The Mediocre Professor

April 27, 2009

My most recent teaching evaluations are in, and the verdict suggests that I have achieved, once again and with little effort, mediocrity. I am a model of foolish consistency.

A small part of me holds out hope that my students will soon have one of those epiphanies that are so much a part of popular culture's dramatic renderings of teaching. At the moment of their sublime insight I will finally blossom into, say, the John Keating character from Dead Poets Society, inspired and inspirational, if not triumphant in a meager way. But the realist in me knows better.

Keating was held back by the Philistines. Of the several beauties of academic life, however, perhaps the most bewitching is the fact that the majority of us do not have to put up with such a nasty bureaucracy. As long as we make the requisite gestures toward general competence (show up, provide a syllabus, assign exams and papers, grade them in a timely fashion), few in the administration care terribly much about what we do behind closed doors — their inevitable protestations notwithstanding. In what other profession could so many people be under my tutelage with so little oversight?

As much as I like to be left alone — and I do — I find myself more and more ambivalent about my independence. I'm not certain I can trust myself to become a more effective teacher or to better myself as a professional. While appreciating the trust — if not the indifference — that the administration has bestowed on me, there are times when I think that a little more interest from on high would light the proverbial fire under my behind, especially since it seems evident that I am unlikely to do so myself.

Virtually all colleges and even some research universities tout the extraordinary teachers under their roofs, but my experience tells me that at the end of the day it's only the community colleges whose practices match their public relations, who really believe in the importance of teaching. To take but one example, at my small university, candidates coming up for tenure are told that teaching matters as much as research — indeed, it is always mentioned first, as in "teaching, scholarship, and service" — but we are all aware of a wink and a nudge behind the facade. Teaching is said to be a primary focus, but no one gets tenure here for being a superb teacher and an indifferent scholar.

The current movement toward "outcomes assessment" — almost always originating as a directive from administrators who suddenly realize that the people writing the checks might actually be interested in whether students are learning something — is disingenuous, at best. It's possible to fudge almost anything, and those of us in the humanities, for instance, are congenitally unsure of how to measure the effectiveness of our teaching. Nor is it often the case that we believe we should justify ourselves to anyone, having spent countless years in the pursuit of the esoteric — prima facie evidence of our competence and dedication.

As for my own teaching, each year around early August I make big plans to evolve, to change my classroom philosophy and style, to carve inroads through the tangled trees by learning from the experts what works and what doesn't, and what new theory is on the horizon. I even get excited about it if I try hard enough.

Within the first two weeks of the semester, however, I look at the faces, some bored, some not, and then I think, "Well, here we go again." It feels like the opposing team is running up the score, and I stand helplessly on the field making gestures and calling signals, even as they run past and over me. I begin in gladness, as the poem tells us, but quickly achieve, if not full-blown despondency, then something that hints at bitter apathy.

I don't blame the students, at least not entirely. Nor do I see myself as the bitter old professor who longs for the days of yore, the golden age of teaching — an era that never was. In fact, in many ways I see myself in my students: utterly consistent, sometimes bored and insecure, and occasionally moved by flashes of insight and excitement.

I therefore take almost no credit for either my students' ennui or their enthusiasms. Certain that I have little to do with their successes or their failures, I do my best to remove myself from their orbit, hovering only to point them in a certain direction. In that way I cultivate a distant but not indifferent persona. That they rarely stop by my office to shoot the bull is no reflection on them or on me. It is simply the way things are, when academic work and indeed my presence are distractions from the real business of living. In addition, I want to clearly state that I am not the least interested in becoming friends with my students, having made a few friends along the way perfectly well without them.

I had a professor in college who claimed to know Samuel Beckett personally and told stories about him staring out of his classroom window, unsure of what to say to his charges. My professor said Beckett feared that he had nothing to teach, or that if he did, it would ultimately come to little more than language itself.

I know the feeling. Even as I become seasoned, it is often with a sense of foreboding that I enter the classroom. My insecurities become the more crystallized: not just whether I am accomplishing anything, but also why it is that I seem to have lost the confidence I once had. What was once so self-evident — the fact that I am supposed to be an expert in my field, comparatively speaking — is hardly enough anymore. That such insecurities arrive midstream, midcareer, when I am told I am supposed to be at the top of my game, seems to attenuate my already meager hold on the classroom.

I am certain that those insecurities — which verge on anxieties — come between my students and me.

That same professor who knew Beckett would always say that Beckett taught his students as much about what he didn't know as what he did. I had no idea what that meant at the time, but now I do. Every time I open my mouth in the classroom, I expose my ignorance to the world. The savvy students probably understand that, and I suspect the only thing holding them back from calling me on it is their politeness. Or their indifference.

And so there are times when I almost wish to lapse into silence in their midst, if only to symbolically dramatize my difficulties in knowing what it is they need from me, and to lay bare my inability to offer recompense. Perhaps only by shutting up and doing nothing will they really begin to learn: a lesson not so much in pessimism, but in quietude before the yawning gulf. I sometimes wonder, in fact, if we might not both be better off, my students and I, if we spent a semester in silence thinking collectively on a subject and only rising to speak when the spirit moved us, Quaker style.

I remain open-minded. What if my students are right? What if the readings are too long or too boring or don't make sense? What if they know something I don't, such as the fact that this English class truly isn't going to help them all that much in life, and that such requirements nowadays are ridiculous and retrograde?

When all the world is abuzz with digital twitterings, it may be that the humanities requirement is a dead and rotting carcass that we tiptoe around, neglecting to bury at our peril.

I am perfectly prepared to accept the proposition that the most effective teachers have studied these questions and arrived at appropriate responses. I suspect that they have attended conferences, refined their techniques, and deployed their forces. They are able to see each student with fresh eyes, and they welcome the challenges of life in the classroom. I admire — no, I envy — them. But it is a rare and distant land in which they live, difficult to reach.

Russell Smith is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a small, liberal-arts institution in the East.