On Teaching

Plato

Plato

I don’t remember ever forming the ambition to be a teacher. When I was very small, I used to play “teacher” with my dolls. I had a little slate that I would position for them as a blackboard and on which I would write my “lessons.” That was a child’s game though, not an ambition. I did it, I suppose, because school was a large part of the world of my experience, so when I was alone with my dolls I naturally imitated the few adults I’d had exposure to. That meant that if I wasn’t playing “mother,” I was playing “teacher.”

I was an art major when I first entered college. It had been drilled relentlessly into me that I would not be able to make a living as an artist, but that since I could draw, I would probably be able to make a living as a medical illustrator. So I enrolled at Ohio State, one of the few schools in the country that had a program in medical illustration. I did not fit well though into the community of art students, either at Ohio State, or at the Columbus College of Art and Design where I subsequently enrolled. I remained an art major, however, even after leaving both institutions, more out of a lack of imagination, I supposed, than out of positive commitment.

I studied, God knows what (I don’t remember now) at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle before, finally, ending up at Earlham, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana, still an art major. I took some art classes, but I also took a philosophy class. I don’t remember what prompted me to take that class; I think some philosophy class must have been required for my major. The subject, I still remember, was rationalism and empiricism. It sounds very unromantic, but I loved it. I changed my major soon after that first class and took almost nothing but philosophy from that point on.

I didn’t particularly like reading philosophy, as I’ve written elsewhere, but I loved talking about it. I loved talking about it so much that I actually tried to talk to my father about Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics the first summer after I transferred to Earlham.

“All that stuff about ‘a prior synthetic cognition’ may be very interesting to you,” my father observed somewhat patronizingly, “but you’re not going to find many young men interested in it.” I didn’t bother him after that with philosophy. I kept it to myself, or at least kept it to myself until I was back at Earlham again and could drop by the office of my professor and advisor Bob Horn.

“Bob is God,” is what students at Earlham used to say about him. He was kind and patient and brilliant. He didn’t talk too much, the way I fear I tend to do with my own students now, but just enough, just enough to get, or keep, the conversation going. He was tolerant and understanding. He wrote on one of my friend’s papers, “Eric, I understand you as if through a cloud.”

Nearly every afternoon of my senior year was spent in his office. I would head there as soon as my classes were done for the day and sit in the slanting afternoon light and talk and talk and talk about the ideas that were always swarming in my head like so many bees. And he would smile patiently and respond occasionally with his vastly superior knowledge and wisdom. I never felt though that he was talking down to me. I felt as if we were kindred spirits, as if we connected at a level that is rarely reached by two human beings.

Even when I decided, in my senior year, to go to graduate school, it had not been because I’d harbored any ambitions of becoming a teacher, but because I couldn’t conceive of any other life than the one I’d come to know, the life of philosophy, the life of talking about philosophy with some kindred spirit. I was afraid of teaching, in the beginning, afraid I would never be more than a kind of fraud, afraid I would never be able to approach the knowledge and wisdom of my own professors, particularly Bob. I cherished a little hope, like a tiny flame in the darkness, that somehow graduate school would transform me into a paragon of philosophical knowledge, but that day never came. The more I learned, the clearer it became to me how very much there was to know, and how little of it I had actually mastered.

They ease you into teaching in graduate school. You start out as a teaching assistant, which means you are really sort of a glorified student so you don’t feel you have to be so knowledgeable as the professors but can luxuriate in the experience of being ever so slightly more knowledgeable than the students. I did that for a few years before finally teaching my first course, so even if I still felt something of a fraud when students referred to me as “professor,” my impostor syndrome was not quite so pronounced as it would have been if I’d been thrown into teaching right after I’d gotten my undergraduate degree.

I like people. I’m an animal lover and people are animals, so I like people as well as other animals. I was raised not to dissemble, so I didn’t pretend to know things I didn’t know, and I learned gradually that in fact, over time, I’d acquired a great deal of knowledge and that even if I still fell pitifully short of the standards of my own undergraduate professors (particularly Bob), I was actually in a position to be of some real, concrete help to my students.

