Wednesday, December 20, 2006

I Don't Understand

I don't particularly want to work until I'm 70, but that's not because I think I'll ever exhaust the mysteries -- part torment, part joy -- of teaching. Teaching is a variable enterprise. If something's not working, I change it. But if something is working, I'll change it, too, for many reasons: boredom, pleasure in improvisation, the philosophical conviction that for most things in writing and reporting there is no single way to achieve a good result.

This semester in one of my classes I was convinced I had done one of the worst jobs ever. I had talked too much, skipped over too many of the things experience had shown were proven exercises and teaching techniques. Man, I *murdered* the syllabus. It was in shreds. But a couple of students told me it was the best class they had ever had.

But, of course, a couple of other students simply disappeared.

It keeps you coming back, even when you are old and understand you will never see the end of it, never know how 50 years from now if the inconstant beat of your butterfly wing will have made a difference in the chaos of some student's life.

I do occasionally hear from one of my students from my first year or two at USF in the early '90s. No collect calls from jail yet. I think that's very promising, don't you?

Writing sometimes stirs an old memory, and so this does. I am glad that 15 years after I graduated from high school I looked up my old creative writing teacher Bertha Fisher and bragged about myself a little. We used to call her Grendel. She had gotten very old. Big smile now and all the scarier for the smile. She gave me tea. She was under the impression I was working for Atlantic Magazine, not Atlanta Magazine, and I did not correct her.

More memories: Thank you, Carl Colley. You told the class you painted houses during the summer to support your "hobby," which was teaching high school English. And oh god even at Whooping Jesus Bible College I did have some professors of English who gave me something. Evelyn van Til advised the literary magazine, and she had a kind of rebellious vibe. Maybe it was as faint as the beat of that butterfly's wing, but I felt it. And Herbert Lee told me that he never understood how you could justify the presence of the word "fuck" in "Catcher in the Rye" until I wrote a paper on the novel. (I'm sure I didn't spell it out. But it was before people talked about the "F-word" or the "N-word," so I don't recall exactly how I handled it.)

And Bob Cotner, you had a good effect, too, if only in leaving WJBC just as soon as you could. I don't recall why, but I was able to use my imagination. I remember I wrote you a long letter after graduation that you declined to answer. I'm a little more sympathetic to that behavior now. It was simply not a conversation you wanted to have.

Even then, I must have been a ferocious stylist ....

Postscript: Yes, once again my alma mater is Whooping Jesus Bible College. There are some conversations I don't want to have.

1 comment:

david silver said...

great post michael.

each class feels different and for those still checked in there's something about each class that can improve, get better, stretch farther.

you often cut and paste from comment to entry so i will do the opposite and cut and paste from entry to comment: "Teaching is a variable enterprise. If something's not working, I change it. But if something is working, I'll change it, too, for many reasons: boredom, pleasure in improvisation, the philosophical conviction that for most things in writing and reporting there is no single way to achieve a good result." that is a great description of good teaching.

i am glad to hear that someone besides me **murdered** the syllabus.