Thursday, January 8, 2015

Opening day

Ah, the first day of the semester. When everything is pristine. None of the students are jaded yet; none are alienated. No papers or journals are stacked up waiting to be graded. All is possibility.

I read years ago that students form an impression of their teacher's competence in the first few minutes of watching them, and that nothing that occurs thereafter changes that impression. That's a terrifying thought. What if the technology goes wrong in those first few minutes? What if you call someone by the wrong name? What if you make a joke and it falls flat?

A couple of years ago, I went to a teaching workshop where one of my teaching heroes, David Dussourd, told us about what he does on the first day of his introductory biology class. He's an entymologist, and a world-class photographer of insects. "Why study insects?" he asks his students. They typically offer a wide range of answers: to fight insect-carried diseases, to understand evolution, etc. Then Dr. Dussourd offers his answer: "We study insects because insects are exquisite."

That word has stuck with me. It simultaneously conveys the intrinsic value of the object of study, and the wonder and delight it evokes in the student. I think every scholar should feel the same way about her subject. And if that's so, then the role of the teacher is to open the student's eyes to the ways what is being studied is exquisite.

Every year I enter the classroom for the first time hoping to do this for my subject -- whether it be religious belief, religious practice, scripture, axiology, film, television, or the big interdisciplinary questions raised in the first year of our program (what is human existence? how do we experience it together?). And by the end of most semesters I'm pretty sure I've failed. Yet on the course evaluations, somehow it becomes apparent that more students than not have gotten it. They've seen through all the mess of a course -- assignments, logistics, timetables, deadlines, organizational schemes, improvisation -- and grasped what it was supposed to be all about.

It's their perseverance in the face of what Walker Percy called the "preformed symbolic complex," the educational "package" (or "postcard" as we like to call it here), that makes the class work. It's not my doing, believe me. All I can offer is a little space in the window of education with the mud rubbed away, smeary and streaky and soon fogged over. If they are alert and intrepid enough to gaze through, they get all the credit. On the other side, without fail, there is something exquisite.

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