Thursday, December 31, 2009

On teaching (part 2)

My previous post--that was a class, and an instructor to whom I responded positively. There were other, not so happy times, too. In the fall two years prior to the class above, I took my very first college class [a core social science] on a Monday or Tuesday morning, with MP. He was an intimidating figure then--impossibly crisp at all times in his mandarin collar shirt, with his hair slicked back, and round gold-rimmed glasses. A few weeks into the class, I went to see him at office hours (which was required). It was a trek into the ivory tower, as physically represented by the sixth floor of Harper. It really was a funny little tower, with more gothic windows overlooking the interior courtyard.

View of the interior courtyard (mew)

We had to sign up for office hours in 15-minute increments; graduate students could have 30 minutes. Before me, there was a graduate student, talking about Heidegger, I think. I was tongue-tied; I had nothing to say. It may not have been so imposing in reality, but I remember a very large desk, behind which MP was sitting, possibly leaning back with his fingertips touching--you know, the C. Montgomery Burns position--except that instead of “excellent,” he was saying, “this is a puzzling paper.” I’m not sure what I needed just then, but a human connection would have been nice. How I managed to pass the class--by finding something (anything!) to say about Marx, or Freud, or Durkheim--is beyond me.

In some ways my capacities are greater now, but I’m still capable of feeling adrift, left behind. My struggle with Sewell (and Geertz and Sahlins, by extension) is evidence of this. Life experience (including MP’s class, but also the intervening years since then) has made deciphering abstractions easier. I experienced a similar phenomenon mathematically, when I retook the GRE after having been a carpenter for three years. I did better. But my memory of college bears a certain similarity to my memories of early childhood: you know enough to be aware of the newness of everything, but not enough to do anything about it.

A pleasanter recollection of office hours is found in my memory of EL. I suspect he was somewhere between 75 and 80 when we first met. He wore large hearing aids; the kind that fit over the earpiece of your glasses. Also, he was a large man, both tall and robust. He used to wax poetic in class about potatoes and butter (he was Irish, you see, and it was Irish history). He used the Socratic method in class. You had to come prepared, like in The Paper Chase, because he would go ‘round the room, posing questions. It really looked bad when you couldn’t answer.

Nevertheless, he was a popular instructor, and at test-time I could only get a seat on the floor (thank goodness not everyone came to class for lecture). EL also required everyone to visit him at office hours. He remains the only person who has ever asked me:

EL: “So, what does your father do for a living?”
Me: [laughs] "Hopefully nothing!"
EL: “Oh, is he retired?”
Me: "Oh no, he passed away years ago."
EL: "He what?" [adjusts hearing aid]
Me: "He’s dead."
EL: “Oh, well, what did he do for a living?”

I have to give him credit for not saying “I’m sorry;” I hate when people do that. We also bonded over a love of Wilkie Collins, the Victorian sensation novelist and friend of Dickens. Even during his Socratic moments, EL was able to put you at ease. Some people do this quite naturally, others can’t . . . and in some cases, it depends upon the individual chemistry between student and professor.

No comments: