Drunk on truth to stupid baby power.

The Struggle to Be an Engaging Teacher

The Wire screencap via IGN

The Wire screencap via IGN

I teach mandatory writing classes to college students, usually in their first or second year of school, which means the hardest part of my job–actually, every part of my job is the hardest part. It’s all really hard. When you’re a teacher and you know a bunch of teachers, you’re constantly sent or exposed to the results of various studies about effective teaching and classroom practice, everyone always looking for something they can do or stop doing to make their days go a little smoother, and what I’ve noticed about all these studies is that pretty much none of them seem to have anything to do with the actual day-to-day reality of getting up in front of a bunch of human beings and trying to teach them stuff. Many of these studies cite lots of decimal points and everything, so they’re based in something real, I guess—but I’ve yet to read a single one that didn’t feel pretty cold, all data and correlations and intellect with no blood or bone, not a single one that didn’t seem to be missing the point.

Take for example an article I recently saw about how the best teachers tend to get the worst evaluations by their students. I’ve heard this one before. The idea seems to be that the best teachers are the ones that challenge their students the most and demand the most of them, which students of course dislike, which leads to the students slamming these teachers in their evaluations. Feels like a theory that terrible teachers take comfort in when they get their terrible evaluations. I mean, is there anything more annoying than someone who gets negative feedback and responds, “You’re welcome?”

I don’t think I know anyone who takes course evaluations that seriously, actually. If there’s anyone that does, I think it’s those administrators with long job titles and big offices who dictate student’s lives without ever having to meet any. The people I know understand that it’s super hard to get students to fill the things out in the first place, that the really terrible evaluations are from students with a grudge, and that the really nice ones are attempts to kiss up. You have to parse these things more carefully than Sherlock Holmes examining some cigar ash on a carpet for them to be any use at all. Beyond that, though, the idea that the teachers who challenge their students the most are automatically the best is only valuable if we’re very specific about what it means to challenge a student. I know that there are tons of teacher’s whose idea of “being challenging” is seen by students as “assigning busywork.” Probably these teacher’s aren’t looking at the assignments they’re handing out that way, probably they’d balk at the notion, maybe the assignments they’re giving are beautifully designed and thought through, but if they’re not making the connection between course content and their student’s real lives clear, the students are going to read the assignment as a waste of time,  even if they take the work seriously and become competent in the content area.

I want to challenge my students, and I think I do–but I want that challenge to be meaningful and as un-annoying as possible. I might not be great at the un-annoying part–I make them sing a lot more than you’d think would be necessary in a writing course. But I think the biggest problem with these studies and a lot of instructors is that they’re viewing students as little cogs in a classroom/curriculum machine, that the teacher’s job is to keep the wheels spinning smoothly from one end of the semester to the other. I know it’s true for me and I bet it’s true for a lot of you, too, that you’ve taken classes in your life where all you learned was how to pass that specific class and please that specific instructor. And that really is a waste of time, and only makes sense if you buy into the idea that college is ultimately a four-year obstacle course that culminates in you draping yourself in a ridiculous cloak and lame hat and going up on stage so an old man you’ve never met can hand you a magic ticket that permits you to enter the workforce.

There are plenty of students, that’s why they’re in school. That’s what they want. They’re going to be let down, and we teachers are to blame, if we don’t try to give them a richer experience than that. College only makes sense, and its only chance at being a worthwhile endeavor for anyone is if we forget the magic job ticket and think of it as a place where students come to figure out who they are and what they want to be, not to reinforce what they’ve already settled on. Unless you go Ivy league, maybe. Ivy league looks good on a resume–but this morning I listened to Rivers Cuomo on WTF with Marc Maron and he talked about getting into Harvard with nothing but a couple semesters of City College and hugely successful rock band under his belt, and I wondered for a second how I’d feel if I was some young scholar who worked super hard to get into Harvard and then watched Rivers coast in on a wave of MTV airtime. Probably I’d be excited and try to be his friend.


What sucks is that there are a lot of teachers who look at college as an obstacle course, too, for their students and themselves.  Teachers whose idea of a good day is when their plans go without a hitch, when they don’t have to think outside their pedagogy. There are teachers whose idea of a good day are the days when they leave feeling like they did a good job, regardless of how their students feel.

