Teacher’s Testament II
Jerome Shea March 3, 2010 Weekend Wonk
One of the best things to happen to my teaching has been my wonking. I said last week that a writing teacher should be a writing practitioner. I don’t delude myself that my weekly wonks are high art, but I like to think they show care and craft, things that I can pass on to my students. It has given me a valuable lesson in humility, too. Try as I may, a couple of typos inevitably slip through (“Matt, can you PLEASE change ‘chose’ to ‘choose’ in the second paragraph? Sorry. Again.”). This has made me a lot more understanding than I once was. I can share their suffering for working under the gun, too. Finally, I like especially to show them a sentence that nagged at me, and how I fixed it (“Do you see how ‘to magic back that dream’ sounds so much better than ‘to magic that dream back’?”). The important thing is that my students know that Shea doesn’t just talk the talk: he walks the walk.
Inspiration. I still recall an incident from my undergraduate years. Professor Smith one day got exercised in spite of himself, and we juniors and seniors “gazed at each other with a wild surmise.” Medieval literature, we assumed, was just something one studied to pass the final. It was inconceivable that one could get so stunningly excited about it, but the pro(o)f was pacing back and forth right in front of us, wild-eyed as any cartoon professor, a lesson in the etymology of “inspired.” We all got a shot of education that day. I am blessed because I really do love what I do. And when that love ambushes me as it did Professor Smith, I know that I am doing what I was born to do.
I always impute to a student more intelligence and good will than he may have, rather than less. (“Always assume,” someone once said, “that in every class you teach there is a student who is your superior in head or in heart.”) Hokey as it sounds, this attitude usually pays off in the way that students, in turn, respond to me. If the real reason for some rule or other diverges from the party line, I give the real reason. I try, too, to separate the trivial from the important for them, to provide some perspectives that will stand them in good stead. Most simply put, I try to remember how I felt as a student and act accordingly. Actually I try to be two things at once which any good teacher will recognize: a fellow human being but, nonetheless, a teacher, not a dorm buddy or soul mate. Buddies and soul mates they have in abundance. It’s teachers—humane teachers—that are rare.
None of these ideas and observations are groundbreaking (or “seminal,” as we academics like to intone) and many of them have been used and are being used by good teachers everywhere. If there is a common thread here, it lies in the prescription to narrow rather than widen the gap between “teachers” and “students.” I have become convinced that a deliberate blurring of the distinction or, perhaps better, a cavalier disregard for it is a very healthy thing.
I became a professor emeritus after spring semester of 2007, but I still teach my classical tropes course every fall and my prose style course every spring. I hope to continue to teach those courses until they pry the chalk out of my gnarled dead hand. Closing in on fifty, these have been wonderful years. I would not have missed them for the world.
Postscript. The prose style course and the classical tropes course (an outgrowth of it) are both my own creations, my special babies. They are not just good courses but, I would argue in a messianic way, courses that all students should be exposed to, courses that will remodel one’s head. Someday, I suppose, I should begin casting about for a protégé, someone to fill my size nines. But not yet.
This time around, my prose style course almost got canceled for low enrollment. We did squeak by, but the experience really shook me, shook me more than I could have imagined. When things looked most bleak I appealed to the department chair to fight for the course, to persuade the dean not to kill it. “It’s not the money, Gail!” I cried. And that is when I realized to my surprise that it really wasn’t about money. It was about Shea’s soul.
What has been happening over these last years is that I no longer teach the other courses, like the grammar course and the mid-level composition course, that used to be my recruiting tools. So I made a pitch to the current crop of E220 teachers: “Let me give you a day off. I will come in and teach your students how to write with classical tropes (hoping, of course, that some will sign up for the tropes course next fall). They win; you win; I win.” So far, about half a dozen teachers have taken me up on the offer and I am crafting the best guest lecture I am capable of.
Cross your fingers. Please cross your fingers.
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