Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The only constant

When I arrived at my first teaching job, fresh out of grad school, I was pretty sure what kind of teacher I wanted to be. I wanted to do what I knew I was good at: lecturing. I was (and am) a dynamic lecturer. I conveyed ideas and facts and theories with passion. I made them all fit together. I made them interesting. I always got compliments on my lecturing, from students and faculty alike. So I couldn't wait to stand up in front of my very own college class and dazzle the undergraduates.

I knew I'd have to lead discussions as well, and I was confident I could do it. I was surprised to find out that I wasn't as good at that. Taking myself out of the spotlight and inviting other contributions made me nervous and uncomfortable. I wasn't in control of the class, and therefore other people could drop the ball and it would all go downhill. I couldn't figure out how to make students believe I really wanted their input -- because I didn't really want it.

It was my good fortune, therefore, to be hired by one of the few places in academia that wanted professors to shut up and students to speak up. When I discovered on the job that I wasn't good at seminar facilitation and that my instinctual response to a seminar that wasn't working was to lecture as much as possible, I agonized over it with my boss, who told me to reboot the class entirely and trust that the students would help build it anew. When I heard about a project-based approach to a venerable core class that would be unlike anything either I or the students had experienced, I fought it for a few meetings, then wholeheartedly embraced it, because it would take me away from what I was comfortable with and knew I was good at. When one of my colleagues introduced me to collaborative writing and editing, I jumped at it and integrated it into all my classes, for the express reason that it prevented me from exercising control over the process or the product. I came to see the ideal professorial role as essentially deist: set up the structure to allow for trust and collaboration, provide the resources, and get out of the way.

And it's undeniable that my conversion to this model took place because it is the opposite of what comes naturally to me, the opposite of my training and talents. I suppose I don't feel like I'm learning unless I'm doing something different from what I've already mastered -- and I don't know that I'll ever master this collaborative, project-based classroom because it cuts against the grain of the whole academic establishment that formed me and in which I learned to excel. Furthermore, the reason I wanted to be an academic, I've come to believe, is equal parts the desire to convey a vital viewpoint on the world and the desire never to stop being a student. So that eternal-learning part of me prevents me from settling down in the routines that I've gotten good at.

It's taken me awhile to discover this truth about myself. My perverse need to avoid doing what I'm good at, and to force myself to do what I'm not good at, is hard for me to explain. Yet it's implicated in another surprising discovery I made recently.

I hesitated when I was asked to become an administrator. Once I committed to becoming an academic, my highest ambition was to teach and write. Why would I want to leave the classroom to toil behind the scenes? I took the job with some trepidation, and over the years, I've often wished that I could undo it.

But I realized over the weekend, in Denver, that the best part of my job is no longer being in the classroom and seeing the light dawn in a student's eyes. The best part of my job is meeting with my fellow administrators.

It would be hard for me to imagine a more unexpected turn of events. But it's true -- I feel more alive, more creative, more energized, more empowered when talking with them than I do in any other part of my work. The classroom (the seminar classroom, not the lecture hall!) is number two, but administrative work with my colleagues has it clearly beat.

I think that has something to do with the collaboration I've come to appreciate in the classroom. The traditional academic (in the humanities, at least) aspires to be a solitary genius, creating learning by the force of his personality and expertise in the classroom and achieving acclaim for feats of insight in his single-author publications. Yet I now see fulfillment in my work as something I cannot engineer alone. The magic that happens when my administrative colleagues and I create, criticize, think through, dream, and come to understand, is something that is not my potential, but ours. The realization is all the more stunning for being completely unprecedented in my personality or experience.

I wonder what alien animal I'll become next?


Timothy said...

whoa, look at me commenting on two posts in a row! i should really be reading about the materialization of gender in the renaissance, but your post made me reflect on my experiences as a new teacher. i'm quite the opposite. i plan out notes, make connections between ideas in the text, and i have great plans for teaching my kiddos the ways of the world, but i get in front of the classroom and freeze. now, don't get me wrong. i feel really comfortable in front of the class, but i don't feel comfortable lecturing. i'm much better at facilitating discussion. i'm good at asking questions and getting my students to question themselves, but not so good at imparting information. i blame (or thank) the writing department (and a few english profs) at uca for that. i love hearing what others have to say, and i love when the conversation in class goes somewhere i didn't think it would. i usually get my best ideas and perform my best in such settings. what i need to work on is bringing disparate student comments and ideas together to a focus that supports the theme of the day's discussion. jane simonsen does that better than no other. i should see if she'd do a correspondence course with me!

Adamanthenes said...

Very interesting to see into the mind of one of my professors. Not that I ever thought you were only a professor and not a human too, but it's terribly interesting (and I suppose voyeuristic) to read about it.
I think it's interesting that the administrative side has begun sparking more of your energy rather than classroom discussions. Are you sure that's a good thing? Or is the administrative side the only thing that's got a creative frontier to it, and the classes are classes with innovation only coming every once in a while?