Saturday, May 16, 2009

Existence Before Essence: A Teacher's Motto

"The Three Bears", Arthur Rackham's ...Image via Wikipedia

There is no such thing as a bad semester -- I mean, if no one slashes your tires or eggs your house and especially if you don't get a certified letter from the dean or arrive to find the locks changed on your office door.

No, of course, a semester could go wrong in some operatic way suitable for description in recitative. But I've never had one go bad in any of those ways. USF students are many things and one of them is: nice.

I'm talking about a very pleasant place to teach. Here at USF, typically, you come to the conclusion you've done a decent job. You have your notion -- your inner checklist -- of what good work is, and most semesters enough of the kids do enough right for you to conclude there's no disconnect between your goals and your methods.

Also, you've had enough satisfied classes, as measured by the multiple-choice tests the university mandates at semester's end (and pretty much ignores once you're tenured and promoted) to recognize the superficial signs of satisfaction that predict a good score on the "money" question: Overall, do you consider this instructor a good teacher? (rate 1-5)

But here's the good part. Sometimes, you conclude that the kids didn't learn what you wanted them to learn and/or, moreover, they understood what they didn't understand and resented you for their failure. Either or both. Either they and you are dissatisfied, or just you. And that's okay -- as long as it doesn't happen semester after semester. Your *baseline* must be success, most of the time.

If a class goes bad, in a weird way it can be exhilarating because perpetual success is boring and stultifying. (And possibly delusional. I know I may sound somewhat boastful and self-serving here. A former student reads this and replies: What? It's a wonder I didn't kill you with my bare hands, old man.)

I've had some long and interesting conversations this semester with Nick the Student, who would really like to see tenure abolished because he says too many of his teachers are in a kind of comfort zone because their lives are devoid of pressure.

I tell him good teachers create their own discomfort zone. Sometimes you conclude you tried something new, or perhaps hung onto something stale too long. And it just didn't work. Suddenly your next semester becomes much more dramatic, your next class an arena in which you have something to prove. You become the hero of your own epic, reading new books, planning new activities, doing that most daring of all pedagogical acts: drastically revising your syllabus.

It never gets boring. When I first came here nearly 20 years ago, I taught the media management class. I did the classic thing. I found two pretty good books on the topic and assigned the lesser and taught from the better. One of the suggested exercises to illustrate how one should manage was to give a student a waste basket and a bunch of paper wads and tell the student her/his task was to make a game of tossing the wads into the waste basket.

The idea was that the student would begin either by dropping the wads into the basket or by going to the other side of the room and playing long toss, but that finally she/he would settle on a midpoint where she/he was successful most of the time but not all of the time.

And when I did the exercise in class, that's how it played out. Constant success was boring. Too much failure was distressing. That's how to design tasks for subordinates, the text said.

I think that's why I enjoy teaching. It's how I choose to frame the task. Call me Dr. Goldilocks. The porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. It's just right.

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