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.

Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

Yet Another Teaching Self-Evaluation

Time again, for a teaching self-evaluation. This semester, I taught three classes, and ran three independent studies. This workload was a mistake. I use the term ‘mistake’ because I signed up for those independent studies; that is, I chose to over commit myself. I had foolishly imagined I would be able to do justice to these multiple commitments; I soon found not I could not keep up. The result was one of the most disorganized semesters I’ve ever suffered–or made others suffer. The time taken up by class meetings–including the discussion sessions with my independent study students–and class preparations, reading weekly written responses, grading, office hours, and so on, quickly swamped many other commitments; and I failed to respond with adequate organization. (Yes, that dreaded ‘time-management.’) My students felt this lack of disorganization; I constantly felt harried, underprepared, late, and negligent. Several students complained to me that I did not respond to their emails in time; in each case, they were correct. I also committed the mistake–out of sheer emotion and physical weariness–of not sticking to my specified restrictions on assignment deadlines; the result was a blizzard of late submissions and resubmissions. Which of course just further increased my sense of disorganization. One manifestation of my harried feeling this semester was that I walked out of a class meeting when it became apparent to me no one had done the reading; I’ve done this three times in my fifteen years at Brooklyn College, and on each occasion, the fury I evinced left me feeling empty and spent. And my students bewildered.

What went well? I enjoyed great classroom interactions–of varying kinds–with two out of my three classes. Two of my three independent studies went well in terms of the quality of the discussions I had with my students. I used new syllabi for all classes; this was required for one class, which was new, while the other received makeovers; and in general, my selections–four ‘religious novels’ for my Philosophical Issues in Literature class; Plato, Hume, and Nietzsche for my Landmarks in Philosophy class; and Marx, Weber, and Durkheim for my Social Philosophy class–went over well with my students. (Some students, quite understandably, found the assigned readings from Weber a little too dry.) Many students impressed me with the quality of their responses to the readings, and by the sophistication and thoughtfulness of their papers. Some told me they enjoyed my teaching; an affirmation that is always gratifying. Some of these responses, to be honest, brought tears to my eyes; they included comments about my ‘passion for teaching’ and how I had ‘taught them a lot.’ I do not think I can adequately convey my emotional state on hearing my students express themselves so openly and emotionally to me in these personal and private encounters. I also think I did a good job in my one-on-one interactions with students when going over their papers with them; almost everyone I worked with told me they found these sessions useful.

So, another semester of learning–in both directions–comes to a close. Teaching remains my greatest philosophical passion; and my partners in this enterprise–my students–continue to enrich my engagement with philosophical thinking. I’m looking forward to the summer’s travel and writing plans, but I’m also looking forward to the teaching in the fall–more new syllabi, more unread books to be worked through. Hopefully, I’ll be a little wiser then too, and will have learned from this semester’s mistakes.

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.