Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Worst of Teachers, & How Not To Be Him

My teacher was not Satan, but he shared some qualities with Donald Sutherland's character in "Animal House."

I was just reading some advice on teaching that asked me to think about the worst teacher I ever had, and consider what he or she had done wrong.  There was a fifth grade teacher who was authoritarian because she was insecure, and who kept getting factual things wrong. She did not appreciate being corrected by her charges (often by me, precocious in intellect, deficient in tact).  But now that I look back I’d put all that down to what I imagine to have been her inexperience.  It is quite probable that she became better.

No, the worst teacher I ever had—a man for whom I feel only compassion—was an English professor from whom I took a Brit lit survey, the kind of course I often teach now.  I don’t think I’m alone in having caught the whiff of failure rising from him: his career was far from stellar.  Poking around on the internet just now I see he left his first job at a branch of a big state university after six years: likely from failing to make tenure (this despite his impeccable ivy league pedigree).  He landed at the undistinguished, provincial university where I studied and, after more than thirty years of service, retired as an associate professor, never having made the top rank.  Moreover, he was denied emeritus status upon retirement: a sign that the department may have held him in less than high esteem.  As an academic, his name was writ on water.

I was too young and too involved in what we might call "amateur pharmaceuticals" in my freshman year to have much of a sense of what was going on around me, but I knew something was wrong when the professor in question grew angry with the class and demanded we split into a front section of those who wanted to participate and a back section that didn’t.  Two people moved to the front on the first day of this new policy, but by the second they’d crept back into the great mass of the unwilling.  Clearly the professor felt things were going badly, and just as clearly his remedy had failed.

But just what did he do wrong?  Well, that confrontational attitude toward the students was a part of it. I think a larger part was his failure to give us a sense of what we were doing, of how any part of the course related to the whole.  He titled each class section – “The Last Romantics,” say, or “The Victorian City”—but no one I knew ever seemed to pick up the thread.

And that’s not all.  Larger even than the directionlessness was the sense he gave of no longer caring much for what he was doing.  He seemed like a man who knew he’d failed to convey an enthusiasm for literature, and failed for so long his initial enthusiasm had, itself, begun to fade.  Indeed, he had the air of a man in whom all the appetites of life had failed.  Later, when I became friends with a student who had known the professor’s son, I heard that the professor used to take his family for drives in the country every Sunday.  The son had asked why, and the prof had replied “because there has to be something to do, even if there’s nowhere to go.”  It seemed like quiet desperation, and quiet desperation rarely inspires the young.

Since we're discussing teachers, I feel I should look for a lesson.  I suppose the lesson here for teachers, if there is one, is to be a little bit in love with things.  The students will notice.