When I first started teaching college students, at the University of Virginia forty years ago, I discovered that
- A few students were right on my wavelength and connected with almost everything I was trying to do: they worked hard, read carefully, wrote well;
- A few students didn’t connect with anything I tried to do, obviously didn’t want to be in the class, and did the least work they could, which means that they didn’t improve as readers or writers;
- The great majority of students weren’t either hostile or enthusiastic; they probably didn’t especially want to be in my class, but they were cheerful and cooperative and willing to give it a shot, within reason; I and my class weren’t at the top of their list of priorities, but they weren’t going to blow me off either, and over time they got at least a little better at both reading and writing.
Forty years later … nothing has really changed. I often read lamentations of older teachers who write as though at the beginning of they careers they taught roomsful of Miltons-in-the-making and are now reduced to managing the inmates of Idiocracy. To me, these reports might as well come from Mars.
With some exceptions, of course, I really liked the students I taught in 1982 and I really like the ones I teach now. I don’t think they are noticeably worse at reading or writing than they were all those decades ago, though they’re less likely to have a lot of experience with the standard academic essay (introduction, three major points, conclusion) — which I do not see as a major deficiency. That kind of essay was never more than a highly imperfect tool for teaching students how to read carefully and write about what they have read, and, frankly, I believe that over the years I have come up with some better ones. As for reading: I often assign big thick books and quiz my students regularly to make sure they’re keeping up; some of them struggled with that way back then, and some of them struggle now; and I have always had students thank me for making them read big books that they probably would have given up on if I hadn’t been holding them accountable.
Sometimes I have gotten to know students well, learned about their hopes and fears, offered advice when I had some to offer, and offered affectionate support when I had no advice. Those have been very good experiences indeed. And then …
Around five years ago I was teaching Middlemarch in an upper-divisional class that had some science majors in it. One of them was a young woman about go to on to graduate school in physics — she was a star in the making who had already co-authored papers with her Baylor profs — and for her the academic study of literature was something like a third or fourth language. She never spoke up in class, and I couldn’t read her face very well. But then, at the end of our last day on the novel, I was stuffing my book and notes into my backpack as she was walking out. She veered over to me, put one hand on her heart, opened her eyes very wide, and silently mouthed: This book!
That’s why I’m in the game, people.