Teaching Gone Bad: Reflections On A Semester Gone Wrong

Teaching has gone wrong this semester. I do not need to wait till the end of this semester to write my usual self-assessment; this semester has been a disaster. Two of my three classes are dead in the water, drifting aimlessly; my students and I are locked in a fatal embrace of disinterest and mutual distrust. They do not do the readings or display interest in class; I fail to generate interest in the readings, to hold their attention, to provoke their enthusiasm. We have both dropped the ball; the failure is joint and collective; I do not think this is an unfair indictment. It is clear to me that I’ve gotten the syllabus for one class terribly, terribly wrong–though I wonder if any readings could have held the interest of the particular group of students registered for that class; in another class, I remain happy with my reading list but find myself increasingly frustrated by the students’ utter lack of engagement with the material. Unsurprisingly, I’m teaching worse, and it shows: my students’ expressions assure me they have noticed and are responding. I have, out of frustration, muttered irritably in class about the need for greater engagement with the readings, for the need for written responses to the readings (which I sometimes fail to collect, so passive have I become); my students seem to listen, but their actions indicate only partial comprehension and compliance. Once, in a fit of irritable anger, I informed my class that they did not have to attend if they were not interested in the material, that life was short, and they should expend their time wisely; my students have smartly taken me up on the offer and voted with their feet. Yesterday, in one class, out of twenty-five students, only four bothered to show at class time. Another one drifted in at his usual thirty-minutes-late mark; two others staked out spots a little earlier. The disaster is complete; you can stick a fork in these classes; they are done, done, done.

I have often written here of the best of the teaching experience, of its utter indispensability to my intellectual life; this is the worst of the teaching experience, generating a demoralizing experience that corrodes my sense of self-worth and induces acute cognitive dissonance about my career choices and my identity as a teacher. The end of the semester seems too far; I cannot rely on any running out the clock strategies; the only way out is through. I do not seek advice from my peers; they will not tell me anything I do not already know. This is not arrogance, but hard-won knowledge. Some pedagogical strategies are impossible–for a variety of reasons–for me to implement; yet others have already been tried. Teaching despair is at hand; I do not know how to put all of us, teacher and student alike, out of our collective misery.

Every happy class is alike; every unhappy class is unhappy in its own distinctive way. I’ve found my personal and private version of teaching hell this semester. May it not be anyone else’s.

9 comments on “Teaching Gone Bad: Reflections On A Semester Gone Wrong

  1. D.A.G says:

    Samir,

    I’m working on applications for Grad School and always think about what you once told me in your Social Philosophy class. It was this: “If I had more time, I would have written less.”

    It’s an insight I’ve taken with me. I know that you may not be the author. But you are the one who enlightened me.

    This comment is meant to let you know that you’re good at what you do. Don’t let a few lazy eggs ruin the entire basket. Some of us — students and former students — do value what you do.

    You’re the man.

    Keep kicking on.

    Best,

    Former student.

    Daniel A. Gomez

    PS:

    I read simulations recently. Good stuff.

  2. pfreire17 says:

    Hello Chopra,

    You shouldn’t let those students dishearten your teaching capabilities and your self worth. Your vast array of knowledge is truly inspiring! I really enjoyed the Political Philosophy and Ancient Landmarks classes last semester. I learned a lot about political theory in that independent study course and it’s still my favorite philosophy course that I’ve taken so far. I’m surprised that your students haven’t engaged themselves thoroughly, considering the fact that you make class enjoyable through wit and humor.. you also break down the concepts and readings in a manner that makes it easier to digest. You’re a great professor and a great teacher. Hope all is well otherwise!

    Best,
    Pedro Freire

  3. You nail it here with your spot-on description of what it’s like to teach when a class is completely disengaged, for reasons less related to your teaching than being the unlucky result of negative personal chemistry among this particular set of students, changes in learning styles that are part of a trend you haven’t seen enough to identify yet as such, or current events outside of your classroom . . . as local as turmoil within students’ major programs on campus or as global as existential dread over climate change and war.

    Every teacher reading this post will recognize your pain as their own. Hang in there; this too shall pass.

    • George Gale says:

      Katherine (if I may),

      Your comments are absolutely bang on. Every class is a collection, and that collection has a collective unity which, as you so rightly note, can sometimes generate “the unlucky result of negative personal chemistry.” In a certain way, a class IS a person, and sometimes the teacher and that class person simply are immisicible. Secondly, there indeed are today “changes in learning styles that are part of a trend.” After 42 extremely successful teaching years, I realized that I simply could not keep up with the present trend, nor had I the energy to pull them over to my style that had worked so well for so long (this latter strategy–of pulling them to me– was being increasingly followed the last half-dozen or so years).

      So I retired.

      Samir, you, probably fortunately, (!), are too young to follow my lead. But I predict that this unhappy accident of a semester most likely will not prove to be the rule, but more likely will be the exception.

  4. Jackson Nichols says:

    Wow! You have described my entire semester right now. I am going through the exact same sense of self-doubt and self-loathing. I don’t have anything encouraging to say to you right now. However, I feel better knowing that someone else is dealing with a similar hardship. In solidarity!

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