(And those are the teacher’s who aren’t tenured. People with tenure don’t look at it as an obstacle course, they look at it as a job where the only way they could possibly get fired is if they murdered a student with a knife in their office with a dozen witnesses.)

There are times when academia seems like such a rotten scheme, all these nerds holding hands in a circle with their students stuck in the middle looking for gaps to escape through. I felt that way when I was a student and I still feel that way now.

I’m a fucking adjunct, guys. They don’t pay me enough to hold hands with nerds.

Here’s something I love, this Lorne Michaels quote, something like, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready, the show goes on because it’s Saturday at 11:30.” That’s a prime line of code in my operating system as a human being and maybe it sounds bad but as close to a pedagogical approach as I can muster. I can plot and plan and refine for hours but at some point class has to begin. When applied to SNL, that quote sort of explains why the show has become an institution over the last four decades—there’s a sense that anything can happen. Maybe it’s illusory, since the show is put on by professionals who carefully write, block, and rehearse before airtime, but still anything can happen. It might be magical, it might be garbage. That’s why kvetching about the quality of SNL is boring. Complaining about the quality of any given episode of SNL is so toothless and dull, it could be a segment on Weekend Update.

Wow, that sentence looped around in a weird way and opened a black hole in my brain… I hope nothing escapes… ugh… ehn… Colin Jost looks like a mannequin whose creator never quite got the hang of faces… cough, cough… must… resist… Ariana Grande was a lame choice for a musical guest last week… she’s the first manufactured pop star that actually looks CGI… an off-brand Pixar knockoff who learned to sing from an electric fan with a twitchy motor…

Enough, enough.

The show goes on because it has to. Anything can happen, because this isn’t like regular TV, it’s like real life.

Another study I saw claimed that letting students use laptops during class hurts their learning and the learning of the people around them. Too much distraction, too much temptation. And that’s a funny one because so much of what I hear about is how we need to integrate more tech into the classroom, how to reach modern students we need to embrace the fact that fat chunks of their lives are lived online and that we’ll fall behind, seem redundant, do them a disservice unless we meet them there and find a way to blend our goals with what’s perceived to be their reality. I’ve been slow to move in that direction and not really convinced it’s the way to go—whenever I hear someone brainstorming how they might use Instagram in the classroom it strikes me that the students won’t be using Instagram anymore by the time this lesson is ready to be implemented, and also that a ploy like that feels lame and desperate, like your mom listening to the modern rock station on the radio and then bringing up fucking Imagine Dragons or something as a segue into prying into your personal business.

I let my students use their computers in class, and sure I’ve caught people watching the World Cup or skimming Facebook, but I’m going to keep letting them use the things. Banning their laptops is a little dictatorial for my tastes. Not going to worry about it. Zoning out during class wasn’t invented by Apple, it isn’t a feature of iOS 8. It’s going to happen. The secret to fighting this isn’t in stripping them of their gear, it’s in being more interesting than the Internet.

And yeah, I get that that’s impossible. I mean, there are days when I have to teach people to use commas or talk about MLA vs APA and the Internet has free music and pornography. But I think what I mean is, be engaging. Be a human being in front of a group of human beings. Here’s my challenge to my fellow teachers–pick a day to create an air where anything can happen. Throw out your plan and let the class progress in whatever weird way it feels like going. Be responsive to the energy in the room. Don’t be afraid if it’s messy, don’t be afraid to change courses if an interesting path appears. Trust that pedagogy you’ve developed to back you up, but don’t let it take over so that you’re up there running a formula expecting your students to fall into place like points on a line. Let’s craft assignments geared more towards engaging students than pushing our own agendas and schedules. Let’s be willing to fuck up big time. Let’s remember that our classrooms are their real lives.


2 Responses to “The Struggle to Be an Engaging Teacher”

  1. Patty

    Thanks again, Tom. I appreciate you. Not sure how I feel about this piece. I agree and admire it, but it makes me feel vulnerable.

  2. tombatten

    Patty, this is me working through a lot of frustration at my own vulnerability, I think. Thanks. You’re my teaching idol and I really appreciate everything you do for me and everyone.


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