The Embarassment of Utterance at All

I mentioned over the summer that a colleague had approached me to be her peer observation partner (You Use It). This fall and next spring we will go into each other’s classroom to provide one another with a fresh set of eyes on what’s taking place while we’re teaching. The aim is certainly not to ‘fix’ one another. It’s just to give objective feedback: how many seconds do you wait before answering your own questions, how many students are participating in discussions, how evenly are you directing your focus on the class…

Next Wednesday I meet with my partner to tell her what I want her to note as she watches me, and I find it hard to come up with something. It’s not that I’m a perfect teacher. I certainly have lots of faults: I talk too much and don’t listen as well as I should. I sometimes make intuitive leaps between subjects and don’t allow the students time to catch up. I also don’t make detailed lesson plans that home in on course outcomes like cruise missiles.

The problem is I rather like my bad habits. I enjoy a good discussion. For years in my freshmen honors seminar I tried not to talk on Tuesdays. I assigned groups of students to lead the discussion and sat off to the side observing for 80 minutes. It was a unique kind of torture, but not because they were missing key points or going horribly off track. Rather, it was just hell for me to listen to an interesting conversation in which I couldn’t take part.

In college I remember telling myself over and over not to talk so much in class. Each day I would take out my notebook and put the initials S.U. (shut. up.) at the top of the page to remind myself not to speak. Inevitably the subject would become so engrossing that I would find myself yapping away with questions or throwing out ideas. Then I’d glance down at my vainly scrawled S.U. and silently groan: Ye gods!, I’ve done it again. Why can’t ever I shut up? I even wrote a poem about this at the time:

Poets always pay obeisance to the power of words.
For the right combination, Stevens said,
Men will gladly die.
Yes, for the right ones, the rare right ones that
Obscure the embarrassment of utterance at all.
How often is silence preferable?
Even film stars know enough
Not to manhandle a moment with words,
Leaving them forever without hope
Of being put right.

I suspect we teach in the ways we like to learn. My favorite courses were always rich with discussion and startling juxtapositions of new ideas. The professors never seemed to plan (or if they did it wasn’t apparent to me). I suppose I try to recreate this in my classroom because it’s what I enjoy. Even so, I sometimes wonder if it works for my students. One wrote on my evaluations that taking my course was like “being locked in a room with a chatty maniac.” The evaluation was very positive, so I assume the student didn’t mind the experience. Yet I often wonder if the students are truly learning or just enjoying the show. I guess this is what I need to work on (and what I'll ask my partner to note). Can I teach more by saying less?

For years I've had a copy of a book by the late Donald Finkel. It’s called Teaching With Your Mouth Shut. I’ve always been really afraid to read it.

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