Oldest and Youngest Days of Teaching

My oldest day as the “instructor of record” was in Seattle, August 1994, the year of Kurt Cobain’s death. My official title then was “predoctoral teaching associate.” My youngest day was in Santa Barbara, December 2015, the year of Donald Trump’s rise. I now carry the title of “full professor.” Here, I will describe both of those experiences, while utterly ignoring the 20-plus intermediate years. (“Youngest day” is a more accurate and less depressing way of referring to my latest day of teaching, because I take it that it’s the beginning of many more to come. It’s in reference to Jüngster Tag, the German term for Judgment Day.)

OLDEST DAY

The course is Logic at the University of Washington, on the second floor of a brick building located roughly in the center of the large UW campus. I walk into the classroom a few minutes before the bell, carrying a black leather briefcase, Canadian-made. I wear a muted button-down, short sleeved shirt. It is probably plaid with red, white, and brown colors, and is certainly not tucked into my pants. Underneath is a t-shirt probably with some logo on it, known only to me. Since I didn’t own blue jeans in those days, I must be wearing black jeans. I wear leather, ankle-high shoes. Forget sneakers. My hair is of medium length, slightly unkempt. My face is shaven, with a visible scar on my chin.

I am confident, yet nervous. I know the material cold—and therefore employ only a outline of the agenda for the day—but have never before been solely responsible for the teaching, grading, and administration of a course, hence the nerves. I teach standing up, walking from side to side, making eye contact with each student as I lecture and ask questions. But I don’t teach in such a way that allows for open-ended discussion. In other words, I avoid some of the more nuanced aspects of logic, privileging material that is directly germane to the day’s lesson. Even though I know the assigned content well, I am not very confident in fielding questions that would take us into less familiar territory, where the textbook doesn’t venture. The students are probably none the wiser that they are being guided through well-charted waters, for there are subtle ways to keep the class “on course.” As a result, the students are by-and-large quiet. They are polite and focused at least. Most, if not all, take notes.

Of course, it being my first day, I can’t avoid some sort of mishap or unintended consequence. Mine is mechanical in nature. The room has a whiteboard and I am equipped with a marker; however, unbeknownst to me, until it was too late, it is not a dry erase marker. Only when the board is covered in logical symbols and rudimentary proofs, do I and my students realize that it is a permanent marker. Traces of my handwriting remain on that whiteboard for weeks until some genius custodian figures out a solution.

All told, the class goes well, but it is manifestly nothing to write home about. There is nothing that distinguishes it from a thousand other logic classes.

YOUNGEST DAY

On the surface, everything looks basically the same. The class is full of quiet, focused students sitting in desks. Right on time, I walk in carrying the same leather briefcase, albeit worn and missing a strap. I wear a button-down, short sleeve shirt, this time black instead of plaid—again, not tucked in and over a t-shirt, probably with some band logo on the front. Where are all of my plaid shirts?  At any rate, I wear blue jeans this time, having gotten over my blue jean moratorium. And I’m wearing black leather ankle-high boots. Unsurprisingly, my hair is slightly unkempt, yet now my face holds a short, somewhat scruffy, beard. I walk back and forth, looking at students and making eye contact. I use no lecture notes.
So, superficially, the class may seem identical to the one 20 years prior, but it is manifestly not.

I feel so different—loose, not anxious, and spontaneous. I also act so different. For one, I tell more stories, having more to offer, but also less concerned that stories will derail student learning and waste “precious” class time. I also have in my mental storehouse stories that actually serve a pedagogical function. I bring these up when the time is right. Take, for instance, the commonly accepted “Principle of Explosion”: ex falso sequitur quodlibet—“from a falsehood, anything follows.” Many students of philosophy find this principle counterintuitive. To show that it’s perhaps not as counterintuitive as it first appears, I recount an Indian folktale about a cache of iron ore that was so sweet, mice ate it all up. This is of course patently absurd. The point of the folktale is that in a world where falsehoods obtain, anything can happen. Maybe the Principle of Explosion is not so counterintuitive after all. For another, I welcome any question related to logic and so don’t teach in such a regimented fashion. I still don’t use lecture notes, but neither do I use an outline. Students are visibly more relaxed. Many ask questions. Students talk more before and after class. Some even guess the identity of the band whose logo is featured on my partly covered t-shirt.

THE DIFFERENCE

What explains the difference? It’s not simply “time and experience,” as this question is commonly answered, because there are teachers with many years beyond mine who remain mediocre in their profession. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s a genuine problem in academia. (Tenure is considered untouchable among academics, yet it engenders a situation where the mediocre, and sometimes worse, professors are also untouchable.) So, again, what explains the difference? I see two main reasons. First, I generally don’t complain about students. If there are problems in class, I tend to put the blame on myself. And I ask myself—and sometimes other professors—what can be done to fix the problem, instead of blaming it on my students. I take student evaluations very seriously. Some, of course, are misguided, silly, and some are just plain rude, but I believe that most are well-intentioned, and often are on target. My experience is that most students intend to improve the class with constructive criticism, not to attack the professor. Second, teaching is a complex enterprise, even an art. This doesn’t mean that anything goes—not all art is successful, right? I believe that all teachers can improve, and there are certain guidelines that help in that enterprise. But these are merely guidelines; there are no prescribed algorithms that turn someone into a good teacher. Otherwise, we’d probably all be.

Ultimately, there is something true in the adage that experience is needed to really become a great teacher. For simply being smart or clever is not sufficient, by any stretch of the imagination. But the requisite experience cannot be satisfied in terms of time alone.

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