The Teaching Compact

As one of the last cohort of flesh-and-bone tenured teachers of non-STEM courses at the postsecondary level, allow me to express what always ought to have been better understood, in this last light before the machines take over teaching as they have already begun to take over grading. Administrators, we all recognize, have long since been replaced by robots, whose reading is limited to grant applications and teaching evaluations.

I, as the professor, am not primarily interested in assessment. I want you to leave each class, and the course over all, curious, critically aware, and eager to find time to read, to look, and to discuss the subject further — equipped to carry on rather than crowned with credits for your grade-point average.

For my part, I will not be interrupted by the phone during class or meetings with you. I will be available if you want help in understanding the material. I will be thinking about what I teach and will come prepared and on time for class. I will teach a subject I think is worth your time in the long run, even if it offers little immediate practical application. I will never give the same course twice, because I am not a machine, and you aren’t, either. I will demand that you articulate your ideas, and I will listen to and read your efforts myself. I want you to learn the pleasures and benefits of concentration, both communal and individual, all the more so in an age of constant interruptions and distractions.

I want to introduce you to some of the great writings and works of art of our intellectual tradition, some famous and others not, my individual but not utterly idiosyncratic selection of meat (and vegetable) worthy for you to feast on. I will not follow a textbook and call that teaching. I will not encourage your classmates to talk if they have not prepared adequately beforehand.

I will not have a detailed and preconceived idea of what you should learn or accomplish in the class, other than intensive, careful, self-critical work, and a bit of basic memorization that will do you no harm.

I expect you not to exit the room during class, either electronically or to use the restroom; I expect you to stay awake in class and respond to questions. I expect you to do the reading and to come prepared to ask questions about anything you might not have understood. I expect you to spend long hours on written assignments — a term paper should be thought about over the length of the term (sustained, independent effort is one of the primary lessons of the liberal arts), library books should be consulted. and the writing should be done over a period extended enough  to allow time for revisions both drastic and minute.

It is not sufficient to avoid plagiarism: you should attempt to think for yourself, after having equipped yourself to know what and how others have thought along similar lines. Your papers are not assignments to be checked off but attempts at achieving flight. Occasional failure would be a good sign, assuming that the failure derived from boldness and exploration rather than turpitude and laziness. I expect you to show some interest in your fellow students’ responses to course material, to the extent that my role in the classroom is sometimes that of facilitator rather than authority. It is in the nature of the humanities that newcomers can have insights that old-timers may have missed.

As for the institution hosting our endeavors, it needs to preserve the library, selecting scholarly books of high quality and retaining them for the long term, so that some unpredictable student of the future, wandering aimlessly in the stacks, might find treasure, just as Michelangelo saw in the Belvedere Torso a potential others had been blind to. Few things change more than our sense of relative value, and, accordingly, a research library needs to keep the old and even the out-of-date.

Databases are fine and good (if deucedly expensive — we wouldn’t want the playing field to be too level); the Internet makes research-level materials widely available and thus helps particularly those of us in out-of-the-way places. But the librarians owe it to us not to get seduced by mere novelty. Just as doctors seem to promise these days that sickness can be experienced without pain, so librarians sometimes seem to suggest that learning can be done without effort. Such blandishments come from the Sirens (that is, front people for corporate interests) and are to be ignored.

Admissions officers ought to keep 10 percent of spots open for interesting nonconformists, as opposed to the legions of tutor-groomed professional applicants, who tend to arrive burnt out and too cynical for their years. These messier ones will point out the nakedness of the emperor when necessary.

Education calls for both hard work with essay and the leisure and quiet necessary for reflection, and it requires these of both student and teacher. The essential is that the relationship be one of mutual respect, continually replenished: a worthy goal in itself and compatible with a shared sense of fun.

Patricia Emison is a professor of art history at the University of New Hampshire.

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