Friday, March 25, 2005

I'm late, I'm late

No time and even less brain energy this week; I had some thirty conferences with students about their papers, currently between draft and revision stages. I genuinely find that much of the really good teaching goes on in these sessions, and I really enjoy them--okay, most of them--but the psychological and physical cost of all that one-to-one is high. I used to find it invigorating (and I still do get a temporary "high" from the good sessions), but my energy goes in so many directions these days, that I end up exhausted.

I'm dying (okay, poor choice of words) to get into the Terry Schiavo issues and other topics of note, but can barely write my own name legibly at the moment, let alone put forth anything resembling coherent thought.

I did see that Pedablogue has a piece about classroom competence and making mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes in class. Some are harmless careless errors--I say the wrong word, or reverse terms, or forget where I am in my thought process and have to ask the students "Now, where was I going with this?" I've always done a fair bit of this; it's not just a product of the combined efforts of the tenure line, dissertation, and motherhood. I don't find it particularly embarrassing, and I generally make a meta-comment at my own expense, to the effect that no one should now fear making a fool of him or herself in class--I think of it as modeling a kind of no-pressure approach to formulating ideas. No student should be judged on one utterance, especially when they are supposed to be encountering and responding to new material. I consider classroom space, especially but not only for students, as a zone of provisional knowledge, a place for ideas to be freely experimental, and one where you never have to be held to an idea you want to change.

I also make less benign mistakes--I made a real whopper this week, the kind that comes from prepping too quickly for class and shamelessly cribbing someone else's copy of the text under discussion. It was a glaring error of under-preparation, and I hope I handled it with humor, some justified embarrassment, and a reasonably gracious apology.

I think it's important for me, as a teacher, not to seem omniscient (darn good thing, too). I respect my older colleagues, who have a breadth and specificity of knowledge I just don't have; you know, the old-time professors who can quote texts extensively, seem to have every date and historically relevant fact at their fingertips, and can discourse knowledgeably for hours on end.

I hope that I'm not merely an inadequate teacher, but instead represent a different and collaborative style of learning. I have no memory for dates; frankly, I'm not terribly interested in filling my brain with stuff my students and I can easily look up (but I still envy the people who effortlessly remember such details). I like to think that I am modeling for them a kind of "smartness" that is accessible and more welcoming than what I remember from my own days as an undergraduate. I hope they learn that you can have good ideas and still make mistakes, and that such errors don't invalidate the power of your observations or interpretations.

A lot of my students often seem scared--not of me, but of some "idealized intellectual" persona they feel is judging them. It makes me sad that this hideously depressing aspect of graduate school seems to be filtering down to undergraduates, along with multiculturalism and deconstruction. I like to think that my errors might help to free them up, might suggest to them that thinking can be fun, sloppy, intuitive, and occasionally just plain goofy. If they take nothing else from me, I would hope they'd learn to enjoy their own minds, even when those minds aren't working too well.

12 Comments:

At 11:37 AM , Blogger Pilgrim/Heretic said...

What a great post. I completely agree with the way you model knowledge and authority in the classroom, showing students that learning is a process that we're all engaged in, not a polished final product that they will always be judged by. I often wish they could see more of our own written work in progress, too, with all its red ink and revisions, rather than being made to read only the final established product. I'm glad you're showing them that scholarship is sometimes messy and sometimes wrong - the point is that all of us are sometimes messy and wrong, but we experiment and learn and tinker around with ideas, and that's the process we should be teaching them, because it's what they'll have to do for the rest of their lives. We could all do more of this.

 
At 9:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! -- Mike Arnzen @ Pedablogue

 
At 9:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rock on with your bad self!!!

I am a visual arts instructor and I am constantly losing words, being extremely right brained...also, the kids correct my spelling, we laugh about it and then we move on with class.

If I--gasp--don't know the answer to one of their questions, we get someone to google it and report back to us within the hour, usually the interested party. fineartist65622@insanejournal

 
At 3:28 PM , Blogger alley rat said...

you sound like an awesome teacher.

and your post also makes me feel better about my own little blunders. like, for some reason when i write on the board, i lose my ability to spell. sometimes i realize i've made an error only when i hear giggling in the class...

 
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