Wednesday, July 16, 2008


My teaching evaluations are in, and they are the highest scores I've ever received. They are high enough, in fact, to give me a moment of doubt and pause. I harbour certain suspicions about "popular" professors for the same reason I'm suspicious about popular restaurants: the customers may be lined up at the door, but the dodgy-looking place around the corner is usually much better.

Lately I've found myself thinking about the bad lecturers I had, the ones whose course evaluations say that they are "brilliant, but can't teach", as if any given undergraduate is qualified to be the final arbiter of either of those distinctions. One bad lecturer who made an enormous impression on me was a shambling calamity of an English professor, a woman whose daily shuffle to the classroom left marked and half-marked student essays strewn in her wake – they tumbled from the overstuffed plastic bags she carried everywhere she went. Once, while discussing an assignment with her in her office — imagine the interior of an antiquarian bookshop after a sizeable earthquake and you have some sense of the place — I heard a piteous ringing from beneath the rubble. She regarded me rather blankly and said, "Can you help me find my phone?" I've met professors who consciously pantomime a sort of absent-minded shtick, but this one was the real deal. Sitting in one of her lectures was like listening to someone talking in his sleep. Barely audible, only vaguely aware of the presence of others, she lectured in fits and starts. I recall thinking resentfully that we were watching a woman working out her own anxieties about the literature on the spot. How I hated her class. What I wanted was a bill of facts suitable for regurgitation on the final exam and thankfully there were plenty of "good" professors willing to oblige.

Judging from what I read about pedagogy, the modern "good" professor mounts a weekly multimedia extravaganza designed to compete with the lure of the wireless web, gives lectures organized around PowerPoint slides that are distributed on paper ahead of time, makes frequent, precisely-calculated pop-culture references engineered to get a laugh, in short, does everything and anything necessary to seize the attention of students for whom the promise of electronic amusement is only a click away. And so dutifully the students transfer their professor's lecture notes into their lecture notes (the notes pass through the brains of neither), make some effort to memorize them for the final, and then forget about them forever. We call this process "excellence in teaching" and reward it.

As time has passed, I've begun to realize that when I was my students' age it simply never occurred to me that there might be a disjuncture between what I liked and what I needed. In the geocentric universe I inhabited at age twenty, I sought nothing more than the maximum possible gratification for the least possible effort. I never considered that there was something to be said for groping my way through the wilderness of an intellectual's verbalization of an ongoing thought process, as opposed to the unthinking passivity of taking notes from PowerPoint (or, in those days, an overhead) presentation read by a scholar reduced to being an academic clerk. It never occurred to me that if it's hard it's because it's supposed to be; never occurred to me that the brain is like the bicep and that it won't grow unless you progressively overload it; and certainly it never occurred to me that getting smarter and not just getting through it is the goal of an education. Looking back, from the distance of eighteen (!) years, and having myself spent a great deal of time occupying the high ground on the far side of the podium, I wish that I could once again sit in my hated English professor's class, for I am certain that there is a great deal that I missed the first time around, and the fault was mine, not hers.

Well, I may not be an intellectual, but it is within the compass of meager abilities to pitch that ball higher and harder, and I intend to do so. I am resolved that to do otherwise is to do the one thing that no teacher should ever do – condescend to students. I don't know what students are getting from some of the biweekly edutainment recitals that I see them attending now, but more and more I'm of the opinion that calling it "learning" is like calling it "traveling" when you take a ride at Disneyworld.


Graham Broad said...

The image is of Jan Kanty (St. John Cantius), d. 1473, patron saint of teachers, among other things. He did all three of his degrees at the same institution, too.

Graham Broad said...

Alison informs me that the "can you find my phone" incident happened to her, in fact, and not to me. I have no doubt this is true. We had the same professor and such is the nature of our long friendship that sometimes the express details of our pasts are so intertwined as to blur the boundaries between them. For instance, there is the time that my brother Colin and I devised elaborate easter-egg hunting rituals, while Alison began dating my wife when they met in grad school. It's all very complicated.

Alison Hunter said...

But Graham, what is worse? The friend who forgets which experiences are his because of a long-standing frienship, or the friend who shamelessly tells her friend's humerous anecdotes as her own to gain leverage in social situations?

I'm not saying I DO that. I'm just asking. You know. Hypothetically.

Alison Hunter said...

That spelling mistake I made in my comment is HORRIFIC. So sorry. In the future, when I retell this story, it will be YOUR spelling mistake.