The Indispensable, Visibly Responsive Student

Every semester–with luck, in every class–there is one of them: a student whose physical expressiveness in the classroom acts as the wind beneath your teaching wings. There she (or he) is: eyebrows raised, smiling, astonishment or surprise breaking out on their facial features, experiencing ‘Eureka’ moments one after the other, informing you, with every word of your lecture, every point you make, every example you conjure up out of thin air, that you are on the right track, doing the right thing, bringing enlightenment to the masses, dispelling ignorance and gloom with your teaching. Sometimes, this student will not show, in their written assignments or their attendance record, a kind of uniform diligence in all the evaluative dimensions pertaining to student performance, but no matter; their most significant interaction with you is the most direct one, at the precise moment when teaching and learning seem to be proceeding in perfect unison and synchronicity, proof of which is being delivered to you, in real-time, by the student’s visible responses to your teaching.

I do not think I’m exaggerating the importance of this kind of student in the classroom; over the years, I’ve found that as I scan my students’ expressions in the classroom, I’m invariably drawn back to, and indeed, start to seek out, with varying degrees of awareness of my doing so, those expressions which offer encouragement to my solitary teaching self. I should, of course, already have made the classroom a group experience, but observing such reactions in one of my students helps me reach out further and work to make it so. Just like the bored and disinterested expression (or the endless clock-watching) can act as a disincentive to further teaching, the ‘connected’ expression keeps teaching going; it throws fuel on the flame.

This semester, I have students who encourage me so in all three of my classes; I’ve lucked out. In each class, as I begin teaching, as if on cue, without prior co-ordination or agreement, I seek them out. They respond, as they always do, and I’m off and running. So strong is this interaction that traces of it persist beyond the classroom; sometimes, when preparing for class by working through the week’s assigned reading, I catch myself wondering how that particular student (or students) will respond–given their prior inclinations–to a particular passage or point or argument. Sometimes, I look forward to their reactions with pleasurable anticipation; they have been so gratifying in the past that now, they serve to motivate my preparation for my encounters with them.

Learning is, as we have been reminded again and again through both theory and practice, a co-operative endeavor. My work as teacher is, as I have pointed out here before, incomplete without my students. In this dimension of their relationship with me, supposedly the most superficial by one reckoning, they provide yet more proof of that claim. They show me that I’m welcome in this space; that I would do well to stick around. And learn.

On Avoiding An Embarrassing Meltdown In The Classroom

A week or so ago, I sensed trouble was afoot, that danger was brewing–pick your favored cliché–in my teaching work. I was growing steadily irritated, being driven to apoplexy by an insidious irritant: a student’s behavior had gotten under my skin. He could do nothing right; I found myself handing out imaginary dressing-downs in class, in my office; I experienced surges of irritation at the mere thought of my last interaction with him. I found myself avoiding eye-contact in the classroom for fear of experiencing a potentially debilitating wave of anger while trying to work through a passage of philosophical argumentation.

I was coming dangerously close to that most embarrassing of occurrences for a teacher: a public eruption of temper at a student.

In the fall of 1997, during my first semester of teaching philosophy–then as a graduate student–I had the misfortune of encountering three extremely loquacious students in my night class. Their ringleader, a loud young woman, conducted their chorus with cheekiness and verve; she cared little for the disturbance caused to the students around them. I sent several warnings and rebukes their way but to no avail; I sensed some defiance in their responses but did not push any further. Finally, one night, matters came to a head; their chattering broke out again as I wrote on the blackboard. My inevitable reprimand was now responded to with an insolent suggestion that I change my tone. To put matters proverbially, I lost my shit. I shouted–loudly–at the offending miscreant that she needed to change her ways; rather gratifyingly, even if only for an instant, she looked shell-shocked. As did the rest of the class. In the awkward silence that followed–that seemed to last forever–I went back to writing on the blackboard, desperately trying to recover my equanimity. After class ended, my student came to me in tears. I had humiliated her, shown her up. We talked for a few minutes; I explained my reaction as best as I could, pointing out to her that her group’s behavior was a distraction and disrespectful. She apologized, and then left.

Later, I realized I could have handled things differently; I could have asked her to stay back after class and discussed many of the same topics we did after my outburst.

