Leaning in

In The Courage to Teach, the author and educator Parker Palmer writes about "The Student from Hell," a name he gives to those students who actively oppose all attempts to bring them into the discussion or class activity. He admits that he can become so obsessed with reaching this student that it distorts everything he is trying to accomplish. I suppose most teachers have met the Student from Hell. I've had people in class whose negativity and derision for the subject matter poisoned the entire course and made me dread walking into the room. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.

On the other hand, I've also had "The Student from Heaven" or as I like to call them leaners. Around the room people will be half-listening, day-dreaming or making desultory notes, and then suddenly you sense that one is dialing in. It's as if what you are saying has become the single most important idea in the world and--almost in spite of themselves--they start leaning toward you. They stop making notes and even stop blinking. They are on high alert, completely engaged.

Last evening, for example, we were discussing John Lewis Gaddis' The Landscape of History, and I was glossing his point that historical representations control how we think about the present. At the same time, the very tools historians use to create their representations allow us to construct new and more liberating maps of the past.

I said something like this: "The first thing dictators do is rewrite the history books. If you control the narrative, you control what gets thought about in the present. It was completely necessary for Frederick Douglass to write the history of his life as a slave. He had to regain control of the narrative. An accurate awareness of history and how it gets made is a necessary precondition for freedom."

Okay, it was not an especially profound point, but I looked across the room and there she was, a young African-American single mother taking night courses and struggling to finish her degree. She was the student from heaven, leaning in toward me with her gaze intensely fixed and her mind whirring away at the idea of history as a path to liberation. She slowly raised her hand.

"Yes?" I said and then listened as she told me that Gaddis' argument reminded her of Orwell's 1984. History, she said, is like the memory hole, but it can also be a tool for retrieving the past that has been thrown down it. And now I'm leaning too, moving almost unconsciously across the room, drawn toward the holy grail of teaching, a fully engaged mind.

Like I said, this doesn't happen in every class, and you can't force it to happen, but it does happen. And thank heaven it does.


Anonymous said…
Professor Quest:

Love this post! I believe you're referencing my daughter. You've had a profound impact on her, so it's interesting to learn that she's had a profound impact on you. So many times this year, she's called to talk to me about what transpired in your class on her drive home. Those conversations have led to deeper levels of dialogue between us most of the time.

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