In the early 80s, I lived in Brooklyn and taught MSC 1003 at 8:00 a.m. (at least three-versions-of-the-grid ago). One fall morning, as I was walking down President Street towards the F train station, I passed a three-man Sanitation truck performing its semi-weekly pick-up. One of the workers was standing in front of a brownstone, looking in the gated front yard filled with piles of magazines and old wooden planks. The fellow was furious. “What the hell kind of bleep is this?” He yelled at his buddies as he gestured with outstretched arms in the direction of the junk, “Who does this guy think he is putting out his bleeping garbage like that? I ain’t gonna pick this bleep up unless he ties it into neat bleeping bundles!” I passed the worker and muttered through my clenched smile, “Dude, you’re a garbage man. This is garbage. It’s your job to pick it up twice a week. If there were no garbage, you’d be unemployed.” I thought this all very humorous. I then descended into the subway.

About 10 minutes later, while straphanging and staring beyond the passing tunnel lights, I began to meditate on my few semesters teaching multiple sections of MSC 1003. Most of my students were first-year students with paltry skills and little college preparation. Many were foreign born. I couldn’t figure out why every semester, in every section, I found myself reciting the same endless stream of facts and admonitions, “Rhythm is the flow of music in time,” “Remember: The word ‘rhythm’ has two Hs,” “Write this as a complete sentence,” and all the other things I found myself repeating semester after semester. Would these kids ever get it? How many times did I have to bleeping tell them the simplest things?

It then occurred to me that my job is education–exposing people to something that they don’t know, getting adolescents to think in new ways, introducing students to the beginnings of a college-style of learning–in effect, making my semi-annual pick-up. If there were not this continuous flow of fresh, 18-year-old high school grads who needed to be taught those same lessons, I’d be out of a job.

It’s therefore incumbent upon us instructors never to lose patience but instead to dole out the familiar facts and stale admonitions in new ways–as if it’s the very first time we’re stating them–because for the students it is the very first time we’re stating them. Without negating the importance of content, we must always be thinking about our classroom techniques. I think it’s good to remind young faculty that, although the teacher might learn a few tricks over the years and get smarter, the students never seem to.

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One Response to D.S.C.U.N.Y.

  1. glennpetersen says:

    I’m not one of those who thinks that attitude is everything (if you step off the curb in front of a fast-moving truck it doesn’t matter how positive your mindset is, you’re going to get hurt), but I do like to imagine that the perspectives we adopt can significantly affect the way we experience things. So I think Andrew’s made an important point about how a pragmatic outlook on teaching can serve as a means of improving one’s classroom experience. And though I’m morbidly amused by the analogy he draws between garbage-collecting and teaching, I’d like to pursue his notion by rotating it a few degrees.
    I’ve watched colleagues burn out over the years as they’ve come to feel they’re on a treadmill, thinking to themselves, “I keep teaching them, but they never seem to learn.” I find myself wondering why I seem to enjoy teaching more and more as time goes by, and I’ve settled, at least in part, on the following explanation: I’ve learned all these interesting and important things in the course of my career, and the college supplies me with an endless stream of people who don’t know anything about them. What more could I ask for? I get a kick out of learning and I get paid to share what I’ve learned with each new batch of students who appear in my classroom, in complete ignorance of my field. It’s not always easy, of course; passing along information, ideas, and ways of thinking is one thing—making sure students grasp them, and are able to use them, is another. But then I’ve also acquired loads of pedagogical technique I get to put to practical use.
    Although I fear repeating myself (or entering into what my colleague Marshall Sahlins calls one’s “anecdotage”), I can so do without reservation in the classroom. I doubt that I will ever tire, for instance, of explaining to students why they’re probably right if they suspect that nearly everything they really like is bad for them (maybe even—or maybe not—including sex, which I try to mention at least once every 20 minutes or so in a class full of 18-year olds). Then I lay out the evolutionary and historical logic behind this existential contradiction. Yes, there are always a few who remain bored out of their minds, but most pay rapt attention. Talk about having one’s ego stroked.

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