Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What's Wrong With Being Cool For the Cool Kids?

I'm actually rather glad that the first few posts about "weakness" addressed the two things I've been thinking a lot about lately: what my students think of me (or rather, what I think about what my students think of me) and the way we have of calling each other out on weakness.

First, a confession: I am the author of the Cowboy Up Post. I called another professor a potential wuss for wanting to quit in the face of a department that doesn't validate teaching as much as she wishes it would. And I'm ready to admit that I got sharp instead of snuggly because she's on tenure-track, and I'm not. Whatever.

Point is, I wish I'd written an encouraging post instead of a condemnatory one. But let's face it--something about our profession, or our society, or the roiling combination of the two, encourages us to present a face to the world, and each other, of self-assured perfection so perfect that one of the ways we score points is off of each other's insecure heads.

Pick the field--business, politics, professional football, literary criticism--and you're likely to find an accepted way of making yourself look good by making others look bad. One big opportunity to look weak, it occurs to me, is in front of our students. When a lesson plan, reading assignment, or concept doesn't enthrall them the way it was supposed to--the way our much-vaunted educations (frequently from institutions "superior" to the ones where we teach, right?) and years/decades/quarter-centuries of experience led us to believe it would enthrall and enlighten them, we risk looking like idiots, or tyrants, or both. And standing in front of 24-400 undergraduates two-to-fifteen times a week, knowing that we're at least slightly out of touch, knowing that those students came to us fully expecting absolutely useful, 100% comprehensible, knowing that at least five or six of them are asleep or doing the crossword puzzle or thinking about breaking up with their girlfriends, knowing that no matter how good you do today, your tenure review will have more to do with the publications you don't have time to achieve because you're writing lectures that might not enthrall, etc... it's natural to start feeling used, or stupid, or like a chump.

And then you realize that being funny and charismatic just feels *good.*

Let's ask ourselves the following in these situations: are our students learning something accurate and valuable from our classes? Do they leave freshman composition even somewhat better writers? Do they leave History 101 knowing at least a little about history? Can everyone who passes Calc 2 do... whatever it is people who pass Calc 2 have to be able to do, so that bridges don't fall down? If you can answer yes, you're doing a good job.

In more advanced classes, I felt okay expecting the students to bring their A game at least twice a week, and by and large it happened. Being a dork at my thing was both funny to them and educationally productive. It's in the introductory, required shit that I found myself compromising my useful dorkitude to make them laugh so that we could all get through the 75 minutes. But at the end of the day, I tried hard to be able to say, "yes, maybe I was a little cloying about the baseball team with the baseball player, but I also made a good point about semi-colons."

We get to enjoy our jobs. We don't have to do this job EXCLUSIVELY because we feel like we "owe" the People of Pennsyl-tenne-sconsin the education of a Land Grant University... as long as you do, in fact, keep the learning process at the center of your teaching, you're allowed to enjoy the fact that you seem cool to the cool kids for the first time in your life. Don't sleep with them, okay? But if the pretty girls or boys (or girls AND boys, for that matter) flirt with you and you like the feeling, and it keeps you from tossing yourself off the building or yelling at your own children or quitting to take some job where you will likely NEVER get to what?