Friday, August 20, 2004

Q: Kids, What's the Matter with Kids Today? A: Not a Lot

As my faithful readers know, I recently sent emails promoting this blog -- and gathering data for my latest scholarly scheme -- to several dozen friends, acquaintances and chums, three subsets of humanity from which I expect only the best. Depending on the kindness of strangers is an exit line, not a philosophy of life. Nope, give me friends, acquaintances and chums.

Friends: You fall into friendship the way you fall in love. You care what they think, but you also forgive what they think. If you are crap, they are genuinely upset. If you aren't crap, they are glad. They aren't even surprised.

Acquaintances: Very polite, very polite. Look at that, they say. Bless your heart. Oh, you you you. They can say nothing and make it sound like something. Southerners make good acquaintances, particularly if there are drinks around.

Chums: At the game. Talking about the game. Sitting together thinking about the game. And somewhere out there is always a game. Chums really are about the healing power of silence. In fact, even when you are talking with chums, you are engaged in a kind of highly animated silence. My chums will not mention the blog, not at all. If I mention the blog, they will say, "How about those Giants?" Plague, fire, pigs eat your family, it's all the same: "Those Giants -- how 'bout 'em?" Psychiatrist is good. Chum is good, too -- and you're outdoors in the bright sunshine!

But I sent my self-advertisement and my cry for help to a fourth group, that is, some of my former USF students with whom I try to keep in touch. And so this post turns serious, in a lightning change of tone that has won me praise as the man who puts and keeps on putting the pomo in hoho.

Asking my former students to look at my blog and judge the quality of my thinking makes me anxious. Friends, acquaintances and chums -- they don't make me anxious. They are like fixed stars in the firmament of my life, their location and their magnitude a matter of emotional certainty. Some friendships fade to acquaintance, of course. Some acquaintances flare into friendship under the influence of strong drink and then subside again. But that is a natural progression, and the constellations, the larger pattern, is steady.

If friend, acquaintance or chum says to me, "I never never liked you," I can reply, "But I always liked you," and that settles the matter. The center holds. It is my Ptolemaic sky, and I set the stars. If one suddenly winks out, my instrument of perception was faulty, but I thought the star was there.

But students (to keep the metaphor, like the universe, expanding) what are they? Meteors, some of 'em. They flash, they disappear. Plenty of them are black holes, sitting there every day, absorbing (possibly), giving nothing back (certainly.)

Enough with the metaphors. Some of your students you like very much, and you try to keep in touch with them after they graduate because, as a teacher, you think you have made a difference.

I heard someone say recently that he heard that someone said that Marshall McLuhan said that if you do not understand that education is entertainment, you understand neither entertainment nor education. I agree with that, and I try to teach in a style of mild eccentricity that keeps my students a little off balance. Also, the whole idea of teaching, either the brilliant lecture or the Socratic dialogue, unsettles me so much that I have to be playful just to keep my spirits up, so there's a lot of self-defense going on in my classroom. But at the end of the day, it's about more than survival. A teacher has to confront the question in the shadows in the corner of the room: Did anything change as a result of what I said and did?

So. You have students on whom you think you might have had some effect -- though they are almost invariably the smart, self-motivated students who basically need only that you get out of their way -- with whom you want to maintain contact, figuring you can provide some encouragement and a little guidance while maintaining your own morale. Also, you pick their brains: What could we have done differently to better prepare you? (On that basis it's tax deductible I'm almost certain.)

You develop avuncular feelings for these students, that wonderful word that suggests warmth and depth of feeling but also a fundamental disinterestedness, an ability to separate yourself emotionally so that you can see these kids as they are, not as you wish them to be. You think of yourself as a mentor. You think you were of use.

Now, they are graduated, and these relationships can shade toward friendship, but it is hard to make it friendship because, in the classroom and in the office, it was a relationship based on a power imbalance, all in your favor. You grade them and you recommend them. Once you are tenured in the university, darn little they can do to you except hurt your feelings by failing to nod in agreement with metronomic frequency.

Now things have changed. They don't need you. You are so much older than they are in a society where the village elder has metamorphosed into the village idiot. That is why you feel anxiety about suddenly becoming the needy one -- needy in a new way, since students learn to play on the day-to-day needs of their instuctors as one might on an out-of-tune piano. Here you are asking your students to examine your writing and your own thinking, and how they respond has the power to hurt and unsettle because you assume that certain students do learn from you and do admire you and respect you as a result of what they have learned. That is why, your (I mean my) finger poised over the send button, you (it's me again) ask yourself (ditto) if you (ditto) want to risk your (ditto) assumption about the degree to which you understand what happened and is happening between you and your students. That assumption is your validation. I'm not concerned with whether or not it should be. It just is.

Who would have known I worry more about my teaching than my writing?



G Pabst said...

Nicely put!

G Pabst said...

Advice to readers of "Column*Which:"
Both the text and the linked references are well worth the read.

Nonetheless, I advise a leisurly drive through the dappled oaks first... and then go back to pick up the acorns.

"Reading footnotes is like getting up from making love to answer the doorbell." - Sir Noel Coward