Not all teachers were good students, but most of us regard ourselves as models. Our expectations for students arise partly from our own schooling: a former shirker might anticipate students who want nothing more than to elude work, and former grinds might focus on each student’s responsibility to study relentlessly. Of course, school is complicated—intellectually we know each class is a collection of individuals—but, emotionally, we teachers start with the dubious assumption we’re normal.
I haven’t been a student in any context for ten years, and I was the age of my students thirty-five years ago. Still, as the student in an NEH Shakespeare Institute over the last couple of weeks, a question kept jumping into my brain, “What’s it like to teach a horse’s ass like me?”
My goal wasn’t to be an ass, but my teachers’ assertions invariably inspired me to amend, refine, counter, adjust, contradict. So much of what I said needed the subtitle, “Yes, but…” and I could not shut up. Every day I started by writing “QUIET,” at the top of that page of notes, and, every day, I heard myself speaking. My teachers started calling others before me. I think they hoped I’d give up. I felt that unmistakable unwelcome vibe.
And I didn’t blame them. I do talk too much and rate my perceptions too highly. In classes I’ve taught, students like me sometimes need a gentle conversation after class about ‘”giving others a chance” and “the value of hearing different voices.” Even when students have something valuable to say, sometimes they say too much. Offering too many comments seems selfish, an assertion this class is really all about me, not us.
My rationalization is that I have to handle ideas to understand them. If you tell me that most of what we know about Shakespeare’s women comes from conversations between men, I will go searching for other applications or examples. If you tell me Shakespeare presents no positive examples of lasting marriages, something in me recoils and readies itself for a dispute. When a question elicits silence, I feel an overwhelming urge to fill it. I can’t just copy interpretations because I want to participate. To me, teachers are rivals as well as guides. I envy what they do. Believe me, I know that’s hard to take.
Our instructors at the NEH program were brilliant college professors, well-versed in critical theory and the consensus about the plays we studied. They were very persuasive in presenting their thinking. They know so much more than I do, which at times made my remarks especially naïve and/or dense. And I could see their expressions and demeanor shift. They would ask me, “Really? What makes you think that?” As a teacher, I heard traps springing.
I was making a fool of myself. I wrote another “QUIET” at the top of the page.
In my classes, I’ve found ways to compensate for students like me… and my nature. I seldom walk into a class with a thesis to suggest, support, or establish, and I try instead to lead an investigation of a question that everyone, including me, can participate in equally. If what I know (that they don’t) comes in handy, I’ll use it, but I try to avoid the easy and popular game of “Guess What The Teacher Is Thinking.” I suppress questions like, “Any other ideas?” that often mean “That’s not it, try again.”
My classes don’t always cover as much as they ought, but I console myself by hoping the experience—the brain training—is plenty. I try not to worry too much about being off the subject because, I tell myself, the subject is whatever arises from our investigations.
And I sympathize with “difficult” students who won’t go along and won’t buy what I’m consciously or unconsciously selling. Though they can be annoying and occasionally get under my skin, I try not to take their objections personally. Maybe—as a student or as a teacher—I just like to be shaken. After years of leading discussions of works I’ve read so many times, I love a changed sense of what I understand and believe.
Last fall, after a particularly disputatious conversation about a passage in Macbeth, one of my students apologized for getting so emotional, and I told him, “Nothing to apologize for.” Any other response would be hypocrisy.
Let me offer a similar apology to my teachers and classmates over the last couple of weeks. I’m sorry I’m such an ass. I hope you can say, “Nothing to apologize for.” I know myself—it appears there is no better answer.