative teacher I thought of was Sabina Lovibond, one of my tutors at Oxford, with whom I studied the later Wittgenstein. What I remembered was that I found her tutorials intensely frustrating. Every time I left not only with my questions unanswered but with more questions. On reflection this must be the case for any teaching of that material; I didn't realize how effectively she had in fact been teaching me until I read her book a few years later and found every one of its incisive arguments familiar and intuitive. But that's not what I dwelt on today. Rather, I thought - for the first time, in fact - of the lonely generosity of that teacher who won't give students a false sense of comfort or closure. Yes, she communicates to them the open-endedness of inquiry, but a tutorial is a very personal thing - one or two students at a time for an hour a week - and she must have known her students were grousing.

The third was (of course) Victor Preller at Princeton, whose advice when I started teaching was "never pander." He was a frustrating teacher too, like a language teacher who wouldn't simplify for a beginning student, and many of my classmates found it maddening, just couldn't understand what he was talking about in that Godlike voice of his. I must have been frustrated too, but can't remember that; what I remember is when it all made sense - all of it at once. (He called this "when the penny dropped.") I discovered, sooner than some of my classmates, that he was available for endless hours of one-on-one discussion which confirmed that, while no panderer, he was an expert reader of people and fascinated by how each of his students made her way to understanding - what he was teaching, ethics, hermeneutics and religion, connected deeply with our whole lives.

It was interesting to be asked about formative experiences of being taught, and interesting that these are the ones that come to mind. I usually understand and describe my pedagogy as "Weberian," offering "inconvenient truths" for every party position but scrupulously avoiding revealing my own views. (Do I even have a view? Question for another day!) But all of these teachers were sharing things they passionately believed in. On the other hand, none of them let me believe I had arrived when I hadn't - they never pandered. They were attentive and available (and doubtless very patient!), but our interactions were in the service of something bigger than us, like friends (to bring in Victor's beloved Aristotle) united in a love of justice.

I don't know if I measure up to these exemplars at all; you'd have to ask my students. My interviewer repeated from what I said "the frustrating teacher" as if it were a known category: that at least I know I have achieved! I may pander along the way, but most students finish my courses in frustration. "I don't even know what XYZ means anymore!" Am I deluded to think I sometimes hear some gratitude in that, a sense not so much lost and confused as empowered, even liberated? That they've learned that further questions, thought, inquiry, discovery are necessary - and possible? The way I described the aim of my current course to the interviewer was getting students to have a sense of the processes by which a thing called "Buddhism" has become available to people like us, and to appreciate that they can understand and even participate in these processes... a perhaps more democratic perspective I learned from a great teacher I've known only as a friend, Joan Tronto.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the thing I remember about most ms. Sleigh was her speech about the day a large black woman sat next to her on the train, and how intensely "awful" she smelled (followed by long awkward silence of us students as we cast downward glances toward the one black student in our class)...and of course her bedroom slippers.

The next year when I was a senior my vocabulary teacher (I was coasting before leaving for Berkeley) asked us if we would refuse to send our children to war if drafted. I raised my hand with half the class. She took one look at me, pointed a long lily white finger and yelled "you! Go back to where you came from!".

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