Pitiable Monsters

Several years ago I tried to package up one of my courses so it could be taught by a colleague who was stepping in at the last minute to cover a new section. I didn't want to add a lot of prep time to her already heavy workload, so I put the entire course into large three-ring binders: the exercises, discussion questions, handouts, photocopied journal articles, essay exams, the works. I also used those handy separators with the acetate tabs and carefully labeled each item.

Even so, I still had to write a long letter explaining the logic of the course, which took me forever and made me realize how much of the material existed in my own head. When I was done, the well-ordered course notebooks looked very neat and professional, but I couldn't help thinking that they were bound to be an incomprehensible mishmash to my colleague. Sure enough, they were. She politely thanked me for them and then did exactly what I would have done in her position: set the damned things aside and begin to find my own way through the material.

A lot people fail to realize how idiosyncratic teaching is. This isn't entirely surprising. You expect some administrators to think this way. You expect legislators, business people and even the general public to think this way too. They look at teaching as a job like any other, which means it can be analyzed to identify strategies that will make it optimally efficient and effective. The problem is that teaching isn't a science. You can't control the variables to get uniform results each time.

I remember one evening sitting next to a retired CEO of a large insurance company. Over the course of our dinner he explained that education was a business and needed to be run like one. In fact, he told me that everything was a business and needed to be run like one. I could see that he was unlikely to be swayed by the objections of lowly humanities professor, so I just nodded in fawning agreement at the poor man. I remember thinking later that if education is a business, it’s a really strange one. It’s a little like a health club. People are paying you to make them do things they really don't want to do.

In the end, good teaching resists rationalization. Few people who have taught for long believe that a magic education bullet exists. The Oxford don and classicist Gilbert Highet wrote The Art of Teaching almost 60 years ago, but it's still worth reading. In it he lamented the desire to think of teaching as a science. He wrote,
Teaching involves emotions, which cannot be systematically appraised and employed, and human values, which are outside the grasp of science. A scientifically-brought up child would be a pitiable monster. A scientific friendship would be as cold as a chess problem. Scientific teaching, even of scientific subjects, will be inadequate as long as both teachers and students are human beings. Teaching is not like inducing a chemical reaction; it is much more like painting a picture or making a piece of music, or on a lower level like planting a garden or writing a friendly letter... You must realize that it cannot all be done by formulas, or you will spoil your work, and your pupils and yourself.
I still have a copy of my own three-ringed pitiable monster. It sits on the shelf in my office with a lot of other old stuff that I intend to toss out one of these days.


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