I taught in Denmark for several years before I came to Drexel. I never had a student for more than one course when I taught in Denmark, however, because my students there were nearly always Americans or other non-Danish nationals who were taking their semester abroad. I loved my students, but in a very detached way. I never got to know any of them, really, but that was okay with me. I’ve always been kind of a loner. I liked engaging with them intellectually, but it didn’t bother me that I would have them for only one course and after that would never see them again.

My situation when I came to Drexel was not so different. Drexel didn’t allow students to major in philosophy. The best they could do was a minor. I didn’t mind that; in fact, I rather like it. I loved teaching, but I also loved writing, and the fact that my exposure to the lives of my students was very limited suited me well. I got to go into the classroom and do what I loved–talk about philosophy–without having to spend any time helping my students navigate the practical difficulties of their lives. I had all the fun of teaching, or so I thought, with none of the inconvenience.

But then someone senior to myself got the idea that we should offer a major in philosophy. Drexel had had one before but had jettisoned it after several professors retired and were not replaced. Philosophy students do inordinately well on the GREs, so it wasn’t too difficult to convince the dean that a philosophy major would be good for the university. I was ambivalent about it myself, though. I knew that if we had a major I would suddenly “have students” in a way I had never “had students” before and that these “students” would cut into my research time.

I couldn’t bring myself to protest the reinstatement of the major, but neither could I champion it. I sat by quietly with a curiosity not unlike that of a disinterested person watching a train wreck. I didn’t think our students were sufficiently prepared for such a rigorous and intellectually challenging major and I feared that I was emotionally incapable of forming the kind of attachment to them that it seemed to me was necessary for a productive mentoring relationship.

I like large chunks of time all to myself, time when I don’t have to see, attend to, or worry about anyone else. I couldn’t picture myself hanging out with my students, couldn’t imagine welcoming them into my office and cheerfully allowing them to monopolize my time the way Bob had allowed me to monopolize his. I liked my students, but more as abstract beings than as concrete ones. I knew that in this respect I fell short of the standard that Bob had set for me, but I had accepted long ago that I would never be able to meet any of Bob’s standards, Bob, after all was “God.”

But then when we got the major back, everything changed. As if out of nowhere students began to appear who stood out from the students I’d had before. They weren’t interested in philosophy; they were possessed, possessed as I had been all those years ago when I’d practically lived in Bob’s office. Not only did I have them for more than one class; I had them in more than one class at a time! I teach only two courses per term, so I was surprised to find that I had a couple of students in both my classes and not just for one term, but for several terms in a row.

Something else happened with the reinstatement of the major: the size of my classes shrank. Where before I’d been teaching critical reasoning to twenty-five students, I suddenly found I was teaching epistemology to ten, and ten students who were a cut above, at least in terms of their commitment to the material, the ones I had become used to.

I suddenly found myself caring about my students very much. I couldn’t help but get to know them. They would talk to me not simply about the material they had read for class, but about their lives and long-term ambitions and I realized that by that point in my life, I’d actually lived long enough to have acquired some wisdom that could be helpful to them with respect to these more general concerns. They would come talk to me, as I had to Bob, and I found to my surprise that I actually enjoyed talking to them, even about things that were not directly related to philosophy.

“Your students are not your friends,” a colleague once remarked when advising new faculty on the perils of socializing too much with students. He’s right, of course. There’s a certain responsibility in a pedagogical relationship. A teacher must never confide in a student, or look to a student for emotional support. It is perfectly appropriate for a student to do these things, however, with a teacher. A teacher stands in loco parentis. Most college students are young people who have not yet made their way in the world but who are going to college as part of their preparation for that. They are more than their student numbers. They are inexperienced adults who occasionally need support and guidance when contemplating life’s larger questions, or simply how to survive a term in which they are taking too many courses in order to minimize their student-loan debt.

A teacher cannot hold himself too emotionally aloof from his students and still be an effective teacher. The point of a liberal arts education is not merely to impart knowledge to students on a variety of subjects. It is not even to introduce them to the joys of the life of the mind. It is to help them to become happy and thriving adults, to help them in their pursuit of “the good life” in the classical sense. But that can be done only by teachers who are willing to engage with their students as human beings and who can draw on their own humanity, and not simply their intellects, in those relationships.

A teacher has to love his students in a manner that is perhaps unique to that relationship, and in that way teach them that it is natural for people to care about one another and that the world into which they are entering, though challenging, is a friendlier place than they may have thought.

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