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.

The Shock Of The New (Entry On A Class Reading List)

Teaching a new entrant on a class reading list is always a fraught business. It is especially so when the entrant is a well-established member of analogous canons and you have come late to the game. You are dimly aware you’ve ‘neglected a classic,’ and thus rendered your education–in several dimensions–incomplete; you are well aware banana skins might lie ahead. The classic might turn out to be unexpectedly abstruse and not-classroom-discussion friendly.

This semester, I have taught Machiavelli for the first time, ever; I have taught Political Philosophy twice before and have managed to compose syllabi that did not feature a reading from that source. In my first incarnation of the class, I concentrated on readings stemming from a trifecta of revolutions–the French, American, and Haitian–and in the second, I concentrated on nineteenth and twentieth century sources. This semester’s emphasis on political realism and Shakespeare means that Machiavelli and Hobbes set the stage for our reading of Shakespeare’s Henriad; time permitting, we’ll read a little Nietzsche–from Beyond Good and Evil–to close out the semester.

The reports are in: assigning and discussing Machiavelli was a success. The psychological foundations of politics, the separation of politics and morality, the concentration on the manipulations and distributions and managements of power, taken to be the fundamental political quality and quantity–these all made for engaging class discussions, especially when it became apparent that Machiavelli’s examples and analysis applied to modern political realities as well. Machiavelli’s writing style–which dispenses with elaborate constructions of arguments and consists instead of a series of free-wheeling psychological and political claims riding on a selective historical narrative–turns out to be a teacher’s delight; students respond to his ambitious generalizations and dry skepticism about human nature with anything but indifference.

I’m considerably less sanguine about teaching the Kierkegaard portion of my ‘Existentialism’ syllabus–which kicks off today. (I have never taught Existentialism before and neither have I had the opportunity to assign Kierkegaard on any other class’ reading list yet.) Kierkegaard has never been an easy read, and it was with some trepidation that I placed sections from Fear and Trembling, The Sickness Unto Death, Against Christendom’ on the list of reading assignments. I have made matters worse by picking long passages (but is it really possible to restrain yourself in this regard when it comes to a writer who was always incapable, in his writing, of being restrained similarly?) There is a lack of directness in Kierkegaard which might be off-putting for my students; I have prepared myself by highlighting passages of text I will direct the class to in order to focus the class discussions. As you can tell, writing this blog post also serves to ‘gee myself up’ for my class, which begins in less than four hours. Perhaps a joke or two about ‘dread’ might be in order.

Note: Sometimes, a ‘classic’ remains unassigned because you anticipate too many difficulties teaching it; such was the case with Heidegger, who got bumped off my Twentieth Century Philosophy reading list last year, and suffered the same fate this semester. On that problem, more anon.

On Becoming More ‘Confessional’ In The Classroom

A few weeks ago, in the course of a conversation with a colleague here at Brooklyn College, I remarked that over the years I had become more ‘confessional’ in my classroom  interactions with my students. When gently pressed to explain what I meant, I said that I had become more unguarded there, in that space–in expressing some previously undisclosed sentiments of mine about the teaching experience and about my ongoing relationship with my students.

To wit, I have become more open about telling my students that I regard my teaching as a kind of continuing education for myself, one in which they have a significant role to play. I tell them that I teach the material on my reading list in order to understand it better; I might have read an assigned article or book or excerpt before, but I do not consider myself to have truly understood it till I have discussed it in a classroom with those who are experiencing it for the first time. I tell my students that I consider philosophical education to proceed in three stages: first, reading the text by my self; second, discussing the book with a ‘teacher’; third, discussing the book with ‘students’; I, as a teacher, am now in the third stage with regard to the texts I have read before. I tell them that I teach a wide variety of classes because I consider my philosophical education incomplete and hope to make it more well-rounded by doing so. (This leads to a related confession: that I often place material on my syllabus that I have not read before precisely so that I will be obliged to take the time to read it. Sometimes I even tell them that old joke about an academic who asked another if he had read a particular book and was told, “Read it? I haven’t even assigned it!”) I tell them that when they do not do the readings, my disappointment is made more acute by the fact that these objectives of mine have been thwarted. I ask them to consider me a co-learner in the enterprise that we undertake in the classroom; I express the hope they will take this responsibility seriously.

Most of these ‘confessions’ occur in the first class of the semester but on occasion, I find myself returning to them during the semester too. I hope, of course, in doing all of this, to make them regard the classroom experience as something more than a mere passive exercise in receiving wisdom from on high. I hope that my ‘confessions’ will make them take the task of reading the assigned texts more seriously and help them come to class prepared to talk about it with me–and other students.

Like every other pedagogical ‘strategy’ I have adopted, this has only had limited success. I do not know if my students take me seriously, or if they can bring themselves to believe that they could actually move my education along. But because I do not consider myself to be insincere when I indulge in these confessional sessions in class, I intend to keep persisting with this ‘strategy’ for the time being.

