Saturday, September 8, 2012

Teaching is "pure improv"

In "Who Killed the Liberal Arts?" Joseph Epstein describes his own experience at the University of Chicago, how he came to value the liberal arts, and what is lost as fewer and fewer do. He describes himself as a not particularly good student, but:
.... I turned out to be a better teacher than student. In fact I took to saying, toward the close of my 30-year stint in the English department at Northwestern University, that teaching provides a better education than does being a student. If he wishes to elude boredom among his students and embarrassment for himself, a teacher will do all he can to cultivate the art of lucid and interesting presentation and the habits of thoroughness. Thereby, with a bit of luck, education may begin to kick in.

Yet even after completing three decades of teaching, I am less than sure that what I did in the classroom was effective or, when it might have been effective, why. Of the thousands of inane student evaluations I received—“This guy knows his stuff”...“Nice bowties”...“Great jokes”—the only one that stays in my mind read: “I did well in this course; I would have been ashamed not to have done.” How I wish I knew what it was that I did to induce this useful shame in that student, so that I might have done it again and again!

Student evaluations, set in place to give the impression to students that they have an important say in their own education, are one of the useless intrusions into university teaching by the political tumult of the 1960s. Teaching remains a mysterious, magical art. Anyone who claims he knows how it works is a liar. No one tells you how to do it. You walk into a classroom and try to remember what worked for the teachers who impressed you, or, later in the game, what seemed to work best for you in the past. Otherwise, it is pure improv, no matter how extensive one’s notes. ....

I was not myself regarded as a tough teacher, but I prefer to think that I never fell below the line of the serious in what I taught or in what I asked of my students. What I tried to convey about the writers on whom I gave courses was, alongside the aesthetic pleasures they provided, their use as guides, however incomplete, to understanding life. Reading Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Willa Cather, and other writers I taught was important business—possibly, in the end, though I never said it straight out, more important than getting into Harvard Law School or Stanford Business School. .... [more]
Who Killed the Liberal Arts?