On Great Teachers (and others) Part 2

The hardest part of having great teachers and having accepted their brilliance and sneakiness, is that I expect this same brilliance and sneakiness from everyone. It’s not a conscious expectation, but who am I to deny someone something to which we all aspire.

Oh, that.

Actually, I realize that I have no idea to what other people aspire. And at heart, I suspect that most people don’t know this about themselves either. I would make a list of the ways people get confused about their aspirations, but it would be sanctimonious (even more sanctimonious than the rest of this).

I realize that I spend too much time trying to figure out what today’s teacher’s moment of sneaky brilliance is. Because not everyone is a Socrates. Not everyone is going to share their passionate brilliance about flying buttresses like Michael Cothren. Nonetheless, when working with “authorities”–with people from whom I expect to learn something, I do look for the hidden treasure (and the hidden map).

What is the hidden treasure? My best teachers always had a dual treasure in mind. One was always the subject at hand: Joyce, Woolf, Geology, Baroque Art. The other was always my (or any other student’s) ability to tease out a unique and successful approach to the subject at hand. As a teacher, my favorite moments are witnessing my students’ dawning awareness of their nascent brilliance–watching the lights go on.

What I have learned over time, and it has been a hard lesson, is that many teachers are only interested in the first treasure. Learn the material and advance. And when I write “teachers,” I mean, “people.” Because I think that everyone is a potential teacher.

In my less generous moments, I think that people want to teach everyone else about themselves. In more generous moments I accept that people are always teaching about the world. The lessons may be unintentional and uncontrollable, but there they are, waiting for the student.

I am more troubled by teachers who never want the treasure to be uncovered, or worse. They hand you a map, and when you follow it, you discover not a treasure, not even a new map, but a penalty: an electric eel, an exploding tomato, a severed thumb (wait, that’s my thumb!). Of course there is a lesson here as well, it is a darker lesson, and one I would rather do without. It may be a necessary lesson. Still.

I go on (I can’t go on). The sneaky brilliance (or the brilliant sneakiness) of the world daunts and delights me. There is always something to learn, and, always, another way to get to it.

On Great Teachers (and others) Part 1

I met with one of my professors from Swarthmore last week. In and of itself, I encourage keeping in touch with mentors from the past. They help provide a milepost on the travel. Either you say, “Wow! How far I’ve gone,” or “Damn! This road circled back on itself.” Or any of a hundred other things.

In the middle of our coffee and conversation, Michael (Cothren) bridled about the drive to clarify assessments at Swarthmore: creating rubrics that would direct students to a clear path for academic success. Otherwise known as telling students how to get an “A.” Michael thought that figuring out how to get an “A” was part of the student’s job: “They need to figure out what I want. It’s a life lesson.”

And right there is where the trouble starts. If only all our mentors were wise enough (and sneaky enough) to bury the treasure and and not simply give us a map, but teach us the signs and signals and ways to interpret the world so that we could find the treasure without a map.

I started this vision of the best teacher early, when Fritz Marks (at The Hill School) taught us Platonic Dialogues (We read Euthyphro, Crito, and Meno, as well as large swaths of The Republic). Socrates was always able to ask a question and craftily get his interlocutors to develop their own answers, making their way to the truth by fits and starts and on their own. Of course these dialogues are fiction, however much they may be modeled on something that actually happened.

At Swarthmore I was fortunate enough to have teachers who used similar ploys, making us figure out answers, or surprising us with answers that had been under our noses all along. Among these was Kaori Kitao, who opened her Cinema class with the simplest of questions (What is Cinema?), and which, if one wanted to follow the logic, ended with some fairly complicated ruminations that could have lead into Neo-Platonic visions of art and ideals.

The French critic/philosopher Roland Barthes proposed that there were two kinds of teachers: emcees, great conductors of ideas; and exemplars, great models of thinking. (And, no I cannot find the reference for that). When I recall my best teachers they actually wove these two strands together. I recall being amazed and inspired by their approaches to their subjects. They were clearly brilliant and just as clearly welcoming. I felt as if they were standing on the opposite shore waving their students over. Their brilliance was never inaccessible or inscrutable, but, instead, was not only possible, but probable if only one was willing to do the work. And part of that work is figuring your way across the water.