Monday, January 14, 2008

Teaching from Fear

This is my "favorite" student evaluation comment from last term:
Slick Willy needs to be reminded that a class is not a Ph.D. oral defense—few students, if any, care about his radical new academic reading of The Republic, or his pontificating on the meaningless, petty aspects of the text. Students register for this class expecting to get a reasonably thorough understanding of early and important works of political philosophy. Instead, they get windy explanations on pedantic and arcane (and supremely uninteresting) details from the text. Roberts is undeniably a bright and articulate guy, but he's stuck in graduate school pretensions. If this continues, Roberts will become the epitome of McGill's worst (but all too often typical)—professors who are stuck in their own academic world, who care nothing about students or teaching.
Of course, I would like to protest. That's not me. It's laughably wrong. Etc. And yet...

There is no denying that moving from Washington & Jefferson College to McGill University intimidated the hell out of me. My new colleagues intimidated me, but the students intimidated me even more. Or, at least, I felt on display before them, pinned and mounted in the market of their affections. And the bigger of my two classes was, by far, the worst in this regard. And I taught it from the position of my fear: I prepared endlessly, I tried to impress them with my erudition, I tried to make myself feel necessary. So, in that sense, this student is right: I approached class as if it were a Ph.D. oral defense. Or at least, as if I needed to defend myself.

I would like to think I got past that over the course of last term. It certainly was not a monotonous feature of even the Greek political theory course (and my smaller course, on 19th Century theory was radically different, and much more successful). But there was too much of it, for sure. So, I'm sorry for that, my anonymous hater.

This term, the scariest class for me is Aristotle, but not because of the students, per se. It is more the specter of the multiple Aristotle scholars in the Philosophy Department, who are not looking over my shoulder at all, but who inhabit my brain anyway, like so many super-egos. So far, I think I have handled this fear better; I'm still preparing like a madman, but I told my students on the first day (and again on the second) that I was the least necessary thing in the classroom, and that they didn't need me to explain the text to them. I don't mind being thought of as a tough teacher, a hard grader, or the like. I just don't want to teach from out of my fears.


Mickey's Mom said...

I congratulate you on having what we in my field (psychiatry and psychodynamics) call "self-observing ego." You're a quick study: it takes may patients in analysis and therapy YEARS to get what you've come to in a term. My son is a first year at McGill. You're right: tough crowd. They know that if one can't make it comprehensible and meaningful for them, one probably is a little defensive. Relax! Make the material sing for them- be joyful about the work, your life's work and they will respond in kind!! :) Good luck!

unemployed negativity said...

had a similar experience when I (briefly) switched from teaching at a state school to teaching at a small quasi-elite liberal arts college. A combination of fear and a misplaced sense of opportunity led me to teach some of the most over the top classes of my life, basically graduate classes.

I think that you are right to focus on the affective force underlying the teaching rather than the content. Students respond to fear, boredom, and excitement at a fundamental level, the imitation of affects.

It also helped me to realize that despite all of the hierarchical divisions between different types of schools, college students are basically college students.

Will Roberts said...

mickey's mom: Thanks for the words of encouragement.

u.n.: I agree that college students are college students, but your second point is even more important, I think, and cuts across whatever sociological generalizations one might make. Being in the position of a student, regardless of all other factors, subjects you to a teacher's way of being.