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January 2009 Archives

Meet Me Halfway

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At different times in my life I have seen a baboon in the economics section of a public library, a dinosaur in the fading light of a construction site, and Richard Nixon in church. The Nixon thing is completely understandable: a former college president I knew was a dead ringer for Nixon when Nixon occupied the White House. Seeing him onstage in church during that college’s centennial celebrations gave me a momentary jolt, since Nixon is gone but not forgotten, while our college president was forgotten (briefly) but decidedly and blessedly not gone.

As for the baboon and the dinosaur. . . well, let’s just say that the human mind can misperceive a lot of things. One minute I’m looking at a full-grown brontosaurus, the next minute at a crane manufactured in Japan. The baboon is a little harder to reconcile with reality, particularly since it apparently presented itself to me posterior first. After a double take and then a closer look, it was determined that some students had rolled a red beach ball into the aisle and then forgotten it. My mind had indisputably seen a baboon rudely mooning me; a quick but firm reality check restored things to their boring normality.

I mention this only to point out the obvious: things are not always what they seem. However, they are more like what they seem more often than not—it’s the “than not” bit that can throw us. To wit: I have spent hours writing an exam, a beautiful little gem of an assessment device, one designed to call on the best and highest orders of the educated mind—in short, idiot-proof—and then a student finds the one dark corner of repressed idiocy latent in us all and blows the whole thing wide open. Off this student goes on a track of musing I could never have thought up on my own, and yet to my wondering eye what should appear but a short, misshapen figure of twisted logic. Right there before my eyes a beach ball morphs into a baboon’s behind—and all I can do is shake my head in a kind of reluctant admiration: I thought we were here but now we’re there, and how did that happen?

Please, don’t misunderstand me—I am not assuming that my communication is crystal clear nor that students exhibit more idiocy than the Masters of the Universe who slink among us. Quite the opposite: I am in awe that people get as much communicated between themselves as they do. Between the mind and mouth there is a veritable minefield of obstacles to clear communication such as prejudice, haste, selective perception, inadequate vocabularies, and ego. As communicators we must do everything we can to think and speak honestly, clearly, and persuasively. But let’s be fair: in a two-way symmetrical discussion both parties have an equal opportunity and responsibility to communicate as best they can. In the classroom that means also exercising our powers of listening carefully and actively, both as students and as teachers.

It puts me in mind of a situation I saw as a college student in which a group in the back corner chattered amongst themselves while our professor reviewed the class for an exam. When he was finished and began putting his things away, one of them protested that he had spoken too fast: could he repeat what he had said? “No,” said the teacher simply, and shrugged. “You’ll have to learn to listen faster.”

Being Exemplary

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“Throughout history the exemplary teacher has never been just an instructor in a subject; he is nearly always its living advertisement.”
— Michael Dirda, Book by Book


I leapt at this phrase when I first read it in Dirda’s spry little ‘commonplace’ book. It fit my Puritan work ethic and it assuaged the residual guilt that plagues most teachers. This could be the answer to that recurrent nightmare, the one where we are exposed by our students as imposters, pipelines simply carrying the information, subject to any crank that wants to interrupt the flow with a question.

Of course, the analogy to the teacher as advertisement is not without its problems. Advertisements are there solely to sell us stuff that we don’t want and certainly don’t need. Advertisements lie—that is their modus operandi—and they are almost always flogging trivial stuff like mouthwash, Doritos, and Lincoln Navigators. Advertisements clog the airwaves, occupy every visible surface, and reduce the wisdom of the world to slogans. Teachers are not advertisements.

But there’s another way to regard this. Years ago cultural critic and media theorist James W. Carey wrote a seminal essay in which he distinguished two historical views on communication (http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/forums/carey_memoriam2.htm). One was the transmission model in which communication functions to loft messages long distances and exercise power over others from afar. It works well when we text message our friends or fire a missile or take out an ad in the Washington Post. It is at work when we channel the textbook in our classes or lecture without regard for where the shells we lob are landing.

The other form of communication is ancient; it predates literacy and springs from the impulse to commune with others. It gathers in rather than disseminates, pulls us into a circle of stories around the fire instead of blasting the masses, and works from the inside to the outside. Symbolic, ritualized, it is the way a society defines, maintains, and sustains itself. It is thought embedded in action, the Word made flesh. The message is not simply carried in the shell of the advertisement: it is rather—to ruffle McLuhan’s hair—the message as the medium.

Thus, when we imagine ourselves professing before our classes, do we see ourselves as these exemplary sages who at the very least convey an enthusiasm for the subject that can enthrall even the back rows? Probably not, and rightly so.

The best teachers among us wear the mantle lightly. They seem innocent of it, as unconscious as breathing. When complimented they may be startled or slightly embarrassed or just a bit uncomfortable. This hints at the idea that teaching well is not a technique (from tekhne, ‘art or craft’) applied from the outside but the result over time of allowing our natural curiosity to partner with our desire for communion with others. When we tell the stories around our particular fires with
enthusiasm (from en theos, ‘in god’), we transcend our egos if only for a moment. We lose the weight of being ‘the teacher’ and we truly ‘profess’ what we know and love.

This “innocence” is not something we can strive for, however. It arrives unannounced, a blessed byproduct of knowledge, love for the subject, familiarity with the process, and experience in handling groups of students. In those moments we become the embodiment of what we say, a living word. On a cold Monday morning we can be so lucky.