Thursday, December 20, 2018

What Eight Great Teachers Taught Me About Teaching

Last night, I was reflecting on how lucky I was to have had so many great teachers in my life. From pre-K to post-12, I've been blessed to have had an overwhelmingly positive educational experience. My time as an official student isn't quite over yet, but it is winding down, and soon I will be a full-fledged member of the teacher's side of the podium. So I thought I'd share some of what I've learned about teaching from my very best teachers.

* * *

Ms. Curry: Elementary school is a pretty fuzzy memory at this stage, but I remember adoring my First Grade teacher Ms. Curry. She saw the very earliest flickerings of my political self when I did a report on Jackie Robinson, and mostly managed to keep a straight face when I sternly informed the class that "nobody should be aggravated on a bus!"

From Ms. Curry, I learned that both teaching and learning can be joyous, and that joy can be both very deliberate and very unintentional.

Ms. Skelton: By any objective measure, I was a good and well-behaved student in high school. Always got good grades, never once got a detention, never got called into the principal's office. Subjectively, and on reflection ... I was probably a handful to deal with for a lot of teachers. I had a contrarian streak a mile wide, and I had opinions about pedagogy -- to wit, if I didn't understand why something was useful to learn, I didn't want to learn it. And no class was the subject of this wrath more than English.

I believed then -- and to some extent believe now, though slightly less dogmatically -- that the only purpose of writing was to clearly communicate and persuasively justify ideas. Faced with English classes where we read a ton of literature that, to me, seemed like exercises in willful obtuseness justified because it uses "metaphor" or "connotative language", and I was effectively in open rebellion. In my first essay for Ms. Skelton in 11th grade, I wrote an extended diatribe about why most of the focus of the class -- "analyzing" the use of language rather than evaluating the content of the work -- was useless and pointless. I don't have a copy of it anymore, but with the benefit of hindsight I'm absolutely sure it was self-righteous and obnoxious (really, how could it not be?).

I'd written essays like this before -- and since I was a good writer, in spite of it all, I usually got a good grade with perfunctory comments. But Ms. Skelton did something none of my other teachers had ever done before:

She responded. She wrote extended comments on the paper, taking my position seriously and making her case for why I should, indeed, care about this material.

She didn't persuade me. But she did earn my undying loyalty that day. From Ms. Sketlon, I learned that if you take your students seriously, and treat their contributions as worthy of respect, they'll be willing to explore nearly any horizon you place in front of them.

Kim Smith: There were three types of political science classes I took at Carleton. There were required courses. There were courses I took with visiting faculty. And there were courses I took with Kim Smith. This wasn't exactly intentional -- it's just that Kim Smith happened to teach pretty much every interesting class I wanted to take in the entire department. Constitutional Law and African-American Political Thought! Impossible combination to beat! I took four classes from her -- tied for the most of any Carleton professor.

I did well in her classes, but Kim was notoriously unsparing in her comments on essays submitted to her class. I have distinct memories of entire paragraphs circle or crossed out with "oh please" or "that's lame" written next to it. Some people were terrified of her, but I thought it was fabulous. And there's no doubt she made my writing better. And of all my college professors, she's the one with whom I have the closest friendship with to this day.

Kim once told me her teaching philosophy was "it's better to be feared than loved". That doesn't give her enough credit though; I would say that from her I learned instead that if you play your cards right, you don't actually need to choose.

Louis Newman: Louis Newman was one of the very first people I met at Carleton. Somehow, my dad found out about him -- in retrospect, that he found the head of Judaic Studies at Carleton is probably not coincidental -- and we were introduced before I even attended my first class. He actually persuaded me to drop my freshman seminar and instead enroll in his upper level Jewish Ethics class. Again, that actually might not have been the best advice in the abstract, but in my case it worked out great. He's the other professor I took four classes from; if Carleton had a Judaic Studies concentration, I would have done it.

Louis was distinctive in the degree to which he cared about his students as human beings, not just as students. He was a warm and paternal, but never paternalistic figure. From him I learned that the best teachers care about the whole student, not just their submitted work.

Melvin Rogers: Melvin is my great "I knew him when" story -- I knew Melvin Rogers when he was a post-doc at Carleton, just starting out his career. Even then, everyone knew he was brilliant, and everyone knew he was going to be something special. Carleton basically hacked together a position just to offer it to him, and his job talk was something else. Most job talks have one, maybe two students in attendance, quietly listening in the back corner. Melvin's job talk was given to a packed room, with several of us literally holding a "We Love You Melvin Rogers!" banner against the back wall. It didn't work, he ended up going to UVA, and given how his career subsequently took off I can't say he made a mistake. But certainly we pulled out all the stops, and were right to do so.

Again, everyone knew he was a brilliant scholar. But he was also a brilliant teacher. Those two qualities aren't always associated together -- but I think that's a mistake in our profession, and one we should work harder to rectify. From Melvin Rogers I learned that brilliance in scholarship is wholly compatible with brilliance in teaching, and nobody should tell you that greatest in the one is an excuse to neglect the other.

Martha Nussbaum: Martha Nussbaum is a very famous, very important person. I am not a particularly famous, particularly important person. And while I was technically one of her "students", in practice I took two of her law school courses that each had at least 30 students enrolled. She had no ongoing obligations towards me, and certainly had and has enough on her plate not to bother with me. She would have been well within her rights never to have once thought of me after handing in my final grades.

And yet. Martha Nussbaum has written me letters of recommendation -- repeatedly, for several different types of positions. She's read drafts when I've sent them to her, she's met with me when I've returned to Chicago. She's even shot the breeze with me over email regarding our shared interest in Project Runway (she's worn Season 7 winner Seth Aaron Henderson). I was and am little, and she was and is big, and yet somehow she's made time to be a mentor for me -- for no other reason than that I took a couple of her classes and did well in them.

Martha Nussbaum is another example of someone whose brilliant scholarship pairs with brilliant teaching. But from her, I also learned that even the most successful, amazing, prominent figures still can find time to care about and mentor their students -- and if she can do it, we all can.

David Strauss: I once joked that there was a period where every idea I had for a law review article had already been written by David Strauss between 1985 and 1997. It was disappointing, in a way, but it was also a sign that I had good ideas, at the very least -- just a generation too late. He provided a model for me regarding what good scholarship was and what good teaching was. There's probably nobody on earth of whom I'm more clearly a "disciple" of  than David Strauss.

And on top of that -- he was a great teacher, in a completely different way from Kim or Martha or Melvin. The fact is, I'm probably not and will never be as scary as Kim Smith. I'm much too goofy for that. But then again, so was David, and he commanded classroom attention just fine. From David Strauss, I learned that the best way to be the best teacher and scholar I could be, was to be me.

Sarah Song: And now we get to my current adviser, Sarah Song. When I was applying to law schools, I was admitted to Berkeley's Jurisprudence and Social Policy program, and had I enrolled Sarah would have been my Ph.D. adviser in that program. Six years, five cities, four jobs, and one degree later, and I end up in a Ph.D. program with Sarah Song as my adviser. For a Chicago grad, I'm not always efficient.

There is an academic adage I didn't learn from Sarah, but which very much applies to her: "Everyone in academia is smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind." Sarah Song is very smart, and very talented, and very everything one would want a great professor to be. But she is distinguished by being, without question, one of the most singularly kind people on the planet. From her I learned just how important that kindness is as part of being a great professor, mentor, and scholar. And I'm grateful to have it and her in my life every day.

No comments: