A new semester has just begun. As a teacher, apart from copies of the syllabus and markers, what should I remember to bring to class?
I’ve got to remember that I must remain connected to that which I teach. I must not stand at a distance from the subject matter. I must be at or in the subject, touching it, even while fully realizing that I will never know all the material relevant to subject at hand. It’s important not to pretend—and isn’t that what it is?—to have such complete knowledge. Pretension will inevitably be found out.
When I teach a subject in which I’ve published, as in Modern Philosophy, it’s easy to be “in” that subject and to remain connected to it. I can teach Modern in the way that I talk to my cycling buddies about cycling. However, say I’m teaching Ancient. I’ve never published in the field. But philosophy in the Modern period was of course influenced by ancient philosophers, so I do have some connection to the Ancient period. Also, I was enthralled by Greek mythology as a child.
I’ve got to remember that being a good teacher cannot be dissociated from being a good person. Let’s begin with a simple example. Say a student has an overall class percentage of 79.5%. Round up! Why? Because why assume that you graded perfectly fairly and accurately on all the grades that made up that total of 79.5%? Be humble. Good people don’t assume that they always get it right. A person is not a push-over either. Listen, be flexible, but have clear limits and standards. Have high expectations, but don’t be an ass about it. When it comes to take-home essays, for instance, let students submit a draft. But only one. Allow make-up exams. Many factors in a student’s life—beyond their control—can adversely affect attendance.
A good person also listens mainly not for weaknesses in what other people say and write, but for strengths. Isn’t this how you treat your friends? Now, I’m not saying that your students are your friends (though ideally some should are) but you should respect them similarly. Respect calls for charity, confirmation, and constructive criticism. Or put it this way: your students are not your enemies. So don’t treat them as such.
I’ve got to remember to change things up if need be—to experiment. It can be risky, to be sure; but inflexibility and stagnation should both be avoided. Take a straightforward example. Over the years, I’ve used several different textbooks for Symbolic Logic. Here’s the complete list, if memory serves:
- Lemmon, Elementary Logic
- Etchemendy, First-Order Logic
- Bonevac, Simple Logic
- Hurley, Introductory Logic
- Arthur, Natural Deduction
Every time I switch it’s a serious hassle, not least to students who try to sell their copies back to the college bookstore. But don’t settle for the mediocre status quo, just because it’s easier. It’s tempting to “play it safe,” but why teach x when you know x is problematic? In such a case, how connected to the subject can you really be? In the case of my prior Logic textbooks, I was dissatisfied and so were my students. Sometimes I was dissatisfied simply because my students were.
I’ve got to remember to be myself, to be authentic. I’m sure that all teachers can vividly remember their most memorable teachers and to speak to their impressive qualities. Recall those classes you loved to attend. The teachers of those classes changed your relationship to teaching in amazing ways. However, none of this means that you should imitate this teacher. (Imagine Van Morrison imitating David Bowie, or conversely.) There are great, powerful lecturers—more aptly called orators—yet oration may not accord with your particular strengths. Maybe your strength is not oration but discussion; you yourself may get bored by your own lectures! Recall the great orator teachers in your past. Many would be lost in a seminar or discussion-oriented environment.
I think of myself as a hands-on lecturer, who leaves lots of space throughout for questions and discussion. I like engaging in conversations outside the classroom, so why not in it as well? Also, since I can get intense, especially when discussing heavy philosophical topics, part of my pedagogy is to tell lame jokes to lighten the mood. But that’s also just me—I am both intense and goofy, though usually not at the same time… The class period tends not to go well when I go overboard on lecturing, or when I attempt to go 100% discussion, or when I remain consistently intense or serious.
Finally, I’ve got to remember not to be presumptuous. Don’t assume your students are distracted, uninterested, or brain-dead. This is what disaffected, jaded, or love-to-complain teachers often do. Making such assumptions only ensures that you will treat your students as such. How is this helpful? For you will then try to “spoon feed” them, placing bits of data in their “dead” brains. Instead, ask questions, challenge and provoke them. So, even if they are in fact initially distracted, uninterested, or brain-dead, they may not remain so. Also, bear in mind that a student may appear distracted, uninterested, and even brain-dead, but appearances can deceive. I recall being a student…
There is pervasive cynicism about students among teachers. I believe that it’s largely a defense tactic. It’s difficult to be a good teacher, especially day-in and day-out, so it’s tempting to blame students for this difficulty. Sure, some of this blame is accurately placed; but again, even if so, this doesn’t serve to solve the problem.
OK, I’ve got to remember all these things. It’s time to teach.