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Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Monday, December 3, 2012


Some reflections on my teaching philosophy. This is what I think I ought be doing while teaching. I am hoping that by articulating this I will be able to implement it better. I am far from the most successful teacher, but I do feel I have been effective with certain students. Some aspects of my philosophy might make me a less effective instructor for many students.

1. Setting the bar. One of the most significant things a professor can do is to establish a certain intellectual level to which one should aspire. This should be a level higher than the students might have previously imagined was even possible. I remember particular professors who did this for me, like the Dante specialist John Frecerro. Some professors who set the bar in this way come off as arrogant, like Frecerro often did. This is a risk. Gustavo P-F once told me one of the best professors he had was PI at Michigan. PI was not a good classroom teacher, but he established an expectation of what intellectual life should be. I feel that APD, who was a beloved mentor to many, never set a high-enough bar for his students.

2. Kicking ass. You have to be somewhat hard on the students in order to let them know where they stand in relation to this standard. A critique of student work should be rigorous but never personal. "This introduction doesn't work because of the following reasons..." not "You are a crappy writer." Once again, beloved mentors may not have kicked enough ass. Their students might have benefited from someone who demanded more of them.

3. The expectation of equality. You can only give a rigorous critique if you think of the student as your (potential) equal. The model is a peer review, in which scholar 1, who is reviewing work by scholar 2 anonymously, will be reviewed the next month by scholar 3. Disagreeing with a student should not take the form of "pulling rank," but having the better argument. This is tricky because holding back to be a nicer guy ends up undermining equality. But going at a student full force can be perceived of as bullying. Giving assignments that do everything but dot the i's for the student is not ideal, even if the students love it (they will).

4. The expectation of disagreement. The student's responsibility is not to give me what I want, but to kick the ass of the assignment. The student should never have to agree with the perspective of the professor. The success of the professor is judged on whether the students grow intellectually, and this might entail a complete disagreement with the perspective of the mentor.

Notice I've said nothing about classroom techniques. It is implied that the students should come ready with something to say about the material. Without that, I have very little to work with. The material I am working with is what the students bring to the table.


Clarissa said...

You possess the great skill of offering very tough criticisms of one's writing yet you do it in a way that is never hurtful. I always knew throughout all of your comments to my writing that the only reason you made them was that you sincerely wanted me to get better as a writer and as an academic. Only too often do people try to blow off steam or solve some psychological issues when they respond to one's writing and that is very annoying.

Jonathan said...

Well, actually, I was trying to crush your spirit... The improvement of your writing was only a happy accident.

(Just kidding).