What I’ve learned

On Monday I submitted grades, and this afternoon I reviewed my teaching evaluations. That closes the books on my 14th year as a college professor. I am currently 42 years old, so by my math, I have been doing this for roughly one-third of my life. That is strange to think about! I’ve been a higher ed teacher for longer than I myself was in higher ed, and longer than I was in public schools. Over the next couple years, I will be going through a major evaluation, so I’m in a reflective mood. Obviously the way I’ve chosen to live my life indicates that learning is very important to me. What have I learned?

Other than a two-year period as visiting faculty at Kalamazoo College, my entire teaching career has been spent as part of the Shimer Great Books program, first at the independent school in Chicago and subsequently at North Central College. As I’ve written many times before, that program has a very distinctive ethos. All of our courses are discussion-based seminars based on important primary sources — no textbooks, no lectures, no high-stakes in-class exams. Since joining North Central I have been called upon to teach outside the Shimer program and have needed to fold lecture-based pedagogy back into some courses, but the discussion model remains my center of gravity. My goal is always, somehow, to get as close as I can to the day where my students can sit in a circle and talk open-endedly about what they’ve read.

This consistent pedagogical training has had a huge impact on me as a person. First of all, it has mellowed me out. I am still in many ways the irritable and impatient person that this blog made infamous when I was in my 20s, but that part of myself comes out much more rarely, and essentially never with students or colleagues. I’ve always been interested in some kind of intellectual community, but engaging with my students in extended dialogue day after day, year after year, brought home to me how much culvitating that community is an act of service and care. I was and still am attracted to the “sage on stage” model (which I am able to indulge periodically in invited lectures), but the kind of teaching I’ve been called upon to do has forced me to to stay more in the background, facilitating the process of other people working through ideas rather than showing off what I have figured out. This has led me to claim that I’m one of the only male academics out there who knows how to shut up and listen to others.

But it’s not just about listening. I decided early on that I would always be honest and straightforward about my own viewpoint and interpretation, whenever it seems appropriate to share. I find it off-putting and arrogant when professors proudly announce that, for instance, they want students to be able to get to the end of the semester not knowing whether they’re an atheist or a believer, or a Democrat or Republican. When I put forward a particular interpretation of the text — supported by textual evidence, of course! — my students set to work assessing it for themselves using those same means. Often I learn that my reading is half-baked and I need to go back to the drawing board. I’ve never had a student adopt my viewpoint because it was my viewpoint. This experience makes it hard for me to take seriously the idea that students are or could be indoctrinated in college.

That being said, I don’t think it’s boastful to say that I know a lot about a surprising range of topics. That’s the other side of the Great Books curriculum — since the center of authority is the class materials rather than the professor, scholarly expertise is not only unnecessary but can be a positive obstacle. I’ve spent most of my career at Shimer teaching outside my areas of expertise, and I’ve always found it pedagogically helpful for me to be learning alongside the students.

In fact, a big part of our training was to literally be learning alongside the students, by auditing courses. My first semester at Shimer College also marked my return to the classroom as a student, where I sat in on Humanities 1: Art and Music. Fine arts topics have since become a staple of my teaching, as I try to incorporate some art and music into every course where it’s halfway plausible. It’s been incredibly rewarding to reconnect with classical music and to gain a deeper appreciation for painting and sculpture. As a direct result of these teaching experiences, I am now a regular at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and I have the holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago virtually memorized.

The Shimer program pushed me to develop a whole new teaching competence in Islam, which is now becoming a scholarly interest for me as well. It gave me the unique opportunity to teach courses in the history of science, including actual labs — how many theology PhDs can say they have taught lab science courses? It has broadened and deepend my knowledge of the classics of the Western tradition and pushed me to engage with the classics of other traditions as well. I left grad school as a committed generalist, but my teaching has transformed me into what I consider a truly educated person — not just someone who happens to know a lot, but someone who has learned how to learn in a wide and expanding number of areas. As My Esteemed Partner characterizes my approach to teaching, my motto is, “I haven’t taught that — yet!”

That experience of broad and deep learning and the genuine satisfaction and joys it brings has in turn looped back to my teaching. I may have a special knack for this kind of thing, but I believe everyone can become an open-ended sincere learner and that they deserve the chance to do so. At the old Shimer College, we had students of all ability levels, and everyone who took the process seriously grew as a thinker and as a person — “it works if you work it.”

We had the advantage back then of working with a self-selecting group of students who had opted into a particular kind of intellectual culture. Now we have to work harder to reach students who might be simply checking off a box, who might even resent more traditionally academic classes as an unnecessary waste of time when all they want to do is get a job. I haven’t found the secret formula by any means, but I do manage to reach some — to connect them with a part of themselves that is curious and interested and therefore interesting as well. Sometimes I feel like I’m putting out so much energy that I’m shaving days or weeks off my life expectancy, but enough students seem to find my performance of intellectual curiosity compelling that my classes can basically work as sites of some kind of inquiry — even that oddball gen-ed senior seminar that half of them were told was going to be about sprucing up your resume and practicing mock interviews but turns out to be a study of utopian and dystopian futures.

I don’t want to paint an unrealistically rosy picture. There are bad days in class and just plain bad classes. There is drudgery and conflict and stress and precarity and status anxiety and all manner of disappointments and frustrations that I have not yet learned to handle with as much grace and dignity as I’d like. But I’m still collecting regular paychecks, against all odds, and still living the life I’ve always wanted to live.

3 thoughts on “What I’ve learned

  1. Do you frequently use the whiteboard in these ‘discussion-based seminars’? I once had an English teacher who point blank appeared allergic to writing on one and used the whiteboard once to highlight key points in a whole year. All she did was talk. Worst teacher ever.

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