Excerpt from:  "Do we Teach Disciplines or Do we Teach Students? What Difference Does it Make?" ADE Bulletin, 2008.


Teaching, as Bartlett Giamatti has said, “is an instinctual art, mindful of potential, craving of realizations” (194). Such an art does not allow for rules or directions that work with mechanistic certitude:  “Use a torque wrench at 65 pounds of pressure to bold Idea A in Student B’s brain.” Directing regular teaching seminars over many years at my home institution, Butler University, and at my second academic home, Emory University, has forced on me the truth of my three concluding points.  First, talking to many teachers in intense conversations has made me realize the extent to which teachers are often too busy teaching to engage in sustained thinking about it. This is why we all need to gather round our watering holes and talk about teaching as much as we talk about scholarship.  Second, directing teaching seminars has also made me optimistic about how readily we may all improve what we do by sharing what we know.  Many college professors get frustrated with teaching, but only a few descend to terminal cynicism. Given genuine support for thinking afresh about teaching, especially in the company of peers, most teachers not only seize the opportunity but run with it.


Third, and finally, I would like the chance to tell all graduate students and new professors that a career devoted to teaching can be a noble, sustaining, and deeply satisfying choice of life, not merely a utilitarian maximization, as some economists might say, of certain bodies of knowledge and investments of talent. Sentimental and melodramatic clichés about teachers, such as the Mr. Chips stereotype and the Professor Snape stereotype—also heroic clichés, such as the music teacher in Mr. Holland’s Opus or the literature teacher in Dead Poet’s Society—swirl so thickly in our culture that it is difficult got young teachers to get a fix on who they should be and how they should comport themselves. I would recommend to them that they get their bearings not by focusing on pop culture narratives and certainly not by focusing on personal advancement but by concentrating on the needs of their students. Those needs are great and teachers are in a position to exert a positive influence, an influence needed now more than ever before.


The need is great because when it comes to the teaching of desire, college and university teachers are being outtaught as if we were the Seem Team playing the Dream Team, and the people outteaching us are corporation marketers. The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies have recently reanimated wizards in our imagination as figures of great power, but these fictional wizards are pikers compared with today’s corporate marketers. What makes them so powerful is that they know how to manipulate their magical spells and incantations in order to make all of us desire not just to have certain consumer products but to be certain kinds of people. Marketers know how to make us want a certain kind of life, and there is nothing more important than the kind of life we actually live than the kind of life we are taught to want. Teachers often have the sense that their teaching lies on the surface, while evidence all around us suggests that the pedagogy of corporate marketers goes right to the core of our students’ lives.


It is sad to realize that our college students inhabit a social, moral, and political space that is so deficient in the helpful cues, prompts, exercise, and stimulations that they need for the balanced development of those capacities that lie at the heart of their humanity. In referring to such capacities I do not refer to notions highly theorized or highly scientific. I refer to those basic capacities that seem to belong to human beings as such, primarily derived from the fact that all human beings have a common brain structure and a common evolutionary history and universally live in groups. The human capacities that seem to issue from these three determinants are the capacities for reason, language, imagination, introspection, moral and ethical deliberation, sociability, aesthetic responsiveness, and physicality.


On all these fronts our society fails young people on a massive scale every day. Their imaginations are rendered passive by the ingestion of images that threaten to overwhelm us all, images that are almost hallucinatory in their vividness and intensity, and, in movie houses, are nearly the size of Texas. All these images come ready-made, however, and tare thus inadequate for the stimulation of an independent, constructive imagination. On the language front, our students’ linguistic capacity receives profoundly inadequate stimulation in a society more and more dependent on icons and images rather than arguments and poetry and narration, leaving students less and less aware of the satisfactions and successes, not to mention the nuances and precision, that can be achieved by getting the right words in the right order for purposes of either self-expression or public appeal.


Right down the list of capacities I just enumerated, young people are not simply left alone—far from it: in some sense they would be better off if they were left alone—but more and more manipulated by mass media and market forces. Their sexual energy is exploited and ramped up to sell a vast array of consumer goods; their natural curiosity and desire to learn are short-circuited by educational narratives ranging from Animal House to Harry Potter to Paper Chase to Buffy the Vampire Slayer that tell them that school is dull and that teachers are either stupid, mean, or come from hell; and their desire to be mature is infantilized by a television culture that tells them that the unflappable, ironic, David Letterman and Jon Stewart version of cool is the only kind of maturity that counts. Worst of all, market forces have mastered the rhetoric of autonomy and freedom that we would like to use with our students but that is difficult for us to redeem from the corruptions of language that conflate autonomy with mindless partisanship and freedom with nothing more than the power to purchase a wide array of consumer goods.


Where are the contexts, the social spaces, where students are likely to find models of people who know how to bring trained intelligence, intellectual honesty, clear expression, aesthetic sensitivity, and ethical responsibility to the solution of problems both personal and social? Where are the social sites today where young people are likely to find serious people asking questions about serious issues, yet conducting their pursuits of these issues by means of companionable, civilized, and respectful discourse? Such contexts are few indeed, but our university and college classrooms can be such places, because we can choose to make them so. I would like the chance to tell every graduate student and every new professor that when they walk to the door of their classrooms on any given day, close it, and turn to their class of students, no one in the world has more unfettered power for the next fifty or seventy-five minutes than they do for speaking directly to students’ minds and hearts in ways that can potentially influence how those students think, feel and judge for the rest of their lives. Every day I feel the thrill and the responsibility of this challenge. It is a job worth getting up for every day. It is a job worth doing as long as one can do it well.


I want to tell graduate students and new professors that the real aim of teaching is not helping students rivet the juggernaut of careerism onto the framework of their young lives. The real aim of teaching is helping students acquire such capacities of mind and heart as will assist them in living lives that are autonomous, personally enriched, socially responsible, intellectually perspicuous, and morally defensible. This is not an aim that pays well, but it is a noble and sustaining activity. It is a task to which a man or woman can dedicate an entire life and not feel hoodwinked at the end. However, the only way we veterans in the profession empower our graduate students and young professors to turn around and empower their students to live these kinds of lives is to live them ourselves, especially inside the domain of education, where we should exert our best efforts to think clearly about not only what we do but what we want.

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