Sep 112013

Notes on leaving the classroom behind

By Joseph Anthony

I have always—to a fault—followed Theodore Roethke’s advice in his poem The Waking “to learn by going where I have to go.” So here I am still inching my way forward—35 years in—my last term of teaching, excited and anxious and still a bit lost.  I remember a student pausing  on his way out of class several years ago and saying: “You know. At first I was confused, but now I see your plan.”

I wanted to call him back from the hallway.

Tell me. What’s my plan?

What’s my plan?

Well, I always wanted to have fun. I wanted them to have fun—the kind of fun that comes with thinking hard. With discovering great poetry, great literature.  Complex ideas. To keep my mind alive. Theirs, too.  I was never much interested in teaching what I had to teach—the grammar, the outline, the details of research. I’ve done all that—I do all that—but it never really seemed where thinking came from.  When students are very weak grammatically, when their sentences are fragmented chips that never add up to a mosaic, or when  their paragraphs go on for pages with no discernible coherence like stroke victims or Joyce on acid, grammar is usually not their problem.  They either are completely at sea with the topic or they have some kind of mental difficulty—sometimes even mental illness. In any case, teaching subject/verb agreement will not suffice.

What will suffice?

Today in class, I had three discussions on what constituted the self.  I had them draw up particular components.  The discussion came out of an article by Mai Kao Thao, “Sins of Silence,” where she states that silence had almost killed herself, and from two short stories we had read, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan. Two of the classes were raucous and fun.  We circled the word dignity—pulled and tugged at it. How much autonomy do we need? When does autonomy turn into isolation? We started to examine reputation and how what others think of us enmeshes itself in what we think our self is.  A couple students disagreed with each other.  A couple disagreed with me.  I thought how interesting.

It was fun.

The third class, however, was, more or less, sullen and reluctant. After prodding, students would reach into their brains like one makes oneself answer a persistent child’s question, knowing there’ll be no peace until one does.  A student would reach into his/her brain and take one idea out. Not a new one. An old one just lying around but good enough to try to jam it into this discussion—like I’m forever trying to jam my ill-fitting storm windows into my old Victorian’s frames.  Make it fit and add duct tape.

OK, I said to one very young woman who looked annoyed at having her autonomy disturbed. Now consider that you might be mistaken and argue against yourself.  What do you mean she asked? This is what I think. I know, I said. Now act like your opponent. What arguments might you use to counter your ideas?

She repeated what she had just said, but a bit more emphatically. Old guys like me have a hard time understanding things.

It was not fun.

This third class is very young. The whole idea of discussion is foreign to them. They’re used to being told and telling back.  One young girl talking about the very harsh mother in “Girl” asks what makes the mother think she knows best?  Her own mother, the girl said, is always telling her in an end- of-discussion voice, because I told you. This young girl looked at me with some of the same sullenness whenever I said something.

I’m not your mother, I wanted to say, but didn’t.  Instead, I extravagantly praised a point she had made, rewording it into something articulate. She looked a bit awe-struck at her newly discovered depth and a tad less sullen.

This is the only class of the five I’m teaching that doesn’t really like me very much. The others are in our honeymoon phrase:  I’m a star; I’m exciting.  They are stimulated. I know from years past that this will not last but it’s good right now.   But this class looks at me with high school eyes. What is he going on about? Who wants to think about these things?

Who wants to think?

It’s fun to think, I want to tell them. But I don’t. I’ll have to figure out another way of getting them to see that. Nothing else besides thinking really is fun, I could add, but saying that would lose them forever. I would have confirmed their opinion of me: crazy old prof.  Thirty five years ago, I was the cool young prof.

In my mind’s eye, I still am.  I always had next term to get it right. Odd to think that this will be my last chance.  I’ve always taken my waking slow, but this last term I may have to hurry up.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Joe will be publishing a monthly update in his final classes and general thoughts on teaching after a thirty five year career.

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