Monday, May 29, 2006

Teaching for the love of research

This morning I taught my last class at this university (more on this bittersweet ending in another post). This was a course I’d designed in my precise sub-sub-field. And it has been a triumph, I have to say. What a difference to be teaching things I know this well. I know I bring a different energy to this material and to my classroom persona when I’m in this territory; I can feel it. There is much more off-the-cuff, productively tangential lecturing, more very specific engagement with students’ questions and comments. Though there are certainly areas for improvement, I think I’m a competent teacher when I’m teaching my regular classes – and judging by feedback, most students agree. I do know of what I teach, for the most part. But not to this degree; not so well that is has become a second skin, a part of who I am. That is not, I think, to overstate the case. Of course the questions of this field have made me who I am as a scholar and a thinker and, yes, a person. How could they not, considering the years of my life I’ve poured into them?

After I left today, buoyed by enthusiastic comments from the students, I found myself thinking about the relationship between teaching and research. It seems clear to me that one way to counter the oft-bemoaned Apathy of the Modern Student is to have them see us at our best. When the inquisitive mind of the researcher finds its way into the classroom, it generates an intellectual energy that engages students more effectively than anything else can. In this class I could hold them hostage with an old-fashioned, PowerPoint-less lecture on difficult material for three hours (and I did, some days) and they’d be more alert and listening more carefully than my students ever were in a survey course where the material was relatively easy, I spoon-fed them with slides (never again!), and they got to ruminate on current affairs, as they so love to do.

Modeling for students what it means to be an engaged researcher can teach them a lot about the value of careful, analytic work. When I throw in side comments about methodology, about the status of the field, and about the various authors we’ve read, they absorb a sense of the satisfaction and confidence that comes with knowing something thoroughly. What is more, this kind of class can bring them the sense of fun they seem to spend their lives on the lookout for, and can never find in the scholarly experience because they don’t know where or how to look for it here.

Of course, the teaching-research relationship works the other way, too. I am leaving this class newly invigorated in my own work, about which I was feeling predictably exhausted after defending a PhD in December. I had thought of moving on to a different topic. But each lecture I prepared stirred up my love a little bit more, so that by yesterday, even as I was preparing this class, I was simultaneously jotting notes for a new article and excitedly planning my summer of writing. Teaching this month-long course has even made palatable the daunting labour of turning the dissertation into a book – a task I was ambivalent about, given the deep, structural revision I know it will entail.

Students’ enthusiasm works on me, too. The class was like an endless feedback loop. Even as I was able to help generate some excitement in them, their comments on the field and its central questions were part of what helped me look at the material with fresh eyes, and see its potential as scholarly inquiry for a future generation of scholars.

The best thing about all of this is that this was only a trial run. I can take the students’ comments and my own evolving interests into the redesign of this course, which I’m lucky enough to be able to teach again at the new university in the fall. In fact, it seems my proposal for this course helped land me the new job, potentially impermanent though the job may be. So I get the sense the department at the new uni understands the value of having us teach what we know well. Others would be wise to follow that lead, in the interest of reminding everyone – students, professors – what we’re here for.


Flavia said...

This is so true. I fell in love with my field thanks to a very funny, excited, and enthusiastic young professor when I was an undergrad. Weeks into the course my friends would ask, "So, how do you like [very specific subject]?" And I'd pause, and think, and say, "I don't really know, actually. . . but I know I love this class!" Eventually I decided that I *did* love the subject, but I'm convinced that the initial spark had everything to do with the instructor and his instruction.

This spring I was myself teaching, for the first time, [the same very specific subject], and I was anxious about it, since it's something that means so much to me--but also since my scholarship is really on just a tiny corner of what the course covers. I shouldn't have worried. It went brilliantly, for just the reasons you identify. On days when the class was dead, I'd read stuff aloud, riff on it, tell anecdotes about the author's life, whatever, and they'd wake up and laugh and life would go on.

And I, too, ended the term having recommitted myself to the subject, excited to explore new aspects of it.

Flavia said...
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App Crit said...

Great post.

I'll admit, I'm a little envious. I was able to do more teaching like that as a grad student, and it was pretty good, I'd like to think.

Now I'm tasked with very, very large service courses, "bread & butter" as they call them here. (Teaching assignments are allotted by seniority.)

I do, however, try to find other ways of breaching the divide between my solitary research and departmental persona, e.g. organizing the brown bags, taking the grad students to conferences, etc. Very rewarding, but very different all the same.

Thanks for reminding us all why we go to work.


MaggieMay said...

Wonderful post. I completely agree with you: when *we're* excited about our work, students get excited, too. They *like* learning about the discipline, about what we do when we "research" (it's all very mysterious to them). Remind me of this when I start to plan my syllabi for the fall!!