The Times on “Teaching”

Reading the New York Times Magazine’s College Life issue this morning was nothing if not a reminder that representations of cultures are seldom analogous to the material realities of those who live in them.  I’ve written here before about popular representations of professors (and how those resemble approximately 2% of my colleagues), but the Times today expands its reach to include not just professors, but teaching and writing as well.

It begins with an article titled “Those Who Write, Teach.”  The title suggested to me, as it would to many in the profession (particularly those of us at teaching institutions), the long-standing conversation about the connections between scholarly work and teaching.  In essence, how does your research inform what you do in the classroom, and vice versa?  How might you address the very real difficulties of carving out time to stay current in your field while attending to your students’ learning processes?

Instead, “Those Who Write” is a first person piece by David Gessner, in which he describes the plight of the writer “in captivity”—i.e., trapped by an academic job that slowly sucks the wildness out of him and his writing.  To be fair to Gessner, there’s not a teacher alive who doesn’t fantasize about what she could be doing if she weren’t grading papers, fielding student questions, preparing for class.  But I can’t help getting my feathers ruffled by two things here: first, the ambivalence of the title worries me.  Is it referencing the old inspiring saw “those who CAN, teach,” and thus making writing (here strictly defined as creative writing) the equivalent of ability?  Or is it more insidious, calling to mind instead the insult “those who CAN’T, teach” and thereby insinuating that writing within the confines of the academy eventually leads to a lack of ability?

Second, Gessner’s image of the work of teaching troubles me.  Even as he critiques an earlier era of creative writing pedagogy (“learn by osmosis” from the “great man or woman”), he cites his love for teaching as one that’s grounded in sharing his work, in being a great entertainer, in being surrounded by people committed to writing.  On top of this, the job provides a stable daily structure, a “badge” of legitimacy, and the aggregate of all of this moves toward balancing the ways in which he must trade “reading great literature and communing with writers of the past” for “apprentice writing.”

There’s something crucial that’s missing from Gessner’s description of teaching, and that is arguably it’s most important characteristic: the one where you learn from your students, and learn to teach them to learn.  I’m in deep cliched water here, I have no doubt, but it’s very simply true: there is great joy and daily reward from the surprise of what students see that you’ve missed; in experimenting with various approaches to connect what they already know with what you hope they’ll take away from any given text.

The innate reciprocity of teaching is also missing from the Times’ second article: Virginia Heffernan’s study of professors on YouTube.  I’ll spare you the close textual analysis here, but suffice to say that as she ranks and assesses the available videos, she constructs a very particular equation:  virtuoso teaching=charismatic lecture=box-office gold.  I have no interest in rehashing ye olde lecture vs. seminar debate.  A great lecture is all of the things that Heffernan so closely observes in the videos she cites.  Yet I can’t help but flinch at such a medieval definition of teaching.  A “sage on the stage” is still that, even if the stage has become an international and digital one.  There’s a special irony here too, of using one of the most popular forms of Web 2.0 technology—a designation that highlights the interactivity of the medium—to relay content without reciprocity.

The “college life” issue is one of many recent representations of college life (see Smart People, Elegy, the movie College for god’s sakes).  Any more, and a careful cultural critic might begin to suspect that we’re hell-bent on representing a single professor and his/her well-wraught pedagogical urn in order to distract ourselves from all of the other types of college experiences out there.

4 thoughts on “The Times on “Teaching”

  1. “Medieval” eh? I do like to point out to my students that if they were in the Middle Ages 1) most of the women would have to leave, 2) most of their assignments would be the same but in Latin, and 3) they would be copying things down on wax tablets, memorizing it and then wiping it clear for the next lesson.

    There’s something crucial that’s missing from Gessner’s description of teaching, and that is arguably it’s most important characteristic: the one where you learn from your students, and learn to teach them to learn.

    Yes, the real treasure of teaching, what keeps people going on when grading piles up, colleagues disparage and time ticks on — that amazing alchemy.

    2%? Seems high to me — I don’t know anyone with an office like Dustin Hoffman’s in Stranger than Fiction and even though I know the instructor who inspired the writer of Dead Poet’s Society even he — with his Foghorn Leghorn voice — is no comparison to Robin Williams’ portrayal.

  2. I was thinking “medieval” in the sense of lecture format as only form of learning, but I will bow to your expertise!

    I thought the 2% was generous as well. But I figured that somewhere, out there, is a prof who fits the bill.

  3. I don’t know whether one can teach creative writing. Perhaps that’s an area where the teacher’s role is mainly to facilitate the students’ learning.

    I am very sure that “uncreative” writing — the kind of expository prose we all must read and write — can be taught. I have a website soapbox dedicated to that thesis: http://www.you-can-teach-writing.com

    A person who has mastered the skill of writing can do a better job of teaching expository writing than someone who hasn’t. However, being a good writer doesn’t guarantee success at teaching writing. I’ve had dozens of teachers who were good writers; I can’t recall any who was good at teaching writing.

    Knowing the research on writing isn’t a great help to the writing teacher either. Many times it is written so poorly as to be nearly unintelligible.

    I think that the people who do the best job of teaching writing so all students learn to write competently are those who spent less time thinking about themselves and their writing and more time thinking about their students’ writing.

    If there is anything more exciting than seeing a student “get it” and start writing competently, if not fluently, I don’t know what it is. For me, that’s the ultimate high.

  4. Oh, just giving you a hard time — lecturing was the forte of the upscale scholar (think Peter [oh don’t go there!] Abelard) just as preaching was the norm of the ecclesiastical scholar (well, that and letters). Discussions were part of the medieval university, but that took a while to get going. There is the medieval appeal to authority to make a point, but even Chaucer and Geoffrey of Monmouth were willing to invent “olde bookes” for proof.

    Oddly enough, during a conversation with friends yesterday on a completely different subject, I did put for the opinion that Protestantism, ironically perhaps, had a lot to do with our American culture of anti-intellectualism. The Puritan version anyway, which put aside Luther’s probing assaults, the history of exegesis and its ties to Hebrew scholarship and scholasticism, valued obedience above critical thinking. We’re still there, I fear.

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