As I’ve mentioned already, The Wabash Center is posting a blog entry every Tuesday where a professor of religious studies and/or theology will share some insights from their early years in the vocation (see “Beginning this week: ‘Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda: Reflections on the First Years of Teaching’”). I intend to interact with many of these posts here on my own blog.
This week’s entry is from Kent Brintnall, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina, Charlotte. It is titled, “Is, Not Ought”. It is a very forthright, honest confession that the author has come to realize the demands of his job are impossible, and he embraces this. For anyone planning to enter the world of education, especially higher education, this post is a must read.
I can’t interact with the post in its entirety, so I have to pick a part that intrigues me (even if it is a secondary point). These lines caught my attention from the first paragraph:
“…’I have a confession: I don’t much like my students.’ It’s not that I don’t like them as people or that I wish them ill. It’s not that I don’t like discussing ideas, engaging texts, or pressing questions. And, there are even rare moments, when they have a genuine insight or make improvements in their abilities, that I don’t mind grading. What I mean, of course, is that students are self-absorbed, soul-killing, needy little monsters who think they are (or should be) my sole priority, that I enjoy repeating instructions (even after sweating blood crafting syllabi), that I have nothing better to do than monitor my e-mail, that I relish reading multiple drafts that fail to respond in any meaningful fashion to feedback, and that I want to be their friend, therapist, surrogate parent, and problem-solver.”
This is one of those things that frightens me. I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who has been a professor for a long time, and who has taught at both a prestigious research university and a Christian liberal arts university with a solid reputation. I know he enjoys teaching because he has told me a few of the ways he tries to diversify his pedagogy. I asked him how he has maintained this appreciation for his students. I told him that I don’t want to be a person who despises students because students are a “roadblock” to my “success”. He didn’t deny that it can be difficult, especially if one is fighting for tenure, especially if the institution for which one works honors publishing (articles, chapters, essays, and books) and public presentations (AAR/SBL, guest lectures) more than anything else. For many, he told me, students hinder one’s efficiency in research. This is why these professors dislike their students. Their employers do not grade them on the basis of their ability to communicate ideas to students, but rather their ability to do other things, things that benefit the public image of their institution.
In the above mentioned post Brintall says he likes ideas. This is why he is an educator. I think this is likely true of most educators. Educators don’t become educators because they are socialites. Educators become educators because ideas matter….but ideas don’t matter without students!
Mocking students is quite vogue these days. There are anonymous Twitter accounts like @BibleStdntsSay where a professor shares excerpts from the papers written by his students. This account has over eleven thousand followers. Of course, this person doesn’t share anything positive or insightful, only those things which are goofy or ignorant (some of that might be traced back to the professor, no?), and many other educators seem to want to use social media for the same thing.
I understand students can say and do terrible things, but isn’t that why they are “students”? Too many professors seem to have forgotten that there was a day when they were on the other side of the lecture, and they said something off-the-wall, and they had to learn from it. Maybe these professors had professors who shamed them. I don’t know, but I do know that without students there aren’t many jobs, even research jobs. Even the students a teacher doesn’t know–who read the professor’s journal article and books–pay for the professor to work. The humanities are not valuable without students. Maybe professors of science can work for the government, but a professor of biblical studies, well, they need students. To be fair to Brintall, he does share ways he has navigated his appreciation for ideas over against his dislike of other aspects of teaching. My criticisms aren’t directed toward his article, but his article did bring to mind other educators and their attitudes that concern me.
Let me ask readers who may be educators what I asked my aforementioned friend: how do you retain an appreciation for students? How do you avoid seeing students are people who are “in the way” of your real job?
I think there is a big difference between loving students and liking them. I do agree that it is frustrating when people send you drafts that have not taken into account the previous feedback, when you are pestered with emails, and so on.(Mind you, I have to say this happens very rarely here at St John’s.) But whether you like it or not, whether you like them or not, loving them means taking the appropriate action to enable them to grow into a state of greater maturity. so I would want to address these matters, not because they irritate me, but because I want the students to grow into maturity.
I have only had the privilege of teaching in a college like setting once. I was serving as a missionary in Khartoum, Sudan and was there to teach in a Bible College for one semester. My only aim was the benefit of my students, and I don’t see as a teacher how our goal could be anything else. They are our legacy. When our papers and books have faded into the back shelves of the library it will be our students who carry our ideas on into the future and pass them down as a theological heritage to the next generation. I know I am sounding like an idealist but I saw it first hand in Africa. One of the former students of the missionaries I was working with came and spoke at the graduation. He was now in his 40’s and a leader in the church in Tanzania. At the graduation he spoke of how he still tells young pastors the things he was taught in Bible College by the missionaries who were running the current college I was working at. I know I am not a full time teacher, but his stories left a profound mark on me about understanding the calling of a teacher.
Oh boy. This is a big issue. Interaction with students can be “soul-killing,” mind-numbing, hope-for-the-future-extinguishing, and so on. For me, the key is keeping in mind that these young people will be tomorrow’s leaders (as frightening as that thought often is). In that light, pushing them down the path, even an inch, towards knowledge and ultimately — hopefully! — some wisdom supersedes my research of today. I believe that and try (most of the time) to live it.
I don’t lose sight of this dark irony, too: if one of these young vacuum-headed twits becomes a university administrator in 20 years, my research funding may well depend on my having added a pebble to that vacuum. (Ok, that’s a bit harsh, because I do generally enjoy my students, but now that I have an admin role and deal with all the late exam requests, blah, blah, blah, it’s been wearing on me.)
I can agree with that distinction. I am sure that there are students who irritate, who are hard to like. That seems to be more about this students here or that student there, whereas my concern is when students–the majority of those present in class rather than a few here and there–are disliked as a whole. “Students” can be made to be a giant lump of work-stopping inconvenience!
I think there is something to what you have to say. Often educators think about their individual aims and goals: my books, my articles, my lectures, my chase for tenure. It takes a special individual to educator for something bigger, believing that teaching empowers a multiplicity of persons, person who may do more in the world than the teacher can do alone (sounds a bit like discipleship).
Great words, and this gets to the point that I aimed to make in my response to Bobby: teachers have the opportunity to shape numerous others, to help make those people better humans, to help make the world a better place if those students use their education correctly. The reminder that one generation must educate the next, then leave the world in their hands, is important!
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