Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fall Back into Teaching

As I anticipate returning to regular classroom teaching this fall, I smile at the prospect of those "first days," the chance to meet new classroom cohorts and imagine them becoming communities of learning. My years directing the university Peer Mentor Program (wrapping up this May) have added a number of positive experiences to my life, along with plenty of useful skills to my repertoire. All the same, I am excited to get back into a more traditional classroom environment, at least for a while. Looking forward to that opportunity, I also look backward to undergraduate and graduate professors whose varied teaching styles are somehow mixed and mingled in my own professorial persona.

Back at Berry College, labeled by one of my mentors as a "little Ivy," I remember rich, polished staircases and an almost reverential hush when walking through Hermann Hall, and I recall one professor who brought an old school lecture style to his classroom. Surely I'm over-dramatizing the details, but I can still see this guy walking up to the podium and literally reading from a yellow legal pad. No videos. open-ended conversations. No class skits. Just a man reading his notes.

And his notes were scintillating. Again, this is a rosy memory distanced by more than 15 years, but I dug his classes. Listening to this fellow's recitations you could follow a complex line of thinking from point to point, concept to concept, objective to objective. There was no fluff and no razzle-dazzle. Just ideas, from his mind to yours. Some students hated the whole thing, of course, and I even made a little money running nighttime tutoring sessions for folks struggling to make sense of it all. Still, for all the classroom parties I've forgotten in other classes, I won't forget the lessons I learned by watching a professor work his ideas in front of us.

At the same time, I remember another professor, this time at Ohio University, who needn't have done more than read his published essays out loud to earn our regard. He was, and is, that well respected. Indeed, I remember one occasion when I was serving as his co-instructor (really as a glorified TA), when the professor announced, "Sorry, class, but there's no other way for me to cover this material. I'm going to have to simply lecture for the next hour..." He seemed genuinely apologetic about needing to lecture. The students didn't mind at all. His rare choice to lecture served as kind of a special occasion.

Moreover, one evening when I was taking one of his heavy theory classes, the kind in which doctoral candidates would sift through recently published essays and try to impress each other (and the prof, naturally) with down-inflected confidence, he said, "Look, I'm not sure how to make sense of these readings. We're going to have to explore this stuff together." Again, no one could doubt his gravitas, but I think I respected him even more when I saw his willingness to allow us to play inside one of his intellectual frontiers.

Striking that balance, locating myself along the continuum of knowledge-transference and knowledge-exploration, is a shifting goal, one producing an emergent persona that must adapt to the mood of the room and the objectives of the day. Sometimes I will necessarily plow through an idea; other times I'll cheerfully admit that I have no specific outcome for our interaction, that getting there will be all the fun. Both ways, and in others I can't quite anticipate, I will enjoy the adventure of teaching and learning. Honestly, I can't imagine having a better job.

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