Friday, April 27, 2007

End of Semester Reflections

We have reached the last day of instruction and not a minute too soon. I've actually come to enjoy teaching, although it often feels like my pleasure is completely solitary; but it's also exhausting work. Often a day in which I've only taught three one-hour recitations will end with me asleep in the grad student lounge. People think our jobs are easy because the hours are short. I've had full-time construction jobs that were less physically and mentally enervating.

It's exhausting for the students as well. By the end of the semester, teaching is a lot like being the member of an occupying army. Their hostility is barely muted. You get the sense that the natives are getting restless, that in a few more weeks they'd be rioting. The last day of the semester feels like you're leaving the roof of the embassy in Vietnam clinging to the landing gear of a helicopter. It's a narrow escape.

Teaching in the liberal arts is uniquely challenging because, ultimately, we are concerned with developing the inner lives of our students, and this is something that seems to have no utilitarian function whatsoever. This is especially difficult in a blue-collar town like the one I teach in where an inner life seems like a special privilege that the students have no real right to. I've grown accustomed to the macho bluster of my students, and the anger and irritation they express whenever a discussion verges on the abstract and away from the functional. I remain convinced that these things have value.

In essence, I attempt to explain to my students the historical contexts that came before them and the ones that they were born into; not only is this 'boring' to them, but it hints at the correcting power of tradition and the inhibiting power of context. It is ultimately somewhat conservative. No matter what our personal political views are, educators in the liberal arts are, by nature, culturally conservative. At least in a Burkean sense; in the face of a society that is endlessly fascinated with the new, the novel, and the fleeting, we are staunch defenders of cultural tradition. We are the people who demand that the dead and departed still be taken seriously. We honor intellectual and scholarly traditions that are seen as restraining. We are scourges. We can be a drag. Some of can be downright curmudgeonly.

But, we also care very much about our students. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the job. There is something deeply brackish about reading an essay that is simply not written at a college-level; you feel queasy about the fact that the student is actually in college and somewhat nauseous about the decision before you. The worst part of it is that, as unpleasant as teenagers can be, they all mean to succeed at this, and some of them simply don't. I spent an inordinate amount of time this semester reading multiple drafts of the 'final' essay because I desperately wanted my students to do well on the assignment. The most painful experience I've had this semester was with a student who wrote five drafts of the essay, but never really understood the question she was answering no matter how many times I explained it to her. Part of understanding history is being able to orient events in time and space, and some people simply can't do that. As much as we like to believe that it's just a matter of our patience and kindness in teaching these things, and the students' diligence in studying them, sometimes that isn't true.

So we're put in the position of teaching something that can be extremely frustrating to learn, which the larger culture finds to be inutile in the first place. Remember again that many of my students are third generation steelworkers; what do they care about neo-Platonism or dependency theory? Is it worth flunking a girl who is studying to be a nurse simply because her essay was so off-the-mark?

Of course not. For all of my old-fashioned reverence for the ennobling ideas of the past, I can be just as utilitarian as anyone else. I am endlessly forgiving of the failings of my students, because I sense that many of them came to us completely detached from any sort of larger culture whatsoever. They hate us and we forgive them. We push them to make huge strides, they make very small steps, and we celebrate those small steps. As much as I despond here on this blog, I am likely known as a kind and indulgent TA. My students make the slightest effort and it makes my whole week. They approximate the right information on an essay exam and I give them a high grade. I am a softy who takes the slightest sign of life from them as proof that they have incredible potential and that education can still be a transformative experience. I remain convinced that these students have value.


gregvw said...

Your semesters seem to be on a vastly different schedule than ours. Since I am a postdoc, I am ostensibly allowed to teach classes here. Next semester (fall?) it appears as though I may be offering a course in spectral element methods. Frankly the idea of teaching a graduate math course in German gives me the fear.

Would you feel ready to teach in French?

Rufus said...

No, my speaking is still pretty bad. I can understand people who are speaking French and read and write fine. But the speaking still needs work.