Stepping Up To The Plate For Another Fall Classic

Around mid-August or so, my normal ‘auto-chattering’–the monologues I have with myself as I walk around the streets of New York City–picked up pace. I began rehearsing dialogues with an imaginary audience, holding forth, declaiming, answering questions, parrying objections–the whole package. The reasons for this are not hard to find. The 2015 fall semester begins today.

Which means, of course, that the summer is over and that teaching is upon me, once again. I have now completed thirteen years at Brooklyn College, but the feelings that provoked the extended rehearsals I note above have not ceased: stage-fright, performance anxiety, and apprehension of that moment when you step out, from behind that comforting desk, right in front of a group of strangers who hold the power to induce both the sublime and the sordid into your life. Those eyes on you, those expressions; will you see respect, contempt, or worse, just plain old boredom in them? Fourteen weeks to find out, I suppose.

Unsurprisingly, given the semester’s sequence of upcoming events, the conversation I have rehearsed the most during my recent perambulations is the opening day’s discussion of the syllabus. (Which begins in about an hour’s time for my Philosophy of Law class; an hour and a half after that, I will meet my Political Philosophy class; next week, I will meet my Introduction to Philosophy night section.) This is the time when I seek to lay down the ground rules for the semester: all those administrative and bureaucratic details that are designed to make my running of the class smoother. No late assignments; no laptops or smartphones; no plagiarism; do the reading; don’t come late to class; and so on. I hope, and I hope, and I continue to hope, that my students will read the syllabus and internalize it, that they will take my strictures seriously and see behind and through them to what I want to accomplish: a series of engaging discussions with them about the philosophical texts I have selected for their edification.  Some will, some won’t.

Opening day is tinged with, besides the apprehension I note, excitement too. There are many new readings on my syllabus–I cannot wait to encounter them with my students. There are old readings too–I wonder what I will find out about them in on this visitation. I wonder if there are students in my classes who will force a new reckoning of familiar material upon me; I look forward to those moments of creative discovery that so serendipitously occur in the midst of a classroom discussion. (Needless to say, I remain resolutely unexcited about the prospect of grading papers.)

I don’t have this teaching thing figured out yet, even though I’ve been doing it for over twenty years now. (I taught my first class as a graduate teaching assistant in the fall of 1988.) That’s why I need to keep on rehearsing, practicing, asking for feedback, and hardest of all, swallowing my pride. Someone or something will remind me of that at some point during the next fourteen weeks.

Getting Philosophy Syllabi Right

Student evaluations can be flattering; they can be unfair; they can be good reminders to get our act together. A few weeks ago, I received my student evaluations for the ‘Twentieth Century Philosophy’ class I taught this past spring semester. As I read them, I came upon one that brought me up short, because it stung:

I appreciated the professor’s enthusiasm about the early portion of the class, but I was annoyed that it resulted in the syllabus being rewritten so that the already extremely minimal number of female and minority voices was further reduced.

My initial syllabus included readings by: Russell, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Austin, Quine, Davidson, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, Beauvoir, Irigaray, Du Bois, Rawls, Macintyre, Dewey, Rorty, Taylor. In the first class meeting, I discovered half of my students had no prior background in philosophy. As a result, in the course of assigning and discussing Russell, Wittgenstein, and Ayer, I provided my students a crash course in introductory philosophy just so I could establish some elementary metaphysical and epistemological definitions and distinctions. This slowed us down considerably; I spent two weeks on Russell, two on Wittgenstein, and one on Ayer. Needless to say, I had to drop some portions of the syllabus. I could have shitcanned Ayer, but I ended up getting rid of Austin, Davidson, Heidegger, Irigaray, Rawls, Macintyre, Rorty, and Taylor. Drastic surgery indeed but by then, I had realized my original syllabus had been too ambitious–the length of some of the assigned excerpts was non-trivial for undergraduates–and that it was better to slow down, and get straight about the most important issues at play. (In my defense, I will make the claim–one confirmed by some students–that I was able to show my students how twentieth century analytical philosophy of language was relevant to our reading and understanding of Foucault, Gadamer, and Derrida.)

Some reduction of the syllabus, and the compressed nature of the later discussions in the semester was forced upon me by the need to provide an extended introduction in the beginning of the semester. This same lack of student preparation also slowed down my discussion of Quine; my discussion of Gadamer also went on longer than I expected. Later in the semester, I added Nietzsche’s ‘Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’–even though not strictly ‘twentieth century’– to supplement Foucault on truth. 

My initial selection was not ideal. Too many men; not enough women; Du Bois all by himself. I have some excuses to offer. Mostly: I made the syllabus in a hurry, and I lacked preparation in some issues and authors I could have included.  Most problematically, I simply excluded non-Western philosophical traditions. I then chose the path of least resistance; I picked an anthology of readings that seemed to strike a good balance between analytical and continental thought, and which, besides the usual metaphysical and epistemological readings, included social and political philosophy, existentialism, pragmatism, and feminism. (I was struck by the fact that most twentieth century philosophy syllabi I saw online were less varied than mine, which suggests the lack of variety complained about by my student might be a problem for others too.)

I can, and I think I will, do much better by simply planning my syllabus preparation better the next time around.