You Use It

A little over a year ago I attended a teaching conference for university professors. It's held annually at the end of May and attended mostly by a group of academics from large institutions. Twenty years ago these people began a movement to recognize teaching at universities that often placed a far greater emphasis on research and publication. The group began meeting annually at a camp on the shores of Lake Michigan to support each other and to share their lives and success stories as educators. Even though I teach at a small private institution, my division head had recommended that I might want to go to this conference. I'm grateful he did.

I had reached a kind of mid-career rut. I was a decent if not great teacher. My evaluations were usually positive, and I was generally respected by the colleagues and administrators with whom I worked. Even so, I constantly felt inadequate and was growing frustrated with academic life. I was teaching the same thing over and over and it felt stale and pointless. I could almost feel myself becoming that stereotypically embittered middle-aged professor muttering comments at meetings and reeking of gin and sour disappointment. Okay, maybe not that bad, but I was losing the joy I once felt about being in a classroom.

We were given a reading list before the conference, and one of the books on the list was Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach. Although I found Palmer a bit airy-fairy at times, the book really hit home, especially Chapter II, The Culture of Fear. In it Palmer writes,
It is not unusual to see faculty in midcareer don the armor of cynicism against students, education and any sign of hope. It is the cynicism that comes when the high hopes one once had for teaching have been dashed by experience--or by the failure to interpret one's experience accurately. I am always impressed by the intensity of this cynicism, for behind it I feel the intensity of the hopes that brought these faculty into teaching. Perhaps those hopes can be rekindled, because the intensity is still there: rightly understood, this sort of cynicism may contain the seeds of its own renewal.
I recognized a lot of myself in these words. I also realized a larger point, too. Palmer writes how much of academic life is permeated by fear. You fear the judgments of your colleagues and students. You fear you're not very good and that all of your ideas are inadequate. Reading the book I realized just how afraid I was most of the time. I worried on some unconscious level that I was a failure, and not just as a professor.

Teaching is ostensibly a public activity. After all, you're in a room filled with students. At the same time, though, it's enormously private. Your colleagues never see what you do behind those doors. They don't see your successes and failures, or the wonderful and terrible assignments you created. They don't see how hard you work at it or your guilty moments of laziness and procrastination. You are unlikely to tell them. Fear holds you back. So you do the job mostly alone without talking much about it.

We were placed into discussion groups at that conference and expected to meet three or four times throughout the week. At the very first meeting I recall telling my group how much I had been affected by Palmer's book. It was like opening a gate. Several other people began to share their fears as professors and scholars. It was pretty intense, but in a good way. It was so strangely liberating just to admit I was afraid much of the time.
Anyway, after our last small group session, one of the members of the group said in passing, "You ought to start a blog. Maybe that would get you recharged about teaching." I thought about her comment all summer and decided to start this blog the day classes began last August. It's been good for me. It's got me writing again. The audience here may be small but the very act of talking about my teaching before others has helped me to recall how much I love this job, how much it matters to me.

Last week we had our own on-campus teaching conference. During one of the breaks, a junior colleague came up to me. I don't know her very well. We teach in different departments and are even in different divisions, but she wanted to ask me something. I could see she was nervous. Her hands were even shaking a bit. Then she asked if I would be willing to come into her class to watch her teach. She had heard me say things in meetings and decided that I would be someone she could trust. I was flattered, of course, but mostly I was amazed because I knew just how much courage it took for her to ask me into her classroom. I said I would be deeply honored to watch her teach.

It's funny in life how often you have to learn the same lesson over and over. Many years ago I met an amazing woman. She was a successful writer and I had hopes of becoming one myself back then. There were about fifteen aspiring writers sitting in a semicircle and each of us had an opportunity to ask this woman a question about her work, her method for writing, art, literature, whatever. I was so impressed by this woman and I wanted to ask her a really good question, one that went to the heart of my struggles with writing. All of a sudden it was my turn, but I had yet to figure out what I really wanted to ask. Still, I had to ask something, so I just blurted out, "How do you beat the fear?" She stared at me for a long time, maybe seven or eight seconds. Then she smiled knowingly and said, "You don't beat fear. You use it."

I'm going to take a little vacation from blogging for a while, but I'll be back. Indeed, I am back. It feels pretty good.


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