When the weather gets a little colder and the August heat mellows, I begin to get happy for the new school year. New books. New friends. New ideas. Now that I am a teacher I think I am even more eager. At the beginning of summer, just as I finished grading a stack of papers and endured a less than perfect ending of my first year post-graduate school I returned to an old Harper’s article called ‘The Uses of a Liberal Education‘ by Mark Edmundson. I don’t know why, but with a summer filled with fun rewrites, a research project with students to Newport, a relaxing Quixote-infused stint in Madrid, and a part-research part-adventure mini-tour playing bass through Scandinavia, I almost felt like skipping over it all for the new term. Almost.
Edmundson gets at the heart of the ‘edutainment’ problems of teaching, and student feedback. (I made a muddied attempt at a ‘humor’ piece on student evaluations here.) My humor and semi-entertainment value is often a concern. Should I ‘act’ like myself while teaching? Even if I could do it, should I mute my own ironic jabs? Making people laugh (with me? at me?) in class is a way to get students interested, but it is an unintentional side-product of my personality. I also recognize that for every handful of students who enjoy it, there will always be one who would prefer it if I were more somber.
Upon reviewing his overwhelmingly positive teaching evaluations, which repeatedly describe him as ‘entertaining’ and ‘enjoyable,’ Edmundson notes:
Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind. The off-the-wall questions and the sidebar jokes are meant as lead-ins to stronger stuff — in the case of the Freud course, to a complexly tragic view of life. But the affability and the one-liners often seem to be all that land with the students; their journals and evaluations leave me little doubt.
I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read. It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? The hand that framed that question was surely heavy. But at least it compels one to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, student and author, where the stakes matter. Those Columbia students were being asked to relate the quality of an encounter, not rate the action as though it had unfolded on the big screen.
Why are my students describing the Oedipus complex and the death drive as being interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? And why am I coming across as an urbane, mildly ironic, endlessly affable guide to this intellectual territory, operating without intensity, generous, funny, and loose?
I might be flattering myself to think that I am viewed similarly, but whatever that judgment might be, this gets me pumped up.