Some days the bear eats you

This may sound odd, but there's a kind of high that lingers after a class that went really well. It may last three to four hours and sometimes, if you're lucky, it may even stretch into the next day. You keep going over everything in your head: the way you found the right questions, the right ordering of ideas, the way the students were engaged, energized and focused.

On the other hand, there's a low that comes after stinking it up. You keep playing back that experience as well, trying to locate the exact moment you blew it. Believe me, I know how ridiculous this sounds, but anyone who's ever cared about teaching will know what I mean. It sucks to suck.

And I did suck yesterday in the May term capstone seminar. I know I did because I was distracted by my suckosity all afternoon--so much so that my wife remonstrated me for not paying attention while she was describing her day. Instead of listening, I was obsessing about my students' set jaws and bored yawns in response to my lackluster gassing on. Having sucked before (and often) is your only saving grace on such days. You know it isn't always like this. Sometimes I solace myself by repeating a line from the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski: "Some days you eat the bear. Some days the bear eats you."

Or I think of Van Gogh. Many years ago I read his collected letters, some of which were addressed to his brother, Theo, who also aspired to be a painter. Unfortunately, Theo was beset by paralyzing doubts about his own talent. In response to these doubts, Vincent wrote the following letter in September of 1883:
Theo, I wish painting would become such a fixed idea in your mind that the problem of "Am I an artist or am I not?" would be placed in the category of abstractions, and the more practical questions of how to put together a figure or a landscape, being more amusing, would come more to the fore. Theo, I declare I prefer to think how arms, legs, heads are attached to the trunk, rather than whether I myself are more or less an artist or not. I know sometimes the mind is full of it, which is only natural. But look here, brother, even if our mind is now and then full of the problem, "Is there a God or isn't there a God?" it is no reason for us to commit an ungodly act intentionally.

In the same way, the matter of art, the problem, "Am I an artist, or am I not?" must not induce us not to draw or not to paint. Most things defy definition, and I consider it wrong to fritter away one's time on them. Certainly when one's work does not go smoothly and when one is checked by difficulties, one gets bogged in the morass of such thoughts and insoluble problems. And because one gets sorely troubled by it, the best thing to do is to conquer the cause of the distraction by acquiring a new insight into the practical part of the work.
I am reminded of this letter whenever I feel like a fraud or a buffoon in the classroom. I remind myself that the thing to do is to keep working, to keep looking at the practical aspects of the job, how arms, legs, and heads are attached to a trunk. Then again, I sometimes wonder about the wisdom of following the advice of someone who snipped off his ear, drank turpentine and ended his days a barking mad suicide.


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