Many years later, at Brooklyn College, I lost my temper at a student again. This time, in my office, in the course of a conversation where a grade grubbing conversation had taken a turn into the realm of the absurd–my interlocutor had told me that I had graded his paper too harshly a few seconds after informing me that he had prioritized another class’ exam and therefore had been unable to devote any time or energy to my writing assignment. From this, he concluded that I was being ‘unfair.’ My patience and mental reserves had been worn thin by days of petulant badgering; I jumped out of my chair in indignation as I angrily told him to stop wasting my time. Then, I had felt undignified; my student had been shocked and had taken a step back, appalled by this visible display of frustration and irritation on my part. (It’s a long story, but our relationship did not improve until after he had graduated.)

I dodged a bullet this time. I sent out an email to my classes in which I said a debriefing with me about the grades in the first paper of the semester was a mandatory requirement for all. One of the students to meet with me was the repeat offender; I sat him down, told him he needed to get his act together; he seemed genuinely concerned about the impression he was making, and promised to turn over a new leaf. I breathed a sigh of relief once our meeting was over. That feeling persists; the next few weeks will show whether it was justified or not.

Anticipating, And Interacting With, The ‘Bright Light’ Student

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.

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.

The Rainbow In My Roster

Two weeks ago, on 8 September, after finishing my morning stint my gym, I headed to the Brooklyn College campus. I arrived at 12:20, five minutes after the 11:00 AM to 12:15 PM classes had ended. The campus was overflowing with students: streaming out from classrooms and lecture halls, clogging the corridors, the walkways, the quadrangle, the benches outside the library and the library cafe. I walked among them, marveling once again at the splendid diversity–in the linguistic, cultural, ethnic, political dimensions–of our student body. I’ve been on this campus for just over thirteen years now, and these glimpses never lose their freshness.

I could hear, around me, Russian, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Caribbean Patois, Hebrew; I could see headscarves and hijabs and chadors, yarmulkes, turbans, colored hair, ponytails, topknots, shaven heads. They walked in groups; they walked singly. They talked among themselves; they zoned out on their headphones. They sat; they stood; they sprawled out on the grass. Some rushed to the local Starbucks to refuel on caffeine; others began their lunch, outside, in the still gloriously warm weather, before the next round of classes began at 12:50. I walked on, through this riotous medley, feeling a curious melange of emotions surge through me; I felt protective, proud, and hopeful.

Like any teacher, I’m used to moaning and griping about my students: they don’t do the readings; they’re late for class; their writing sucks; they ask me questions whose answers are on the syllabus; they disappear for weeks on end and then show up, at the end of the semester, to ask whether they can still find redemption; they check their smartphones in class; they stare blankly at me when I ask them to show me they have understood the points made in last week’s class; the list goes on and on. There is truth in all these complaints but there is much more to my students.

As I have noted on this blog, my students’ interactions with me in the classroom are a constant source of intellectual enrichment for me; my understanding and appreciation of many philosophical works has been enhanced by my discussing it with my students; I might have a PhD in philosophy and the title of ‘professor’ but I’m still a student, and my teaching is how I continue to learn. It wouldn’t work without my students; it takes two to tango and all that.

But the point I actually set out to make is that the diversity on display that day on campus reminded me that the sheer range of lives and experiences I encounter in my students is another education altogether. My students raise points in the classroom that are inextricably linked with their backgrounds: the Puerto Rican nationalist; the lesbian Orthodox Jew; the working single mother; the trans men and women; the young man struggling to break free of a family afflicted by alcoholism; the immigrants; the native New Yorkers; the senior citizens who audit; the first-generation students; the religious; the skeptical; the conservative; the politically radical; they all bring missives from worlds I only partially experience and understand. They are walking encyclopedias all on their own; they edify and enlighten. They make me realize that my life, varied and rich as it has been, is only the tiniest sliver of all in the giant mosaic of human experience. They point me to much more that lies beyond the narrow confines of my life. Every classroom holds a veritable United Nations, a pleasurable Babel of language, class, ethnicity and political orientation.

I remain ever grateful that I’m a teacher–especially when my students write me appreciative notes!–and that moreover, I’m a teacher here in Brooklyn, in New York City.