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.

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Brian Brennan

I am a writer and a teacher. I have lived in Philadelphia, Binghamton, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Northern Virginia. I have sailed on the ocean and flown over the North Pole. I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

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