Saturday, January 5, 2008

The light comes on

Adamanthenes asked, lo these many months ago:
Is it ever disillusioning to you as a professor, who teaches to enlighten, when your students reject what you are saying and then, without thought, reject you? If so, how disillusioning is it? If not, why isn't it?
I certainly started my teaching career a decade or so ago "teaching to enlighten." My eyes had been opened by great teachers, and I wanted nothing more than to open the eyes of others as blind now as I had been then.

Probably I still fall into that teacher-as-missionary mode fairly often. But I've come to see teaching somewhat differently over the years. It's a frustrating and disillusioning experience, this business of having a mission, as your question correctly assumes. If you're trying to enlighten people, you're going to fail more often than you succeed -- a lot more often. Some of us redefine our standard of success way downward: a single student reached, or a couple of students who leave the class thinking differently from how they came in. We no longer try to reach the masses, but concentrate our efforts on the few who seem receptive.

I'm not willing to take that tack. Seems to me that it requires me to distinguish between teachable and unteachable students, and to lead the former toward my destination while abandoning the rest to their own devices. That's not the kind of divided classroom in which I want to spend my time.

So my solution has been to stop teaching to enlighten. Sure, I still have ideas to impart that I think have the potential to change minds and lives, as they changed mine. But I don't think it's my job as a teacher to try to make the change happen. I don't even think it's my primary job to impart the ideas. The product that students are buying in my classroom, to put it another way, is not information, and my role is not a purveyor of information. (Heck, all the information is out there for free; I'd be fleecing the customers if I pretended they had to pay to get it from me.)

I see myself as a process facilitator. I bring some information that I've found enlightening and useful, some structure, some tasks to the table. The students themselves will provide the rest of the information, structure, and tasks. What I'm interested in doing is seeing what the students make out of the stack of materials we've collected. I'm able to guide them away from unpromising tacks and toward more rigorous procedures that are likely to be successful at making sense out of what we've got. But I have very little interest in seeing them come to my conclusions. Why have we -- especially me -- gone through all this, if the only goal is to replicate what I already know and already think?

So success becomes not the students becoming enlightened in the model of the teacher, but the teacher discovering something she didn't know through the work of the students.

Is it disillusioning when students reject the information I bring to the table, reject its importance for their understanding and their future, and in the process reject me, the person who believes it's crucial? A lot less than it used to be, when I was trying to change a bunch of lives. Now I'm trying to provide a place where students can change their own lives. The disillusionment comes less often from a rejection of my vision of the world, than a refusal to seize that opportunity and make the most of it. And I can almost understand that -- and rather than disappointment, feel pity -- because there's not that many places in education where students are really invited to do that. It's a lot harder than telling the teacher what she wants to hear, I think.

Thanks to that shift, though, I find myself more hopeful and excited about teaching as the years go on, rather than fretful over the many students who rejected me. That's a good reminder for myself, as a new semester begins next week, actually; so thanks, my dear, for the chance to think and write about it.


W.E.B. Adamant said...

A pleasure as always.

the secret knitter said...

That's something worth me thinking about as a new quarter starts up as well, especially since what I'm doing is entirely about teaching a process. But forgive me for letting the student failure and disappointments get to me when their dropping the ball means more work and/or trouble for me.