On several occasions this semester, while preparing for my classes–by doing the assigned readings, naturally–I find myself experiencing that most pleasurable of sensations for a teacher: the anticipation of an invigorating classroom interaction. With a wrinkle; I have very particular students in mind. Now, in general, I look forward to my classroom encounters with my entire student body–especially if they have done the readings–but as might be expected, on occasion, exceptional students stand out from that group. They do the readings more diligently; they say insightful things about the assigned material; they seem more widely and better read than their cohort; they challenge me to think on my feet even as they do the same. As such they start to command a distinctive attention from me.
For one thing, as I read, I pay closer attention to the text, on the lookout for material that will bring forth their inquiries and objections. I wonder how I will explain this difficult passage, this tricky move, this elision, this evasion. When I teach, I like to give the material I teach the best run for its money. That task can be made harder by a student who has already thought of good defenses for the material and found them wanting. Those students do not let me slack off; they do not let me become complacent.Conversely, I also find myself anticipating–in cases where the student’s inclinations have slowly become clearer to me as the semester has worn on–moments of intellectual convergence or agreement. At those times, I know that I will hear the student hold forth and offer their views on why they agree with a particular theoretical claim; these are very often, not just mere chimings in, but substantive elaborations instead. These embroideries can change my older understandings of the material I teach.
Students of such calibre are rare, I agree. But they are not non-existent. I encounter them every semester; they would fit into any high-quality academic program anywhere. They humble me; all too often, I catch myself envying their intellectual prowess and the stations–of the mind–it has already brought them to in their careers. When I look back on my undergraduate years, I am overcome with regret at: my indiscipline and indolence, the time I wasted, the books I didn’t read, the writing I did not do. I was ignorant then, and did little in those years to dispel my ignorance. These students, the ones who challenge me, who make me work harder on the material I teach, are well ahead of me; they certainly seem far more possessed and capable than I was at a comparable age. That might not mean much in some absolute reckoning but it serves them well in these classroom reckonings with me. I respect their abilities and their visible ethic of directed inquiry; I seek to do well by them, to respect the standard they seem to articulate for our encounters. This standard, I hope, will become mine too.