I’ve just been having a conversation with my wife about teaching and about the sorts of exams I give. As often happens between she and I when we discuss matters intellectual, it got very intense and quickly became clear that we were talking past each other, even if we were doing it without any particular sense of irritation or agitation.
Now over, the conversation continues to haunt me. The first time I taught a discussion section as a teaching assistant I was terrified—I was a rather new Ph.D. student that had literally no teaching experience and that wasn’t particularly confident about my disciplinary knowledge. I got very good course evaluations, while the lead faculty member giving the lecture sections didn’t. The first time I had a class of my own with a syllabus I’d developed myself I had the same emotional experience—fear and uncertainty, followed by a kind of rhythm lasting approximately a semester, followed by some of the most flattering course evaluations I’ve yet received.
As semesters stretched into years of teaching, I’ve calmed down. I now know that I tend to do well. My students like me and they like my classes, as a general rule.
Some of this is about respect. I haven’t forgotten what it was like to be them, nor do I think I’m better than they are. I haven’t forgotten that I was them not so long ago, nor am I ignorant of the fact that many of them do and have done very productive work outside of the world of classes, while many academics do nothing productive at all. I think highly of my students and of their potential and I enjoy interacting with them.
I think, however, that some of my success also has to do with my understanding (an understanding that is regrettably increasingly absent from the world of academic production) that Big Thoughts are not merely beautiful constructs to be produced and considered for their own sake. Or rather, that there is value in them beyond their utility as charms on the intellectual bracelets of the socioeconomic elite.
For me, naively or not, Big Thoughts have always been a series of tools meant to be used—so long as you are aware of this potential use—to make Real Life better. Yes, at the end of the day, I am one of those few remaining idealists that soundly believe that practice is the hidden ethos of theory and vice-versa. I suppose you could say that I actually believe that the purpose of academic work—even if nearly everyone else disagrees—is progress, however progress is defined (and this definition is, in fact, one critical dimension of academic practice).
In everyday terms this means that I try to ensure that students know how and why the topics we study are useful. I try to give them knowledge of why they came into existence as topics of study in their own right, who uses them and for what purposes, and to what ends society at large, private funders and trusts, and even their parents are willing to send dollars to these institutions to fill them with all of this jargon, intellectual history, theory, and method.
In short, I try not just to make sure that my classes aren’t a waste of time, but to show my students why they’re not a waste of time—this latter being at least as important as the former. After all, if the students believe that the class has been a waste of time, then it has been—because the chance that they will know what to do with what they have learned is approximately zero. It will sit in their cognitive “intellectualism box” to be brought out for drunken arguments and trivia chats on first dates, eventually to fade over time into nothingness behind the much more prominent illumination provided by daily life.
At the end of the day, I think students like my classes because I teach the Big Thoughts, I don’t apologize for teaching the Big Thoughts, but I also know that the Big Thoughts are really Cool and Practical Tools for Achieving Stuff that People Care About and I remember to show my students how this is so and how to use them.
The fact that more instructors aren’t doing this (and based on my own college experiences at multiple institutions, it is my belief that most aren’t) is something of an intellectual crime, a bellwether for the decline of this rational-instrumental, enlightenment-centric project that we call Society, and the reason for the increasing proliferation of the term “egghead” along with the parallel growth in disrespect for academics and for the arts and letters in general.
After all, if the intelligentsia can’t explain or give an account of their own purpose and goals to themselves, much less to others, how can it possibly be rational to expect the non-intelligentsia to have an implicit understanding of such things in their stead?