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.