I do not blog as much about my teaching experiences in relation to their significance in my life (but see here), in part, because I want to protect the privacy and, more subtly, the intimacy of my experiences with my students (recall). But the main reason I tend to avoid it is that I am alert to some of the romanticizing dangers inherent to the self-actualization (or self-fashioning) of these Digressions; I find teaching a difficult craft, and it is tempting to craft an image of how I prefer to see myself as a teacher. While authenticity is overrated, such an image would merely reveal my desires and insecurities.
Yesterday evening I was a solitary walker in Ghent, debating internally to catch a bite at a place with free wifi, so I could write yesterday’s post and get to bed early, or go to a place with better and more slowly served food. I was mildly concerned about a guest-speaker, who had to cancel a talk due to illness. I stopped in front of an Indian place with an excellent buffet; they had no wifi, but I could be done fairly quickly while not sacrificing quality. Yet, I hesitated; through the window I saw an empty restaurant except for a familiar face talking animatedly with her table-partner. I knew if I went in I would have to make some small talk. At first, I thought it was a fellow coffee-aficionado from Amsterdam who had moved to Ghent, but as I decided to step into the place, I realized it was a former student who greeted me with great enthusiasm and warmth, including (as Dutch adults greet each other) three pecks on my astonished cheeks, immediately invited me to join them for dinner, and launched into a narrative of her exciting projects as a street-artist, magazine editor, play-wright, and cultivator of poets and other noble souls. I was introduced to part of the magazine's editorial team, and was enthusiastically inducted into their secret plans to transform Dutch letters and aesthetics (and, in turn, I revealed some of the trade secrets I have learned from Nabokov); the evening left me little spare time for my daily Digression.
My first taste of academic teaching occurred when I was asked to lead a section of Professor Eichenberg’s ‘Introduction to International Relations’ at my Alma Mater a year after graduation. After a few weeks I realized I wanted to do this with the rest of my life. Now, ‘Ike’ was a very gifted teacher—he had an amazing capacity to remember students’ names and faces, and could make a capacity filled, giant lecture hall seem like an intimate seminar. He was also very smooth; when I brought my dad to the lecture during my first semester of college, he called on me by name (to my dad’s delight and my astonishment) and made sure to have himself introduced to my dad after class.
Yet, as I started to develop my inchoate, personal ‘philosophy of education’ in graduate school – my head filled with reflections on many noble, but contradictory exemplars (in addition to the portraits of Socrates and Thoreau, the stories about Anscombe and Wittgenstein, as well as my teachers of flesh-and-blood ) --, I grew suspicious of teachers that want to be loved and adored by their students. I rejected, especially, the professors that loved to hear themselves talk (an occupational hazard) to rapt, admiring audiences. Our calling as educators should not be about full-filling our own needs even if we, thereby, meet some of the revealed preferences of our students, I decided, and thereby exhibiting the Protestant roots of my Dutch childhood.
To be clear, then, as now, I do not reject the image of ‘professor as performance-artist.’ I forget who taught me this (if you are reading this: sorry!), but all great philosophical teaching is about taking some features of one’s character, magnifying and using them to generate interactions that serve one’s varied (and variable) pedagogical aims (which may also include generating space for surprise, of course), but which, for me, always includes the idea that if teaching fills any of the teacher’s needs then it should be in virtue of learning from my students (recall my remarks above about dangers of self-fashioning). One reason I am so fruitfully frustrated and fascinated by Seneca's style of teaching in his Letters, is that he seems not very interested in learning from his official protégé.
After a professional decade in the class-room, I know I am not uniformly loved by my students; the evaluations are always polarized with a group of students always strongly disliking my class-room persona. (I am against using evaluations in promotions/pay, but I find them very informative in lots of ways.) While I would behave differently if I could have stayed at Wesleyan – where teachers often really are in loco parentis --, these days if I socialize with students at all then only after I have turned in my grades.
Former students keep in touch with unsolicited letters and, more recently facebook updates: some of the more academically interested of these have become, or are struggling to be, professional academics in turn. Quite a few of my undergraduate teachers were -- and continue to be -- mentors (recall), and I very much enjoy passing on, when possible, the good karma (or is it dharma?), comradery, and the joys of shared intellectual inquiry to the youngsters.
But I am more touched when former students give me their, as it were, postmortem perspective years later and, thereby, reveal that they were inspired by their interactions with my class-room persona and, by that mysterious creative alchemy, transform these into unanticipated sparks that help animate their activities. While it may be a necessary act of vain self-deception, I tell myself that this is what my calling is about.