One of the best aspects about teaching at a university is that I get a new group of students every fifteen weeks. Although a lot of the classes I teach have repeat students, I do feel like I am starting a new job two or three times a year. This is a godsend for people like me who suffer from chronic boredom. It also gives us (both teachers and students) a chance to begin again.
At the beginning of each semester I have the highest of expectations for my students and for myself. However, at the end of every semester I am always a little disappointed that things didn’t always go quite the way I planned. Sometimes this works in my favor, sometimes it doesn’t. My teaching style is rather errant. I tend to go in a lot of directions and discussion can sometimes get off topic. I spend a lot of time preparing for a course and for each class. Yet, I never “accomplish” half of what I set out to do. If I come to class with a set of notes and questions, I find that I only get to explore one, or if it’s a good day, two of those prepared items. As I said, this is sometimes valuable. In recent years my teaching has evolved (I will stick with a positive verb) to the point where the class does most of the steering. I usually take a thematic approach to teaching literature because I find that this is where students (at least in my classes) can make the most resonant connections with the text. Most of the time I am surprised by what my students bring to the discussion. They, for the most part, are not literature majors, but are in my class to fulfill a requirement. I used to resent this. Now I think of it as an opportunity to turn a group of young people on to literature–serious literature. Most of the time my students tell me they have enjoyed the class and that it made them think. Every semester one or two students tell me it was a disaster and that I should stick to my “elitist” lit majors. It’s always those people who gripe that I am preoccupied with for the break between semesters. I wonder if I will ever get over this.
Students, on the other hand, also have expectations. Perhaps more importantly, I have expectations for them. Some students rise to the occasion, some don’t. I have more students than I care to admit that think I work for them and that I should be “teaching them,” whatever that means. Learning is not a spectator sport and it cannot be approached passively. This is one of the fundamental points we, as teachers, must strive to get across to our students. Otherwise, we are all wasting our time. At the end of every semester I am always a bit sad when some students do manage to do poorly in my classes. In fact, I take it as a personal failure.
This semester I am teaching a course called “Books to Die For.” The texts we are reading include: The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, By Night in Chile and 2666 by Roberto Bolano, and The First Man by Albert Camus. The reading this is intense, and the subject matter is thought-provoking. This is an Honors class, so I have great expectations for the discussions and the quality of writing. It is the first time I will teach Bolano, and I am more than a bit intimidated by this, especially by the daunting, exceptionally long, 2666. But, I will inform my students of this and hopefully we can discover something magical together.
I have high standards for myself and for my students. Most of the time we both fail to reach the summit I have mapped out in my imagination. In the decade that I have been teaching at the university level I have never once been satisfied with either my performance or that of my students as a whole. I want us to go further, to dig deeper. When the day comes when I (and my students) do fulfill those lofty expectations, I’ll leave teaching for ever.